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The Naked Anabaptist

Perhaps surprisingly, despite the fact that I earn my living at a Mennonite church, very little of my formal education was devoted to learning about Anabaptist history and theology. I took one year of Bible College at a Mennonite school when I was 19, but that was about it. I studied philosophy at university and deliberately chose to pursue graduate studies at an inter/trans-denominational institution. I received bits and pieces of the Anabaptist story along the way in my studies, I read the occasional book by a Mennonite author, and I almost always worshiped in Anabaptist churches so it wasn’t like I was clueless.  But I’ve never exactly swam in the deep end of the Anabaptist pool.

Over the last few weeks I have been preparing to teach baptism and membership classes at the church. One day, an advance copy of Stuart Murray’s The Naked Anabaptist found its way onto my desk courtesy of a co-worker. Given the fact that I would shortly be introducing people to the Anabaptist story and perspective, I figured I would give it a read. Maybe it would give me a few good insights to use during my courses.  At the very least, it had a catchy title that was worth exploring a bit!

Well, it turns out that the book was a bit of a revelation, at least for me! Stuart Murray is a Briton writing to a British/Irish audience about this peculiar thing called Anabaptism, yet he explained my own tradition to me in a way that both made more sense to me and made it more compelling than any single comparable work I have ever encountered. Perhaps this is just further evidence of the meager nature of my exposure to Anabaptist writing and that I need to read more widely!

Nonetheless, it was a delightful (if bizarre) experience to have the tradition in which I was born and raised explained so richly and compellingly by someone from a context with a miniscule Anabaptist presence (there are apparently only two Mennonite churches in all of England!). I found myself nodding and mm-hmming throughout. Frequently, I would have the experience of saying something like, “so that’s why I think about x, or y that way.” At the risk of overstatement, in this one little book Murray achieved the twin feats of explaining a lot of my own thinking and experience with unusual clarity and reinforcing my pride and connection to my own tradition. Well done, Stuart!

So as I thought about how best to further digest and process The Naked Anabaptist I decided that blogging my way through the book (what else?) might be a good start (see here and here for others who are blogging about this book).  As Murray points out to his fellow Brits, Anabaptism is widely misunderstood. Some assume that Anabaptists all ride horses and buggies or all live in communes or are a bunch of separatist peaceniks with no interest in the broader culture. Others see in the Anabaptist movement a proto-emergent church of some kind and consider us to be all that is admirable and pure about Christianity (see here and here, for example)!  Anabaptists, evidently, are a pretty diverse bunch and difficult to pin down!

As a way through the mire of confusion and misunderstanding, Murray offers what he (and others) see as seven core convictions that spell out what it means to be an Anabaptist. Over the next few weeks I will be devoting one post to each of these seven. But before I get to the first one, I think it is worth highlighting the four disclaimers that Murray makes prior to laying them out:

1. These convictions are an attempt by Anabaptists in Britain and Ireland today to learn from the Anabaptist tradition and apply its insights to contemporary issues. They are not an updated version of historic Anabaptist statements, and they deal with some issues that previous generations did not explore.

2. The Anabaptist Network is a diffuse and diverse community, with no membership criteria. We do not ask those who join to subscribe to the core convictions. Those who join presumably endorse at least some of them but they are not an ideological filter. The core convictions express the priorities, concerns and commitments of those who founded the Network and those who have helped shape it over recent years.

3. These are convictions, not a creed. Anabaptists have generally been wary of fixed statements of faith, which imply there is no need to listen to others or continue to wrestle with Scripture. Creeds are concerned only with beliefs, but Anabaptists are equally interested in behaviour. And creeds have often been used to silence, exclude and persecute dissenters, rather than inviting ongoing conversation. But Anabaptists have produced confessions—statements that are not intended to be comprehensive but set out distinctive convictions and practices. These are always provisional, open to review in light of fresh insights.

4. The commitments spelled out in these core convictions are aspirations rather than achievements.

In the days ahead I will look individually at each of the seven core convictions Murray has identified. But here, at the outset, I have to express my admiration even for these disclaimers.  There is a humility, an openness to learning from others, a commitment to discipleship, and an honesty about them that is truly admirable (and necessary), in my view.

Does the spirit of these disclaimers represent all Anabaptists of all time?  Of course not.  Anabaptists are certainly not (and have never been!) perfect (even if we are currently somewhat fashionable in some circles).  Indeed, I find myself wishing that some of our own denominational debates about matters of theology and practice exhibited even half of the charity and openness that Murray is advocating here.  We ought to be better.  And Murray reminds us that Anabaptists have the resources within our own tradition to call us back to where we ought to be.

Up next, the first of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptism.

23 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I am looking forward to learning more about Anabaptists through your upcoming postings.

    My first impression, reading the core seven, is that Anabaptism is indistinguishable from liberal protestantism expressed through neo-orthodoxy. Another first impression is that they sound like a creed even if Murray’s group says they are not. They sound like a manifesto, not really different in genre from the Manhattan document you wrote about a few months ago.

    I am hoping you will be able to distinguish Anabaptists from liberal protestants or neo-orthodoxy in your postings, or, to distinguish between Anabaptists and the view at Regents.

    March 3, 2010
    • I’m not concerned that Anabaptists be distinguishable from this or that other expression of Christian faith. I would expect that it would share some common features with liberal protestantism/neo-orthodoxy, or whatever else (although, to be precise, it would be more accurate to say that liberal protestantism/neo orthodoxy shares features with Anabaptism, since Anabaptism predates them). My goal in these posts is not to demonstrate that there is some unique space that Anabaptists and Anabaptists alone inhabit (although there are some unique features). My goals are more humble than that: I would like to understand myself and my tradition better and, like Murray, think about what/how it might contribute to following Jesus in our time and place.

      I don’t read the seven core convictions like a creed or like a manifesto. I think the language of “convictions” or “confessions” represents an important difference from creedal/manifesto language, even if they share some features. Convictions or confessions are, as Murray says, provisional in nature (at least as I understand them): “This is what we, as a community, have discerned based on our best attempts to understand Scripture as a community at this point in time.” At least in our own denomination, our confession of faith can be (and has been) changed. Of course, I don’t anticipate any changes coming to what we confess about, say, the resurrection of Christ, but there has been movement over time on some of the more peripheral issues. There is a recognition that God speaks different things to the community at different times, even if it is all part of the same big picture.

      March 3, 2010
      • Great answer. I was going to weigh in too, but you said it well enough! Have you seen the Facebook group set up around the book?

        http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=322343761902

        Hope you’ll join us!

        Peace,
        Jamie

        March 3, 2010
      • Ken #

        Although your aim is not to compare, if you did study neo-orthodoxy in seminary, Barth and the Neibuhrs, for example, I am wondering if the first two convictions in the Anabaptist list strike you the same as or different from their centering of theology on Christ.

        Re: “recognition that God speaks different things to the community at different times,”

        The network claim is that the convictions “deal with some issues that previous generations did not explore.”

        Something must be new here – not old and Anabaptist.

        I was listening to a lecture on tape about the writings of A. J. Ayer recently. He described moral statements as statements of feelings punctuated with exclamation marks. When I read the “core convictions” they sound like feelings with exclamation marks. Actually, double exclamation marks – one that says these feelings are morally right and the other that says they are what Jesus wants. So, whether the words are creedal, or confessional, they are exclamational.

        I don’t sense humility in the words. I sense a movement that wants to change the old ways of Anabaptists. The movement appears to be a liberal movement. A humble liberal movement would be quite unusual. Liberal and humble don’t match.

        March 3, 2010
      • Thanks Jamie. I’m not a Facebooker, but I appreciate the invitation nonetheless!

        March 3, 2010
      • Yes, there are certainly similarities between the thinkers you mention and Anabaptists. Again, I think this is to be expected. Anabaptism began out of the conviction that Christianity simply was (or ought to be) following Jesus; it doesn’t really make sense for theology to begin anywhere else, for an Anabaptist. To whatever extent Barth and the Niebuhrs share this conviction, Anabaptists would welcome the company, I suppose.

        What are the “old ways of Anabaptists” that the Anabaptist network is trying to change in your view? Is old by definition correct and inviolable? I sense that you think these seven convictions somehow represent an illegitimate move on their part, but I’m not sure why.

        When I read the “core convictions” they sound like feelings with exclamation marks. Actually, double exclamation marks – one that says these feelings are morally right and the other that says they are what Jesus wants. So, whether the words are creedal, or confessional, they are exclamational.

        Perhaps, although this certainly sounds like a fairly cynical view of what they are doing. I don’t know what a more palatable alternative is, to be honest. Can we say nothing substantive about what is morally right or what Jesus wants? Ought we to make no statements about our convictions?

        Liberal and humble may not match, in your experience, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or that they shouldn’t :).

        March 3, 2010
      • Ken #

        Re: What are the “old ways of Anabaptists” that the Anabaptist network is trying to change in your view?

        I don’t know what the old ways of Anabaptists are. I am only reading closely or deconstructing the core conviction statements.

        Re: “Is old by definition correct and inviolable? ”

        No. And I did not imply this.

        Re: “I sense that you think these seven convictions somehow represent an illegitimate move on their part, but I’m not sure why.”

        No, I don’t know what they want to change. I might agree with them. They mention something about gender. I probably agree with them there, for example. They also mention care for creation, which, if it is a code word for being green, I probably would agree with. My own theology is not Jesus centered, but that does not sound like a change for Anabaptists, even if they are reinterpreting Jesus.

        I do think the network’s writings show signs of fear of conflict.

        Re: “although this certainly sounds like a fairly cynical view of what they are doing.”

        It is an Ayeran view of moral and religious claims. It is a logical positivist view of their claims. I used the Ayeran analysis only as way to say that I see in the language of the conviction statement sentiments stronger than and opposite of humility.

        Re: “I don’t know what a more palatable alternative is, to be honest. Can we say nothing substantive about what is morally right or what Jesus wants?”

        If Ayer is right, and the pragmatists and other postmoderns who followed him, I guess not.

        Re: “Ought we to make no statements about our convictions?”

        Ought = exclamation:.) It is tough to make them and then credibly say we are being humble. It is tough to say “ought” and then credibly say one is being humble.

        Re: “Liberal and humble may not match, in your experience, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t or that they shouldn’t.”

        shouldn’t = exclamation:)

        The liberal spirit, which is the spirit of the enlightenment, wants to overturn the past – otherwise, it would not be liberal. It makes a declaration of justice or freedom or truth and then cuts off the heads of the royalty and papists. Humble is not a word that fits the enlightenment writers or movements.

        Does it matter to you whether they are really humble in their aims? If so, why? Do you want the church to change, or do you like it the way it is? Are you willing to be humble in the face of what you consider to be injustice?

        March 3, 2010
      • Hey Ken,

        Having read the core convictions and the book in question, I am not sure that your critique has the degree of clout you are suggesting. However, I would like to hear your take on Anabaptism as you understand it. That might help me understand where you are coming from. Thanks.

        Peace,
        Jamie

        March 4, 2010
  2. I guess I’m trying to figure out why you are so convinced that the Anabaptist Network’s main goal is to change Anabaptism. I just see them trying to reflect some of Anabaptism’s historical emphases but also being honest that they have different concerns as well (how could they not? They’re not living in 16th century Europe). This strikes me as what every stream of Christianity (or, indeed, any ideology/philosophical system) tries to do: interpret the present in light of past circumstances and with the wisdom and guidance it contains.

    I do think the network’s writings show signs of fear of conflict.

    Why?

    It is an Ayeran view of moral and religious claims. It is a logical positivist view of their claims. I used the Ayeran analysis only as way to say that I see in the language of the conviction statement sentiments stronger than and opposite of humility.

    Why? I still don’t understand why stating one’s convictions implies a lack of humility. Everyone has convictions, whether they are laid out in a list of seven or remain implicit and unstated.

    Re: “I don’t know what a more palatable alternative is, to be honest. Can we say nothing substantive about what is morally right or what Jesus wants?”
    If Ayer is right, and the pragmatists and other postmoderns who followed him, I guess not.

    Which is precisely why Ayer is wrong. And inconsistent, because the language of logical positivism contains “ought” language as well.

    Ought = exclamation:.) It is tough to make them and then credibly say we are being humble. It is tough to say “ought” and then credibly say one is being humble.

    I don’t understand this. It is impossible to live without making ought statements, even if our only ought is that people ought not to make ought statements.

    Does it matter to you whether they are really humble in their aims? If so, why? Do you want the church to change, or do you like it the way it is? Are you willing to be humble in the face of what you consider to be injustice?

    Yes, humility is important to me. Ungracious dogmatism does too much damage. It is important to acknowledge the provisional nature of our claims. It is important to acknowledge that we see only in part. It is entirely possible to push for change in the church or to work against injustice from within a posture of humility. Epistemological humility does not entail passivity or apathy, but it also does not mean that we can’t say anything meaningful about what we believe.

    March 4, 2010
    • Ken #

      Ryan,

      Unless liberalism was bold and not humble, we would not have the freedom and equality we now have in the west.

      Re: Epistemological humility … does not mean that we can’t say anything meaningful about what we believe.”

      We can with humility say all we want about what we believe or feel. When we change belief or feelings into statements that involve “should” or “ought,” then I think we no longer are practicing epistemological humility.

      BTW, I am wondering what they are thinking about when they use the word gender? Do Anabaptists ordain women? Is that a change they seek? Or are they seeking ordination or other leadership roles for people who are openly gay or lesbian?

      Jamie,

      I am not Anabaptist and have no “take” on Anabaptists. I am just reporting what I see in the language of the core convictions.

      I did not mean to irritate you or Ryan.

      March 4, 2010
      • Hey Ken,

        Oh, I am not at all irritated. Rather, I suspect that some of your critiques are born out of many of the similar critiques of Anabaptism, which (at least in part) are due to a lack of familiarity with the history, practice and theology. Much of what has been taught about Anabaptism in Church History has been poorly represented (until more recently). The book explicitly unpacks those convictions with more meaning, which I think would help you understand better. In the end, however, you may still disagree with Anabaptism. And if that is the case, that is quite alright too.

        As for your questions about the ordination of women and leadership for openly gay men/women, there is no singular answer to that. From my understanding, the Anabaptism Network and Stuart Murray specifically would affirm the ordination of women (as do I), while many historic and contemporary Anabaptists would not. I am of the belief that Anabaptism would, generally speaking, naturally lead to this affirmation. While there are some Anabaptist communities/expressions that are affirming of leadership of openly gay and lesbian, my experience is that most are not.

        David Fitch will be posting on this topic very shortly at his blog, if you are interested.

        Peace,
        Jamie

        March 4, 2010
      • Ken #

        Jamie,
        Thanks for the information. I don’t mean to criticize Anabaptists. While I don’t have “take” on them, my impression through Ryan, primarily, is quite positive.

        March 4, 2010
    • I’m not at all irritated, Ken. A bit puzzled, perhaps, but not irritated :). This statement, in particular, I have trouble understanding:

      We can with humility say all we want about what we believe or feel. When we change belief or feelings into statements that involve “should” or “ought,” then I think we no longer are practicing epistemological humility.

      Once again, I think it is simply impossible to live without making ought statements. Everyone does it. Even in this quote you are implicitly saying that we ought not to make ought statements—or, at the very least, that when we do so we have forfeited our right to humility language (something that ought to be a goal of ours? ought not to be a goal of ours?). I can’t see how ought statements and epistemological humility are mutually exclusive.

      What does epistemological humility look like in your view? Is it even a worthy goal?

      March 4, 2010
      • Ken #

        I think of humility as meaning that we are more likely to go along than to protest, more likely to seek to please than to assert an ought or should.

        I don’t think of humility as a virtue. I am too liberal for that. Give me liberty or give me death, and so forth.

        I think what we face in our day is epistemological uncertainty and metaphysical terror. I don’t think it helps to be humble in the face of it. As you have observed, my sympathies are with Nietzsche. Humility is not a heroic virtue.

        March 4, 2010
      • We seem to have very different understandings of humility.

        March 4, 2010
  3. Hey Ryan,

    I’m glad this book is able to articulate the Anabaptist convictions in such a compelling way to you. One of Regent College’s weaknesses is their inability to articulate Anabaptism from within–it seems as though they have representatives from every other “evangelical” (if you will allow me to use this term re: Mennonites) stream.

    I haven’t read the book in discussion yet but your blog has led me to consider it for my “summer reading”. My gut reaction: I think the list does aptly summarize Anabaptist theological emphases. I just finished re-reading Denny Weaver’s “Becoming Anabaptist” and he notes that specific emphases like the ones provided in “Naked Anabaptist” and in his own work may not be held by all Anabaptists (hence why it is not a creed). For Weaver what defines an Anabaptist seems to be living out of their narrative and adopting it as your own (this is similar to N.T. Wright’s understanding of worldview being shaped by narrative). For me I find Weaver’s thought to be an important caveat to any such lists. Hope this makes sense…

    March 5, 2010
    • I haven’t read Weaver, although I’m familiar with some of his ideas. Based on your (necessarily brief!) summary, I would want to know more about what he sees as legitimating the narrative and whether there is room for expanding and correcting it when necessary. I guess I should read him :).

      I remember some of the same frustrations you’re experiencing at Regent (although I think we did get a few more insiders’ perspectives). All I can say is, push back if you think they’re not representing us accurately (easy to say, now that I’m gone)!

      March 5, 2010
    • Ken #

      Re: “it seems as though they have representatives from every other “evangelical” (if you will allow me to use this term re: Mennonites) stream.”

      What does the term “evangelical” mean in the Mennonite context?

      I have heard it used three ways within liberal protestantism. In one it is virtually a synonym for protestant. In another it refers to the liberalization of fundamentalism led by or represented by Billy Graham (sometimes called “New American Evangelicalism.”) It is used (mostly pejoratively, like fundamentalist) an as epithet by liberals to refer to any relatively conservative Christian – one who believes God is real or that the Bible is inspired or whose beliefs about God involve the supernatural or who emphasizes evangelism or the Holy Spirit.

      March 7, 2010
      • Ken #

        I left out a connecting word or phrase above. The description of the third way evangelicalism is used begins “It is used (mostly pejoratively, like fundamentalist) an as epithet by liberals…”

        March 7, 2010
      • I won’t presume to speak for Travis, but I’m not sure there is a consistently (or uniquely) “Mennonite” appropriation of the term “evangelical.” I’ve heard it used in all three of the ways you describe above in Mennonite circles. It’s a word I don’t use very much—too much negative baggage comes along with it. It’s a shame, really. The origins of the word are so good.

        March 7, 2010
  4. Ryan, this is an interesting thread. As a member of one of those two UK Mennonite churches Stuart mentions I often have reason to reflect what being Anabaptist means in Britain. I’ve blogged about it at length but sometimes it feels like the Tradition was strangled at birth, or at least that there’s more than 400 years between the first and current British Anabaptists. The Anabaptist Network is an incredible mixture – radical Baptists, a smattering of Quakers, some Mennonites and lots more besides. I do sense a common conviction that now that the Christendom polar ice is melting Anabaptism has a crucial role to play. We’re also very much aware that what is happening in Britain – decline and painful change – will happen elsewhere. We’re gradually beginning to dig deep into our Anabaptist roots and see the first signs that a brand new Post-Christendom church is emerging. That’s not to say that it can’t sometimes be incredibly isolating to be part of such a thinly spread ‘diaspora’. I’m guessing that there’s probably not more than 100 Mennonites in the whole of UK. Speaking personally, I appreciate international links with other Anabaptist enormously. It gives me far more of a sense of Anabaptism as an ’embodied’ Tradition. Shalom.

    March 11, 2010
    • Thanks for this, Phil! As someone born and raised in a Mennonite Brethren community, it is really fascinating (and encouraging!) to hear about how this tradition is understood and put into practice in a very different context. My sense is that while your numbers are small and it is undoubtedly isolating to be a part of the diaspora, one of the gifts that the Anabaptist Network can give the rest of us is a challenge to revisit, rethink, and re-articulate some of our core convictions that may have slid off our radar. I appreciate this very much.

      March 11, 2010

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