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The Naked Anabaptist 3: After Christendom

After a not so brief hiatus, on to the third of Stuart Murray’s seven core convictions of Anabaptism:


Part One

Part Two

Western culture is slowly emerging from the Christendom era when church and state jointly presided over a society in which almost all were assumed to be Christian. Whatever its positive contributions on values and institutions, Christendom seriously distorted the gospel, marginalized Jesus, and has left the churches ill-equipped for mission in a post-Christendom culture. As we reflect on this, we are committed to learning from the experience and perspectives of movements such as Anabaptism that rejected standard Christendom assumptions and pursued alternative ways of thinking and behaving.

G.K. Chesterton is reported to have said that “The Christian ideal has not been tried and left found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.” This very Anabaptist-sounding statement could be used to describe their view about the way that history has unfolded. Beginning with Constantine in the fourth century, all the way down to the twentieth century, Christianity has, to varying degrees at different times and in different places, been closely aligned with political power. And from an Anabaptist perspective, this is a connection that should never have been made. Jesus was never interested in starting a new “empire” with the only difference between the new and the old being the word “Christian” prefixed to it. The New Testament (difficult—and often left untried) ideal was a kingdom community defined exclusively by its allegiance to Jesus, that could speak the truth to political power, and operated from the margins rather than the center of power.

Of course, some might detect a bit of irony here. When Christians have historically enjoyed power and cultural influence the theological justification for “Christendom” is not hard to find. And when Christianity is on the wane and no longer occupies the position of prominence it once assumed, as certainly seems to be the case in the postmodern “West,” then the theological language is altered to re-describe the present as the most faithful biblical model of how church and state should relate to one another. Anabaptism is certainly in vogue in some circles right now, and often to people who have either grown tired of or are struggling to come to terms with post-Christendom realities. Perhaps one of the lessons that is to be learned from history is to be suspicious of any claim that portrays this particular instantiation of Christianity (i.e., the one we happen to inhabit) as the most faithful, most biblical, most theologically consistent, most whatever.

And yet… The first Anabaptists rejected the link church and state precisely at a time when this link was taken for granted and assumed. They truly were dissidents in the sense that they analyzed their present situation in light of the teachings of the New Testament and did a big rethink.

They saw Jesus’ command, in each of the synoptic Gospels, to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” They saw injunctions against retaliation, commands to love enemies, warnings about abusing power, and took them seriously. They wondered how all of this could happen when Christianity was closely linked to political empires that relied on coercive violence for their maintenance. They saw an inconsistency between the biblical ideal of a freely chosen life of discipleship and a political reality where one was a “Christian” simply by being born in a certain geographic location. For the early Anabaptists, the religio-political reality of Christendom not only made the biblical ideal more challenging; in many ways, it represented its exact opposite.

And for Stuart Murray, our current situation, in the post-Christian West, represents an ideal time to rediscover some of these things.  Murray advocates a return to thinking of the church as somewhat like the Israelites in Jeremiah’s time (and Anabaptists in the sixteenth century)—exiles in a foreign land.  If we are to be effective in mission, there are at least seven transitions that we will have to get used to and work from within:

1. From the centre to the margins: in Christendom the Christian story and the churches were central, but in post-Christendom these are marginal.

2. From majority to minority: in Christendom Christians comprised the (often overwhelming) majority, but in post-Christendom we are a minority.

3. From settlers to sojourners: in Christendom Christians felt at home in a culture shaped by their story, but in post-Christendom we are aliens, exiles, and pilgrims in a culture where we no longer feel at home.

4. From privilege to plurality: in Christendom Christians enjoyed many privileges, but in post-Christendom we are one community among many in a plural society.

5. From control to witness: in Christendom the churches could exert control over society, but in post-Christendom we exercise influence only through witnessing to our story and its implications.

6. From maintenance to mission: in Christendom the emphasis was on maintaining a supposedly Christian status quo, but in post-Christendom it is on mission within a contested environment.

7. From institution to movement: in Christendom the churches operated mainly in institutional mode, but in post-Christendom we must become again a Christian movement.

While I might have minor questions about a few of these, they strike me as both a fairly accurate description of our cultural moment and a compelling diagnosis of a helpful way forward.  This is where the church finds itself in the 21st century.  Like it or not, this is the reality we must face.  But we can take comfort in the fact that our reality is not historically unique.  The first Anabaptists faced a situation quite similar to our own, and there is much they can teach us about how to live faithfully after Christendom.

For those interested, Jamie Arpin-Ricci has posted a transcript of his interview with Stuart Murray here.

16 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    It sounds like Murray has been reading McLaren, sounds like Murray is an emergent Anabaptist. Is it true?

    I think the emergent church (and Murray’s list, whether he is emergent or not) represents the Christendom of our democratic century. Except for the Christian jargon, emergent theology seems to track the politics of the elite, not those on the margins.

    March 29, 2010
    • I don’t know if he’s been reading McLaren or not. I think Murray is sympathetic to some emergent-type concerns, but I’ve never come across him self-identifying as en “emergent Anabaptist.”

      I think you’re right about the emergent church largely drawing from the elite and not from the margins. I’d be hesitant to say it represents the “Christendom” of our century if only because it’s not influential enough to warrant that designation.

      March 29, 2010
    • It might be more accurate to say McLaren has been (mis)reading Hauerwas, who was influenced by John Howard Yoder, who I’d guess Murray is quite familiar with. But I agree – the emergent movement generally reproduces liberal democratic bourgeosis values in theological guise.

      March 29, 2010
      • Michael #

        It also reproduces bourgeois values, the better known cousin of bourgeosis. 🙂

        March 29, 2010
      • Michael, I like bourgeosis better! Inspired some fascinating imagery. lol!

        March 30, 2010
      • Thanks for correcting the chronology, Michael! As someone who has not read nearly enough Hauerwas, what are the main ways you see McLaren misreading him?

        March 30, 2010
      • Good question. Let’s see. I think Hauerwas is best understood as a theologian wrestling with problems of modernity, specifically the political liberalism and nationalism of Hobbes, Locke, Kant and general American liberal democratic individualism, as well as the corresponding theological liberalism of Kant, Troeltsch, the social gospelers and the Niebuhr brothers. This occasionally makes Hauerwas sound like a “conservative” theologian, except that his philosophical influences, especially Wittgenstein, enable him to reject “conservative” foundationalism and natural law thinking. If any label can be applied to Hauerwas, it would be post-liberal, although there are differences between him and the Yale school postliberals.
        I know McLaren less well, but I think he is a pastor also wrestling with problems of modernity, just different problems: the foundationalist epistemology and nationalist politics of American civil religion and evangelicalism in the late 20th century. He is clearly reacting to a fairly common “conservative” Christian approach to questions of truth, politics, and church that has indeed alienated a lot of people and caused a lot of pain. However, sometimes it seems like McLaren’s response is to simply jump from one side of the Enlightenment to the other and walk the well tread path of anti-establishment political liberalism and anti-foundationalist romantic postmodernism. He seems to lack something that would allow him to dive deeper into the tradition – a broader genealogy of modernity that includes political philosophy and romantic individualism or a more robust understanding of premodern Christology and theology. Naturally, this leads many of his critics to accuse him of simply reviving classic theological liberalism, which I don’t think is his intent. But Hauerwas could never be accused of that.
        An example of this missing knowledge is a comment McLaren makes somewhere that he understands Hauerwas to be anti-modern and Milbank to be authentically postmodern. We shouldn’t make too much of an offhand comment, but this seems exactly backwards. Hauerwas may not use much French continental philosophy – he has an essay in Wilderness Wanderings on how it is the enemy of his enemy, not a “friend” – but he is profoundly influenced by Wittgenstein and fits well under a cultural/linguistic model of theology that gives theology and the church considerable autonomy from “outside” philosophy.
        Milbank, though, while he engages with continental thinkers constantly, sometimes seems to be basically trying to undo the last few centuries. If anyone can be called a “conservative” in the old, old sense of the word, it would be Milbank: he argues for theology as the queen of the sciences, he is a strong Anglo-Catholic and a strong Thomist (in his own particular understanding of Thomas), and he is fond of hierarchy in his ontology and his ecclesiology. This doesn’t mean bloggers are entitled to write Milbank off as a ‘fideist’ or a ‘fascist’ – Milbank’s work is very important. But it’s also aggressively anti-modern, in that he is trying to reconstruct a grand synthesis of basically everything along the lines of the medieval synthesis. Check out how this typology, by people who actually know Milbank, puts him with the church fathers:
        Anyway, this is way more than you are asking for and contains way too many ‘isms’, but I hope it’s interesting.

        March 31, 2010
      • Interesting indeed, Michael—”isms’ and all. Thanks! I think you are probably right about McLaren’s jumping from one side of the Enlightenment to the other. I’ve not read much of his most recent book, but from the reviews I’ve come across, whatever else the Christianity he is describing might be, it isn’t very “new.” It’s too bad, because I think he has a lot of good things to say—especially to folks who are coming out of contexts similar to his.

        April 1, 2010
    • I’ve studied Emergent theology in some depth and it is not unfair to note somewhat of a connection between Anabaptist thought and Emergent theology. However I believe it’s important to recognize the nature of the relationship.

      McLaren is an appreciator of Anabaptism (and everything else it would seem) and is drawn to elements of their theology. Anabaptists may read McLaren and agree with him. However it is not so much that they are drawing off his thinking as they are recognizing the Anabaptist elements present in his theology. Even then most Anabaptists such as myself would read McLaren’s thoughts on Anabaptism and conclude that he doesn’t quite get it. As Michael pointed out in this instance I believe it’s important to remember who is borrowing from whom….

      March 30, 2010
      • Ken #

        Even if McLaren has drawn from Anabaptist theology (and much else, as you noted,) that is not the heart of emergent theology (as I imagine you agree.)

        At the heart of emergent Christianity seems to be an appropriation of elements of postmodern philosophy, implications of the linguistic turn, even while it has only selectively appropriated those elements and has not faced the full implications of the linguistic turn for religion: the word God refers to nothing.

        It seems to me that emergent Christianity consists largely of evangelicals breaking away from the immediate past generation of evangelicals and trying to integrate certain postmodern ideas they learned from secular culture into something that still resembles an evangelical faith.

        Not being able to recognize Anabaptist theology as you are able, I hear only the distinctive voice of emergent theology in Murray’s list. I imagine this is how it would sound to others who are not steeped in Anabaptist theology – to those the emergents, in and out of Anabaptist churches, who hope to evangelize through their mission.

        March 30, 2010
  2. Ken #

    Re: Your conclusion about Murray’s points: “While I might have minor questions about a few of these, they strike me as both a fairly accurate description of our cultural moment and a compelling diagnosis of a helpful way forward. This is where the church finds itself in the 21st century. Like it or not, this is the reality we must face. ”

    I think we face a more serious moment – an ecological crisis. It dwarfs the minor cultural concerns expressed in Murray’s list or the similar concerns of emergent Christians. It is this crisis that theology must address, if it can. It calls every reality and value into question. The implications of global warming and other ecological concerns include an assessment that the planet cannot sustain all of our lives. If that belief is correct, the future promises much bad news and will pose a much greater challenge to theology and Christians than the linguistic turn. It will be very hard to sustain beliefs that incarnation, redemption and providence hold any hope. No Christian generation has ever faced such a crisis. Future generations will look back on ours, on our cultural concerns, as a ship of fools.

    Do you believe we face such an ecological crisis?

    March 30, 2010
    • Yes, I think we face an ecological crisis. I think it is a crisis that theology must address and does address. As I’ve argued on this blog before, I think that Christian theology provides better and more logically consistent grounds for responsible stewardship of the planet than naturalism or any other non-theistic worldview. The challenges facing our planet may be historically unique, but I don’t think they make beliefs like incarnation, redemption, and providence unsustainable. It’s not like these beliefs have been self-evident to this point in history, after all.

      March 31, 2010
  3. James #

    Hi Ken
    Following Ryan’s response, while your Malthusian scenario is compelling at some levels- how does the potential devastation of the planet differ in real terms for the countless droughts, famines etc that people have suffered in the course of history? I don’t see any reason for a theological crisis due to the devastation of the planet.
    I am not suggesting that we should ignore warning signs or fail to be proactive in preventing disaster, by the way. As stewards of the planet God has given us respectful treatment of His possession IS our human responsibility. I just don’t see any theological crisis, that previous generations have not faced numerous times, on the horizon. My theological paradigm- we are so not unique in history 🙂
    I agree that our word games pale in comparison to the life and death implications of our actions.

    March 31, 2010
  4. Ken #

    James and Ryan,

    I think I implied that the future poses a greater theodicy kind of problem when I was thinking of something else. In the context of that implication, I agree with what you have written. But when I wrote what I did I was thinking of a different context.

    I think that understanding the impact our large population has on the planet and on the future of the human species itself, which is the ecological crisis we face, comes from looking at things as Darwin did rather than as we have looked at things as Christians. I am thinking here of Darwin’s discussion of what would happen if a species is left unchecked in the struggle for existence for a long time or what does happen when the population of a species becomes large like ours has (as in Chapter 3 of The Origin of Species.)

    I think about the apparent agrarian-world connection to the history of our religion and I think about how much agriculture for a such population is the ultimate ec0logy problem, larger than the smoke-stack problem, for example.

    Our hope is built on a belief that God made us and our world, one way or the other, and that our role here is to till the soil or to be stewards, as you have mentioned, or at least that it is okay for us to do so. As we know, Darwin tells a different story. In his story, we are not stewards and while agriculture has become our way of feeding ourselves, it ultimately will fail because the planet cannot support agriculture for such a large population, as we already have, and will not support our large population in many other ways as well.

    Better stewardship is not the answer to the crisis, unless by stewardship we mean reducing our population. I don’t think that is what we mean by stewardship, and I don’t imagine we will make any significant reductions to our population voluntarily. The reductions will happen, but not by choice. They will happen by starvation, drought, disease and war as the crisis worsens.

    I think it is hard to frame the theological problem that this crisis presents to us. I think it hits me intuitively rather than deductively. It has to do, perhaps, with seeing a confirmation in the crisis that Darwin’s world description, the one involving chance and necessity, has become and will continue to become more useful to our survival than the theological description in which we have placed our hope. I has to do, perhaps, with coming to terms with chance and necessity – with forming a covenant I don’t really want to make and one that is irrelevant anyway in the end.

    March 31, 2010
  5. James #

    Interesting closing statements, Ken- “a covenant I don’t really want to make and one that is irrelevant anyway in the end.”
    From my reading of the Scriptures the first part of the phrase is the essence of the Biblical challenge- the 2nd part is what we argue about. I believe the stewardship principles are relevant to all of life but that follows naturally from choosing to sign on.
    It probably isn’t really relevant but Robert Malthus’ gloomy economics predated Darwin and remain a living part of economic theories- but history tells us that his scenario is not as simple as it first appears. For one thing- as prosperity increases birth rates decline. On the other hand populations do eat themselves into extinction. I think that the implications of Darwin and Malthus are at best inconclusive when it comes to Biblical theology.

    March 31, 2010

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