During my sermon yesterday, I made some remark about how such and such a way of looking at the Christian life was “in our theological DNA” as Anabaptists. I suppose the comment was meant to communicate that the stream of the Christian tradition from which we emerged has had a specific take on what discipleship looks like and that those of us who trace our lineage to the Anabaptist tradition are theologically hard-wired to embrace certain things. It’s almost as if we can’t help ourselves. Or can we?
As I reflected upon this little phrase, an article I recently bookmarked from Mennonite Weekly Review came to mind. In it, the author asks if there are tensions between organizations such as the newly formed Anabaptist Network in North America and the values of our Anabaptist forbears. Specifically, such hallmarks of early Anabaptism as uniformity/discipline, strong authority, and separation from the broader culture seem to be at odds with the values being championed by today’s proponents of Anabaptism.
Anabaptism is certainly in vogue in some circles these days, but some, like the author of the article above, wonder if it might be a selectively accessed version. The Anabaptism attracting many these days is often a more theologically liberal, inclusive Anabaptism, one that incorporates such as elements as care for the created world, a strong emphasis on social justice, and a willingness to learn from and participate with Christians from a wide variety of denominational backgrounds. Even a casual glance at a history textbook would reveal some rather stark contrasts between today’s Anabaptism and earlier versions which were often wildly apocalyptic, inflexibly doctrinaire, rigidly disciplined, and radically separate from the broader culture.
One of the questions the article provoked for me is, “to what extent are we obliged to adhere to the distinctives held by earlier members of our theological community?” As I read the author’s list of early Anabaptist emphases and values that stood in tension with today’s version, I found myself thinking, “yes, I agree—and I think it’s good that we no longer see things that way!” I’m not eager to return to some of the early Anabaptists version of “disciplined community” nor am I inclined to forswear engaging with the broader culture as many in my tradition have in the past. I’m actually quite glad that many Anabaptists have moved beyond some of these values.
Does this make me a bad Mennonite? An illegitimate heir of the Anabaptist tradition? Well, I guess it all depends on the role we think that one’s theological DNA plays or ought to play in the life of faith. Is one’s theological tradition a template or a pattern that must be uniformly applied from the beginnings of a movement on in perpetuity? Did the first Anabaptists get everything right, leaving for the inheritors of their tradition the sole task of understanding and implementing their doctrines and practices? Does one’s theological DNA lock in a certain range of options from which there must be no departure?
I don’t think so. I think things are quite a bit more complex, interesting, and promising than that! Just as we know that our biological DNA does not determine everything about a human life, so our theological DNA, while shaping and influencing (for better or worse) our spiritual journey, does not determine it. We are not obliged to simply reproduce what those before us have thought or said; rather, we are to respectfully and gratefully receive our theological inheritance, and creatively move the story forward.
Twenty-first century Anabaptists are not responding to the same cultural forces and social realities that were present in the sixteenth century. It makes sense that Anabaptism in 2011 in North America would look different than Anabaptism in 1730 or 1890 or any other part of the story. And, it is worth considering that at least some of the differences between the twenty first century version and earlier ones represent genuine improvement in how we understand the life of faith. Perhaps, some of the “tensions” identified in the article above are simply errors that our ancestors made that have—thanks be to God!—been corrected.
Of course, the other error would be to disregard our theological DNA altogether. Just because we don’t reflexively reproduce what those before us have said and done, doesn’t mean that we don’t give thanks for our tradition, for the role it has played in shaping our view of the world, and for the possibilities it has opened up to us. It doesn’t mean that we don’t consider carefully our points of departure from what has been said and done before, and constantly subject these to the authority of Scripture and the collective wisdom of the community. It makes little sense to just chuck out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.
Our theological DNA is a part of us, after all. It has shaped us in ways we may not even be able to articulate. And even when we try to abandon it, we often end up defining ourselves by what we have rejected. Far better to acknowledge the importance of our theological DNA, and make the most of what we have been given.