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The Anabaptist Vision—Synchro Blog

A few weeks ago, someone who has been worshiping at a Mennonite church for nearly a year, and who had no prior exposure to or experience with Mennonites, remarked to me that, while they had deeply appreciated their time with the community, it seemed to them that Mennonites were basically people who did lots of good stuff and liked to do things together.  It is a common enough sentiment.  Many expressions of Anabaptist faith can come to seem like little more than an ethical system designed to produce Christ-like behaviour and character with little, if any attention, paid to the indwelling presence of Christ and the ongoing power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.

This, in large part, is the argument set forth in a 1993 article by Stephen Dintaman in the Mennonite Brethren Herald entitled “The Spiritual Poverty of the Anabaptist Vision”—an article that is the subject of a synchro-blog that I am pleased to be a part of this week.  Are Anabaptists all about behaviour at the expense of belief?  What are the costs of emphasizing a Christian ethic at the expense of meaningful relationship to the God who makes the ethic possible and whose future these ethics point toward?  According to Dintaman, the answer to the former question is, “yes,” and to the latter is, “high indeed.”  We are delivering an impoverished and unsustainable vision of faith to future generations.

There are three problems with “the Anabaptist vision” as often conceived and practiced, according to Dintaman:

  1. This vision gives us little insight into human behaviour—it doesn’t offer much help in understanding the psychology of sin and bondage and how human beings change.
  2. This vision gives us an inadequate awareness and experience of the liberating work of God through the death and resurrection of Jesus—the Christian life is reduced to a program of behaviour modification according to the teachings of Jesus with insufficient attention paid to why his death and resurrection were necessary.
  3. This vision gives us a meagre sense of the ongoing spiritual presence and power of the risen—it offers, as Dintaman puts it, a “Pre-Pentecostal discipleship” which fails to acknowledge that the church only began to “succeed” after the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The combined effect of these three problems is, essentially, a bunch of people who are really, really, really convinced that we ought to do the things that Jesus taught, and try really, really, really hard to do them, but succeed inconsistently, experience frustration with their efforts, and have little patience with others who do the same.  Perhaps even more worryingly, these three problems lead to the conclusion that faith is mostly about, well, us.  Faith is about me screwing up my will and effort and living like Jesus did.  It is an impossible standard made even more difficult by a dim experience and awareness of the spiritual resources available for the journey.

To cite but one example, many Mennonites believe strongly that the gospel of Christ is a gospel of peace—so much so, that some equate practice and advocacy of nonviolence with the gospel itself.  Dintaman says this:

Peace and justice activism and engagement in conflict mediation can be authentic expressions of faith in Jesus Christ, but for many they have become more of a substitute for faith.  Mennonite academics, especially, are embracing a program of peace and justice activism that puts them in the mainstream of liberal, socially-aware academia.  It does not require them to proclaim a specifically biblical, scandalous message of which the academic world knows almost nothing.

I am not calling us to forsake work for social change, but just reminding us that all this is not the gospel!  The good news is not that Jesus has given us peace ideals and we are called to implement them nonviolently.  That would make God passive and us the central actors in the drama of redemption.

This is, perhaps, the central problem with the “Anabaptist vision” as Dintaman sees it: it makes the life of discipleship about us and not God and is, consequently, a life doomed to failure and frustration.  We can never, after all, do enough on our own.  And setting forth the life of faith as an ethical system devoid of spiritual renewal and resources is a difficult place from which to evangelize.  How can we invite others to a life of joyful following after Jesus if we have not personally experienced the liberating power of Jesus from sin and struggle?  If we have not personally been touched by the forgiveness and grace of Christ?  If we do not personally know what it means to live in the ongoing joy of the Spirit’s sustaining, guiding presence?  If the Christian life proclaimed by our actions seems mostly to be about the more-or-less grim exercise of religious duty?

According to Dintaman,

Until we can think and talk as passionately about receiving and being as we do about strategizing and doing, until we get as passionate about praise and prayer as we do about social-political analysis, we will remain spiritually-impoverished.

Sobering words indeed.  And, I would say, words whose accuracy has been borne out in the intervening two decades since the article’s first publication.  In my experience, Anabaptists tend to veer off into one of two directions.  Either, 1) They uncritically embrace the spiritual experiences, beliefs, practices, and liturgies of mainstream American evangelicalism at the expense of core Anabaptist convictions about peace, discipleship, and sacrificial community; or 2) They tend to reduce Christianity to the practice of peace and social justice at the expense of the life of the spirit, prayer, worship, etc.  We don’t seem to be very good at consistently and compellingly emphasizing both.

If ever there was a time where such a two-pronged witness was necessary it would be in the twenty-first century post-Christian West.  If ever there was a time when a compelling articulation and expression of faith as a Spirit-infused, prayer-soaked, joyful, liberated and liberating following after the person and work of Jesus Christ, it would be now.  If ever there was a time and a place, in other words, for a spiritually vital Anabaptist vision, it would be now.

Find Dintaman’s short article HERE.

Find the other synchro-bloggers through these links:

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14 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    I have seen the concerns expressed by Dintaman also expressed similarly in the writings of disillusioned Marxist radicals in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. They wrote of a need for spiritually to sustain themselves and to help them achieve their aims. These sentiments were also expressed in the writings of liberal protestants for whom faith had been expressed as a quest for social justice. Perhaps the author you quoted in your last posting is an example of someone who sought spirituality to go with her activism.

    What have I have seen happen is that some who have embraced “spirituality” have come to hold their political views with an even more righteous passion. Others have been unable to find what they sought in spirituality, as much as they have tried, and their disillusionment has deepened. Their political views remain, but they hold them with less confidence in their goodness, with irony. I think it is this latter group that comes closest to a modern expression of the kind of holism that Dintaman envisioned. Where I have used the word “disillusionment,” a theologian might have said that they have developed an “understanding the psychology of sin and bondage and how human beings change.”

    Personally, I think the language of sin and bondage does not fit our context with credibility. Instead, I think we use the language of Darwin to greater effect. We are part of a magnificent and wondrous whole.

    June 27, 2012
    • Yes, there are obviously all kinds of things that can happen when people decide to pursue their convictions about the nature of reality—disillusionment, an increased sense of self-righteousness, apathy, and many other negative things, no doubt. But this is not necessarily so. For me, it simply illustrates the basic truth that human beings are complicated creatures who behave and act according to a wide variety of inconsistently and partially understood motivations and justifications for their behaviour. This is who we are. The fact that the results are not always what we would like them to be does not (and should not) prevent us from seeking to live with integrity, consistency, honesty, openness, according to our deepest convictions about the kinds of creatures we are, the kind of world we live in, and where, if anywhere, this whole story is going.

      Re: sin and bondage language, I think this language is just as credible today as it ever was. I’m reading Gabor Maté’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts right now. It is a harrowing tale about the the nature of addiction, and of the myriad sociological and psychological factors that play into it. For addicts, the language of bondage expresses their predicament very well. And, I think the same is true for those of us whose destructive habits are more socially acceptable. Speaking personally, I know that Romans 7:14-25 describes my own experience with stunning accuracy, however unpalatable it may sound to modern ears.

      June 27, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think it does work for some addicts. I can think of several, among family and friends, for whom it has worked. At the same time, I can think of an equal number, among family and friends, for whom sin and bondage language was no help, and yet they have recovered as well as those who used such language.

      Re: “our deepest convictions about the kinds of creatures we are, the kind of world we live in”

      This, like sin and bondage, is Christian language, although more contemporary. What I see among those who believe that Darwin explained who and where we are, notwithstanding the bad example of Dawkins, is milder than a “conviction.” It is a fruitful belief for one whose beliefs, or disbeliefs, are always on the verge, if not over the edge, of suspension.

      I offer that only as an example of contrasting language, and not as an argument against your experience.

      June 27, 2012
      • I don’t doubt your experience. For my part, I’m not prepared to give up on the language of sin and slavery, unsavoury though their connotations might be for many. In a strangely ironic way, perhaps, I think that these are dignifying words because they presume human freedom and they reflect the truth that the habits we form through our choices can come to mark and define us for good and for ill.

        Of course, I am aware that the existence/extent of human freedom is a highly contested realm of study and discourse. I don’t presume to have solved that riddle, by any means, but I think that freedom is real, even if it does not always operate to the same extent in every case and in every person.

        June 27, 2012
    • Ken #

      Re: “I think that freedom is real, even if it does not always operate to the same extent in every case and in every person.”

      I think that is an excellent way to express it. Most of us experience it that way.

      As much as I love freedom and believe it is real, limited just as you put it, my own tendency has been to see problems caused less by choice overall and more by culture or inequalities. My sympathies are with progressive efforts to overcome such problems. At the same time, achieving desired results seems inevitably confounded by one thing or another. I could speak of sin and bondage in such cases, but I don’t partly because I would only mean it metaphorically. I prefer the language of modern democracy, social sciences and evolutionary biology. I can speak more honestly and directly about my feelings and ideas that way.

      Similarly, I don’t use the language of social justice. It is tainted for me by the religious fanaticism, political intolerance and judgmentalism associated with such language that I experienced in the PCUSA. I have spent many years working for progressive causes including causes related to equality and the environment and work for them still. Although often confounded by one thing or another, the causes yet generate enthusiasm and hope, with or without the language of God.

      June 27, 2012
      • I think that the problems caused by “culture or inequalities” are real and they are huge (the late theologian Walter Wink would use “powers and principalities language to describe these, as long as we’re talking about language—a bit of a stretch, even for me!). However, what are “culture and inequalities” but the results of aggregate (limited) human freedom over long periods of time writ large?

        Whatever the language you prefer, I am very glad for the good work that you do.

        June 28, 2012
    • Ken #

      I think of culture and inequalities as being the result of one thing after another, just as, for example, the origin of species is the result of one thing after another over a long period of time. While I enjoy political freedom, I don’t think of “freedom” as in “freedom of choice” by individuals as being a particularly important “thing” in that string of one thing after another.

      What I meant to say in my previous comment was only that I don’t tend to associate the problems we face in life much with individual choice. In that sense, I am more like those Christians who emphasize social justice than personal piety. In addition, I am like those who emphasize social justice in that I have worked for and supported civil rights causes and environmental causes, rather than causes associated with the politics of those who emphasize personal piety. At the same time, I think that political activism is a weak basis for faith and I think that bringing God language into politics is dangerous in a democracy and against the spirit of democracy, including the spirit of freedom and equality. In my experience, churches that emphasize social justice tend to be hate-filled even while they imagine themselves to be righteous and even loving. In my experience, adding personal pieties to that brew accentuates the problem – it accentuates the self-righteousness.

      I don’t think that liberal protestantism expressed as a quest for social justice can be tweaked into something better by adding spirituality to it. I think such liberal protestantism is better abandoned. That, fortunately, is an available choice.

      June 28, 2012
      • While I enjoy political freedom, I don’t think of “freedom” as in “freedom of choice” by individuals as being a particularly important “thing” in that string of one thing after another.

        Okay, I have to ask. On this blog, you often have fairly harsh words for people whose approach and behaviour you do not agree with (i.e, PCUSA, moralists, religious fanatics, etc). If individual freedom isn’t important, and life is just “one thing after another,” why be critical of anyone? Why work for equality or the environment? Why advocate the abandonment of liberal protestantism? These are all just some of the many things that come after a string of other things, with no more or less value than anything else, right? They could no more not have come into existence than the things in our world that we happen to prefer, right?

        Perhaps I’m reading more into your comments than is warranted. But it seems to me that, whatever we might intellectually accept at a worldview level or about the existence/nonexistence of freedom, all of us live as if individual freedom of choice is real and that it matters. If we didn’t think this way, we would never try to persuade anybody of anything, nor would we work to change anything in the world.

        June 28, 2012
    • Ken #

      What you are saying makes perfect sense. I don’t have a good answer, even while the idea that culture is shaped by choice does not seem to fit as well as seeing it as something in which choice played a part but is not the whole explanation.

      I think we can understand concern for the land and its creatures as a concern for the whole of which we are part. I understand that concern as love and understand love as coming from the land and nature through evolution. As for equality, it comes the same way. And my sense is that equality extends to all creatures and every other part of the whole. It is equality in that context.

      As the same time, I know that I believed that equality was important before I ever understood Darwin. I remember it being a concern of my parents and of the subculture in which we lived.

      I guess I think that it follows from Darwin that values are prejudices and nothing more. We have the ones we inherited, mostly.

      At the same time, I understand Darwin as representing our current paradigm in science and that in time the paradigm will change. I think our beliefs, or disbeliefs, or values are always on the verge, if not over the edge, of suspension.

      I think our common values did not come to either of us by choice, or from connection with any transcendent reality, but from our parents and culture.

      Your point is, nevertheless, a very good one: “whatever we might intellectually accept at a worldview level or about the existence/nonexistence of freedom, all of us live as if individual freedom of choice is real and that it matters.” I do enjoy with you the idea and the hope that it matters. I would not be disappointed to find out that it does.

      June 28, 2012
      • I think our common values did not come to either of us by choice, or from connection with any transcendent reality, but from our parents and culture.

        Ah, I disagree. I think this is one of those happy cases where we are not forced to choose between partial options, but rather recognize and, where appropriate, appreciate how all of these factors (and others, no doubt) contributed to who we are and why we embrace the values we do.

        June 28, 2012
  2. chad miller #

    Excellent post Ryan, when I first read the Dintamen article I could not beleive it was twenty years old. I think it decribes almost too well the biggest challange for Mennonites in Canada today. It does seem like in some circles mennonites saw the choice before them as either following the percieved lead of the Mennonite Academia into a type of “Jesus is my Ethical guru” or abandon any real sense of anabaptist theological identiy and join the evangelical main stream. For some reason there seemed to be a lack of a clearly articualted Anabaptist theology, I think today we can look at Greg Boyd, Bruxy Cavy, Scott Mcnight and Lee Camp as well as many other who articulate a powerful grace filled and Spirit evlivened Anabaptist theology. If you listen to Greg Boyd for a while you will notice way more sermons on the Inner life and the power of the Spirit then in most mennonite churches. As Kingdom people we should be seeking for Christ to reign in us as He reings in our world.

    June 27, 2012
    • Yeah, I had similar sentiments, Chad. The article reads like it could have been written yesterday.

      I haven’t listened to Boyd, although I’ve read some of his books. You’ve got me intrigued, though, when you say he speaks on the “the Inner life and the power of the Spirit then in most mennonite churches.” Of course, having said that, I see a finger pointing straight back at me. How often do I speak/write about these themes? Hmm… In a weird way, I find it far easier to deal with cultural analysis, sociology, philosophy, and ethics in conversation with our Anabaptist theological convictions than I do with “the inner life.” Or prayer. Or the Holy Spirit. I had the uneasy sense throughout Dintaman’s article that this was a message that I needed to hear, whatever else it might imply for the broader Anabaptist community.

      June 27, 2012

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