Whose conscience, Which community

There is a little catch phrase within the vocabulary of the Church of the Brethren. In any theological or ethical conversation it is only a matter of minutes before someone in the conversation invokes the Brethren tradition of “respect for conscience.” It is the ultimate trump card, protecting positions on anything from ordination of women to human sexuality, and most of all congregational autonomy.

Unfortunately for our current state of the church, this was not the origination of the concept. A quick read of the writings of Alexander Mack reveals that the concept was framed as a posture to the governments of the world, not to matters of church practice and faith. This is especially clear in Mack’s letter to a German Count in which he defends the practice of Believers’ Baptism. Here, the scripture texts are arranged so as to make clear that there is no injunction of the government which can prevent the conscious practice of Christian ordinances.

However, over time the ideas of “no force in religion” and non-creedalism have infused our understanding of conscience. It has come to imply that the church cannot infringe upon the individual’s conscience- even when that conscience contradicts the essential values and ethics of the community. As I argued in a discussion of the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, contemporary Brethren have assumed that the individual and the community are constantly in tension. That is to say we assume the community slips into a kind of tyranny over the individual and that each one must guard their conscience against giving over too much to the community. Respect for individual conscience, then, is a kind of buffer to the power of a collective.

As I have argued regarding the cliche of being “spiritual but not religious,” this antagonistic view of the communal and individual dynamic is simply naive. It is not as if the individual person is closed system. Each one participates in a number of communities whose practices give shape to the ideas and desires of each person involved. This means that the so called autonomous individual is never free from the influences of some community. Following the title of one of Alistair MacIntrye’s works, it is more a matter of whose rationality and which community is shaping our thoughts.

In his work on Social Imaginaries, social theorist Charles Taylor has helpfully shown how this buffered image of the individual is a product of Enlightenment thinking. In rebuking the mystical world-view of the Middle Ages, the modern thinkers began to draw an ever thickening line of protection around the individual. At first, this line refuted the magical incursion of spirits infecting persons but gradually included a rejection of communal authority. The individual in this way became what Taylor calls a “buffered self.” As such, we now have a building block understanding of community which assumes, following the political philosophers, that community is formed by the assent of individual. That is to say that individuals endow a community with authority thus leaving communities to ultimately become affinity groups. When the group exercises too much sway on the individual, that person removes their assent to participate in other communities more like their own current perspective.

For contemporary Brethren, regardless of partisan color, the unfortunate reality is that we are more shaped by the American political landscape. Even the ways we read the scripture together are more defined by the political party of those reading. In essence, when individual conscience is invoked it is a sign that stereotypically conservative or progressive views are perceived to be under attack. In that moment we as the church are thrust into partisan politics rather than engaging in true discernment.

Brethren, in a true synthetic and not antagonistic understanding of our Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, have argued that no one individual holds the whole truth. First, our pietistic understanding of the Priesthood of All speaks of each individual’s access to the Holy Spirit. There is no elite spiritual class that solely encounters the speaking of the spirit. Yet, this access to the Spirit is not for the sole benefit of the individual, but a gift for the whole church. Thus, Brethren treated the gathered church community as the most appropriate place to discern truth- not the conventions of Democrats or Republicans or even affinity groups. Here, individuals speak into the community from their experiences of God and the scripture, but each one’s perspective is tested against the other voices of the church. This gathered wisdom, then, is the teaching of the church. Each individual then, must discern their conscience to decide if this is their community of faith.

Much damage has been done in the name of Church unity throughout time. Yet, a more church oriented vision of individual conscience to me values deeply the voices of those who have covenanted to the community. When the community’s discernment runs against our conscience we must discern if this is a disagreement about the essentials of our beliefs. Respecting one’s conscience in this light, then, is about blessing an individual who discerns that the contradictions are so great that a new community of faith must be sought. If, however, the individual continues to covenant with the church community, the church does not ban them but continues to seek their understanding of the Spirit in the processes of shared discernment. In traditional terms, this means that that the act of excommunication is not something for the church to impose on another, but for the individual to discern for themselves. Respecting their conscience is to be an act of blessing to find the community in which the individual and corporate voice are more in harmony with each other.

There must be then, a kind of submission to the community, freely offered on the part of the individual in the covenant to participate within this particular body. While we modern Americans do not like the idea of submission, there is an integrity in this act not often articulated today. In essence, the covenant makes explicit that this community is the one that I want to shape my desires, beliefs, and actions. As we currently practice “respect for individual conscience” there is no proclamation of which community it is that we have staked our claim in. So, we assume that persons are submitting and contributing to the discernment of the church when in fact it is some other tradition that is influencing their ideas and values. In our case today, the poles of our tradition are more in line with American conservatism or liberalism than they are with any theology and practice of the church. So we continue to fight one another, bringing the partisanship of the democratic system into our discernment- in effect making them debates about the alternate communities in which we participate.


Filed under Politics and the Church

16 responses to “Whose conscience, Which community

  1. “the gathered body as the most appropriate place to discern truth…”

    Preach, brother. Maybe the traditional practices of discernment are one major piece of our tradition that we’ve let fall to the wayside.

  2. For the practice of graceful, patient, deliberative discernment (possibly resulting in, at worst, excommunication) to be enacted, there seems to me a need for a deeply shared collective identity/social imaginary from which to practice it.

    My fear is that not only are most American Christians completely beholden to American-style politics as a way of imagining and doing life together in a church community, but we’re also deeply patterned by the hegemony of consumer-like individual choice on any number of things (ideologies, practices, etc.). A cacophony of perspectives, generating more heat than light, seems to be the only logical outcome in such an arrangement. But maybe I’m being too “chicken and egg” here…

    So in order to discern in such a manner as you have described (which I agree with), we need to come up with ways to short-circuit the other-than-church cultural patterns which hold our bod(ies/y) captive. Wrestling with the “demons,” as you described in an earlier post…

  3. I’m very behind in reading many engaging blogs so only a brief response. The accent on “the individual” was not only an important Enlightenment corrective of a religion or psychology of the super-ego but it was likewise an important emphasis of both Radical Pietism and Romanticism. So, in this context I must offer three cheers for the individual and her resistance to the collective consciousness.

    Also, the linking of “conscience” to noncreedalism and no force in religion by M.G. Brumbaugh continued this important corrective to a religion of the super-ego. Brumbaugh understood that more and more Brethren of his day were living not only in Mack’s Church but in Lincoln’s America.

    I do many bootleg weddings and funerals in Pittsburgh (and in NE Ohio) for Brethren estranged from the church. At these events I hear many confessions from secular Brethren that their former pastors and teachers, in their zeal for the community, the church, seemed to pretend that their members did not live in and love Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood but dwelt only in the cultural imaginary of Mack’s Church. They found this to be a very bad fiction.

    The contest between the individual and the community has much to do the question of how members of Mack’s Church might also live joyfully in Lincoln’s America and in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood.

    • Joshua Brockway

      See, that is just it Scott….I don’t think it is a contest between the Individual and the Community. We know too much about social psychology and sociology in general to say that there is a ever an Individual in the state of nature. Rather, immediately the infant is subject to intersubjectivity. Parents coo, grandparents spoil and with each word that comes, there is mimesis and conversation. So again, I come back to the point of the post to say that even in the so-called Individual there is a community, a meta-narrative that is shaping thought, language, and as Smith says desire.

      In a more Chalcedonian approach, the Individual is the connection point to the Spirit just as much as the community. The two, however, offer testing and correcting the other. The individual brings experience and revelation into the community and both are charged with testing it against scripture and shared experience. When the community challenges the individual, there is a need for submission or leaving. At the same time, when individual rightly challenges the community it submits to the new revelation understanding. As always, though, the community and the individual cannot coerce the other into something against its conscience or understanding.

      In all Pietism understood as Individualism and negative freedom (you cannot tell me what to do) is a incorrect. I think it is more accurate to place the emphasis on a radical Priesthood of all, meaning all believers have access ot the Spirit. Mack and the rest set aside the radical individualism, and unfettered prophesy in favor of a Communally shaped Pneumatology.

      • The doctrine of the Trinity, I think, has some amazing things to teach us about the supposed pickle of the One-and-the-Many tension being explored here – a philosophical and theological puzzle as old as philosophy and theology.

        God as dance with(in) Godself and the out-springing of all creation from that dance, includes the created human, giving not only life but invitation back into the dance of true life.

        One? Many? Who cares, let’s dance! Give some motion and flux to these metaphors! (And I can’t help but drop a link to my post about The furniture in Mr. Roger’s neighborhood…)

  4. Scott Holland

    Sure, Josh, we are social beings not solitary souls. Your question about which community is I think my point of departure from the new traditionalists as well as from the Hauerwas-genre-Anabaptists. They present a fictive view of the community and an ideological construct of the church. Some of us go to church but also live very happily in Whitman’s America and Mr. Roger’s neighborhood and “church” is only one among many formative communities of discourse and practice for us. Anything less ignores the sacramental nature of the universe. We know that this is not the message of Patristic Christendom nor communitarian Anabaptism but we feel it is the spirituality and social politics for today. In fact, given the current state of the churchly community, we shuder that anyone would yield to the formation of this community alone. We join Whitman walking down Broadway and follow Hochmann as he rejects A. Mack’s ecclesial legalism and threat of the ban and as a strong Pietist retreats to his solitary hut.

    Yes, Brian, let’s dance with the Trinity in creedal expressions, with Whitman in his poetic bliss and with Hochmann in his artful heresy! Then let’s play in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. I have a section in a forthcoming Peace Studies Class on “Mr. Rogers as a Peace Theologian.” You do know he saw his show an an extension of the “ministry” of The Reverend Fred Rogers? I knew him a bit in Pittsburgh. Thanks for the link to your blog site on Rogers but I had already seen it and thus made earlier explicit reference to Mr. Rogers : )

    • Joshua Brockway

      As I just preached in Southeastern, I’m constantlyh aware of an idealized picture of Community. Yet, I don’t tbhink that should set aside submission to communal discernment and the testing experience and understanding. I am not convinced though that a communal hermeneutic set aside a sacramental view of the world. In fact, I think Neo Platonists like Basil and Nyssa had a way of doing both. The trick though is that NeoPlatonism set those multiple ‘s letter to some young academics. he has a clear role for learning and formation outside the Church, yet the church has final say, evaluates the “secular” formation. The Roman Catholics (at least in some circles) hold a clear values for reason and formation outside the church community (sacramentalism) as you name it, but still sets the teaching of the Church above and in an assessment role of that understanding. I wonder then if the choice between sacramental worldview and churchly formation is a false one. Rather, one still sets a priority or hierarchy in place and evaluates one system in the context of the other. Thus a choice of which community is our primary community still is in play.

  5. Scott Holland

    It remains for me the question of which community? Or really, which communities?

    Because Jesus came proclaiming the reign of God, not planting churches, one could also say, theologically, if one must choose a priority or hierarchy, one could place kingdom over church and Spirit of God in the world over the Spirit resting primarily in the tribe, clan, sect, collective or gathered community.

    On the Catholic model of a sacramental universe, my first teaching job was at a Sisters of Mercy College. The Hierarchy via Joe Ratzinger now has them under discipline. My first Catholic professor of theology in the early 1980s was Hans Kung, who had just been exiled from his teaching position by the Hierarchy, namely Joe Ratzinger, “the son of a policeman,” according to Kung, who in those days was head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. I learned from these Vatican II Catholics that it is a deep democracy which must discipline hierarchy and not the other way around.

    Psychologically, to make one community, the community called church, primary for spiritual formation is to risk teaching a religion of the super-ego rather than a religion of the heart’s desire. Further, in terms of philosophy, it can imply that the church precedes not only the kingdom but also Creation.

    • Sure, God is at work in the neighborhood (Mr. Rogers’ or otherwise) and in Creation, and all the time, everywhere. Claiming particularity for the Church does not necessarily preclude God’s presence or work or blessing on any other part of the world. Of course that’s the danger of claiming particularity and staking one’s claim anywhere specific: we put ourselves at risk of claiming superiority instead of particularity…and that’s the mess we find ourselves in everywhere – politics, international relations, religion, race, etc. But that’s a logical fallacy. One does not necessarily follow the other.

      I think the question of “which” community is a valid one, and would hold a lot of angst for me if it wasn’t becoming so clear that the reality of “community” was so thin. The neighborhood is, almost everywhere, a community based on race, socio-economic status, and class. Sure, you can claim that about the church, too, and it might even be true in most places. But there remains in the church an impulse toward this new humanity, new community, new idea of what it means to be together. Living up to it is hard, will always be hard, but that’s no excuse for ignoring the particularities.

      • Yes, “which community?” or “which communities?” is the question. Most of us live within overlapping communities of discourse, practice and formation. It would be theologically correct for me, a CoB theologian with 30 years of ordination, to say I that find the churchly community thickest of them all but for me that would be very dishonest. This would only please eighty-year-old-donors in Peoria and theologians in the end. I would rather confess that there is no firm hierarchy of community but instead a variety of important and interesting collectives in my life and the most loving and wisest ones know how to guard the solitude, indeed the poetic particularity, of each individual in the community circle.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Couple of things. First, I am not saying that the Spirit is contained in the Church over against creation. However, it is in a gathered setting (the church) that we “discern the Spirit”. So here we have a question of intention- Other communities are not Spirit seeking. Or in Smith’s lingo, they are not pointing the mind/heart toward the Spirit. There are other goals, other trajectories. While the Spirit is not the possession of the Church, it is within the Church that followers of Christ are explicit about the Spirit trajectory.

      As for the Super-Ego/Heart dichotomy. This is where I am simply not that Freudian. First, it draws too stark of a line between the noetic and desire. Second, I think that harnessing desire and directing it is not the antithesis of true desiring. I happen to be very ok with Plato’s image of the charioteer in regards to anthropology- mind, desire, and anger working for one direction (and the mind or reason holding the reigns).

      So the question hanging over this is how one is to “separate the wheat from the tares”? Or, in more traditional language, what about Sin. Is there a time when our desiring is not rightly ordered? How do we know, or is it just innate, or individually ordered?

  6. Even as there is sin in the world there is sin in the church. Even as there is grace in the church there is grace in the world. Along with Butler Bass and many who watch the church/culture, spirituality/religion evolving dynamics, I think it’s not only Christendom, but the category of “church” itself, that is undergoing a revolution. Also, in the parable, isn’t it God, not the community, who in the end separates the wheat from the tares?

  7. I’m left wondering what is actually to be feared from submitting to the church. When we count the cost, what is it that we’re counting, now? What’s the commitment if we’re just individuals shaped by multiple communities and able to remove ourselves from any of them when and as we choose?

    I’ve been thinking about something Stan Noffsinger said at Annual Conference. Brother Stan carries the weight of his position very heavily – the yoke for him is not so easy, I think – and he offered at one point during discussion an apology and explanation of his actions over the last year. He ended with the hope that in all he had done, that he had “not hurt any one’s relationship with our lord and savior, Jesus Christ.” (I think that’s a correct quotation, but he probably said it better.)

    It was an emotional moment, and the conference ended up showing support to Stan with a standing ovation (which was weird, and while it was probably appropriate, I couldn’t help remembering last year’s ban on applause during floor debates).

    I don’t know why that moment keeps popping up for me in these discussions of individual conscience an the role of community, but there’s something there…

  8. Because God does not live in the church — but in individual hearts and minds and bodies and in all creation — and thus spiritual wisdom cannot be confined to the cultural-linguistic community called church. Further, “submission” is not part of the spiritual vocabularies many of us choose to inhabit. There was a term used by the German mystics, Gelassenheit, which means freely and peacefully yielding to God. However, the Swiss Brethren as well as the Amish were suspicious of this style of South German mysticism and desired more control over the soul of the individual. Thus, they flipped Gelassenheit and redefined it as knowing God through yielding to, or in their parlance “submitting to,” the church-community. In this theology, we only know God via the community. This is still a term used in this way by those Amish, conservative Mennonites and conservative Brethren who see the church functioning as the primary super-ego, collective conscience or paternal power over the solitary heart. It is also used ideologically, but not existentially, by some of the new Anabaptists in the Hauerwas circle.

  9. Again, Scott, I don’t think claiming a particular identity for the church necessarily means that spiritual wisdom is confined there or that we can only know God via the gathered community.

    And I do think that biblical witness and church tradition tell the story of God’s presence operating in a particular way in the church (that’s why I like Hauerwas, incidentally, because he’s not afraid of that particularity) – and, like Josh says, that has to do with discernment and accountability, not walling off spiritual wisdom or experience. The story of Catherine Hummer is a good one – her individual experience of God was very much one she heard on her own, against the teaching of the church (in several ways), but she tested that spirit with the gathered community, and they ultimately agreed that they couldn’t say that her visions and preaching were not of God – but they had the conversation together.

    I didn’t know the history of the “Gelassenheit” term, and appreciate its interpretive journey. And of course, it’s true that the church has a history of stifling individuality (Galileo, Nuns on a Bus, the idea of Amish teens needing a rumspringa, current CoB push for uniform & creedal belief systems, etc.), and the idea of submission can be and has been wildly abused. But that still doesn’t invalidate the idea. Would kenosis be better? Or the Pauline idea of “one-another”? Or a Brethren conception of servanthood? All of those involve particular, ecclesial community in both identity formation and in practice.

  10. Sure, it’s always the dance of the individual and the community. We can really go back to Josh’s important question, “Which community?” My sense is that current Anabaptist-inspired movements over-accent the presence of the divine in the church, leaving us with a high theology of church and an underdeveloped theology of culture, kingdom and creation.

    I like the story of Hummer but what if the community rejected her God-given dreams, visions and voices as Biblical, doctrine-driven Brethren might do today? Should she fall into silence?

    On a theology of particularity, there is also the dance of the particular and the more universal, or the provincial and the cosmopolitan. If this is a dance or a creative dialectic then the movement of faith seeking understanding and understanding seeking faith can truly move beyond tribal gods.

    Here’s one take on this from a classic Jew-Greek dialectic:

    The Jew: “When one lives out one’s life in passionate particularity one’s life can then take on a more universal significance.” The philosophical sense is that particular passions open the thinker to more universal experiences and understandings. True.

    The Greek: “To see the similar in the different is the mark of poetic genius.” This is from Aristotle’s Poetics and the sense is that within the grand diversity and difference of human understanding the poet, unlike the preacher or politician of radical particularity, can name the similar which traces something more common or universal. Also true.

    In all of this we can say that Christian theology began when Greek questions were asked about a Jewish story.

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