A Better Anthropology

Last week I was knee deep in reading Peter C. Blum’s recent book “For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought.” Since I had also just finished an extended essay on the relevancy of the Brethren tradition for today, I was reading it with an eye toward understanding the intersection of Pietism and Anabaptism. In reading Blum’s excellent essay on feet washing, I was able to narrow the field of my question: How does the Pietist emphasis on the individual offer both a hurdle to overcome and a helpful corrective to Anabaptist collectivism?

I’ve written already on the intersection of the two traditions here. My question though, was primed by my good friend Scott Holland, a frequent reader and commenter of the NuDunker blogs. Scott, once a student with Yoder, offers a solid critique of Yoderian Anabaptism saying that “it offers an anthropology of the disciple but not of the person.” So I threw the question out to Scott and some fellow NuDunkers in order to explore just how Pietism might help us get to a better anthropology within the wider conversations of Neo-Anabaptism.

First, a bit of history. The 16th century Anabaptists and the 18th century Pietists, though connected in an impulse to recover a radical discipleship based in their reading of the New Testament, were separated by the grand shift toward the individual begun in the Enlightenment. That is to say that a kind of Cartesian turn toward the interiority of the human person was a significant difference between the Brethren and the Mennonites. Put another way, the Pietists worked within the framework of the Cogito- I think therefore I am. There are of course a ton of problems with this kind of Cartesian turn to the individual- most notably the separation of the interior and exterior self. Yet, for as much as academics have refuted Descartes’ system (especially through the work of Phenomenology), this sense of interior confidence is part and parcel to the Western sense of the self.

For the Pietists, a sense of religious certainty was to be found in the inner life. Though they might have balked at Descartes over emphasis on rationality, it was still the case that the individual was a clear source for religious understanding. Hence, many of the Pietists gathered in conventicles or study groups to explore the scriptures together. Hence, Luther’s emphasis on “scripture alone” found its logical conclusion among those small groups. They read together in order to better understand the scriptures and apply them to a life of holiness. Many of these groups were known for a rich spirituality, an affective reading of the scriptures that was deeply prayerful and mystical in tone. In a way, we might say that for the Pietists, Descartes maxim was better rendered “I pray, therefore I am.”

There were of course many Pietists who remained within their religious traditions. Some said that there were two churches- the visible church manifest in the institution and marked by both the lapsed and those in pursuit of holiness, and the invisible church comprised only of the holy. The Brethren, however, rejected that conception all together in the decision to baptize believers in water. In that decision they created a new, and only visible, community of discipleship. What is more, they followed the lead of the 16th century Anabaptists. Certainly, when we read the early writings of the Brethren, they would not have called themselves Anabaptists. As German historian and pastor Marcus Meier notes, the categories of Anabaptist and Pietist are modern labels applied to the past. Yet, there were streams of continuity between the 16th and 18th century reformers. What seems more operative, then, is a different sense of the person.

My emerging sense is that the Brethren- with a Pietist sense of heart and mind coupled with an Anabaptist desire for community and ethics- sought to temper the trajectory of radical individualism with a community of discernment and accountability. There are stories of persons whose mystical experiences were explored by the community and tested against the scriptures. One could not just say that “God told me so” without also asking fellow believers if this inner word coincided with the outer word of scripture. At the same time, the Pietist emphasis on conscience offered an equally critical tempering of an Anabaptist turn towards collectivism. In other words, the church was not an authoritarian herd but a community of persons seeking faithfulness and holiness together. There were certainly cases where such discernment resulted in a clear “No” on the part of the community, and yet as some stories show, the entertainment of the question was a two way street to test the community’s understanding as well.

This still leads me back to my original quest for a better anthropology. Though I assume that the early Pietists were the product of the Enlightenment turn towards the inner life of the individual, I am still wrestling with the anthropology that was at work in the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism. In many ways contemporary Brethren have camped out in either tradition, thus highlighting one as normative- either we are Anabaptists or we are Pietists, communitarians or individuals. My instinct is to say that both are true, but that still leaves open for debate how the heart felt mysticism of the Pietists finds grounding in the community of believers. That is to say that Pietism and Anabaptism practiced together avoids the pitfalls of collective authoritarianism on one hand and radical individualism on the other. Following Meier and others, the only difference I can discern in the historical narrative is the effect of the Enlightenment conception of the self. So the question haunts me- what is the better anthropology at work among the Brethren synthesis of Anabaptism and Pietism?


Filed under Brethren History, NuDunkers

21 responses to “A Better Anthropology

  1. This is a fun medium Josh – I can discuss these issues with myself and post comments without being bothered with that whole mess of ‘conversation.’

    Interesting post and I can tell I’ll be thinking about it this evening. But two other factors to throw in the mix as you are developing this better anthology: First, though they weren’t throwing around the term Anabaptist to describe their movement, it is pretty clear that the early Brethren (at least A Mack) saw a pretty clear continuum from the now-deteriorated baptists to the ‘new baptists’. It seems fairly obvious from the record that early Brethren identified as the 18th-century heirs of that movement and would have readily been a part of what we identify as established Anabaptist communities at that time but for their ‘deteriorated’ state.

    Second, though the Radical Pietist vehicle is what got the first eight to an Anabaptist awakening and greatly influenced what they saw as the deteriorated areas for the old-baptists, there are some fairly huge questions about how relevant that Radical Pietism is after 1708. I think your evoking that whole concept of the internal versus external self is on point, but I think it is accurate more for the role it plays in how that early start of the church is characterized by later generations. History is rife with descriptions of a bi-polar Brethren movement, with Radical Pietism pulling that ponderous pendulum in one direction and Anabaptism pulling it in the other. That characterization of the historical development of the church works pretty well when the describer doesn’t buy into what they are describing as ‘Anabaptism’ and wants to justify movement in an alternate direction. The trouble with the Brethren creation myth that is usually evoked to accomplish that alternate movement is that it avoids the fact that the first generations of the church were not subject to that same Radical Pietist vehicle leading to an Anabaptist awakening, they were from groups of those ‘now-deteriorated’ baptists who were drawn to the passion in the Brethren movement.

    Perhaps it is simply semantics, but I don’t think so. I think there is a real difference between having a people steeped in community drawn to a passion that a focus on piety renewed versus having a group largely moved by concepts of an ‘internal self’ who decided to incorporate a concept of community.

  2. A few years ago at EMU we had this conference on “attachment theory,” which arises out of a mishmash of disciplines, but includes studies done with childhood development vis-a-vis mothering, as well as with some more recent input from the field of neurobiology.

    One of the take-aways was a sense that the categories of “inner and outer” and “self and other” are ultimately untenable. The inner is interpenetrated by the outer, the self is interpenetrated by the other(s). Others leave their “fingerprints” on our neurons. We as humans are “wired” for connection, social animals, etc.

    Intuitively, I thought “Hmm, yeah that seems right and good.”

    And there was some anthropological dimensions to the MacIntyre I was getting into a few years ago, the “narrative shape” of human being. And now Jamie Smith’s got that chapter in Imagining the Kingdom on the primacy (as in biological primacy) of metaphor.

    So I guess one implication I’m hinting at here, as we look around for a better anthropology, is that there need to be more Brethren scholars conversant in contemporary philosophy, and other fields that these anthropological questions would touch (i.e. all fields!). I guess that’s us, right? (Even though I’m not scholar in a formal sense…I just play one on YouTube.) – But I guess as we engage this nerdy stuff, we need to be coming up with ways to make it intelligible and practical for institutional and congregational folks.

    • Scott Holland

      Yes, more interdisciplinary and phenomenological. But one cannot do phenomenology if one claims that, “the church precedes the world epistemologically and axiologically. One is left with ecclesiology and churchly ethics.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Though I understand this quote- “the church precedes the world epistemologically…”- it needs some unpacking for the blogging audience πŸ™‚

        I wonder, though, if it is equally fallacious to say that the individual understanding also precedes the world epistemologically. In listening to an excellent interview of Blum on Homebrewed Christianity, Blum argues that for Phenomenology the assertion of an individual subjectivity is also a misnomer. That is to say that the subjective experience outlined in Phenomenology, is more a sense of inter-subjectivity. That is to say, what is experienced is intelligible to others- they have a similar experience. This isn’t a form of collectivism (the hegemony of the community), but rather an honest appraisal of the role of the social in our understanding.

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, You NuDunkers are so fearful of individual vision and voice! Of course the individual is always formed and informed within the context and contingency of inter-subjectivity. I’m currently directing a thesis on this topic. But the poet, prophet and preacher much accept the responsibility to speak, assuming, without apology, that she contains multitudes. Try this:

        The Heart is the Capital of the Mind
        The Mind is a single State —
        The Heart and Mind together make
        A single Continent —
        One — is the Population —
        Numerous Enough —
        This ecstatic Nation
        Seek — it is Yourself.

        — Emily Dickinson

      • Joshua Brockway

        That may be, and yet I think we are also of the Apple, i-generation where the individual is the decider, authority all alone in Steve Jobs’ mansion isolated in stories and responsibilities.

        My sense is that as much as you hear us (which I think you hear the old Mennonite men and not the NuDunkers), we hear you echoing the Jobsian isolation and tyranny of solipcism. Neither of those hearings are accurate however, which is why I continue to push into the multi-voice character of reflection and ethics. Counter to your sense that we afraid of the individual voice, my aim is to hear many voices.

        A bit of personal narrative. As I applied for PhD programs as I finished at Candler, I was turned down by two of my three schools. I would characterize that time as a “crisis of voice.” I was struggling, wondering if I had the chops to make it in a PhD, if I really had a voice to contribute to the wider academic and historical discussions. As I arrived at Catholic University, I have to say the academic process, seminars, research, reading the books I should have read 2 years earlier, and writing in quiet libraries and empty study carols was the most isolating experience of my life. I longed for other voices. I longed for others with whom I could test ideas and explore new themes…I longed for other voices to help me clarify and shape my own “individual contribution.” It was never an either or. I found my voice amidst of community of scholars. Each working their own angle, each trying to make a mark in unique ways, and yet exploring themes of the body, the heart, and the mind together.

        The blog medium is a self-centered medium. Some might say that I venture into the land of self-promotion and selfish reflection by writing these blogs, sharing them on Twitter. In its worst phases, the blogosphere is like One Hand Clapping. What I think you hear in some of us NuDunkers is exactly what Dana said- we are finding our unique voices in the shared conversation. Striving to not be isolated Jobsians of the iPhone generation. That I submit, is not a fear of individual voice, but a desire to shape our voices with others.


      • Scott Holland

        Thanks, Josh, for filling in the gaps in communication with a personal narrative. This all makes sense and contextualizes your critique of individualism.

        I don’t see members of the i-generation as strong individuals but rather as conforming types bound to their virtual communities.

        Not that there is anything wrong with membership in the Apple Community. I rarely use my Company issued computer but instead write you from my iMack. I have, however, resisted an iPhone and still use my old classic flip phone. It’s nice to use the phone Jesus used.

      • Joshua Brockway

        That’s really helpful Scott, to mention that even the iPhone phenomenon is one of supplanting an authoritarian community for another. In a way, its like all the non-conformists hanging out together, looking like each other.

        Another anecdote from some personal experience: I am often aware that claiming a voice is often met with resistance, even among those who most value the Individual. It has happened here in various forms- almost like “who the hell do you think you are”.I hate to say, that the liberal fiction strong individual is still often hammered down by liberals themselves.

      • Scott Holland

        Josh, Yes, resistance to voice goes with the territory of speaking and writing. The collective longing for the the voice of the prophet, poet or strong singer to join the bland communal hum of the super-ego can be, as you note, a liberal or a conservative expectation.

        In literary theory and philosophy (Bloom & Rorty) we call it an “anxiety of influence.” For some, this anxiety mandates footnoting or citing some prior authoritative text to validate one’s song. For many, this anxiety is manifested in a literate Oedipal Contest in which one author or singer must overcome another via some deliberate misrepresentation of the other’s voice to accent difference rather than connection or analogy. [This seems to be a manly temptation which is why some have suggested so few women intellectuals join the Yoderian and Hauerwasian style churchly debates. This style of God-talk sees theology informed by a dialectical rhetoric rather than by an analogical imagination].

        Some of us have been suggesting that a more profound appreciation of the dance of the individual and the community moves from the old anxiety of influence to a new ecstasy of influence.

      • Scott Holland

        PS on the dance of the individual & community. I addressed this explicitly in a Bluffton convocation many years ago. It was published in SOUNDINGS, the Journal for Values in Higher Education and anthologized elsewhere leading to invitations to present the lecture at Union, Brown, etc. Although published in 1996, if you Google, “Scott Holland, So Many Good Voices in My Head,” it should show up on your screen.

  3. Joshua Brockway

    So I should fill in this background a bit.

    In several conversations with Neo-Anabaptist types, I have heard time and again- “You mean the Brethren have already been working at this?” By this my friends were commenting on the Spirituality (individual connection to the Holy Spirit as part of the life of discipleship and the vibrant discernment of the community) of the Brethren. One good friend, a Menno hymn writer, commented that he can easily go through the shared hymnal project and pick out the hymns selected by Brethren. Often, that meant anything about the Holy Spirit was a Brethren contribution.

    That said, Ben, I think we need to better understand Meier’s argument in “Origins of the Schwarzeneau Brethren” and later condensed aptly in an essay in the 300th Anniversary volume. Basically, the line between Anabaptists and Pietists is a modern invention. In fact, he shows (much to the horror of more Anabaptist leaning Brethren) that the early Brethren were more similar to the Philadelphians (a la Jane Lead) than they were to the 16th century Swiss.

    We could say that Mack’s “reinvigorating” of the Anabaptist’s vision(s) was one fueled by a rich theology of the Holy Spirit and the person’s access to that Spirit in the inner. He is always saying that the Old Baptizers were quiet and docile. Is it his sense of the Holy Spirit that lights a fire underneath that fossilized Anabaptism?


    • As to the last point – i think it is hard to look at 1525 and the years following and see an Anabaptism characterized by quietness, docility, and a lack of fire. That illustrates part of the problem perfectly – many throughout Brethren history, often from a theological perspective different from that of the radical reformers (that’s an oxymoron if I’ve ever written one, but still . . .) have used ‘Anabaptist’ to define those times when they thought the church was off the rails towards the right – times when they paint a picture of a legalistic paternalistic community high on discipline and low on grace. Leaving aside whether that portrayal of the community was generally correct, using the term ‘Anabaptist’ for those periods set up Anabaptism as the foil that times of grace, love, inclusivity, and commitment – ‘very Radically Pietistic times’ were set against. Others do the exact opposite. Either way it is a maddening practice – to invest terms with new meaning and then extend those definitions into the past.

      It is a powerful tool in argument though. When you are able to control language you can frame entire arguments with greater ease.

      • Joshua Brockway

        Just quickly that was not a modern assessment Ben. That is Mack

        Sent from my iPhone

      • Scott Holland

        Yeah, these terms, Anabaptist & Pietist, never had stable meanings in the history of the movements. Thus, it is perhaps wise and well for us to define what we mean by these categories when we write “Anabaptist” or “Pietist” in contemporary theory and theology.

        Old man Mack was as legalistic and as theologically mean spirited in his church discipline as any of the Mennonite Anabaptists. Most contemporary members of the CoB are not Mackites in faith and practice. They wouldn’t walk across the street to hear him preach! Mack’s son Sander showed more grace and generosity in his later years.

  4. I think you have a point, but there are some pretty fundamental questions that raises as well. Who are those early Brethren and why do we pick out a particular snapshot to classify them. Meier’s essay is particularly good at giving new insight into what was formational for Mack – but it also chooses moments that it freezes in time. Formational for Mack leading up to 1708 doesn’t necessarily translate to formational for Brethren scattered in the woods in Pennsylvania in 1719 or those emigrating from the Netherlands in the years following. Formational for Mack’s awakening doesn’t necessarily mean formational for the movement two generations later.

    Getting near heretical ground here, but the Brethren story is not necessarily Mack’s or the First Eight’s story. That story is more fleshed out not by individual beliefs but by how the community organized itself, where they lived, who they associated with, and how they lived. That’s a Boas/Malinowski anthropological approach if ever there was one.

    As much as I enjoy thinking about Brethren history, sometimes I think we can err on the side of trying to read into the past a justification for our beliefs about the present and the future. Brethren historians have been particularly guilty of that (not that others aren’t, in fact I assume they are – I just am more familiar with Brethren stuff). Perhaps it is the historian in me, but I tend to recoil – probably too quickly I’ll give you – at that approach (not meaning Meier at all – I don’t think he had a dog in the fight and his work is wonderfully sourced). At the heart of Anabaptism for me is community and the stories of those communities (when we are talking history) yet too often we are given individuals and the stories of individuals as knock-offs.

    I think going down the Brethren history rabbit hole is just an aside to the larger philosophical questions you and Brian raise.

  5. Scott Holland

    All of the above comments are insightful and important. Anabaptism and Pietism are both “imaginary homelands” and they are rather absent as explicit categories from Brethren theological thought experiments before the 20th century. However, the polygenetic influences of Anabaptist and Pietist thought were implicit in the theologies and spiritual practices of movements in the Brethren orbit.

    On Descartes, we might say he forgot that the heart, like the head, is also an intelligent organ. On the Pietists, we might say they forgot the head, like the heart, is likewise a passionate organ and capable of love’s knowledge as one loves with heart, soul and mind.

  6. Yeah, too many historians in the comment section! πŸ™‚

    I love this anthropology question, not least because I have congregants asking me questions of anthropology regularly. Lately, it’s been in contexts of mental illness: how do you incorporate hostile personality traits – even violent ones – into an idea of self that makes sense? If I really am the person I thought I was, then what do I do with all these other weird parts of myself?

    I find the “anabaptist” “communitarian” concept of identity really helpful in these kinds of conversations. When an individual is trying to make sense of herself, to be able to point to the known identity held by the community is really helpful. To be able to say, “we know you, and we hold that identity for you even as you struggle to make sense of it yourself” can be incredibly encouraging to an isolated individual who struggles. The community doesn’t just support someone in crisis with meals and prayer, it also holds identity in an almost visceral way.

    That’s true.

    It is also true that a community functions best when it is comprised of strongly self-aware individuals. Church-y behaviors like passive-aggressivm, groupthink, over functioning and drama-stirring happen less often, I think, when individuals are secure in their own identity and place.

    And, I think that being part of a community enables people to be self-aware, secure in our own identity and place. This might just be the push-pull of Anabaptism-Pietism recast in a different graphic, but I really think it’s something more like paradox than corrective pendulum swinging.

    My take (being a good Brethren lady, fond of all those Spirit hymns in the hymnal), is that the Spirit does the concurrent work of binding us together as community and also calling us each onward in understanding who we are as individual, created, bounded beings. Both are necessary, both are mysterious, and trying to figure out which process is primary is like…well, I can’t settle on a great metaphor at the moment, but it’s tearing apart fibers of an already woven garment.

    • Scott Holland

      Dana, Your attention to mystery struck me as important in the composition of a deeper anthropology. The late Harvard theologian Gordon Kaufman, a practicing GC Mennonite, writes profoundly on bio-historical and spiritual mystery in his book, In Face of Mystery. It’s a thick book so before reading that, I would suggest all readers of this blog go to YouTube and listen to singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn’s “Mystery.” In the end, these questions will likely not be answered by theology or philosophy but by poetry, not merely the poem on the page, but a poetics of God, world, self and others.

  7. Joshua Brockway

    I think, honestly speaking, that I have defined Anabaptist and Pietist to some degree. Their common core is defined by a desire towards holy living in continuity with the New Testament. To add to that, there is the radical interpretation of Luther’s “sola scriptura”. For Anabaptist, I stated that the impulse is to community as the context of discipleship and the distinction between the two is best understood as the Enlightenment conception of “I think therefore I am” and the subsequent positing of the individual as the source for authority.

    That said, I am also arguing here that the Cartesian turn towards the interior self (with some exceptions) was tempered in the move towards “a visible church.”

    I think our constant circling around hot topics through the Annual Conference model is a perfect example of this synthesis. Few questions are settled, even the most stark “All War is Sin.” Because of individual conscience in the midst of communal discernment, we forever entertain new questions and resolutions. So regardless of how Anabaptist (or not) and how Pietist (or not) we are is beyond the point. Imaginary homelands or not, these are categories that are part of the Brethren discourse. I have even redefined them to some degree- ie that Pietism is about the individual, but rather the Holy Spirit and its connection to the individual. The question, better framed, stands- Does Pietism give us a thicker anthropology than the Mennonite one?

  8. Scott Holland

    I like this theoretical unpacking and further definition, Josh.

    Yes, I think the Menno anthropology is driven very much by the super-ego whereas radical Pietism is seeking to make sense of both the ego and the realm of the id, where spirit and sex speak in an unconscious language waiting to be named not merely by external rules but by that which does not pry nature apart from grace. “Grace does not destroy nature but completes it,” someone named Tom once mused about a deeper Christian anthropology.

  9. took me two weeks to figure out how to change my commenting name – that is technological savvy for you.

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