Category Archives: Brethren History

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?

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“Culturally Brethren”: A Response to Carl Bowman

Recently, Carl Bowman at Brethren Cultural Landscape created a thread based on a statement I made with some overstated rhetorical flourish.  Though we could quibble over context and rhetoric, I think the question as he posed starts to get at some deep aspects of being Church today.  Rather than post a lengthy reply and overwhelm the discussion, I posted my argument here. Enjoy!
 

It’s not news that one of our tag-lines in the Church of the Brethren has been “Another Way of Living.” I can remember some time ago at Annual Conference there were some webbed wristbands going around trumpeting the acronym AWOL as a kind of retort to the What Would Jesus Do? craze of the mid-90’s.

There was much truth to that tagline, despite it’s other militaristic connotations. Indeed, the Church of the Brethren has been a tradition which has championed the living of faith as an alternative to both the Christendom traditions and the wider secular cultures.

In that regard, being Brethren is about being a part of another cultural system. Or in the phrase of Wittgenstein, a different language game. Ultimately, that is what comprises a culture- words, symbols, practices, art, music and even clothing. Much of the debate about dress, the ban, and military service in Brethren history is connected to the desire to be of another culture.

Yet, within the tradition of the Church of the Brethren there is another element to this alternative culture, this other way of living. When Alexander Mack and the others entered the water for baptism, they were not just setting out to be sectarian, or counter-cultural. They were dunking one another in an act of faith. They were bring to life their beliefs. They were giving flesh to their Christian beliefs.

Often I wonder if Mack or the early Brethren would be excited to see how Brethrenism has come to be a way of living without necessarily proclaiming a Christian confession of faith. I wonder if they could have imagined a people claiming the name Brethren as a kind of heritage, a kind of family name, without claiming the faith the 8 sought to embody.

Now the reality of any faith tradition is that it is a culture. It includes practices, symbols, and language just as do local and national cultures. As part of this reality persons within a particular culture may not hold, explicitly or implicitly, the beliefs of that particular context. In fact, with faster travel and increasing communication it is easier to embody a particular context while importing the ideas or practices of a rather different realm.

For many traditional faith communities this is often the case. Entire cities today are comprised of people on the move who come from a particular religious tradition, Jew, Muslim and Christian. Yet, their way of life looks more like the society in which they live. Many fundamentalist or sectarian wings of these traditions view this merging as a kind of apostasy while many others celebrate this bricholage of cultures. It is quite common to meet some one who claims a religious culture as a personal identifier while hedging that the beliefs of that tradition are not part of who they are. So we find persons who are American first and Christian second, or who are Jewish by birth but atheist by choice, or just marginally Catholic.

Brethren have not been immune to such combinations. For some children of Brethren families these cultural hybrids sound pretty familiar. It is not uncommon to find Brethren young people who champion their Brethren roots or preferences while at the same time outright rejecting the faith which the culture seeks to proclaim.

This is extremely problematic for a tradition which emphasizes personal decision as part of its faith tradition. Whatever it is called, no-force in religion, a rejection of pedobaptism, non-creedalism, or waiting for the age of accountability, the Brethren have expected a personal adoption of the faith and life from young and old alike.

Now there is always the question of which comes first- the chicken or the egg, the belief or the way of life. I am not one to say there is a hierarchy involved here at all. There simply need not be a single door, but the expectation that anyone can believe and slowly learn the way of life or adopt the way of life and grow in belief. It is just expected that the member of the culture come to adopt and grow in BOTH life and belief. One of our denominational agencies has used a slogan that sums this up well: Come as you are, Go not as you came.

Now some will be quick to say that this is too limiting, too authoritarian. Who gets to decide what the belief is? Who defines the way of life? How can everyone do it all? No one is “good enough” in this way of thinking.

Actually, this is indeed why I am Brethren. For 300 years the Brethren have, in various ways, assumed that this is a journey taken on both as individuals and as a community. There is no elite, no caste of “Better Brethren” who establish the rules of the language game. Rather it is the community of disciples as it is in that time and place which discerns the doctrine and practices for that time. Yet, even within that discerning there is an expectation, nearly a single requirement, that persons of the community grow as disciples of Christ.

The core around which these beliefs and practices evolve is, from my perspective, that which is said in the baptismal covenant. For we live this way and believe the way we do as an acceptance of Christ as the Messiah and a living out of the deep desire to follow Jesus in all that we do. To divorce the Christian element of this culture is to try and remove one side of a coin.

If such a perspective is deemed accusatory, all I can say is that the finger points both ways. Those who assume they can believe without living it out are in the same position as those who say they live the life without holding the beliefs. The culture of the Brethren is explicitly form and content. So to say that there is “No room for cultural Brethren” is to say that Brethren in name only, absent belief or practice, is not really Brethren at all.

The common project then is the growing. No matter where one is in the acculturation process, we all are moving, changing, and developing. We are growing as did Jesus, in stature and wisdom.

James K.A. Smith has been helpful in giving this argument shape. As Carl says in his blog post questioning my statement that there is no room for cultural Brethren, everything is culture. Yet, all of these cultures differ in form as well as in content, in practice and in belief. In his book, “Desiring the Kingdom”, Smith discusses the wider cultural realities of our lives, even going so far as to say that these cultures are religious. Such a perspective flies in the face of Enlightenment assumptions that there is a sacred culture and a secular culture, clear and distinct in content and practice. All cultures, in Smith’s way of seeing them, seek to instill beliefs and define our practices. In essence they all try to define our ultimate concerns and desires.

This is most helpful when it comes to the way Smith uses a typology of practices, rituals, and liturgies. Imagine the three as concentric circles working their way out from liturgies to practices. This diagram helpfully shows that all liturgies are rituals and all rituals are practices. However, working from the outside in, not all practices are rituals and not all rituals are liturgies. Smith, contrary to common definitions, expands liturgies beyond smells, bells and church buildings. In fact, the opening of his book describes how a trip to the mall is a liturgy with movements, ritual, and symbols in a kind of choreography. This trip also includes beliefs about human life and sets out a vision of what a good life looks like. By opening liturgy in this way Smith reveals the foundational beliefs and formational practices within all cultures. So to reply to Carl’s “Everything is Culture”, I would add “Every Culture is Religious.”

So when we talk about a strain of Christianity as a culture, it seems to me that its liturgical elements revolve precisely around this practical and doctrinal core. That is to say the liturgy is an enacted invocation of God. It contains movements, language, and symbols and is thus a typical culture. As a religious culture, it includes the proclamation of God in Christ, through the Holy Spirit.

Since every culture is religious, the question then is which culture are we adopting as our own. Can one truly be culturally Brethren in the typical sense, that is with taking the language, ideals, or some random practice, without assenting to the Christian element? Sure, but the deeper question is what is the true or dominant culture? What practices and beliefs are we truly living into while trying to remain comfortable in a community that isn’t asking much of us?

I appreciate how Pete Rollins recently described this while preaching at Mars Hill in Grand Rapids: Christianity is a materialistic religion- it defines what what we do with the things of our lives everyday.

So to rely on our gene pool, last name, vision of peace or a familiar community of people to give us some identifiable category without growing in belief or practice is to invoke the name in vain. In essence it is to tell a lie. It is to not name our true home or our true culture. That is why I say that, in a religious culture which assumes a personal conviction and assent to a way of life and belief, being a Cultural Brethren is a non-sequitur.

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Drawing Lines: A look at history as rhetoric

Recently, Brethren sociologist Carl Bowman opened a blog which provides a forum for further assessing the cultural landscape of the Church of the Brethren. As a historian, Bowman rightly champions both the documents of our past and the changes which come with time. As a social historian however, Bowman is equally clear that the narrative be based upon a preponderance of evidence. Thus, his work is not a story of great individuals nor the development of ideas. Rather, his narrative is one which attempts to describe the beliefs and practices of a people.

Before venturing much further, its necessary to say that Bowman is in good company. His style of research and narrative aspirations are shared by many a scholar who have appropriated anthropological methods for the study of the past. Any critique, then, must take his methodological assumptions as appropriate and necessary tools for historiography. Yet, all historians are subject to the same criticism when change is the operative assumption. Every student of the past must acknowledge change; practices shift, ideas evolve, and people inherit and adapt both. The past, then, is always somewhat alien to every observer whether they live in the archives or in cultural artifacts. The daunting task, then, is to take the unknown and make it known, making the alien recognizable. This requires equal attention to what has also remained the same. Such an awareness is essential in the sub-field of Church History when continuity is equally as important as change.

Attending to continuity and change is a delicate balance, and as such requires that the researcher draw lines. Some of these are lines of connection and some of these are lines in the sand. No matter the type, these lines mark out an understandable starting point. For Bowman’s monograph, Brethren Society, this foundation is Brethren of the 19th century. His unabashed starting point is evident in a recent series of exchanges on his blog.

While discussing church statements an inevitable reference to the Brethren dictum “no force in religion” surfaced in the comments. The historian of the 19th century soon reminded all the readers that such a doctrine was the work of modern thinkers and “was not the tradition of 18th and 19th century Brethren.” As a good historian, Bowman marked out the line in the sand which defined the changes which naturally occur over time.

The conversation soon focused on further demarcations. Can we consider lines of continuity between the ideas of early Radical Pietists who had influenced the first Brethren, the likes of which include Gottfried Arnold and Hochman von Hochenau? Or, is Brethren tradition necessarily limited to those who have claimed a spiritual home among the Schwarzenau Neu Taufer? How one answers such questions is dependent on those lines of separation and connection, that is in how the student of the past accounts for continuities and change.

Here again, Bowman drew the line of distinction clearly between historiography and theologizing: “Let’s just keep the difference between theology and history, and between Hochmann and what the Brethren embraced, clear.” Scott Holland, one of the conversation partners, quickly queried: “So, are you still, in the 21st century, identifying authentic Brethrenism as something either Old Order or something necessarily locked into an 18th century historical moment?”

Here is where I could no longer observe, and joined the conversation. Though my reply may appear as a critique of Bowman the historian, the scope of my response should be understood to include the theologian Holland. In sum, I responded to say that “both History and Theology are narrative arts in that they are constructed for the present.” In other words, theology makes claims about history and tradition just as history makes claims about the present. Holland’s responses championed an understanding of the past which drew lines of connection to the present while Bowman asserted lines in the sand defining the difference between then and now.

However, both claims are theological. More precisely they are both ethical in that they make claims about what ought to be. Here in lies the methodological shadow which most modern scholars avoid at all costs: the appearance of subjectivity. It also is the ground on which most of the humanities are based. Each student, knowingly or unknowingly, brings a vision for what ought to be. For Bowman, and for many historians including myself, there is a time which ought to be restored. For Holland, there are thinkers within the corpus of historical sources which ought to reshape our thinking now.

Whether by drawing lines in the sand showing in and out, then and now, or lines of connection showing influence and continuity, the contemporary thinker makes theological and ethical claims about what ought to be. When we deal with the practical matters of life as the Church, it is best to identify those assumptions about what ought to be. Otherwise, scholarly speech is but rhetoric designed to shape the outcome for a desired end. Ought we not then lay our cards on the table and name our desired outcome before we employ and invoke days long past?

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