Tag Archives: Pneumatology

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?

Advertisements

21 Comments

Filed under Brethren History, NuDunkers

A Beautiful Chaos

Despite some technical juggling the NuDunkers just wrapped up a hangout. We had a great time thinking together about the Holy Spirit. If you caught the first introductory hangout, you might know that pneumatology (theology of the Holy Spirit) was the impetus behind getting Dana, Brian, Andy, and myself talking and eventually starting NuDunkers.

In my travels over the last year I have been struck by just how many communities within the Church of the Brethren were gathering together around the theme of the Holy Spirit. In each of these settings, I noticed that Spirit language was common, but there was clearly a range of understandings about just what the Spirit does within out midst. As Dana said in our hangout, there is a clear drive to systematize just about everything in theology, and I want to avoid too rigid of a box. But still, it is interesting that a group of Non-Creedal Christians like the Brethren still maintain a Trinitarian frame to understanding God.

So just what is it that we are talking about with all this Holy Spirit language?

From our conversation I noticed two themes– the organizing and connecting nature of the Holy Spirit on one hand, and its unpredictable or beautiful chaos on the other.

Order-

Just as the Spirit of God blew across the water in the first days of creation, the Spirit works among us today bringing order out of the chaos of our own making. We often think that it is our institutional structures that keep us together. Yet it doesn’t take long in church life to see just how little boards and by-laws actually do. There is much in our shared life that is defined by and impacted by our relationship, conflicts, desires, and previous commitments. Or as some have said, their isn’t good rule that isn’t made to be broken.

So what keeps these people coming back together week after week despite differences? Anthropologists would tell us it is the impulse to community or the familiar, but I think theologians point to ways the Holy Spirit keeps us connected. In our shared baptism, the minister lays hands on us after immersion in the water to pray for the Spirit’s gracious presence to confirm the confession of faith. It is that shared access to God that links us together. Thus, by praying together, offering our supplications to God through the intercessions of the Spirit (Romans 8) we are brought together in ways that legislation simply cannot.

Chaos-

At the same time, though, the Holy Spirit “troubles the waters,” as the old spiritual reminds us. With all of our planning and organizing, working to sustain our faith through institutions the Spirit leads us beyond our plans. Supporting and connecting then, are not produced by our efforts, but by the Spirit. And that same Spirit has ways of going and coming that challenge our own attempts to nail it down. To us, that aspect of the Spirit’s movement appears as pure chaos compared to our attempts to order our shared life.

That is where the hangout conversation most struck me. In the conversation that took place on the event page, the term came up that best describes the Holy Spirit’s work- Beautiful Chaos. Beauty has a logic all its own and in many ways, what is deemed beautiful defies linear explanation. Chaos, even the grotesque, can have a kind of beauty to the eye. In those cases, logic and systematization cannot prevail. Rather, it is the sense of awe in the midst of lines, colors, shapes, textures, and perspective.

In the midst of the Spirit’s chaos we cannot help but stand in awe. It confounds even the wisest of persons. It reaches beyond our minds’ attempt to understand and to order. And yet, it comforts and convicts still the same. It is our link to God, by as individuals and a community or faith. It sustains. It empowers. And it guides us into the ways of God- here and now. That is beautiful chaos.

Leave a comment

Filed under NuDunkers

A Spiritual Corrective to Anabaptism

This post is a part of the next NuDunker  conversation. This round we will be looking at Pneumatology, or theologies of the Holy Spirit. The NuDunker Hangout will be Friday February 8th at 11 AM Eastern. You can join the Hangout here https://plus.google.com/events/clb732ip7fr679sg1c682akciq4

If you miss the live discussion, no worries. We will share the link to the recorded conversation. 

Catch the pre-hangout posts from some fellow NuDunkers DanaBrian, and Andy.

In the recent flurry of strategic planning around the Church of the Brethren a phrase has risen to the surface; We speak from our Anabaptist and Radical Pietist roots. Each time this phrase occurs, it is usually in reference to the unique contribution of Brethren theology to the wider Church.

That is well and good, but unless you have a degree in church history or theology it matters very little. Those of our faithful members might have encountered the idea in their early membership classes, but to the wider public shaped by terms such as Mainline, Evangelical, or non-denominational, it says very little.

So we resort to a kind of short hand. “We are one of the historic Peace Churches.” To those who have made a life of witnessing to non-violence this might strike up some memories, but still it is a term for insiders. So we shorten it even more- “We are kinda like the Mennonites.” And with that answer we short circuit any attempt to speak of our unique qualities.

For we are anything but “like the Mennonites.” That is not to dismiss our brothers and sisters of the faith, but to say that the heritage of the Brethren, and the ways we have understood being the church differs. In short, we are back to the two pillars of our past- Anabaptism and Pietism. So what on earth does that mean?

The short, non-academic, answer is that Brethren have done church in between corporate and individual discernment. Two pieces then emerge as central to Brethren thinking- the community on one hand and the individual’s access to the Holy Spirit on the other.

For the 16th century Anabaptists, the radical move was to assume all christians had access to and could understand the scriptures. The simple idea was that, when gathered together, the community of believers discerned together what the text meant. It was a kind of radical democratization of theology based on the shared reading of scripture.

The 18th century Pietists, however, applied the democratization principle not to scripture but the Holy Spirit. In other words, the community was not the arbiter of the presence of God’s Spirit. Rather, each person by nature of his or her confession of faith and baptism, was gifted with the Holy Spirit. This has traditionally been articulated in the phrase “respect for conscience”. Here, the community is to recognize the wisdom of collective discernment but refrain from forcing it on others whose conscious attention to the Holy Spirit says otherwise.

Through time, this emphasis on access to the Spirit has propelled Brethren into places our more sectarian Anabaptist sisters and brothers were want to explore. The most notable piece has been the Brethren involvement in the ecumenical movement. While we have not jumped in with both feet, we have been in the room from the beginning. More strict Anabaptists, even among the Brethren, have balked at the sense of compromise involved in the ecumenical process. More Piestist Brethren, however, have been quick to reply that the Spirit is often alive in places beyond our own understanding. The effect has been a kind of Mainline-ization of the Brethren. By the 1960’s the Brethren soon began to look more and more like their Methodist cousins.

My sense is that Pietism is the appropriate corrective to our more sectarian impulses. Attention to the workings of the Spirit is a constant practice among the Brethren. We don’t just assume that when the community of believers gather the direct output is the complete and established understanding of God’s will. Rather, we gather frequently, asking one another questions raised in the context of living out our faith. It is a constant means of testing what we have come to understand out on our own. Often this means that what the community has said in one place or one time is represented to the church for further discernment.

That is the root of our rejection of the creedalism (not creeds, but the settling of one question for all time). Attention to God’s workings, in scripture, among the church, and out in the world forces us to regularly ask; “Is this how we understand God to act?” This frequent discernment propels us back into the world- living out our faith, experiencing God’s ever present actions, and seeking out what God is doing beyond our sectarian confines.

Most often the correctives inherent in holding Anabaptism and Pietism together in one tradition has more recently been about choosing sides. There are those who grab onto a strong sense of community bounds articulated in Anabaptism while others reach far into the ways of Spiritualism implicit in Pietism. Yet, I think the two are best held together. Our theology of the Holy Spirit reminds us that, while the community is the context for discernment of the Spirit’s work, it is not the arbiter of God. Rather, the Spirit works around, through, and in spite of our churchiness. To be sure though, Anabaptism reigns in our Spiritualism with the reminder that we are to test what we have come to understand in daily living with the understanding of the community. It is not just I who know God, but we. And a rich Anabaptist and Pietist synthesis says that what we each experience is made complete in the project of shared discernment of the actions of the Holy Spirit.

21 Comments

Filed under NuDunkers