After spending some time visiting some member congregations of Mennonite Church USA (see Life of the Body), I’m trying to think through what unifies the denomination. How do we describe our belonging to the same body of faith, the same Christian tradition?
One way that’s quite popular these days is the essentialist approach. Stuart Murray seems to be the current instantiation of this perspective. In his book, The Naked Anabaptist: The Bare Essentials of a Radical Faith (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 2010), Murray wants to find an “Anabaptism [that is] stripped down to the bare essentials” (15). He continues: “it is legitimate, and often helpful, to strip back the historical and cultural accretions from traditions that have persisted through the centuries” (44). His work is an “attempt to distill the essence of Anabaptism” (44). Because Stuart thinks he can strip away the husks of contemporary Mennonite communities and get to the Anabaptist kernel, he finds no reason to be in institutional communion with flesh and blood Anabaptists: “I will not become Hutterite, Amish, or Mennonite, but I am grateful that the principles of ‘naked Anabaptism’ are sometimes clothed in Hutterite, Amish, and Mennonite dress” (158-159).
Those who seek to articulate essences and essentials hidden inside so-called cultural wrappings stand in the tradition of Adolf von Harnack, who encouraged Christians to pierce through the transient externals of Jesus and his followers in order to grasp the spiritual universals at the core of Christianity: “[the] highest duty…is to determine what is of permanent value,…to find out what is essential” (What is Christianity?, trans. by Thomas Bailey Saunders [Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1986], 13) — “to grasp what is essential in the phenomena, and to distinguish kernel from husk” (12).
This essentialist approach troubles me — and, given the wide-spread support of Murray’s book, it seems like I’m the only one who is troubled by it these days. (For the MCUSA leadership’s promotion of Murray’s work, see the last page of their recent missive: “Desiring God’s Coming Kingdom: A Missional Vision and Purposeful Plan for Mennonite Church USA“). This approach to the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition denudes living witnesses of their encultured expressions of faith. What are most important, according to the essentialists, are the propositions of faith, not the ongoing historical embodiment of faith: and by historical bodies of faith I mean the constant flux and flow of tradition, the passing down of the faith from community to community, and the wisdom found in accretions of historical adjustments, the subtleties of faith revealed through rituals.
No, I cannot dismiss the bodies of witnesses as mere husks within which are hidden the kernels of Anabaptist principles. I decided to throw my lot in with the Mennonite church eight years ago because I believed that Anabaptism begins and ends with bodies — communities of bodies that have given themselves to keeping alive a tradition of Christian nonviolence over the ages, as each generation receives the gift of the past from the hands of those who pass along the memories of the faithful, the legacies of the martyrs. Convictions are displayed through lives of worship which articulate a living Anabaptism; thus, all we can do is locate ourselves within these communities of faith and describe the movements of our bodies as we gather and are sent out, as we preach and pray, as we baptize and eat together, as we sing and share the good news.
In this turn to living communities as irreducible to the passing along of the Anabaptist tradition, I have in mind an insight from Hans-Jurgen Goertz, who calls us to take seriously the “simple religious worship” of the early Anabaptists, and how ordinary Anabaptists “did not always need to appreciate the theological content of Anabaptist ideas, or…have the ability to express them in their own words” (The Anabaptists [London, Uk: Routledge, 1996], 114). While Goertz acknowledges the polygenetic origins of Anabaptism and the heterogeneity of theological convictions of the Anabaptist leaders, he claims that “the way in which it was expressed by its adherents tended to be homogeneous” (ibid).
But here’s trouble for me. While I think the essentialist approach is a dead end for coming up with a Mennonite way forward in our lives of Christian witness, Goertz leads me into a different tension. In our Mennonite church, there isn’t much homogeneity to our daily expressions of Anabaptist faith, and our forms of worship are very different depending on what part of the county we live in and our histories of migration. By no means do I think we should ask some para-congregational body to impose a single worship liturgy and style upon us. If anything, what distinguished Anabaptist worship from the Protestant and Roman varieties was the desire to provide space for ordinary people to be inspired by the Holy Spirit to share revelations from God’s Word. It would be quite un-Anabaptist to homogenize our forms of worship in order to keep our liturgies “simple.”
So, I think I can see the problems with these different attempts to describe authentic Anabaptism. But I am at a loss for coming up with a way to describe what keeps us together as a Mennonite church. The Mennonite church that brought me into the fold looks very different from most of the MCUSA congregations I have visited. My sisters and brothers have welcomed me into the Mennonite family, but I am still trying to understand what makes us a family.
Note: This post was updated on April 23, 2015 to include an updated link to the 2nd edition of Isaac’s essay “Life in the Body: Reflections on Mennonite Church USA”