Sawatsky Lecturer Loewen: who is a Mennonite?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Who is a Mennonite? Leading Mennonite historian Dr. Royden Loewen addressed this question in his Sawatsky Lecture at Conrad Grebel University College, Waterloo, Ontario, on November 8, 2007.

Loewen, who recalled that the first academic conference he ever attended was at Grebel, studies the connections between faith and ethnicity for Mennonites in Canada.

While even many non-Mennonite Canadians would distinguish between what Loewen called “progressive” Mennonites and Old Order Mennonites, simply on the basis of appearance and practices, Loewen went deeper into the “creative tension” between faith and ethnicity.

He observed that it is possible for Mennonites to be guided through the entire life cycle in familiar Mennonite social institutions – from schools, to credit unions, to vacations, archives, retirement homes and funeral arrangements – and called the ability to live almost exclusively within this virtual Mennonite village “institutional completeness.”

He offered six sub-groups who all identify themselves as Mennonite. Those who disdain Mennonite faith as narrow and patriarchal but embrace Mennonite culture as life-giving and comforting can be typified by writers like Di Brandt, David Bergen and Miriam Toews. A second group also maintains Mennonite ethnicity but embraces an evangelical theology. Loewen classifies a third group as “urban neo-anabaptists” who embrace Mennonite faith but are guarded about the role of ethnicity; this group looks back to anabaptist roots and seeks to transform society in a similar way today. A fourth group intentionally links faith and ethnicity: for Old Order Mennonites, cultural practices express spiritual principles and cannot be separated. Loewen believes that a fifth expression of Mennonite identity represents the “large, quiet majority”: for this group, faith and ethnicity exist along complementary, parallel tracks. Finally, Loewen examined the phenomenon of immigrant congregations who designate themselves as Mennonite, often because their Canadian sponsors were Mennonite and who do not always have a clear sense of Anabaptist teaching or history. This group identifies as Mennonite because they see a compatibility between Mennonite values and those of their own original country, as well as a way to integrate into Canadian society.

Despite these very different ways of living out faith and culture, Loewen emphasized that ethnicity cannot easily be erased, in part because it sets the rhythm of our lives, announces a narrative in the world, and binds us together by a memory.

Royden Loewen has been the chair of Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg since 1996. Raised in Blumenort, Manitoba, he later studied at both the University of Winnipeg and the University of Manitoba.

The Sawatsky Visiting Scholar is awarded to renowned scholars, practitioners and performers whose expertise in their field represents a wide range of interests to the Grebel community. In addition to this year’s public lecture, Loewen also addressed Grebel classes and Faculty Fellows Forum and has a continuing opportunity to engage in dialogue with students from his vantage point as a visiting professor at nearby University of Guelph.

Dr. Rodney Sawatsky joined the faculty of Conrad Grebel in 1974, teaching in the areas of History, Religious Studies, Mennonite Studies, and Peace and Conflict Studies. This lectureship honours the leadership and contributions of Rod and his wife, Lorna, to Conrad Grebel, the University of Waterloo, the Mennonite Church of Eastern Canada, and the Kitchener-Waterloo community during his years as faculty, Academic Dean and President of Conrad Grebel University College. He died on November 27, 2004 of brain cancer.

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