Anabaptists and Postmodernity & Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium

Phil Enns

The Conrad Grebel Review 19, no. 2 (Spring 2001)

Susan Biesecker-Mast and Gerald Biesecker-Mast, eds. Anabaptists and Postmodernity. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000; J., Denny Weaver, Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium. Telford, PA: Pandora Press U.S., 2000.

These two books are the first contributions to the C. Henry Smith Series cosponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society and Bluffton College.

Anabaptists and Postmodernity is a collection of papers selected from presentations made at a conference of the same name held at Bluffton College in 1998. In the introduction, Susan Biesecker-Mast provides the context for the disparate papers, emphasizing the significance of difference for understanding the relationship between Anabaptism and Postmodernity. The essays are helpfully divided into seven groups along the general themes of theory, literature, church polity, worship, religious and social identity, peace/pacifism, and culture. If the reader is looking for either a sustained discussion of a few issues or clarity concerning Anabaptism or postmodernity, the book's diversity is a weakness. However, Biesecker-Mast indicates in her introduction that differences and gaps are where the reader should be looking.

If the introduction sets the context for differences, the first essay by Stanley Hauerwas, entitled "The Christian Difference" tries to clarify the difference between Christianity and postmodernism. According to Hauerwas, postmodernity is the consequence of the historical Church's inability to articulate God's truth and therefore to be faithful. The shift from knowing God through Scripture to knowing God through nature has resulted in a world where people have many different choices and no Truth. Hauerwas describes postmodernity with the analogy of global capitalism, where the market offers up a wide variety of commodities guided largely by the pressure of innovation. Under the burden of the consequences of its faithlessness, Hauerwas concludes that the Church must find a way not only to survive postmodernity but also to flourish.

However, this is not the last word on the relationship between Christianity and postmodernism. In fact, the last word, in this book, offers a fairly optimistic reading of postmodernism and its possibilities for Anabaptism. J. Lawrence Burkholder, in his essay "Following Christ in a Postmodern World," sees postmodernism as "a plea for freedom to be one's own authentic self" (410). While this freedom might have negative expressions, it also offers to Anabaptist-Mennonites the possibility of seeing sacrificial service as an exercise of freedom. The postmodern critique opens up a kind of discipleship that moves beyond obligations and commands to one that is relational. This discipleship does not ignore history and tradition but attempts to appropriate it in an authentically free spirit.

Between the rejection and cautious acceptance of postmodernity for Anabaptists, there is a geat deal more. Peter Blum, in his essay "Foucault, Genealogy, Anabaptism," points out the shared commitment to particularity in Michel Foucault and John M. Yoder. Thomas Finger, in "Universal Truths," attacks this same commitment for its failure to acknowledge the importance of universals. A fascinating contrast is established between John Roth's description of the struggles of South German Mennonites as a marginal community entering into modernity in "Context, Conflict, and Community" and Hildi Froese Tiessen's description of the struggles of Mennonite writers as a marginal group within the Mennonite community. One other essay worth noting is that of Chris Huebner, "Christian Pacifism as Friendship with God," which brings together the writings of Derrida, MacIntyre, and Milbank to explore the nature of friendship and God. Indeed, the mix of approaches ranging from the liturgical to the sociological provides additional layers of meaning to the individual essays, and makes this collection more than the sum of its parts.

Anabaptist Theology in Face of Postmodernity: A Proposal for the Third Millennium by J. Denny Weaver, connects with the more optimistic views of postmodernity in Anabaptists and Postmodernity, focusing on the opportunity Mennonites now have for developing a theology genuinely rooted in pacifism, Weaver sees postmodernity as the demise of Christendom and, with it, the notion of a theology-in-general making room for an Anabaptist theology.

A particular theology for Mennonites as a peace church can now assert its version of truth on a logically equal footing with the theology of Christendom. The context of postmodernity thus offers Mennonites an opportunity virtually unprecedented since the early church: a chance to articulate and receive a hearing for a theology shaped specifically by the nonviolence of Jesus. (21)

According to Weaver, all theology is particular, and what Mennonites ought to be doing is writing a theology that is self-consciously rooted in what is characteristically Anabaptist, namely, the conviction that Jesus lived and taught a life of nonviolence. The book is, then, an extended description of Mennonite particularity and postmodernity as the context for the possibility of an authentically Anabaptist theology.

The particularity of Mennonite theology is approached in three different ways by Weaver. In the first chapter, he argues that cultural differences have led Mennonites in Canada and the United States to do theology differently. He contends that the United States has a civil religion rooted in an originary myth that grounds freedom in war and violence, whereas Canada has no such unifying myth but rather multiple stories of the English and French. The traditional metaphor of identity in the United States was that of the melting pot, which discouraged cultural particularity, while in Canada it was the mosaic, which encouraged multiculturalism. According lo Weaver, these national characteristics have had an important role in how Mennonites have done theology. For Mennonites in the United States, being faithful has often lead to a general theological challenge to Christendom as a whole. But Canadian Mennonites, according to Weaver, have felt no such need to make grandiose challenges to the state or Christendom.

Chapters two, three, and four comprise the most valuable parts of the book. Here, Weaver examines Mennonite theological work from the twentieth, nineteenth, and sixteenth centuries respectively, arguing that there is a discernible Anabaptist theology distinguishable from the rest of Christian theology, mile the argument is ultimately faulty, this does not take anything away from the valuable historical work Weaver has done in organizing the theological work of so many Anabaptist thinkers. What I found most interesting was the section on Mennonite theology in the nineteenth century, a period of time to which Mennonites have most often referred for historical purposes but which clearly had theological importance.

Chapter five is probably the least satisfactory. Here Weaver attempts to make connections between Mennonite theology and Black and Womanist theologies. The link he makes is the common conviction that theology must be ethical while traditional Christian theology has too often accommodated violence. As Weaver has spent the previous chapters emphasizing the particularity of Mennonite theology, this attempt to generalize is jarring. Too often he has to acknowledge that, while there are some shared convictions on the issue of nonviolence, there are striking differences, leading one to wonder whether these theologies function as tokens in his argument or as genuinely particular theologies.

The problem with this book lies not in the message but in the form Weaver uses to deliver it. He fails to make the connection between how Mennonites have historically done theology and how they ought to do theology. He attempts to make this connection by emphasizing the particularity of Mennonite thinking, but this is to focus on the finger instead of on the finger pointing at something. It is true that Mennonites have culturally and historically held to the normative belief that Jesus taught the rejection of violence, but it is not true that what makes this belief normative is Mennonite particularity. A theology that rejects the doctrines of Christendom because it has historically accommodated violence ignores the fact that all Christian theology aims at the same truth. Anabaptist and Mennonite theology through the centuries has its own particular character, but it still shares the same object of concern as that of Christendom. Mennonite theologians can enter into dialogue with black and womanist theologians because they share the same concern for faithfulness. Weaver fails to appreciate the fact that particularity complements commonality, an insight of postmodernism. In the end, he overplays the particular at the expense of what all Christians hold in common, thereby sacrificing the unity of Christ's body. Ultimately, Mennonites are to pursue nonviolence, not because of our history or cultural backgrounds, but because this is what Christ has called us to do.