Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City

Gordon D. Kaufman

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

Artists, Citizens, and Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City. Duane K. Friesen. Scottdale, PA and Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2000.

Duane Friesen is to be commended for sketching in this book what he calls an Anabaptist/Mennonite "theology of culture in its multi-faceted dimensions" (15). The Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition has often understood itself as living and working within an alien pagan world that is to be avoided as much as possible by faithful Christians who have bound themselves together in covenant as disciples of Jesus, seeking to lead transformed lives in keeping with his radical teachings about loving not only neighbors but also enemies. The persecution Mennonites endured from their origins in the sixteenth century helped to increase their suspicions of the outside world over against which they defined themselves; and their continuing to live in close geographical propinquity with each other in the next centuries - as they moved from country to country to protect their faith under stress of ongoing persecution - only furthered their strong sense of solidarity and of the rightness of their distinctive understanding of Christian faith and life. In consequence, throughout much of their history Mennonites have not played particularly active roles in the wider cultures of the societies of which they were part.

At least in North America, however, much of this changed in the last century, as Mennonites increasingly moved out of their rural communities into the city. Many of us became college and university trained professionals in the modern societies in which we live; and we found much in this world outside our traditional communities that we appreciated and deeply valued, and came to respect and love. But the theological traditions we inherited - with their deep suspicion of everything non-Mennonite - have not, for the most part, given us adequate resources for understanding and interpreting these new circumstances. Many permanently leave the Mennonite faith; others attempt to maintain some vestiges of the older traditions but find it difficult to persuade their children, who grow up and become socialized in largely non-Mennonite environments, to take the traditional faith seriously. We Mennonites today desperately need a theology of culture that enables us to see, on the one hand, what is truly of importance in the traditions we have inherited; and what, on the other hand, we can properly and confidently adopt, enjoy, and integrate - from the (hitherto) outside cultural world - into our lives and our faith. It is to that central felt need of today's North American Mennonites that Friesen's book is addressed.

what is truly of importance in the traditions we have inherited; and what, on the other hand, we can properly and confidently adopt, enjoy, and integrate - from the (hitherto) outside cultural world - into our lives and our faith. It is to that central felt need of today's North American Mennonites that Friesen's book is addressed.

How well does the book succeed? I can take up here only a few issues in the complex argument that Friesen offers. The motto of the book, articulating its basic theme, is drawn from Jeremiah 29:7: "seek the welfare [shalom] of the city where I have sent you into exile, … for in its welfare you will find your welfare" (quoted on page 2, and mentioned frequently). Biblical background (and authority?) for the position Friesen wishes to take is supplied in Chapter 1, entitled "Christians as Citizens and Aliens" - a not too promising, but typically Mennonite, dualistic formulation. His intention is "to show how one can develop a positive social ethic and theology of culture by drawing upon the 'alternative culture' tradition of the Bible and church history" (33). This is a tail order: one wonders right away whether social and cultural conceptions and practices drawn from the ancient biblical and patristic world can provide much effective guidance in understanding the enormously complex culture of modernity. The task of the book will be to show how “the model of resident aliens” (42) can be incarnated in today's world.

Friesen believes (rightly) that this approach goes directly counter to the presuppositions of much widely accepted theological reflection on sociocultural issues, so in his second chapter he examines some central ideas of two highly influential writers on these matters: Ernst Troeltsch (especially The Social Teachings of the Christian Churches) and H. Richard Niebuhr (especially Christ and Culture). Drawing on his doctoral dissertation as well as the work of John Howard Yoder, Glen Stassen, Walter Wink, and others (including Stanley Hauerwas, whom he strongly criticizes), Friesen argues that Troeltsch's category of the “sect” (as opposed to the mainline "church") and Niebuhr's placement of Mennonites among those who take a "Christ against Culture" position are seriously misleading due to their "Constantinian" assumptions. He maintains that such approaches cannot be the basis for developing a contemporary Anabaptist theology of culture. ln the rest of Part One he attempts to sketch "a vision of the church that is an alternative to [such] Christendom models" (34), a model based on an "alternative vision of “life” (36) - not an alternative that would completely displace the wider culture but one that would truly enhance its welfare. Though more than half the book is devoted to developing and sketching this conception of the church, Friesen really does not succeed in making clear (in my opinion) how such an "alternative society" or "alternative culture" can grow up and survive in today's electronic urban world in which everyone is bombarded twenty-four hours a day with the values and meanings (many of them quite crude) of the wider culture. One cannot but wonder whether Friesen's whole program may not be based too largely on a nostalgic vision of the good old days when Mennonites really could live In - and could decisively socialize their children into - the "alternative" culture and life of their rural communities.

It is not until page 169, with Part Two, that Friesen really gets around to sketching his theology of the wider culture. These three last chapters take up the "Artistic Imagination" (Ch. 6), the "Dynamics of Dual Citizenship," (Ch. 7), and "Philosophers... and Human Wisdom" (Ch. 8). Of these, the chapter on dual citizenship is most important, for it tries to work out the way in which the church with its "alternative culture" can be "a model for society" (224). Despite his extensive discussion of politics, community service, vocation, justice, etc., one continues to wonder how the church, conceived here as a virtually alternative society with quite distinctive values and purposes, could ever be a model for the wider society in which it finds itself. "To be a Christian," he maintains, "means to confess Jesus Christ as the light... that... 'lights up' the entire universe" (269); "Christ is the light that iIIumines all other truth. ... [A] Christological perspective includes all truth, including the insights of the religions other than "Christianity" (257). With this sort of all-enveloping claim defining its basic stance, it is hard to see how the church could be a model for anything other than some kind of theocracy seeking to rule the world. Friesen certainly does not intend this, and in fact he states, in his discussion of religious pluralism, that we "should respect difference and not attempt to absorb the other into our own perspective" (262). But having said that, he immediately undercuts it by stating that “Genuine faith entails commitment to... [t]he universal claims of Christianity” (ibid.).

The other two chapters of Part 2 (6 and 8) are rather sketchy. The one on art takes up what is a key subject for every theology of culture; but so much of the text is given over to brief discussions of other writers (who do not always agree with each other) that it is difficult to discern and assess what Friesen's own view of the arts actually is, and precisely how his argument runs. The chapter on "wisdom" misleadingly announces in its title (like that of the book itself) that it will be dealing with "philosophers," but there is really no discussion here either of particular philosophers or of the important place held by the philosophical tradition in western culture. Instead, the chapter sets its tone by beginning with the biblical "wisdom tradition" - something very different from the philosophy practiced in the West for well over two millenia - and then moves on to consider the problem of religious pluralism. It is in this context, surprisingly, that Friesen takes up science (in the brief space of 7 pages), since our "relationship to science is similar to our relationship to other religious traditions" (248). He seems not to recognize that science - far from being another quasi-religious option more or less "external" to today's Christian existence - is one of our most pervasive and dominating institutions, with tentacles moving into virtually all the thinking and action of everyone living in the modem world. Technology, another institution that has utterly transformed all our lives and now seemingly becoming a veritable Frankenstein monster completely free from human control, is not discussed at all. These would seem to be rather important lacunae in a book purporting to present a theology of today's North American culture.

So we have here a first try at "Anabaptist Theology of Culture," as one of the book's subtitles puts it. It is good to see a Mennonite theologian take up this exceedingly significant subject, a subject crucial for all of today's Mennonites if we are to survive as a distinctive Christian movement. Discussion of a number of major problems is presented here with important suggestions about how they might be addressed, and for that we should all be grateful. This book opens the door sufficiently to enable us Mennonites to see that thinking constructively about the wider culture in which we live today is a task that must be taken up by our theologians and other thoughtful persons, if our communities are to find their way in the modem world. That way can and should be, as Friesen rightly argues, one that will enable us to contribute significantly to “the welfare of the city” in which we find ourselves today.