Unlearning Protestantism: Sustaining Christian Community in an Unstable Age

Ryan Klassen

The Conrad Grebel Review 29, no. 1 (Winter 2011)

Gerald  W.  Schlabach.  Unlearning  Protestantism:  Sustaining Christian

Community in an Unstable Age. Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2010.

Schism is something that seems to be almost second nature for Mennonites. When one reflects on the traditional stability and unity of the Mennonite community in the midst of the assimilating pressures of the broader society, this seems counter-intuitive. Gerald Schlabach identifies “the Protestant dilemma” as the source of the instability that plagues Mennonite churches in particular and Protestant churches in general.

Before the Protestant dilemma, there was “the Protestant principle” (as articulated by Paul Tillich): “because all human institutions fall short of God’s standard, they are always subject to ‘prophetic’ critique and reform” (24). But when this principle becomes the foundation of community life, the result is “the perpetual unmaking of community life.” The modern world and the modern Protestant church undermine tradition and authority by elevating individualism into a primary virtue. This turns the virtue of the Protestant principle into the vice of the Protestant dilemma (as articulated by Stanley Hauerwas): “a form of social life that undermined its ability to maintain the kind of disciplined communities necessary to sustain the church’s social witness” (41).

The two practices that Schlabach sees as vital to avoiding the corrosive individualism of the Protestant dilemma and sustain a community of faith are those of stability and dissent. To articulate these practices, he turns to the examples of the Mennonite and Roman Catholic traditions. Mennonites have managed to develop a tradition of dissent that is also a tradition of dissent. That is, while dissenting from the structures of the violent world order, Mennonites have built “a community enjoying significant discipline and cohesion to offer a collective witness sustainably over time” (73).

Yet this tradition of dissent has not been enough to prevent schism even within the Mennonite tradition. So Schlabach turns to the Benedictine tradition. The Rule of St. Benedict includes a vow of stability, to remain with a particular monastic community for life (apparently “church shopping” was a problem in the early monastic community). Schlabach brings the Benedictine practice of stability outside the walls of the monastery into contemporary life and applies it to marriage, congregational life, engagement with our neighborhoods, and even care of the earth.

Combining the practice of dissent as manifested in the Mennonite tradition and the practice of stability as seen in the Rule of St. Benedict produces loyal dissent – a commitment to participate constructively in one’s community through good times and bad, to hold together the tension of obedience and prophetic critique. Applied within a tradition, loyal dissent can begin to undo the Protestant dilemma by holding together the tension between fidelity to community and prophetic critique and reform.

Since the Protestant dilemma is in many ways the dilemma of the modern world, a church that practices dissent and stability can also offer a witness to the wider world, being both a stabilizing influence in a world of change and a dissenting community in the face of injustice. How to dialogue without destroying, how to change with fidelity, how to harmonize new knowledge with ancient wisdom, and how to model unity in diversity are (or can be) characteristics of the church that are desperately needed in global civil society.

Schlabach goes much deeper into both the Mennonite and Roman Catholic traditions than can be outlined here. John Howard Yoder, Guy F. Hershberger, Goshen College, and the Concern Group, all discussed in the book, will be familiar to Mennonite readers. The stories of Yves Congar, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero, and Joan Chittister will likely be less familiar but no less engaging. By rooting his proposal in lived examples, Schlabach provides models for how loyal dissent is actually practiced in the imperfect world of the church.

One of the keys to the author’s program is the role of sacramental practices as a way for Mennonites to maintain their unique character and witness without returning to an ethnic sectarianism or falling into a generic Protestantism. Despite the importance of sacramental practices as communal practices of stability and dissent, Schlabach fails to develop them beyond a cursory mention. Perhaps the general aversion to sacramental language among Mennonites was the reason for this failing, but by de-emphasizing sacramental practices (which are by nature communal) in favor of individual practices of stability and dissent, Schlabach is in danger of undermining his own project. If Mennonites are to practice stability within their own tradition and within the broader Christian traditions, they must be willing to open up to the practices of those traditions.

Ryan Klassen, ThD student, Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology