Anabaptist Political Theology: A Conversation with Joan and Oliver O'Donovan

Thursday, October 12, 2017

photos of participants engaged in discussion

On a cold autumn morning in mid-October in the board room at the Toronto School of Theology (TST), students associated with the Toronto Mennonite Theological Centre (TMTC) had the opportunity to converse with theologians Joan and Oliver O’Donovan. The topic of conversation was the legacy of TMTC’s founding director, A. James Reimer, and his posthumously published book Toward an Anabaptist Political Theology (Cascade, 2014). Darrell Winger, a doctoral student at the Toronto School of Theology currently working on a dissertation connecting the work of Reimer and Oliver O’Donovan, set the stage for the discussion by giving an overview of Reimer’s political theology. Unlike many other Mennonite theologians, Reimer encouraged engagement with the state and civil society on questions such as policing and just war, thereby opening up dialogue with other theological positions more traditionally aligned with the state. Reimer’s political theology deeply values the Trinity and the classical Christian creeds, but also draws upon philosophers like George Grant and underappreciated parts of the Anabaptist tradition such as Pilgram Marpeck’s “Gospel of All Creatures.”

These were just some of the topics covered in the discussion, which included students from TST, McMaster University as well as Margaret Loewen Reimer, wife of A. James Reimer. Kyle Gingerich Hiebert, TMTC's director, facilitated the discussion, and both Joan and Oliver responded to Reimer’s book in turn. Oliver O’Donovan began by situating Reimer’s work in the ecumenical reception history of Mennonite theology, contrasting Reimer’s positive disposition toward the Canadian government with John Howard Yoder’s critical posture toward the American state. Praising Reimer’s reading of history and his movement beyond suspicion, Oliver challenged the group to consider the place of patristic writers in Mennonite theology. Pointing to Reimer’s suspicion of liberal-technological modernity, Joan highlighted Reimer’s recovery of aspects of natural theology for Mennonite theology and reflected on the dialectic of public judgement and proclamation in political theology.

The conversation with Oliver and Joan O’Donovan also coincided with the release of TMTC director Kyle Gingerich Hiebert’s, The Architectonics of Hope (Cascade, 2017), a book that furthers the discussion on political theology and shares the concerns of Reimer and the O’Donovan’s. It’s an exciting time to be involved at TMTC and to discuss how Mennonite theology can engage with broader social and political questions, for it was exactly this kind of honest inquiry that Reimer sought to initiate by alerting Mennonites to their entanglement with civil society.

Maxwell Kennel, TMTC Associate and doctoral student in religious studies at McMaster University.

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