Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Provisos to Why I'm [Still] Brethren

From Eastern Mennonite Seminary, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Back in May, during a wonderful 3-week biblical book study course on Isaiah, I was approached (in the 2nd floor seminary men's bathroom, at the sinks if memory serves) by my friend Jeremy, who had just walked at the seminary graduation and was finishing up his last course in the MDiv program. He was working with Laura, on staff at EMS, on starting a new blog edited and published by the seminary, targeted at young adults in the church trying to make sense of the crazy world around us and the crazy stuff going on within the church itself, hopefully contributing thoughts and reflections to equip and nurture faith and discipleship. Knowing my interest in the web and writing, he graciously asked if I would contribute a 500-word essay on the question of "Why I'm still Brethren," with a due date of July 1. I gladly accepted. Well the new blog is now live.  It's called Work and Hope (subtitled: "finding Christ in the church"), and here is my answer to the question:
Why I’m [Still] Brethren – Love
First, let me say something rather unremarkable: I’m Brethren because I was born that way. My parents, my congregation and its pastors, and church camp and youth leaders all did a marvelous job of not running me out of the church. In fact, it was at times me that was running out of the church, and everyone else working together to lovingly keep me in. So as I begin to answer the question of “Why I’m Still Brethren,” it starts with that life-long relationship with followers of Jesus Christ who have called themselves “Brethren.” From that faith community, I also heard from a young age that the church needed me and was eventually called by them into the ministry. So formed the first 28 years of my life…
[read on for the rest...]

Well, it turns out that 500 words is a very brief space indeed to answer such a weighty question! I'd like to pick out a few statements that I had to pack a whole lot of weight into but wasn't able to contextualize in the original piece. Read on after the break for a few more reflections...

After praising the Brethren tradition of embodied faith practice, I qualified that by saying: What I fear is that “how we live” has been subverted by complex societal-cultural forces that we’re ill-equipped to even sense, much less respond to. You see, Brethren love to live out their faith but they're not terribly well-known for being good at articulating their history or historical beliefs. Over the course of the 20th century, the Brethren underwent a significant cultural transition and are in many ways (but not completely) unrecognizable from who they were before. Not all of these changes were bad by my assessment, but there does seem to be some cases of a baby or two being thrown out with bathwater.

I think the legacy of this is visible now in the denomination by the liberal/conservative battles that have been happening at Annual Conference for quite some time now, clustered around various issues (currently "sexuality" or "inclusion," depending on which side you're on). Now I'm not saying that any of these issues aren't important. What I am saying is that how they're framed and how they're handled makes me very suspicious that we've been co-opted by a secular-political climate that doesn't seem very church-like to me.

My next sentence states: Further, these forces are shot through with spiritual conflict that we’re equally ill-equipped to deal with. I've made a few posts this year about spiritual conflict and how I've started to take it a bit more seriously that I had in the past, and this is what I meant by that comment. This could certainly relate to my previous reflection on conflict within the communion. It seems like we've become so focused on external social issues (which do matter!) and how to win that we've lost something of a biblical awareness that there are forces in creation bigger than us, and they're not all nice. I'm not a "see the Devil hiding behind every bush" kind of guy, but I certainly take evil and spiritual realities seriously (and there is plenty of room in traditional Brethren thought+practice for this).

The final sentence follows the first two and kind of weaves in and out of the whole post: Mind you this not a conservative v. liberal rant, but rather a modern-postmodern social-theological critique, and an area in which I feel called to minister. Here is the serious philosophical bedrock of my current academic work (and hopefully future practical work, which I hint at). Much of what I see playing out in the Church of the Brethren seems so rooted in a Modernist/Enlightenment way of understanding the world, and it's a way of understanding the world that has been seriously questioned by postmodern thinkers. Some serious Christian thinkers have taken this postmodernism stuff seriously and contextualized it for the church and found numerous Christian traditions in Western countries complicit, playing along happily while deep structures shift beneath. The Brethren are right there in the mix, gasping along with the rest of Mainline Protestantism (which I lament the Brethren joined in the 20th cent., not before).

As a philosopher, I know enough to be dangerous or at least obnoxious. But as I've picked up postmodern thought in various disciplines (Information Technology, literature, now theology and peacebuilding) I keep coming back to the postmodern critique and thinking it really means something for the church in the U.S., and for me it means something for the Church of the Brethren. The only articulate Brethren I've come across who struck me as postmodern is the late Vernard Eller, who did most of his writing in the 70's. He was also openly (but lovingly) critical of the denomination, and seems to have been snubbed a bit (I could be wrong here). I've come across one of Scott Holland's recent essays and had similar feelings. Put succinctly, it seems like the Church of the Brethren caught in late modern thought systems and it needs to move on. In the academy I sense late modern Liberal Protestantism and in the pews I sense late modern Fundamentalism (forgive my painting with broooooad strokes here; I do it advisedly). This need not be! In an interview this past Spring, Scott Holland described a gap between the leaders in the denomination and the broader membership w/r/t the historic peace witness of the Church of the Brethren. I think what I've just described may underlie that gap.

Oh my, this post became way too technical for almost anyone to be interested in, and there were a few bits I didn't get to mention. But this is the deep wrestling I've been doing in my academic work as I strive to integrate the bookish stuff with things that actually matter to the church and perhaps fold into my call to ministry in the church, the body of Christ. These are broad strokes and constantly-shifting thoughts, so I'm always open (better: very welcome) to critique and correction. These things are by no means settled within me.

The final paragraph of my essay linked above stands as a fitting close to these provisos to Why I'm [Still] Brethren:
So why am I still Brethren? Because of love.  A love with which God first loved us. That love of God I felt deeply in my Brethren congregation. It’s that love I’m led to express and teach in my fellowship, a calling I’m humbled and thrilled to take up.
God willing, may it be so.

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