Monday, September 30, 2013

Yeoman theology

Chaucer's Yeoman
After taking the summer off, the NuDunkers are having another chat this Thursday, from 9 to 10am Central, on the topic of "Dunker Theologizing: How we do our God talk." Check out that link for posts from others and details on how you can join the conversation, live or otherwise! This post is part of our prep for that conversation...

Two dear pastors/sisters in Christ addressed the following sentences to me; the first in my mid-20s, the second in my late:

"Brian, you'd love seminary!"
"Brian, when are you going to seminary?"

Here's another from a former pastor, upon seeing some of my undergraduate work (mid-to-late 20s), a class project where I interviewed pastors and the children of pastors:

"I know you'd love studying theology."

They were all right. I loved everything about my grad school/seminary years at EMU (except the exhaustion), and I excelled at the work of academic study. Mid-way through those studies I started hearing from peers and profs alike: "You could be a teacher," "you could do a PhD." It was intoxicating music to my ears.

Yet by the time I graduated, this intoxicating music began to take on ominous undertones in my hearing, and so I shook my head to clear out the siren song of the academy and instead moved with my family to rural Iowa to see what being an organic intellectual seeking the peace of the farm town might look like. (I'm still trying to figure that out...)

There are numerous reasons for my leaving academics when I did, but the one I want to explore here is what I take to be the Dunker-inculcated attitude toward theology/theologizing/"God talk" and its place in the body of Christ. It's an attitude that could be characterized as "yeoman theology."

Theology that just works

The definition for "yeoman" has a few things I'd like to draw out here:

  • "an attendent, servant, or lesser official..."
  • "an assistant or other subordinate"
  • "a diligent, dependable worker"
  • "a farmer who cultivates his own land..."
Servanthood/subordination, assistance, diligence, dependability, work, cultivation - If those aren't words that capture some of who Brethren have been and strive to be, then I'll be a monkey's uncle! (Though most of my nieces and nephews are quite monkey-like...which I always encourage.)

As I've come to understand - and as my fellow NuDunkers have mentioned in their recent posts - the Brethren haven't been and still aren't known for our scholasticism, but rather for our somewhat simple (but not simplistic!) understanding and expression of the Christian faith.

While it has at times struck me that Brethren may actively try to avoid "fancy book learnin'," Josh Brockway has argued that rather than anti-intellectualism, it's more accurately an anti-elitist impulse that Brethren have exhibited; a suspicion of intellectual enterprises that lord themselves over the non-educated, broadening and hardening the gap between the academy and the body of Christ.

This suspicion I have very much internalized and it's guided some of my life decisions (see above). So for as much as I love the life of the mind, there's this sense that's been engrained into me that such a love should be exercised within, disciplined by, and ultimately for the edification of the body of Christ, enlivened and guided as we are by the Holy Spirit. And a Jesus-like approach to theologizing might look like the work of a yeoman.

In the way-back machine...

The most recent issue of Brethren Life and Thought focused on "The Life and Influence of Alexander Mack Jr.," the son of the primary founder of the Schwarzenau Brethren movement (b. 1712, d. 1803). As a boy Mack Jr. followed the new movement's quick migration from Germany to Friesland and on to colonial Pennsylvania. In young adulthood he left the movement for a decade to sojourn with the radical spiritualists at Ephrata, only to return to lead one of the key Brethren congregations in Germantown, Pa., for the rest of his life. He was a pastor and a writer of poetry, letters, and church teaching. He was, therefore, a theologian of sorts.

Brethren historical-theologian Dale Stoffer characterizes Mack Jr.'s work this way:
  1. "a thorough command of Scripture"
  2. writing which exhibited "a simple, compelling logic"
  3. an openness "to the insights of scholarship" - including familiarity with Jerome, Augustine, and Luther
  4. a balance of "the Radical Pietist emphasis on the Spirit's role in shedding new light on Scripture with the Anabaptist conviction that the community of faith should come to consensus on interpretations and specific applications of Scripture." (all refs: vol. 58, no. 1, p. 13)
These do not sound like the marks of an anti-intellectualist! And Mack wasn't alone. Later in the issue Brethren historian Steve Longenecker says that "common Dunker men, and maybe Dunker women, none of whom were formally educated elites, together formed the body of the church and shaped policy" (ibid., p. 30).

In the moment...

It strangely warms my heart to see some of these same impulses at work not only in my own sojourn with the church, but also in this NuDunkers thing. In our latest self-description, posted on the G+ community page, we all seemed to agree that:
NuDunkers is a group of scholarly-minded folks in the Anabaptist+Radical Pietist tradition of the Church of the Brethren. While scholarly-minded, we are not all academics, yet we seek to have respectful, intellectually rigorous, and stimulating conversations around topics that arise from our various ministry contexts within the church. It is that body that we seek to edify by our work.
As we gear up for our live chat on Thursday and year two of this NuDunker project, I'm excited by the resonance of what we're up to with the tradition from which we emerged. That this is being carried out almost entirely over social media indicates that we're trying to get a sense for what our tradition means and what it can be and do in the digital age, and early signs are promising.

So here's to more theology!

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