Further to “Original Sin”

I promised, in my previous post, to say something about our “Take and Read” evening around the book Original Sin: A Cultural History by Alan Jacobs. I can report that the weather was cold, the roads icy, attendance about 17, and the desserts delicious. (No apples, but a hint of fruitiness in the lemon chiffon cake. The chocolate torte and Toblerone cheesecake, however, were temptation enough on their own.) 

More to the point, though. In summarizing Jacobs’ work, Paul Doerksen stated his discomfort with Augustine as he hardened his views about “sin, sex, and unbaptized babies.” With these disclaimers, Doerksen also urged us to consider “a more robust view” of original sin. As Jacobs points out, the doctrine does have its positives: it’s liberating (versus anxiety — if I can get it right, am I getting it right?), it’s democritizing (proceeding from an egalitarian spirit), and it has explanatory power (the only way we can understand ourselves). 

If we did take on a more robust view, what would that mean? One of the discussion questions posed to us was, How would an embrace of the doctrine of original sin shape the vocation in which we find ourselves? Doerksen reflected on his job as a teacher, for example. Was he more Wesley or Rousseau in his approach to his students? Thinking more of the image of God in them or of their shared sinfulness? The former has its difficulties and the latter offers some surprising potential, implications like Yes, they need guidance, but I do too, so mine shouldn’t be punitive but gracious, etc. 

The discussion ranged across many facets of the book, as such discussions do, but many participants felt that Jacobs had not done as well as he might have in placing original sin within its larger theological context of grace. Sin has to be seen by the light of the cross.

I took home with me a number of matters to reflect on further.

The matter of Mennonites, for example. They have not embraced Augustine much, being accused rather of semi-Pelagianism, said Doerksen, and thus prone to legalism, to a kind of uptightness, wanting the church to be pure, trying to getting it right. How many divisions there have been because of that!

There’s much about the origins of my own group, the Mennonite Brethren, that I love — that stirring up, under the preaching of Eduard Wuest, a Lutheran, of the sinner to see “the bottomless pit that opens itself at his feet” but then grasping “Christ’s own blood and righteousness / My beauty are, my glorious dress,” and the willingness to open mouths long closed by traditional practices of silent prayer, to pray aloud, to speak of these things, to find new and passionate language for what was experienced within, and that receptivity to the ideas and spiritual practices of others, like a new lens in a telescope revealing more stars.

But I also hear the hard words of the Document of Secession erecting new boundaries  — “Therefore, we herewith completely dissociate ourselves from these decadent churches, though we pray for our brethren, that they shall be saved…” If they’d been more Augustinian, could they have stayed and continued renewal within? Some of that separatist, uptight spirit lingers with us still.

Then there’s the matter of my vocation — as writer and editor. What would a greater awareness of my sinfulness look like there?

Mennonite Brethren at 150

Speaking of commemoration (previous post), the particular Mennonite group to which I belong — the Mennonite Brethren — celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2010. It will be interesting to watch what emerges. Will the commemorative process serve as an archive of the community’s dominant memories? Will it be an agent in forming memory, in controlling it, or in contesting it?

Events and writing planned for the anniversary of which I’m aware of are the January issue of the MB Herald , at least two books, a spring commemorative event in Europe with global MB representatives, and a July gathering of North American MBs in British Columbia. For the latter, the tone struck so far (see poster, below) is one of celebration, though it also includes a symposium on identity and mission.

A former colleague, MB Herald assistant editor Karla Braun, raised some good questions about what it is we’ll be celebrating in a blog post here. Her post grew out of remarks from a leader within the Lutheran World Federation — coming up to their 500th birthday — who noted that while Lutherans were “proud of their theological distinctives,” they would not be “celebrating” their birthday because of the divisiveness of the Reformation. 

The birth of the MB Church on January 6, 1860, when 18 family heads in the Molotschna Mennonite colony of Russia/Ukraine signed a document of secession from the larger Mennonite Church, was contentious and divisive too.

But in 1960, when MBs celebrated their centennial, the General Conference of the Mennonite Church (as heirs of that larger Mennonite church from which MBs seceded) presented a statement of apology for the “many feelings, words, and deeds that were not brotherly” in the 1860 separation. The MB conference reciprocated with a statement, recognizing “that certain attitudes, on our part, have been colored with intolerance, even to the point of reservations of mutual fellowship and love. We deeply regret our failings and weaknesses of the past and hasten to say that we are motivated by the spirit of love to ask forgiveness where we have acted coldly and unbrotherly.”  (Source: We Recommend… p.20)

So perhaps the wheel of action-on-divisiveness doesn’t need to be re-invented. (Although we might ask if there are lingering resistances to the wider Mennonite fellowship; not all our global MB conferences are members of the Mennonite World Conference, for example.)

As for theological distinctives, like the Lutherans, we’re proud of ours. We name ours “evangelical-Anabaptist,” though unlike the Lutherans, we may be less sure what our label means and how to sit on our particular fence without teetering. We seem confident and “successful,” but there are questions about “identity,” and this past year, while closer to the institutional center, I sometimes sensed an undercurrent of fear. 

Our year of commemoration may be merely a blip in our historical consciousness. Or it could turn out to surprise us with its significance. “What might a clear-eyed, unflinching gaze at our past reveal to contrite hearts?” Karla asked. For now, we’ll have to wait and see.