On Oct. 3, 2017, Grace University (formerly Grace Bible Institute, then Grace College of the Bible) of Omaha, Nebraska, announced its plans to close due to insurmountable financial challenges, after 75 years of operation.
This news broke at a time when the colleges and seminaries affiliated with Mennonite Church USA were working to redefine their relationship with the church. When I read the articles about the Grace University closing in Mennonite World Review, I found myself reflecting on Grace’s relationship with Bethel College as ideological rivals, family history with the General Conference Mennonite Church (GCMC), and religious identity.
The question of institutional identity has been of perennial interest among Mennonite institutions of higher education. With such an expansive corpus of literature, I can hardly pretend to say something new about Mennonite higher education. Rather, what I offer here is more exploratory rumination than exacting research (I used to be a preacher – a professional ruminator on things others said long ago!). I have been ruminating over some of what has already been said, from a particular location within the story of Mennonite higher education, for a particular time, in light of this particular news.
A Tale of Two Colleges
My first memory of hearing about Grace Bible Institute (GBI) comes from the 2008 centennial celebrations of Tabor Mennonite Church (rural Goessel, Kansas), my home congregation. James Juhnke delivered a lecture on Tabor’s first pastor, P.H. Richert (1871-1949). Among other duties, Richert served as secretary for the General Conference Foreign Mission Board for many years. During his tenure, he attempted to keep the peace between missionaries like the fundamentalist-leaning C.H. Suckau (who would go on to be GBI’s first president), and the progressive-leaning E.G. Kaufman (who would become Bethel’s long-serving president).
Not long afterward, my spouse, Katherine (Krehbiel) Goerzen, and I were visiting with her grandparents, Ronald and Cynthia Krehbiel. They had retired from career ministry in the GCMC. Ron related a memory of his father (Olin Krehbiel, 1904-1982) and grandfather (C.E. Krehbiel, 1869-1948). C.E. had been president of the GCMC when GBI organized in 1943, and Olin would succeed him in that role in 1950 (interestingly, Olin first followed Suckau as pastor of First Mennonite Church, Berne, Indiana, after Suckau accepted the presidency at GBI).
The two GCMC statesmen expressed their regret that the GCMC was fracturing, with some fundamentalist-leaning groups siding with GBI and the traditionalists, loyalists and progressives siding with Bethel College and Bluffton College. They wished that when the decision was made to form GBI, Bethel College would have given land on the campus to build GBI. That way, the ideological rivals would have to keep talking to each other, and the GCMC might hold together. As it was, they believed, the conservative contingent would not remain with the GCMC.
For the Krehbiels, the desire to find a way to remain together was not an abstract idealism. C.E.’s father, Christian Krehbiel (1832-1909), as president of the Mennonite Board of Guardians and of the Foreign Mission Board, had played an instrumental role in both establishing the GCMC and in settling Mennonite immigrants from Russia to Kansas in the 1870s. The fundamentalist-modernist divide was affecting the communities whom the Krehbiels had come to know intimately over the past several decades.
And the controversy had affected the Krehbiel family directly. C.E.’s older brother was H.P. Krehbiel (1862-1940), the noted historian, publisher and founder of Mennonite Weekly Review. H.P. had already been alarmed at encroaching modernism during the “Daniel explosion’ of 1916. He began organizing for a “Mennonite Christian Workers School’ to train ministers and missionaries, a Bible college.
By 1932, plans were coalescing, and H.P. had become increasingly dismayed over the apparent secularization of Bethel’s curriculum, which he perceived as lacking spiritual and decidedly Christian depth. H.P. instigated a special session of the Western District Conference (WDC) in April 1932 to reclaim a $100,000 endowment gift from WDC to Bethel College, to be used to start the Bible school. The proposal, which would have surely closed Bethel, failed narrowly, by a vote of 149-131.
H.P. remained in communication with Suckau in the years following. In 1943, three years after H.P.’s death, Grace Bible Institute opened, with Suckau becoming president in January 1944. GBI was founded as an ostensibly inter-Mennonite college, though it fairly quickly abandoned its Mennonite identity to become more generically fundamentalist. C.E., who was generally more conciliatory than his older brother, publicly opposed GBI, arguing that it was divisive, and that primary loyalty was owed to GCMC institutions.
Fundamentalism and liberalism: Flip sides of the same coin
In spring 2018, as Grace University closed, I found myself less interested in rehashing the history and liabilities of fundamentalism in the United States, in contrast to my own institution’s progressive identity. Oddly enough, the questions lingering in my mind have to do with the similarities between GBI and liberalism, which present for me a cautionary tale.
Especially in my own field of biblical interpretation, it is a fairly well-worn path to see fundamentalism and liberalism as flip sides of the same coin. Both assume that the text has an (singular) objective meaning that is readily understood by rational individuals. Both assume the scientific method in their hermeneutic and hold a high view of the precision with which modern readers may understand an ancient culture. Both tend to see science and Scripture as somewhat adversarial. There are, of course, significant differences as well. The fundamentalist assumes God’s existence, while the liberal interpreter must remain agnostic. But the result brings the two closer to each other: the fundamentalist first applies the scientific method within the text, treating it as scientific data to be mined, while the liberal first imposes scientific data (including experience) upon the text.
In general, the similarity has to do with foundationalist assumptions. While the fundamentalist is concerned with the establishment, defense and promulgation of a set of propositional truths, the liberal is interested in a sort of least-common-denominator, detheologizing, dehistoricizing distillation to universally verifiable principles, values or structures. So theologians will abstract the religious experience to speak of “The More,’ “The Real,’ “The Ultimate’ or “Ultimate Mystery,’ apparently accessible to any religion. Some may come to this approach via an appropriation of the scientific method, which often presents itself as accessing universally verifiable truth.
Others may come to this distillation approach as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to the cultural imperialism or nationalism of the fundamentalist approach. Rather than the intolerance of imposing our belief system onto others, let’s distill it down to something that’s palatable everywhere. The impulse is to “solve the problem’ of the plurality of particularities by universalism. We can “move beyond’ Mennonitism to a more universalist social sensitivity. Philosopher James K.A. Smith comments on this “religion without religion’:
While this is almost certainly a corrective with respect to rabid forms of fundamentalism. . . a retreat into a thinly “ecumenical’ Christianity that reduces confession to bland concerns with justice or love still remains a latent version of a very modern project. . . [and] actually shrinks back from the more radical implications of the postmodern critique.
Still, it would seem a rather tidy solution as the percentage of Mennonite (and, in general, Christian) students at our Mennonite colleges continues to drop: distill what it means to be Mennonite down to a set of universally acceptable propositions or values. The four I come across most are peace, justice, community and service. In this way, values become decoupled from their historical and theological roots, existing, as it were, as timeless truths. Wouldn’t that make us more hospitable and welcoming of diversity? For some, this also provides a pathway to be Mennonite, but not Christian.
Relatedly, some liberal Mennonites may support nonviolent direct action, while criticizing religious evangelism on moral grounds. Yet the nonviolent action also has as its goal personal and structural conversion informed by a particular system of values and ideology. The difference, it would seem, is that nonviolent action is premised on universally acceptable values, while religion is personal, subjective and particular.
A critique of distillation
My practical concern (to say nothing of my theological concern) with this distilling approach is twofold. First, in order to become everything, it becomes nothing – “a mile wide, and an inch deep.’ What is peace? Even the Joint Chiefs sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth’ on Memorial Day. And what is justice? The practice of mass incarceration in the United States is endorsed and upheld by the “justice system.’ And one is hard-pressed to find a more tight-knit community than an infantry platoon, which is, after all, service. All these values receive particular definition as they are enacted and embodied in particular circumstances and communities. That definition arises from practical decisions growing out of the “narrative that shapes particular traditions.’ I have to wonder if some of H.P. Krehbiel’s frustration with the direction of Bethel College in the early 20th century had at least something to do with an instinctual discomfort with distillation in liberal education, and I wonder whether he would have perceived similar discomfort with Grace’s distillation to fundamentalist propositionalism.
Second, and perhaps even more importantly, this universalizing distillation results in a hazardous self-deception. Once we have decided that our values are sufficiently generic, they become imposable. So, for instance, “peace studies’ could become a curricular requirement, and because “peace’ is a universally accessible value and objectively good idea, it is morally acceptable to structure the curriculum to lead all students to a peace commitment. At the same time, we might be hesitant to lead students to a commitment to Christian identity, because we see religion as subjective. But might it be that peace is, after all, subjective and contingent as well? What about the veteran with PTSD? What about the student who has suffered personal violence? What about the student on the GI bill, whose military service is helping to pay my salary? What about the student who lost a loved one in a war zone? Suddenly our peace requirement becomes oppressive of minority perspectives because of an unexamined ideological particularity masquerading as globalism, along with a neglect of religious criticism and differentiation.
As a corollary, my inclination is to see secularity as a fabrication. It allows us to pretend to float above religion, but in effect, that generally just ends up privileging whichever group-ideology is in the majority or dominant. The myth of secularism says that I can set up something that people of any religion can adopt. In this way, it can appear to be affirmed by the world’s enduring religions, but without religious trappings. However, those distilled values tend to become amorphous and mushy without the particularity of a tradition. Enfleshing values-in-the-abstract, without a specific anchor, will default somewhere, the path of least resistance, the path of privilege and dominance, but without acknowledging it or being accountable for it. For this reason, Dale Schrag critiques the myth of the impartial professor who refuses to teach students what to think, but only how to think. Schrag asserts that “the real catechism for our students is popular culture, and . . . our feigned objectivity is actually working to reinforce, rather than counteract’ that assimilation to the dominant ethos.
This process is somewhat akin to white “colorblindness’ or male “genderblindness.’ For instance, many white people do not see themselves as white, since whiteness is the “default.’ Part of the privilege white people hold is the ability to choose whether or not to be aware of racial identity. If we are not aware of our particularity and power, we normalize it as the standard experience (as well as value structure) for all people. “Colorblind’ attempts to treat everybody the same, regardless of race, while preferable to an overtly prejudicial discriminatory treatment, are covertly discriminatory. One problem is that the policies and procedures that are applied equally to all (in theory, at least) may “work’ for the particular group that created and operates them (path of least resistance), but not for others, and likely lack diachronic sensitivity. A white secularity is liable to a double self-deception, and a double hazard to those who are on the margins. What may appear to be progressive is often just privilege masquerading as enlightenment.
Attempts at religious distillation, then, whether in the fundamentalist propositional direction or the liberal-secular universalism direction, must become enfleshed in a particular way when lived out. They become lodged in a default narrative, likely in a significant way as a form of civil religion. While many Anabaptists see civil religion in the United States as entirely contrasting with Christian faith commitment, Duane Friesen has taken a more nuanced approach. He suggests that civil religion’s more “transcendent dimensions. . . can become the basis for prophetic judgment and renewal.’ Friesen cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s rhetorical use of this “non-idolatrous’ element of civil religion as he argues for some overlap of civil religion and Christian faith.
While I generally find Friesen’s approach more compelling, I am also more pessimistic about civil religion. I see its dominant and organizing narrative as much closer to what Walter Wink called the “myth of redemptive violence.’ Ideals like equality and freedom look more like artifacts of civil religion’s “culture industry,’ a superficiality, a spectacle and distraction from the bankruptcy of the underlying violent mythology. But even the spectacle is part of civil religion’s sustaining pathos, available as a source for reform, as King so effectively used it.
For Lindbeck, the notion that religious particularity merely expresses a universal religious experience “makes it easier to accommodate to present trends, whether from the right or the left: Christian fellow travelers of both Nazism and Stalinism generally used liberal methodology to justify their positions.’ A particular rubric is required for a critical interaction with civil religion. It does not appear that civil religion possesses such a rubric intratextually. Distillation approaches are then liable to an uncritical embrace of civil religion and its formative “cultural liturgies’ that shape the habits of the heart and community at a precognitive level. In light of this, it is hardly surprising that GBI so quickly completely lost its Mennonite identity. It had unconsciously adopted a new particularity, a fundamentalist appropriation of civil religion.
Calvin Redekop’s work on “group embarrassment’ provides a compelling analysis. The problem, as Redekop sees it, is “hating or rejecting the tradition or heritage from which one comes (i.e., group embarrassment) by assuming that the true essence of faith or relationship with God does not come out of a historical context but rather comes abstractly ‘out of nowhere.’’ While Redekop focuses on the fundamentalist-evangelical tradition, his conclusions about fundamentalist separation from particular traditions would seem to hold for the liberal distillation approach as well:
Thus a most fascinating paradoxical situation develops by which the defecting group accuses the parental group of being only a cultural community and not an ideological (religious) one, where in actual fact the defecting group is accepting a new ideological community which has its own cultural systems. But the new cultural . . . system, which the apostate group accepts, is not considered a real fact.
The grace of particularity
What I am suggesting here is an embrace of particularity. By this I mean a commitment to a particular religious tradition and community: both its theology and values (a sort of integration of the distillation approaches), but also those things that make it more particular and embodied: practices, rituals, liturgies, artistic expression, and history.
In part, this is simply acknowledging reality. Our body of knowledge, our values, and our structures are particular, contingent upon culture and history. We may as well be honest and clear about who we are and where we have come from. I am fascinated by Grace’s decision to scrub all reference to its very clearly Mennonite origins from its history.
It somewhat reminds me of a parable Harry Huebner borrowed from John Meagher to open his essay on Mennonite higher education a few years ago, in which Elijah and the Chief Prophet of Ba’al have decided they want to pray together over their disagreement, but cannot agree on which language to use. Eventually, the Chief Prophet of Ba’al suggests, “Well, Hebrew and Phoenician are both Semitic languages. How about we just pray in Semitic?’
The problem, of course, is that there is no such language, no distillation, no generic abstraction. So Nancey Murphy boldly asserts, “I claim that the entire history of the modern intellectual world could be recounted as the sad tale of a quest for universally recognizable foundations, and the failure, in one discipline after another, to find any such thing.’
Particularity, on the other hand, is deeply inscribed in the Christian story in the incarnation. God, in Jesus Christ, becomes particular. “The Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. . . full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Interestingly, for John, it is the particular that is “full of grace and truth.’ Jesus was a first-century CE Jewish man from the Galilee. He spoke Aramaic as his common language. He had a particular family and developed a particular community. In this particularity – this finitude, this limitation – there was paradoxically a fullness of grace and truth.
For Jesus’ followers, the incarnation was in keeping with what they already knew of God’s patterns of relating to humankind. God had chosen to relate to humankind in a particular way, through a particular family (Gen. 12:1-3) and people (Ex. 19:5-6). God takes the concrete seriously, embracing the risk of human (mis)interpretation. God espouses the concrete of particularity, and responsively engages each circumstance (e.g., Gen. 18:22-33; Ex. 32:7-14; Jonah 3:10; Mark 7:24-30).
And, indeed, human limitation and particularity is part of what is declared “very good’ (Gen. 1:26-31). We learn that at least part of the rift in God’s intent for creation comes with human rejection of particularity (Gen. 2-3), while the skeptical sages will probe the limits of foundationalism (as we might call it) and reason (Job, Ecclesiastes). The particularity of human existence is again affirmed at Pentecost, in which “the particularities of the many tongues are not obliterated. . . rather, they are redeemed in all of their particularity for the purposes of God.’ An embodied theology, then, hopefully embraces particularity, limitation, and contingency as part of the goodness of our creatureliness and vocation, and “begin[s] in faith to live in response to the normative vision of life revealed to us through our own stories and tradition.’
Out of this understanding of particularity grows a sustained discourse and debate on the Other in the Bible. What to do with those of a different particularity? Shall they be killed? Subjugated? Shunned? Hosted? Negotiated? Feared? Assimilated? Honored? Jesus, standing in and shaped by this tradition, embraces the marginalized (tax collectors, women, Samaritans, lepers, demoniacs, the poor, “sinners,’ centurions, etc.), tells a parable in which an enemy (Samaritan) is the hero, and is himself forced to reckon with the faith of an Other.
I encountered Bowen Family Systems Theory (BFST) in seminary. One of the key concepts of the theory is self-differentiation, in which one neither imposes nor borrows self from others. Self-differentiation includes self-regulation (“non-anxious’), connection (“presence’), and self-definition. Self-definition has to do with clarity of identity, commitment, values, feelings, and beliefs. It is non-reactive self-disclosure, but without willfulness or imposition. This clarity ultimately serves to lower the anxiety of the overall system.
One of the interesting claims the theory makes is that self-definition in a regulated fashion, in the interest of disclosure and transparency, actually encourages others to do likewise, a sort of signal to the emotional system that self-expression and self-definition are encouraged. Though perhaps counter-intuitive, self-definition (embrace of particularity) is vital to the practice of hosting well – especially hosting the Other. If one never self-differentiates, one is never accountable for imposing self on another, or for excluding another on the basis of that person’s otherness. It denies that such otherness even exists, and therefore that the activity of hosting is really necessary. A weakened or superficial sense of religious identity (e.g., distillation) leads to a weakened and superficial welcome of the Other.
Moreover, practitioners of BFST frequently incorporate family of origin therapy. Discovery and analysis of one’s family of origin brings clarity and understanding. Family of origin work highlights both resources for responsibility in relationships on which one can draw, as well as problematic patterns that persist from generation to generation. Family secrets are generally seen as spreading toxicity in a family system, and naming the secrets can lead to healthier functioning. Family of origin research creates a continuous process of critical appropriation of one’s familial identity, a continuous recalibration of the position of self within system. Practitioners gain clarity of identity as they learn about their family of origin, with the goal of responsible participation in current emotional systems.
I wonder if BFST might provide some insight into the appropriation of religious – especially Mennonite – particularity. BFST encourages a continuous critical assessment of one’s particularity. It requires naming negative trends and examining the systemic emotional patterns that reinforce them. Uncovering the stories that no one wants to talk about can contribute to healthier appropriation. It also sees one’s family of origin as a potential source of healthy patterns. Discernment is required.
Mennonites have many family secrets, and the process of discovery elicits strong emotional reactivity. One of the family secrets of Mennonites in Kansas (and elsewhere) connects with the Doctrine of Discovery. We often tell the story of our migration to the United States in the 1870s as growing out of a commitment to pacifism, a source of strength and identity. And that is an important part of the story. But there is a shadow side of the story that we do usually not tell. The draconian treaties of the 1860s, culminating in the Medicine Lodge Treaties of 1867, had completely removed Indigenous communities from this area. The so-called “empty, unsettled land’ became the possession of the railroad, which sold it at low cost to Mennonite immigrants from Russia and Prussia. Christian Krehbiel, as president of the Mennonite Board of Guardians, aided and helped establish these communities in Kansas. Through this process, Mennonites literally bought into (at a bargain, no less) American Whiteness.
The point of telling this part of the story is not to produce shame or guilt, but clarity and responsibility. This story is a part of who Kansas Mennonites are, and what Bethel College is. Its telling can shine a light on our participation in similar processes of institutional racism today. Some Mennonites may feel disoriented by the number and gravity of family secrets being discussed in recent years, from racism and ethnocentrism, to complicity in the Holocaust, to sexual violence and patriarchy (including our famous theologian, John Howard Yoder), and beyond.
This is a vital part of embracing particularity. Without the hard work of discussing our particular secrets, we end up with exceptionalism cloaked in particularity: “We’re not white; we’re Mennonite. We’re not German; we’re Mennonite. We can’t possibly be violent (or racist); we’re Mennonite.’ Particularity is less interested in the purity of one’s tradition, and more interested in authenticity and responsibility in appropriating it.
Taking responsibility for the liabilities of my tradition can also enable me to appropriate its strengths with greater integrity and awareness of the shadow sides of those strengths. For instance, in this story of the Krehbiels, Christian’s great-grandson, Ronald, became the first pastor of Community Mennonite Church in Markham, Illinois, in 1957. When Ron invited then-Mennonite Vincent Harding, an African American, to speak, half of the congregation threatened to leave if he did not rescind the invitation. Ron believed that welcoming and hearing from Harding was more important than retaining the membership. While the church did initially experience a loss of membership, it eventually grew into a calling to become a multiethnic, multiracial congregation. Yet Mennonites repeatedly marginalized Harding, excluding one who was interested in embracing their particularity.
In fact, Mennonites have regularly sided with retaining members (donors) over the prophetic voice. This cannot, therefore, be a self-congratulatory story, but it remains a resource on which to draw for responsible functioning in the present iteration of the story. A healthy appropriation of one’s tradition requires as many stories as possible to be told, not just the favorable stories, and not just the shameful stories.
Particularity and pluralism
As my community becomes increasingly plural, I have found Diana Eck’s differentiation of pluralism from two forms of relativism to be especially enlightening. For Eck, the pluralist and the relativist begin with a common understanding of “the many ways in which our cognitive and moral understandings are relative to our historical, cultural, and ideological contexts.’ Truth is always mediated.
The nihilistic relativist, as a sort of disillusioned modernist, takes this to mean that if no one truth claim can be universalized, then all truth claims are empty. One might tolerate diversity, without making any real effort to engage, understand, value or include it. Apart from active engagement with different narratives and traditions, particularity easily drifts into exceptionalism.
The uncommitted relativist, on the other hand, sees all claims as “more or less true’ and is given to a sort of “laissez-faire plurality,’ in which there is “no beloved community, no home in the context of which values are tested, no dream of the ongoing transformation of that community. Thus the relativist can remain uncommitted.’ The uncommitted relativist may be given to a syncretic form of cultural-religious (mis-)appropriation: voyeuristic cafeteria-style borrowing of “what works’ from a variety of religions, distilling and finding commonality, or perhaps a good quote for the day.
In start contrast, for Eck, the pluralist “stands in a particular community and is willing to be committed to the struggles of that community, even as restless critic.’ The pluralist commits to “relative absolutes,’ yet while avoiding dogmatism. In Eck’s pluralism, “We live our lives and die our deaths in terms of cherished commitments. ... Pluralism is not, then, the kind of radical openness to anything and everything that drains meaning from particularity. It is, however, radical openness to Truth – to God – that seeks to enlarge understanding through dialogue.’ The pluralist, then, is not interested in distillation, but in a dialogical “encounter of commitments.’
Because particularity challenges both exceptionalism and universalism, it may at first blush appear opposed to the enterprise of faith. However, this presumes a more modernist approach to diversity. If anything, particularity that has differentiated itself from foundationalism invites faith commitments. We live with a sense of our particularity and contingency, but our desire for meaning connects that particularity to something much greater, something of the whole, something transcendent.
Friesen describes this as the endeavor of faith. Because human knowledge is always limited and contextual, our knowledge of the whole enters the realm of metaphor: “[W]e never grasp God apart from our interpreting, our metaphorical relationship to the one to whom we are devoted. ... Metaphor is foundational to knowledge in that two realities are linked together.’ Through metaphor, our particularity becomes linked to the whole.
For Christians, “Jesus Christ is the ‘root metaphor’ for our view of God. . . Jesus is also the root metaphor of our understanding of what we are called to be as creatures made in God’s image. We participate in this ‘knowing’ of Christ not as detached observers, but as persons committed to following the way of life revealed in his life and teachings.’ This commitment to that to which we are willing to devote ourselves above all does not require certainty, but rather courage in the face of the unknown and the paradoxical.
Friesen focuses on the biblical imagery of Christ as the Light, which “illuminates truth wherever it is.’ Thus, our particular confession may “light up’ the whole. This view of particularity requires the courage to make judgments about how to live in the world, even in the face of contingency and uncertainty. Our communities and traditions give us anchors in which to make those decisions, but our traditions themselves must be subject to scrutiny if we are to act responsibly. Friesen has offered four criteria by which to evaluate one’s tradition:
Adequacy: “the degree to which the fundamental issues of human existence are dealt with’: death, suffering, moral failure, etc.Interpretive power: “capacity to interpret the human enterprise,’ including ambiguity. Coherence: “a way of formulating and living a Christian vision of life that is internally consistent. . . [and not] self-destructive. . . analogous to the standards of symmetry, beauty and aesthetic wholeness we use to judge a work of art or music’ Ethical implications: “How is the good life defined? . . . Can we live with such a view?’ And, can others live with such a view?
Pitfalls of particularity
Lest particularity appear to be the solution to all the world’s ills, it is important to highlight at least a few of the hazards of particularity.
1. Particularity may hamstring conversion initiatives, such as social activism and evangelism. If I recognize that my view of what is good, true, and beautiful is particular and contextual, I may feel unable to communicate that vision in the public sphere. This is again where the courage of commitment comes into play. If the gospel of Jesus Christ really is “good news’ that “brings healing and wholeness to the world,’ we have a moral imperative to advocate that vision. Our sense of particularity reminds us, with Paul, that we “see through the glass dimly,’ and we remain open to genuine dialogue and exchange. And, an incarnational awareness of particularity lends integrity. Just as the Word “dwelt among us,’ so also must we “dwell among’ our neighbors, not merely try to get them to see things our way.
2. Particularity may inhibit real-life judgments. If I am aware that my knowledge is limited and incomplete, and that there are many narratives and traditions beside my own, I may feel as though I am unable to make real-life judgments. What if there is a better way that I do not know about, or what if my discernment between options is flawed? It likely is. I take some comfort and confidence in identifying with a community whose wisdom and failings have been tested over many centuries. I have some point of reference, and plenty of data with which to compare. And, particularity requires a willingness to repent when (not if) I get it wrong.
3. Particularity quickly becomes exceptionalism. Particularity may become ethnocentrism, a sort of belief that my story is the best one, or my story is the only one that really matters. This is part of the reason why family secrets need to be told. But even then, we may come to think that our story is “the least bad.’ In an educational setting, this may lead to censorship and indoctrination.
4. Particularity quickly becomes isolationism. I may not think my story is superior to others, but I may become disinterested in others’ stories. I may fail to see how “my story’ is a hybrid story (a story of stories), interwoven with others’ stories. It is especially easy for those of us who belong to dominant groups to tell our stories in isolation. We do not have to know other stories in order to function in society. Drew Hart’s recent essay highlights this issue for Mennonite theology.
5. Some who would like to embrace a particular tradition have been marginalized by it. Differentiation may be required for hospitality, but we still have to practice hospitality. Moreover, there are many “internally displaced’ persons in our communities – people who come from a tradition, only to be displaced by it. This often happens through shaming mechanisms. LGBTQ Christians are displaced at a remarkably high rate.
6. Some will find a tradition’s propositional claims unconvincing. Religious traditions, as I have described them here, are much broader than a set of propositions (the fundamentalist model). They also include rituals, histories, practices, art, community and culture. But they do include beliefs. In cultures heavily impacted by the Enlightenment, it is not uncommon to find people who are enamored with Jesus, but are scientifically embarrassed by the resurrection. Some leave. Some stay and live with the ambiguity. Some re-imagine it and remain. Some stay and eventually come to accept the doctrine through the church’s rituals and practices, or through personal experience. There is both a fixity and flexibility, negotiated within each tradition.
7. The particular is scandalous. Theologians often speak of the “scandal of particularity’ to discuss the paradoxical affirmation of the universal significance of a particular person, Jesus of Nazareth, or the incarnational scandal of the divine accepting the limitation of human history, language, embodiment, and interpretation. But the scandal is also much more practical. No tradition or particularity is perfect or pure. By committing myself to a particular tradition, do I not thereby ally myself with injustice? An embrace of particularity, as Eck observes, does not mean a blind acceptance of one’s tradition, but can and should include prophetic and critical modes of engagement from within. Even so, the organizing narrative(s) of some traditions may be found too problematic, whether by Friesen’s or some other rubric, yet a given tradition is unlikely to find itself insufficient.
8. Particularity may slip into relativism. If all points of view are particular, can anything be critiqued? I think it can, from an open-handed posture. There is, to be sure, much to be critiqued in the reigning religiosity in the United States. We worship the dollar, the gun, the body, the game, the gadget and the spectacle. Would that more of our neighbors (and we ourselves!) might convert from the “myth of redemptive violence,’ militarism, racism, and consumerism, to a particular commitment to Jesus Christ, who taught that the first shall be last; who demonstrated that greatness is found in service and costly love; who loved his enemies and prayed for his persecutors; who healed the wounds of inspirited bodies; who instructed his followers to put away their swords; who offered forgiveness and new life; who came from and embraced the marginalized; who upended the tables of injustice; who disclosed the fraudulence and bankruptcy of domination and violence; who destroyed enmity by enduring it; who triumphed over the grave and all its overlords and sent the Holy Spirit in power to constitute a reconciling community of the resurrection. It is a particular story, indeed peculiar, one “full of grace and truth.’
Glimpses of Grace
For me, exploring the particularity of the story of GBI has given focus, clarity and motivation. I read more quickly, voraciously and carefully because it is a story in which I am personally invested. I have reflected on how the Krehbiel story is important to me not because it is exceptional (it is particular). Rather, it is important to me because I have committed myself to the family by marriage. Without this commitment, the GBI story is barely of interest to me, but values become enfleshed and enacted in particular narratives, and this is a part of mine.
During its 2016 tour, the Bethel College Concert Choir performed at First Mennonite Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. I was coordinating logistics for the tour, and noticed a woman in her 70s arrive about an hour early. I went over to greet her and to be sure she knew it would be a while before the concert would start. She told me that her father had been one of the founders of GBI, and the family had severed ties with the Mennonites early in her life. She saw this as an opportunity to reconnect, and was so excited that she arrived an hour early.
I shared some of the stories I have told here, and I remarked that when my spouse and I were ordained in 2011, a graduate of GBI, Clarence Rempel, officiated, and a Bethel graduate and professor, Patty Shelly, preached. I said that my guess was that while only one or two others might have caught it, I believe it was a glimpse of God’s future when old divisions are healed and we all sing God’s praises together again. Perhaps that evening’s concert would be another step along that journey. She smiled, and nodded.