new Mennonite Life logo    March 2003     vol. 58 no. 1     Back to Table of Contents

Response to Harry Huebner

by Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast

Gerald J. Biesecker-Mast is associate professor of communication at Bluffton College.

I first encountered the idea of integrating faith and learning as an undergraduate at Malone College--an evangelical Friends institution affiliated with the Council of Christian Colleges and Universities. The student life staff there had been largely drawn from the Coalition for Christian Outreach--an organization founded to spread a Reformed world-view among college students. I still remember the day when the Men's residence hall director--on loan from the Coalition--sat me down at a picnic table outside the student center and explained to me the difference between biblical Reformed orthodoxy and my heretical Anabaptist upbringing.

He drew a big circle on a piece of paper and then drew a line down the middle, writing "church" on the left half and "world" on the right half. On the "church" side were things like worship, Sunday School, mission work, evangelistic activity, prayer, etc. On the "world" side were things like business, the government, the military, and academics. "That's an Anabaptist world view, right?" he asked. Being a green, naïve, impressionable kid from the ultra-conservative, nonconformist, separatist wing of the Anabaptist freundschaft, I had to acknowledge the drawing looked like the Anabaptist view to me. Anticipating my youthful desire for a biblically justifiable liberation from such a confining dualism, my Reformed interlocutor turned the paper over and drew another circle, filling it up with names of the many and varied spheres of the created world--government, church, business, academics, marriage, etc.--and then, instead of drawing a heretical Anabaptist line down the middle he drew an orthodox line from right to left beneath the circle with pointers on either side. To the left of the line he wrote "faithful" and to the right of the line he wrote "unfaithful." "The biblical view," he explained, "is that God created the whole world and called it good." Since the fall had happened, the Christian task was to figure out how to see each aspect of the created order through faithful eyes, to see God's intention for that fallen sphere and then to be agents for reformation in that sphere to which we were called.

Coming, as I did, from a tradition that was anti-intellectual and world-suspicious, this Reformed argument seemed like good news indeed. No longer did I need to feel guilty about some of my own preferences: book study over voluntary service, party politics over church politics, writing essays rather than building houses, and intellectual work over manual labor. In my senior year in college, however, my enthusiasm for study led me to a troubling and challenging book that qualified some of my enthusiasm for the Reformed vision for integrating faith and learning--John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. My continuing struggle to come to terms with Yoder's arguments leads me to a mostly enthusiastic embrace of Harry Huebner's vision for Christian engagement with the liberal arts, yet with at least two reservations.

My first reservation concerns Huebner's claim that Radical Reformation theology is "holistic and not dualistic," stressing that "there are not two normative realms, Christ and the world," but that instead "all realms of life are equally under Christ's sovereignty." In my view, while such a claim is theologically true, it is also the case that the Anabaptist tradition has stressed the practical extent to which there is a contrast between the disobedience of much of the created and cultural order and the faithfulness of God's people. Living creatively as a faithful people within surroundings that do not acknowledge Jesus' sovereignty has meant that in the interim between resurrection and parousia, we seek the well-being of the surrounding culture, even as we acknowledge the ways in which that culture has responded differently to the claims of Jesus than has the church (when it is faithful and obedient to its Lord). Such acknowledgment of divergent responses and loyalties does not equal acceptance of those responses as normative or ontological, although that has been one direction such a perspective has taken some Mennonite groups. Rather, as John Howard Yoder has explained it in the introduction to his Body Politics, "church and world are not two compartments under separate legislation or two institutions with contradictory assignments, but two levels of the pertinence of the same Lordship."

It is my view that a significant task for Christian colleges and universities shaped by Anabaptist theology is to educate students about the disobedience of the world, to describe the ways in which the cultural and "natural" realms that constitute the world continue to compromise the renewal of creation that God has begun in Jesus Christ while also affirming the extent to which such realms also reflect that renewal. Having done that descriptive work, which is the task of liberal arts education, a peace church college will then also call students to be witnesses to that compromised world, and to exhibit through word and deed what God has in mind for the creation that is being renewed in Jesus. That two-fold task of describing (and even learning to live along side) the world's continued fallenness while at the same time making visible the inbreaking reign of God is not best characterized to my way of thinking with such terms as "integration" or "holistic." Rather, such teaching and character-formation will involve the experience of tension, antagonism, contrast, and even division. The exilic and diasporic nature of the people that is being shaped by Anabaptist education ought to encourage lives that are discontent with the status quo, on the move with the Spirit, and improvisational in managing the tension between the now and the not-yet. While I don't see this reservation as necessarily conflicting with Huebner's argument, I am not satisfied that the need for creative and even affirmative engagement with the overextended earthly and demonic powers is given sufficient visibility in his essay, at least not insofar as this kind of engagement requires living with ambiguity, uncertainty, improvisation, and a certain amount of humility.

My second reservation is related to the first one and has to do with Huebner's discussion of Mennonite theology as a Christian theology that ought to be articulated as a story of faith that "is so for all Christians." While again this is theologically true, I worry that the way it is stated neglects to acknowledge the perspectival character of all theological claims, including Mennonite theological statements about peace and nonviolence. It is appropriate, in my view, for Mennonites to acknowledge that while they believe they are correct in their understanding that Jesus lived and taught nonviolence as a norm for all his disciples, they also recognize how their own understandings have been shaped by the specific experiences of their particular Christian community during the past 477 years and their interactions with the broader Christian and modern world from the perspective of those experiences. Similarly, Christian colleges in general and Mennonite colleges in particular should be contexts in which the study of the many communities of meaning and interpretation that constitute the Christian church and the modern and postmodern world is encouraged. That sort of recognition and that sort of scholarship of communal and historical particularity is not meant as a premise for pluralist relativism; rather, it is meant to be the condition of possibility for a nonviolent, incarnational, and confessional engagement among the many hermeneutical communities that presently constitute the body of Christ in the world. What I am calling for here is perhaps simply more of what is called historical theology among students of religion.

With these reservations in mind, and against the backdrop my own history of creative struggle with the Reformed paradigm, here is how I would join with Huebner in stating the case for a distinctive Anabaptist-Mennonite approach to education.

1. Jesus is the standard by which we judge God's intention for the world, not natural law or sphere sovereignty. For me this means that our campus communities and classrooms should be infused with the biblical story in general and the story of Jesus in particular. The story of God's redemption of humankind through Jesus Christ should be a common reference point whenever we seek to interrogate the truths of the disciplines from the perspective of Christian faith. To my way of thinking the appearance of this biblical story should not be limited to the bible or theology classroom, although the bible and theology classroom has a primary role to play in assuring that this story is articulated and discussed with integrity and intelligence.

2. The world of institutions and cultural spheres is shaped by the corrupting and often violent influence of power and of socially demonic forces named in the biblical tradition as the Powers, which are relativized and resituated in light of Jesus' lordship; therefore, we seek to live and to act in light of these Powers being put in their proper place by God's reign. For colleges, these Powers are not just the war-mongering political authorities in Washington D.C. or the vengeance-seeking terrorist networks aiming airplanes at the World Trade Center; these Powers show up in our own dysfunctional institutional habits and practices, in the structures that constitute the professional and political shape of our academic disciplines, in the power dynamics of the classroom. Therefore, when we say that Jesus is Lord, we recognize that he has subverted the sovereignty of these Powers wherever they show up and so our research and teaching and campus relationships ought to reflect that subversion of academic and classroom and institutional sovereignties. For me, this struggle against the Powers includes the struggle to have campuses where we can disagree about issues of faith and learning without having to fear the loss of our jobs.

3. The interventions we make into the world should be made according to expectations shaped more by the resurrection story than by the Enlightenment story. "The relationship between the obedience of God's people and the triumph of God's cause is not a relationship of cause and effect but one of cross and resurrection," to quote one of the more memorable lines from the Politics. Our task is to discover how to teach public speaking, political theory, biology, economics, and the entire liberal arts curriculum from this perspective.

4. The heretical Anabaptist line between the faithful church and the unfaithful world is a fuzzy one that we cross again and again in order to witness to the powers and to recognize through the eyes of faith and from the standpoint of the church's story the work that God is doing in the world. The point of privileging the church's story is not to say that the church is the only place that God is working. The point of privileging the church's story is to give ourselves and our students a vocabulary whereby they can recognize the work of God in the world when they see it. The academic disciplines by themselves do not provide that vocabulary.

5. Jesus' nonviolence was central to his mission and this nonviolence constitutes both means and end in the reign of God that he announced and established. Our institutions should be asking what it would mean not just to teach nonviolence as a way to solve society's problems; we should be seeking to embody in our very habits and structures and policies this nonviolence; we should seek to make campus life and classroom life distinctively nonviolent and we should be promoting biblical nonviolence as a perspective that infuses the entire liberal arts curriculum. Harry Huebner's essay contributes significantly to the kind of thinking and orientation that will help us achieve such an infusion.