What sets apart faith-based justice work from secular causes? Do we lack spiritual depth? Are we too progressive for our own good?
Ryan Dueck, Cynthia Wallace and Peter Haresnape will join CM’s Aaron Epp to discuss these questions during CM’s next online event, March 8 at 8:00 p.m. EST. (Register at canadianmennonite.org/events).
The event arises from an article by Dueck and five responses—including one from Wallace—published in the Jan. 30 issue of CM.
Below are excerpts from Dueck’s and Wallace’s reflections, a response by Haresnape, and questions each participant hopes to explore.
Pastor, Lethbridge Mennonite Church
One of my abiding critiques of the progressive church circles I inhabit is that they often lack what I call existential urgency. God is, we think, very interested in our positions on social issues and is very eager to affirm our journey through various constellations of identities, but God is not so much interested in sin or salvation or judgment or deliverance or the kind of love that breaks down in order to mend.
This God is not so much about anything that could set a soul aflame.
Aside from this blend of faith being flat-out boring, I also believe it is a recipe for failure.
To be clear, a gospel that does not include a robust vision of social engagement is no gospel at all. But God is so much more than this. . . . To put it bluntly, the God-as-therapist or God-as-activist-in-chief isn’t particularly working. There are blessed exceptions (thanks be to God!), but in general terms . . . we are a church of mostly aging white liberals, at least in many parts of the country.
My question: The article I quote in my reflection claims that 20- and 30-somethings have often been “preached right out of the gospel” with the best of intentions. Does this resonate with your experience? Has the preaching and teaching of more progressive churches given young people a faith that’s pretty easy to leave behind?
Associate professor, St. Thomas More College, University of Saskatchewan
Most of us in North American Christianity have been formed in the binary tensions between faith and works, judgment and love, salvation as everlasting life and salvation as justice, Jesus as Lion and Jesus as Lamb. We pendulum-swing between them as individuals and generations. . . . So those of us who grew up in legalistic fundamentalisms may find ourselves taking the same legalism into progressive activist spaces, still politely sidestepping the radical disruptions of grace.
But the most vibrant faith I have encountered rejects the dichotomies: it holds them together in a provocative both/and. This faith is unabashedly delighted by God’s mercy, and it is passionately committed to justice, which it recognizes as love writ large. It is earthy and practical and at the same time rooted in spiritual disciplines like contemplative prayer. It is honest about human failings—sin, both personal and structural—because it usually emerges from a familiarity with hardship. It is gracious and non-defensive and the opposite of coercive, but it also says, Listen, I have known the depths, and I have met Jesus on the road, and my heart burned within me.
My question is: What do you envision as the way forward? What practices, both personal and communal, do you think would help folks re-integrate spiritual fervour with social action?
Pastor, Toronto United Mennonite Church
One of my Church & Ministry classmates opened her weekly reflection with the apology: “It’s quite boring, sorry.” Spellbound and inspired, I listened to a life story of service, care and nurture, marked by commitments to God, to her husband and as a parent. She spoke of the gifts she had been given and her growing confidence to offer them, caring for the sick and frail, mentoring others and bringing a sense of peace, hope and joy in leading worship. She named gifts of music, visitation and cooking.
I was not bored. She shared nothing rare or remarkable, but her telling was infused with a focus on discerning right action, asking honest questions, and finding God’s presence in the matter of common life.
Are progressive churches, therapeutic churches, boring? Probably, but you don’t have to be bored. Ryan feels a lack of existential urgency in church. My experience differs–crisis and pain rub shoulders with beauty and yearning, while human frailty and fragility invite us to draw on the grace and love with which God has welcomed us all. Frustration, bewilderment, exhaustion–yes, but seldom boredom.
At the 2022 Cahoots Festival, Ashe Van Steenwyk described her response when the disordered play of children upsets congregants. She encouraged us to treat that moment of annoyance as a reminder that we came to church seeking something Holy. Can boredom help us feel the holy dynamic within the seemingly mundane?
My question is: What are your concerns around boredom within the life of faith? How does boredom impact your community’s experience of church?
To register for the March 8 online event, visit canadianmennonite.org/events.
This article appears in the Feb. 13, 2023 print issue, with the headline “Are Canadian Mennonites too progressive for their own good?”
Try as I might, I can't understand what the real topic is here, unless it's whether or not socially active churches somehow are aligned with the "woke" strawman that American Republicanism loves to hate.
I hope that's not what's going on here, but it strikes me that for us to assert that too much social consciousness is crowding out the charismatic consciousness that we need and that God wants us to experience leaves the average Mennonite Christian in the average Canadian Mennonite Church with some very relevant puzzlement.
Is what I've written so far a fair representation of what Ryan Dueck wrote in the Jan. 30, 2023 edition of CM?
If it is, then what does our "aging white liberal" do with that conclusion? What does First Mennonite Church on Elm Street do with it? What about the leadership in the area conferences? Is it sufficient for the remnant, the "aging white liberals," to know that they—through the social action zeal of their productive years—should know that they're responsible for allowing their church to fall into this ... What? Obsession with good works?
If we're going to do a self-evaluation, let's at least do it on a subject that has handles. Historically, we've done pietism, we've done separateness, we've done revivalism and yes, we've done a lot of social activism. As Mennonites, we've found most success in our sustained sensitivity and energy applied to the healing of others. And, I would maintain, have experienced a euphoria and transcendence that hasn't been conjured, but "added unto us" as the legitimate companion of even the halting, but determined obedience to the Sermon on the Mount.
Thank you, Ryan Dueck, for provoking us to reflect anew on the spiritual state of our Mennonite congregations. Your article recalls the vigorous discussion of the “Anabaptist Vision” a few decades ago and its pastoral impact on one or two generations of Mennonite leaders.
Notably, Dueck's article scares some who have experienced exclusion by the church, and rattles others who had to unlearn their guilt-induced, or subjectively manipulated, fundamentalist Mennonite experience to embrace Christian faith. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision allowed a generation to unlearn in the name of “authentic” Anabaptism and Christianity.
Thank you for quoting Brad East’s blog; he is no theological slouch! His blog article cites Stanley Hauerwas positively—a name very familiar to so-called “progressive” Mennonites. Hauerwas is a pacifist theologian and a close student of Mennonitism. Hauerwas consistently challenges old forms of Christianity (including liberalism or religion as therapy) very much in the school of John Howard Yoder. Mennonites colleges have had Hauerwas on their required reading list for 40 years.
Also, East's piece does not use the words “progressive” or “left” or “right” or “aging white liberals,” as Dueck does in his summary. Those categories are problematic and in my humble opinion will not foster good Mennonite conversation on these critical questions.
I think a Mennonite-trained congregational leader promulgating a “God-as-therapist or God-as-activist-in-chief” would be an outlier. That said, it is time to pick up the conversation. Our youth are thoughtful and perceptive and hungry for God, and will appreciate a fresh articulation of the Mennonite spiritual gift in the body of Christ.
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