Some Rambling on Religious and Political Matters.
(“Cosmik Debris” is the name of an anti-guru song by Frank Zappa.)
(Last revised July 2020)
I grew up in the Methodist tradition, spent my high school years torn between fundamentalism and charismatic religious experience (while studying at a Mennonite high school; talk about a mixed up kid!). I joined a Mennonite Church after high school, around the time that I got married. I remained Mennonite for most of my life since then, but with varying degrees of intellectual and spiritual struggle. If you don’t know much about what a “Mennonite” is, here are a couple of helpful links:
- What’s a Mennonite? (written by me for a church webpage)
- Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective
No, I’ve never been the kind of Mennonite with a horse and buggy. I have a PhD and listen to Frank Zappa, after all. (Not that I don’t think we’d be better off with horses and buggies.) I’ve suffered some very severe disappointments with Mennonite congregations and institutional structures, especially since 2013 (when my book, For a Church to Come, was published by Herald Press (Mennonite publisher). The resulting discontent came to a head in 2019 when Gail (my wife) and I left the congregation in which we had been active. We temporarily tried associating with a Mennonite congregation 90 minutes away. We are very grateful for those who welcomed us there, but aside from the unworkable distance, some of the tensions that have long defined me (spelled out more fully below) had come to the surface again.
In early 2020, before the explosion of the Covid-19 pandemic, we visited the congregation of the Episcopal Church where a friend of mine is a priest. I was not fully prepared for how liberating it was to participate in the liturgy, and especially the Eucharist. We now consider ourselves a part of that congregation (St. Michael and All Angels – Cambridge Junction, MI), though our participation so far has been entirely online apart from the first service we attended. So have I become an Episcopalian? Well, yes. Does that mean I am no longer a Mennonite? No, I don’t think it’s that simple. It will probably take me a while to figure this out.
That’s where I am now “institutionally.” Now on to the intellectual/spiritual stuff.
Central to my struggles has been a constant vacillation back and forth between what would be generally perceived as more “conservative” and more “liberal” (“progressive,” to most adherents) inclinations in matters both religious and socio-political. A profound crisis point came early in graduate school, when I had jettisoned most substantive belief in Christian doctrine, the historical accuracy of the Bible, etc. As I studied philosophy, I became increasingly aware that my reasons for rejecting traditional Christian beliefs were untenable. In the midst of this, I found that I actually believed again in some deep sense. This was probably a more important turning point for me than when I “got saved” (prayed the standard “sinner’s prayer”) as a freshman in high school. But I now tend to suspect that the word “belief” is problematic in general, and especially so in its application to these parts of my experience.
As I was growing up, my mother always said that the two things you shouldn’t talk about with other people are religion and politics. My interests always tend to hover in the general vicinity of religion, but I have long hated talking about politics, and I spent a long time believing that I was at least following half of her advice. Then I got a job at Hillsdale College, the reputation of which has a LOT to do with politics. Sorry, Mom. (Winky Face, LOL, etc.)
But I’ve found over the years that what was really going on in what I thought was hatred of politics was what Russell Kirk would identify as a deep antipathy toward Ideology. If you don’t already know, you can look around at some stuff about Kirk to see that his sense of ‘ideology’ is somewhat specific, and especially not the same as Marx’s sense. It’s related to partisanship, or “parties,” that we are warned about by St. Paul and Nietzsche, among others. Kirk sees this antipathy toward ideology as central to what he means by ‘conservatism.’ I have been profoundly shaped by a graduate school infatuation, and a conversation now more than three decades long, with several streams of putatively “conservative” thinking, especially with what is sometimes called “intellectual conservatism.” I have discovered what seems an abiding tradition in Western thought that emphasizes the finitude of human understanding, and the impossibility of large scale social engineering, political blueprints, or wholly predictable social change. It’s a kind of conservatism that’s represented, I believe, by folks as diverse as Peter L. Berger, Wendell Berry, Edmund Burke, Michel Foucault, Friedrich Hayek, Robert A. Heinlein, David Hume, Michael Oakeshott, George Santayana, and Frank Zappa (as well as Russell Kirk). It is much more like a sort of fundamental attitude about what human beings are like, and how little they are actually capable of knowing, than it is a political outlook in any narrow sense.
I’ve been ambivalent about my association with conservative thought all along. You can view this blog post from back in 2012 in which I reflected on my “coming out” as a conservative. However, the 2016 US presidential election and its aftermath have made me MUCH more ambivalent about using the term! I still do think that my conservative sympathies are somehow essential to who I am, but I have absolutely no interest in being associated with what currently pass (in most public discourse, including social media) for “conservative” views on sexuality, gender, family, immigration, and other “hot button” issues. When it comes to some of those matters, in the current climate, I come across superficially as very “progressive,” or at least “socially liberal.” But when pushed, I do not fit well in those boxes, either.
My faith, and the way I think about it, has been so deeply shaped by an Anabaptist/Mennonite framework that I can’t imagine that being wholly undone. Theologian John Howard Yoder was an especially huge influence, but that brings with it the shadow of his moral failings. Documented disclosure of the full gravity of Yoder’s history of violence toward women, and of the responses of the institutional church, were emerging in print at approximately the same time as the publication of my book. (See here for the best single-article account of this, by historian Rachel Waltner Goossen.)
I developed some significant Catholic leanings in college and grad school. This includes a fascination with sacramental thought and action that has waxed and waned, and has recently become intense again. I’ve been able to accept real presence (and even transubstantiation) for years. I am currently rather horrified by the poverty of Protestantism in many of its dimensions, but I do still have a deeply Protestant ability to “sin boldly” (but nurse guilt about it), and an awareness that God’s grace (unmerited and unconditional acceptance) is experientially fundamental to my Christian commitment, and was so even in my fundamentalist / evangelical days. I also have some strong Taoist sympathies, just to keep things complicated. My reading of the Anabaptist tradition leads me to waver in a difficult tension between more “anarchist” leanings (in a sense articulated most clearly by Jacques Ellul and Vernard Eller, but also embodied in J. Denny Weaver’s work) on the one hand, and more “communitarian” (neo-Amish?) leanings on the other hand. As I’ve been discovering the welcoming of struggles like mine in the Episcopal setting, I’ve also been exploring affinities with the liberal (Hicksite) Quakers. Yup, I just said both ‘Catholic’ and ‘Quakers’ in the same paragraph. That’s how weird it gets. But I’ve been pleased to find that some Quaker friends do not think this is strange at all.
I now emphatically do NOT consider myself either a fundamentalist or an evangelical (in the current North American sense), but I do continue to take “orthodox” Christian doctrines (e.g., the affirmations of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds) very seriously (and even believe them on and off). I add that part about the Creeds (despite my formation in a “non-creedal” tradition) because so many “conservative” Christians now seem to talk as if doctrinal orthodoxy includes very specific views regarding gender and sexuality, who can marry whom, and abortion, among other things. This has fed my cynical inclination to think that the word “orthodoxy” usually operates (performatively) mainly as an indicator of beliefs that the user of the word is pissed off about other people not sharing. But despite all this, the “fundagelical” persona is still in here; it’s a part of me that I must love if I am to love myself.
Underneath the doctrinal matters: Since grad school, whatever else waxes or wanes, I tend to keep drifting back to what some call “classical theism,” which is most clearly exemplified by Anselm and Aquinas. I was strongly influenced in this regard by the opening chapters of a book, The God of Faith and Reason, by Robert Sokolowski (see the summary of it on Amazon), and by a graduate course that I took at Notre Dame on creation with Fr. David Burrell. I’m sometimes tempted to think that I am more sure of being a theist in this sense than I am of being a Christian, but that’s probably mostly because other Christians so often piss me off.
But more generally speaking, I find that my theism tends to be quite strongly apophatic, for those who can appreciate that term. What I mean by this, simply put, is that we are always trying to grasp God conceptually, but we never manage it, and we never will. I believe in what Paul Tillich called “the God above God.” I can say it in several other provocative ways: To borrow Jacques Derrida’s phrasing, I “rightly pass for a theist.” I hesitate to say that God exists, though I believe that God IS. We can only know what God is NOT.
Some people would say that the God implied by my views is not “religiously available.” That’s precisely the point, you see! I understand what’s meant by the claim that the “God of the philosophers” is not the “God of the Bible,” but I remain viscerally unconvinced. I fear that if I WERE convinced of this, I would opt for the former. But I’d rather not have to choose. I suspect that Nietzsche is right that God is dead, that we have killed him, and that we don’t yet have much of a clue what this means. But I also believe that that dead God is not the God that I believe in, at least as long as “believe in” here means “strive to believe in beyond whatever I currently believe in.” I think that genuine monotheism is only possible as a constant and unending (in this life) movement out of idolatry. Otherwise, it’s henotheism.
So I am, in an important sense, both politically and theologically / ecclesiologically homeless. (The German word ‘unheimlich‘ might be appropriate here with regard to the character of my spiritual life.) The Episcopal Church feels OK right now because (as I’ve discovered since wandering there) it now contains a LOT of people for whom this description seems apt.
Yes, I know that some will ask: Why not just be me and not worry so much about what or where I am? If you think you are doing that, I suspect that you’ve just found a way to be comfortable wherever you find yourself in all of the ambiguity, perhaps authentically. I have often wished that I could do that, but am increasingly seeing it as OK that I cannot. I’m not saying you should be like this; only that this is me.
I’m unapologetic about the fact that my beliefs do not cohere very well. Sure, some people will roll their eyes and yawn if I quote Emerson or Whitman regarding consistency, but I think they were on to something very important. The individual self is (usually) a unity in one sense, but it is just as important to see it as a conflictual multiplicity. I still think “beliefs” are important somehow, but I’m increasingly skeptical about whether the word ‘belief’ names a single kind of thing, and about whether belief (in the sense of assenting to certain propositions) is as important as we tend to make it. If we have to believe the right things in order to be OK, then we’re all pretty much toast.
This condenses a long and complicated story in just a few paragraphs. I hope it’s enough to provide some genuine insight into who I am. It is meant only to begin interaction, not to replace it. I welcome your questions and responses.
My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.