For and Against Dula Against Schlabach

A guest post by Gerald Schlabach

A response to Peter Dula’s critique of Unlearning Protestantism

in “For and Against Hauerwas Against Mennonites” (Mennonite Quarterly Review July 2010)

On behalf of the ACRS Reading Group in Harrisonburg, Ray Gingerich has asked me to respond to Peter Dula’s “trenchant” and “poignant” critique of me in a recent MQR article.  Let me first say, however, that I took Peter’s critique as such a friendly one that I did not myself think of it as “trenchant,” though his analysis is as usual exceptionally smart and illuminating.   I received it as the kind of critique that a scholar can and should welcome readily.  I have been subject to critiques from other scholars on other matters that I found difficult and painful because they seemed unfair – and unfair because they seemed not to have first endeavored to engage my arguments on their own terms before carrying debate forward.  Peter’s critique was one I welcomed, precisely because he summarized me fairly and knowledgeably, so that I could be confident we would be differing as scholars ought – pushing the field forward instead of endlessly backtracking to clarify what had been misunderstood and talked past.  I had actually asked Peter to read my book in manuscript form, because he seemed to be such an ideal reader – a student of Hauerwas, familiar with virtue ethics, etc., yet with an especially acute independence of mind, and with a Barthian bent that I anticipated would offer the best rival position to my own.  Peter didn’t get a chance to comment pre-publication because he had the funny idea that he should practice stability by getting married and doing his job at Eastern Mennonite well, rather than talking about stability.   Good for him.  This is not to say that I think Peter gets me altogether right.  But even where I will want to push back, Peter has got me thinking and examining my own assumptions and motivations in a way that is salutary.

Peter’s most pointed critique (or at least the one that may penetrate to core assumptions) is based on his inferring or perhaps deconstructing my motives – my “anxiety-ridden” fear that the church is failing to survive the corrosions of modernity and individualism.   I would prefer that my argument did not stand or fall on evidence of my motives, but Peter sets up his own critique in such a way that I am going to have to engage in retrospective self-analysis.  After all, his critique depends heavily on him being right when he says:

The central animating force behind the ecclesiology in Schlabach’s book is a deep-seated anxiety, even fear, about the future of the church. Moreover, the background is a particular communitarian diagnosis of modernity, without which the anxiety dissipates. That is, the argument depends almost entirely on Schlabach (actually, Alasdair MacIntyre) being right about our cultural condition and upon our sharing his anxiety in light of that condition.  (388)

Legitimately, Peter finds ample evidence in my apparent dependence on MacIntyre, and my use of a quote from Hauerwas that was just too good to use only once, about the task of Protestants who now need to figure out how to “survive” the modern world they helped create.  I will freely admit that Peter has textual evidence to run with this, and that he has prompted me to reflect deeply and self-critically about whether I am in fact fearful and preoccupied with survival to the point that I am somehow failing to trust God for the future of the church.  Maybe.  I will welcome a report from your group as to whether others read me this way, and I am sure I will keep thinking about this possibility in any case.  But at this point, I really don’t think so, and want to explain why I think there are other motives and influences at work in my book.

First, about MacIntyre:   I certainly have gotten a lot of intellectual help from him and describe myself as MacIntyrian with regard to the method of tradition-based inquiry, virtue ethics, and the priority of inquiry into “the good.”   But what I think I owe MacIntyre is that he helped me consolidate influences that were important to me well before I had even heard of him.   MacIntyre helped me understood what I was already appropriating from Thomas Kuhn, while avoiding the moral relativism for which others have found comfort in Kuhn.  He helped me to go deeper into the virtue ethics to which Hauerwas had introduced me.   And he helped me to link the sociological insights of Robert Bellah et al. with the philosophical disciplines that I had to learn as a doctoral student in Christian ethics.  But – and here’s the catch – all of those were already resonating with me because in my formation I was (and no doubt remain, even as a Catholic) so much of an Amish Mennonite, an identity in which the task of “sustaining Christian community” is nearly constitutive.

MacIntyre’s diagnosis of cultural “fragmentation,” which he illustrated with the famous thought experiment that opens After Virtue, has thus seemed interesting to me, and well-taken if strictly applied to the state of moral philosophy, but only that.  To me as a Mennonite and then a Mennonite Catholic who has no particular illusions about some prior supposedly intact state of Western civilization, MacIntyre’s preoccupations have never really been mine.  Insofar as they have resonated, it is because my Amish Mennonite upbringing (or more precisely, the legacy of my father’s Amish Mennonite upbringing) gave me a deep sense of solidarity with traditional cultures that I came to know over the years – the Maya in particular, but villages and neighborhoods in Latin America generally, as well as other traditional cultures I learned about in other continents through MCC, though from a distance.   To be sure, Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart did resonate as a diagnosis of the cultural state of North America, and this bears a family resemblance to MacIntyre’s cultural diagnosis.   But what seemed important to me even there was not its own investment in the practices of some prior golden age of American society.  Rather, what seemed important was the way it might help us understand the corrosion of Christian community itself, and the conditions needed to sustain “thick” communal practices.

Now, all of this could still leave me motivated by inordinate fear that modernity is corroding the conditions for sustaining Christian community, and leave Peter saying that he rests his case.  In other words, I might still be tending to neglect or even betray the cruciform shape of the Christian faith by worrying unduly about “survival.”  And as I say, Peter will keep me reflecting upon this possibility for a long time.  I have to take his reading seriously.  After all, I am quite on the record, in writings about “Abrahamic community” spread over nearly two decades, for insisting that there is a necessary if paradoxical tension to all faithful Christian community – namely that the originality of Abrahamic and then Christian community is that it actually loses its identity by protecting it with any kind of siege mentality, and that it preserves its identity only by placing that identity at risk again and again in such service as offers itself as a blessing to all the families of the earth (see http://personal.stthomas.edu/gwschlabach/docs/2v1k.htm).   Though I first wrote of this as a “paradigm” for Mennonite social ethics, it is nothing I have needed to lay aside in becoming a Catholic, for it seems to me that Vatican II encodes much the same pattern by speaking of the church as the “sacrament of the world’s salvation,” and the “sacrament of human unity.”   In any case, for me to neglect or betray this cruciform, Abrahamic, pattern of community life would not only constitute a scholarly inconsistency, but would constitute a cause for repentance – if indeed it is the case that anxiety, fear, and a preoccupation with survival are what have driven my project.  But humbly and with openness to fraternal correction, here’s why I don’t yet feel a need to repent:

For one thing, it seems obvious to me that martyrdom cannot emerge from nowhere.  Yes, individual Christians and indeed entire Christian communities can be called to lay down their lives for the sake of the gospel.  No, survival can never be a supreme value within faithful Christianity.   But martyrs are able to be martyrs because they have been formed with a certain kind of Christlike character.  And that formation in turn depends on certain qualities of communal life, which must exist through time, with enough “continuity” to form its members.   Everything I say in the opening pages of chapter two about the creative paradox inherent in a “tradition of dissent,” which attracted Hauerwas to Mennonites, could be argued in parallel fashion about the kind of continuing tradition that is paradoxically needed to produce Christians who feel no obsessive need to survive.   Jesus called out a community of disciples who would be willing to die for the sake of the gospel, but he didn’t call them to immediately be stillborn as a community.  Christian communities have to live long enough and sustainably enough to give up their lives freely, or else they are purely victims.   Even Jesus, by insisting on what New Testament scholars call the “messianic secret,” seems to have taken pains that neither he nor his movement die prematurely.   Already in Nazareth, following his “inaugural” proclamation in Luke 4, he deliberately eluded a premature execution through stoning, for example.

For another thing, I have written about the “practices of stability” above all because I think they are right.   If readers like Peter must do a deconstructive genealogy of ideas on me, I would – to repeat – at least ask them to pay attention to my Amish Mennonite roots.   (Quick story:  Since my father, Theron Schlabach, was visiting for a week when the task of doing a final copy edit fell upon me in the middle of a semester, I asked him, as an experienced editor, to do that task for me.  When he gave me back the manuscript, there was a little note in the corner of the cover sheet:  “Amish ordnung writ large?”)  Whatever the ironies of my having now become Catholic – which I try to face forthrightly in my book’s introduction –  and however much John Yoder has been my preeminent Mennonite influence, I always considered Harold Bender and Guy Hershberger to be the greater role models for an ecclesial intellectual.  Why?  The senior seminar paper I did as a history major at Goshen College took me back past their writings alone, to the 1920s, when both made very deliberate decisions to hang in there with the church, at a time when many of their peers in the Young People’s Movement were peeling off impatiently.   (Later, Yoder and other Concern Group members ultimately stuck with the church too, as I discuss in chapter two, but arguably in spite of themselves or at least in spite of their ecclesiology; and of course Yoder’s relationship to the flesh-and-blood Mennonite church was at best uneasy for decades.)  So as Hauerwas’s virtue ethics would predict, the most important theological data has come to me in the form of mentors and role models – lives that embody the good.  Later of course I encountered Catholic models, some of whom I tell about in my introduction and others of whom I narrate in chapter 5.  I do not believe it is anxiety that has produced this book, therefore, but something far more positive: the attractiveness of these lives.  Of course my book goes on to use as many analyses and devices and tacks as I can think of to get readers to notice what is inherently a self-effacing “ordinary” virtue.  But my most important motive is the conviction:  Stability is the right way to be a Christian; stability is the right way to participate in Christian community.

Postscript no. 1:  For those who have not read my introduction and might wonder, let me add that I became a Catholic not to depart unstably from the Mennonite community, as it were, but because all of this also required me to search for fresh models by which distinctive traditions and communities within the Church catholic can remain true to their vocations and charisms while remaining in or seeking communion with large wholes.

Postscript no. 2:  I guess am willing to accept one of Peter’s critiques – namely, that for someone so apparently influenced by Hauerwas, I do surprisingly little actual theology in my book.  Looking back, perhaps Peter is right.   If I have a lame defense it is this:  Peter’s critique may be a little like that of certain evangelicals who want an altar call at every church service, or want every Christian trade book to work “the plan of salvation” in somewhere.  A Mennonite (and for that matter a Methodist or a Catholic) replies:  But after someone gets saved, what does a Christian do next?  Analogously:  my book is not so much an ecclesiology or theology of the church as it is about the “then what?” of church, the “what then?” of Christian community.   Perhaps because I was at pains that the book not come across as a Catholic apologetic, I may have tried rhetorically to allow any reader’s ecclesiology to serve as a starting point, so long as he or she takes the church seriously enough to care about “sustaining Christian community.”  In my own mind, my earlier work on Abrahamic community, filled out by key ecclesiological developments at Vatican II, were all assumed.   But sure, I probably shouldn’t have assumed.

Gerald W. Schlabach

19 September 2010

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  1. November 17, 2010 at 2:39 pm

    In light of the recent conversation that took place in the comments section of my last post, “The problem with ‘apocalyptic theology,’” with Gerald’s permission I have posted his response to Peter Dula’s article in MQR.

    In the comments, Michael had asked why our work in apocalyptic theology seems to ignore an “excluded middled,” namely the kind of position taken by an “Augustinian Mennonite” like Gerald Schlabach. As Halden noted, I have worked closely with Gerald; in fact, Gerald was the advisor of my M.A. thesis on apocalyptic in Bonhoeffer and Yoder. I have hesitated to respond to Michael and to Halden’s suggestion that Gerald’s work is obviously a good “target” for what I’m criticizing in my post, not because I don’t have an opinion on the matter, but because my engagement with Gerald on these issues is, I think, more complex and nuanced than what a comment-box really allows for. In other words, it is not as if I don’t have criticisms of Gerald’s book (I do), but rather I would frame my criticisms within the context of my ongoing discussion with Gerald on the nature and function of the church in the world. Although I do share many of the concerns that Peter Dula has expressed about Gerald’s recent book, I should say that knowing him well on a personal level has helped to offset the psychologized concerns about a “deep-seated anxiety.”

    I think this post helps to clarify some of the concerns (particularly his upbringing as a Mennonite and his experience in Latin America) that drives Gerald to write about the conditions for sustaining Christian community. That said, I do think the concern for “stability” and “survival” is a misguided starting-point in thinking about the church. I do think that faith in the gospel is “percarious,” as Chris Huebner would put it.

    Lastly, I want to highlight a few sections of Gerald’s article on the “Abrahamic community” which helps to clarify the ways in which Gerald acknowledges that the search for “stability” and an “identity” has certain kinds of dangers. Perhaps this will help to explain why, though I would disagree with Gerald on certain issues, his work is not the central “target” of my last post.

    Allow me to quote a few passages from Gerald’s article (linked to above) “Beyond Two- versus One-Kingdom Theology: Abrahamic Community as a Mennonite Paradigm for Christian Engagement in Society”:

    As a nation, Israel’s constant temptation was to celebrate identity in Abraham, liberation at Exodus, and a land flowing with milk and honey — while forgetting to welcome the stranger, free the slaves, and remember the oppressed, the widow and the orphan. The more abjectly the people failed, the more the prophets agonized over the meaning of Israel’s existence. Finally Isaiah and his disciples saw that, in effect, the only way forward was back to the call of Abraham. But now the language had to be even more pointed. It had to be the language of suffering service, not just blessing. For election and peoplehood are a gift, not just to the people whom God calls but to the world to whom he gives that people.

    And

    The Abrahamic community ceases to be when it turns inward and simply preserves itself, or when it triumphalistically turns outward only to multiply itself, building its own kingdom rather than the Kingdom.

    And lastly

    The Abrahamic story urges us to be a prophetic minority but prevents us from becoming an arrogant minority. It treasures all true community among the poor even if their forms do not neatly fit our ideas for the church. Its grassroots politics of servanthood, the politics of Jesus, will tend to join with movements that are “popular” in fact and not just in rhetoric, for it shares with these an abiding preoccupation with the real conditions and aspirations of those at society’s base; yet it will enrich their struggles with a story that is longer, a critique that is deeper, and a solidarity that is wider.

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