Being a Mennonite academic

Feb 19, 2015 by

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It’s interesting being a Mennonite and an academic. Sometimes I find my Anabaptist-Mennonite sensibilities grating against the norms of academia: my “priesthood of all believers” mentality against intellectual elitism, my discipleship/faith-without-works-is-dead mentality against the divorcing of theory from practice, and especially, my appreciation for the “plain sense” and the poetry of Scripture (in the vernacular!) against the inaccessibility of academic language.

Sometimes it even gets ugly, such as the time when I blurted out, “I’m an Anabaptist, for goodness’ sake!” during a particularly difficult Latin class (I mean really, the irony of an Anabaptist taking Latin). And yet, I carry on with my studies and enjoy them immensely — especially the writing.

One of my close “companions”/kindred spirits along the way and a theologian whom I deeply admire is Dorothee Soelle (1929-2003). I first came across her work in an introduction to theology course years ago and she is now one of two theologians on whom I’m writing my dissertation. She was a German activist and theologian whose work can only be described as existentialist-liberationist-feminist-mystical-nonviolent theology. I find her inspiring, not only because her theology defies categorization, but also because she was a theologian/poet, and hence someone who, like me, chafed against the conventions of academic writing, or ignored them altogether when they got in her way — all for theological reasons, of course.

For instance, she didn’t think that theology should try to be coldly objective or primarily scientific, but emotional, warm and tied to narrative and experience, both individual and communal. She preferred to write about faith or the mystical experience of God rather than purely intellectual or abstract knowledge about God — so she didn’t shy away from speaking in the first person, which some academics still frown upon. Her theology is very widely read, in part because it is so accessible, and well, readable.

In her autobiography, Against the Wind: Memoir of a Radical Christian (Fortress, 1999), she spoke about her own theological writing this way:

Perhaps the university had its difficulties with me because I took diverging paths, in search of a way of writing that was different from that of established scholarship. I did not want to overload my books with footnotes; I wanted to document my thought process, not my knowledge. The dominant pattern is to line up as many authorities as possible behind oneself instead of risking saying something new.

Instead, her writing was centrally guided by “self-expression,” “creativity” and “greater chances to change people.” She concluded that:

Although it needs aspects of science, theology is much more akin to praxis [or ethics], poetry, and art than to science. For centuries the better theologians were more artist than scientist. I think of Michelangelo’s portrayal of Adam in his depiction of creation in the Sistine Chapel and how, being touched by God, Adam awakens to life. Eve is already placed near God, in God’s embrace. Theologically more interesting writers . . . tend to make use of language in a different way. This is the kind of theology I have in mind when I imagine a theological kingdom of God, although I assume that in such a kingdom there is no need of theology.

What a wonderful description of the “genre” of theological writing.

If you haven’t yet had the pleasure of being introduced to Soelle’s theology, you might want to start with her book Theology for Skeptics (Fortress, 1995).

Susie Guenther Loewen is writing her doctoral dissertation in theology on the themes of gender, suffering and the cross, and she lives in Winnipeg, Man. This blog post is provided thanks to our partnership with the Young Voices blog of Canadian Mennonite magazine.

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