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Saturday, 28 July 2007

Anabaptists, Mennonites, and Evolution

One aspect of the Evangelical / Evolution dialogue I find fascinating is the differing reactions to evolution within the Evangelical camp (usually just varying degrees of intense opposition). I’ve already posted some brief thoughts on the Christian Reformed Church and Lutherans, and now I’d like to comment on the Anabaptist / Mennonite reaction. (Note: Anabaptists are not really a proper subset of Evangelicalism but there is a significant intersection in my opinion).

The Anabaptist reaction is of particular personal interest to me since my background is thoroughly Mennonite – at least 4 generations on both sides of my family and, I suspect, back to the original Anabaptists during the reformation. Although my family left the Mennonite church when I was six, I grew up in a “Mennonite culture”. Most of the members of our church came from either an Old Order or other conservative Mennonite backgrounds, a majority of the our farming neighbors were some form of Mennonite or Amish, and many of my relatives were (and still are) Old Order Mennonites.

There was a recent interesting post and discussion on Anabaptists and Science and Religion at the Young Anabaptist radicals blog. The author provides his view of the science / faith discussion within the Anabaptist tradition – actually, he comments that there is very little discussion among modern Anabaptists.

In the Anabaptist churches, however, I see little of this discussion. Perhaps it’s the lingering suspicion of higher education from our Anabaptist forebears. Perhaps it’s our emphasis on social justice and discipleship at the expense of other matters. But whatever the reason, there just aren’t very many Mennonites or Brethren out there talking about science and religion.

He then concludes by asking some very interesting questions regarding this lack of discussion.

So, here are my questions for you. Firstly, why is this something that is never talked about in the Mennonite Church? Secondly, do you think that it is something that should be talked about? Is it an unimportant issue? Is this just pointless intellectual hair-splitting that is better saved until we’ve actually solved things like hunger, war, and poverty? Finally, if it is something that we should talk about, is there something distinctly “Anabaptist” that we can bring to this issue?
I’d like to make 2 comments. First, although not necessarily healthily, I think this lack of discussion is much better than the thoroughly unhealthy opposition to the findings of modern science found in the broader evangelical church. The Anabaptist emphasis on orthopraxy (eg. In the area of social action) is something the broader Evangelical church should learn from. (And we are, albeit slowly, from Anabaptist Evangelicals like Ron Sider). This emphasis on orthopraxy does not have to come at the expense of orthodoxy; “right thinking” and “right action” need to be balanced.

Second, I believe there indeed are some “distinctly Anabaptist” ideas that can be brought to the table in the science / faith discussion. Nancey Murphy, an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren, has done a good job of articulating this perspective. For example, her view on “God’s Nonviolent Direct Action” (see chapter 2 of Religion and Science: God, Evolution, and the Soul) should be required reading for anyone trying to understand divine action in the light of evolution. In my opinion, this Anabaptist-ethic model is very helpful to those of us trying to avoid the “Cosmic Tyrant God” of ID on one hand, and the “Non-existent God” of Richard Dawkins and other metaphysical materialists on the other. In fact, this view of God’s action is the only one, for me, that begins to address the issue of theodicy.

1 comment:

Cliff Martin said...


As you know, anabaptist blood runs in my veins, but my Mennonite father left that community long before I was born. So I was raised in evangelical chruches. But my personal study of the Scriptures led me increasingly to understandings that were distinctly anabaptist. And now, for the last 20 years, I network with brothers and sisters most of whom are former Mennonites, and most of whom retain anabaptist perspectives.

With some excpetions, I do find a greater openness among my anabaptist friends to evolution, old earth, big bang cosmology, etc. In fact, I find anabaptists to be less threatened by those who think outside the box in many ways. Anabaptists typically are less tied to inerrancy views of inspiration (perhaps because they were somewhat isolated and insulated from the modernist/fundamentalists wars at the turn of the 20th century). And this may contribute to their fearlessness when considering alternative understandings.

Whatever the case, for me and my iconoclastic tendencies, forever exploring outside those parameters set by most evangelicals, anabaptists are a refreshing change from the Baptists I used to be with. And one area is in the opennes to discuss the possibilities of evolution, even naturalistic evolution.

Amen also to your comments on theodicy. Even though theodicy has taken a back seat in the conversations we have been engaged in thus far, it is central to all my thinking. It is the nagging problem that just won't go away. And I, like you, have found that science can help point the way to a new way of thinking, in line with the Scriptures, that casts God in a totally different light, and giving us new ways of looking at evil.

And this is where those anabaptists who tend to set orthopraxy over orthodoxy ought to give heed. If the church does not soon offer better answers to the Problem of Evil, the current explosion in athesism will continue to grow exponentially. (Maybe it will anyway. But the church's insipid responses to the very real and rational objections of the skeptics ought not provide fuel for atheism's growth, as it has in the past!)

Nothing less God's character and reputation are at stake. The first request of the Model Prayer Jesus gave to his disciples is "May your name be held in high honor." My pursuit to understand the implications of science to theology have much to do with living out that prayer.

~ Cliff Martin