Thomas Finger is the author of, among other books, A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology. That book was the culmination of his main scholarly task, following the hints of Robert Friedman and John Howard Yoder, to explicate the implicit theology of Anabaptists/Mennonites.
Since my family of origin was neither strongly Christian nor anything like Mennonite, my mind changed most profoundly twice, along the paths to embracing each tradition. My parents grew up during the Great Depression. Shortly after World War II they, along with many like-minded twenty-somethings, moved into north suburban Chicago to ascend the economic and social ladder. These newcomers viewed themselves as fairly poor, and as toiling to give their children what they never had. Having never experienced want, however, I sensed very early the shallowness of lives based on acquisition, and on equating giving of things with giving of love. When I rode the "L" train to Chicago, I passed through neighborhoods much worse off than mine. The inequality upset and saddened me. People sometimes laughed about "the poor starving Armenians." I could never find any humor in it.
My parents, like most of my neighbors and relatives, were somewhat conservative politically, though they seldom discussed it. In my early years, Hitler, concentration camps and war rationing were vivid memories. I was taught that war was a sad necessity maniacs like Hitler had to be stopped. But none of my friends or family glorified or even liked war. As my peers and I neared draft age, no one I knew wanted to go. Some risked their health by, say, gross overeating or freezing to catch pneumonia in hopes of failing the army physical.
Religiously, I must have carried a recessive gene. From a very young age I sensed something wondrously beautiful and mysterious about the universe, often experienced as an encompassing, nurturing presence. In the 1970s, the feminist movement helped me realize that this was more "feminine" than "masculine." My basic sensibility is still like this, though it has never excluded the latter. I could not ever really believe that so splendid and intricately designed a universe had simply arisen by chance. Yet in such an incredibly vast cosmos, did whatever Ultimate there was know or care about our troubled planet, or a speck so minute as me?
My parents, grandparents, and most great-grandparents had been college-educated, and I naturally imbibed a modern (Enlightenment) outlook. But at age 13, while fiddling with the radio dial and landing on station WMBI (the voice of Moody Bible Institute), I was shocked to hear that Jesus might actually return to earth again! I read through a King James Bible twice keeping it secret, lest anyone think me too emotional or fanatical or feminine. I discovered that if the whole Jesus-thing were true, it involved the most important commitment anyone could make. But I couldn't believe it was true.
Considered in light of other religions and philosophies, what made Christianity distinct was its fantastic, flagrantly un-modern claim that among the millions who had ever lived, one ordinary, actual human being was also God. I grew up in the shadow of an enormous Baha'i temple in Wilmette, IL. Why not, I often thought, if Jesus were simply a great prophet or teacher as most religions seemed to agree become a Baha'i? Why join that sect that actually worshiped Jesus in their songs, prayers and Scriptures? blasphemy for any monotheist, according to Muslims and Jews. Why, in a world wracked so long by religious wars and newly threatened by nuclear annihilation, risk intensifying those antagonisms by embracing Christianity's particular claims? These questions, though not so precisely formulated, raced through my mind from high school through my third year in college.
What Christian upbringing I did have occurred in a wealthy, "liberal" (in the worst sense) Protestant church. Membership often coincided with upward social mobility. Preaching and teaching offered little but pious moralisms. Not that I ever disagreed with liberal Christianity's social-ethical ideals: promoting justice and equality, opposing prejudice and poverty. But if God were really in view, there should be more: that inscrutable, awesomely beautiful energy behind everything; some answers to life's burning questions; some inexplicable joy to lift the heart; some comfort and purpose deep enough to keep those battered in body and spirit going.
By my sophomore year in college I knew enough of the Biblical vision to deeply admire it, and even hope it might be true. But I couldn't believe it. How, then, did my mind change? In large part, as experiences forced me to recognize its limitations. This was not abandoning my mind but growing recognition of its proper role.
I entered college hopeful of finding Truth via the intellectual route. In my first year, I set out to write a philosophy paper on John Locke. One dark October afternoon in the library I found an entire shelf of books by, and mostly about, John Locke. Suddenly it struck me that multiple specialists in Locke couldn't agree about his teaching. Yet he was only one of several dozen important Western philosophers. What about Eastern philosophers? And psychologists and political scientists, whom I'd only begun to study? I hadn't even touched religion yet! It was as if the library floor gave way into an yawning abyss. The intellectual route to Truth, I realized, could be more than endless. After that, for every genuine insight I gained, or every rung of the intellectual ladder I climbed, the ladder added three or four rungs. That is not to say that the ladder was useless. Those lower rungs did point me towards Truth. But the intellectual ladder, by itself, would never have brought me there.
My college was Episcopal, and I often attended a brief Evening Prayer service. When we came to the Apostles' Creed, I would recite: "I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth." Then I would stop. Readers who were raised with too much dogma, and too little opportunity to ask their own questions, might find it hard to understand why I really wished that I could continue with the others: "and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord...." Raised in the modern mind set which so easily descended into skepticism and nihilism, I longed to be able to confess anything like that with sincerity. To believe in anything enduring and reliable amidst the contemporary chaos and confusion that would be a liberating blessing, hardly a confining demand. Today, when I affirm some classical Christian beliefs, some people suppose that I hail from a fundamentalist background which I refuse to question. I really come from an overwhelming proliferation of questions from the opposite direction. My mind's first major change occurred when it, or I, after prodigious effort, was virtually forced to admit that my confusion and personal needs were only worsening, and that my mind simply could not resolve them. My intellectual processes did not need to halt altogether but to step aside awhile, and accept help from elsewhere. Reduced to what felt like utter foolishness, I simply asked the risen Jesus, if he were there at all, to show me what I couldn't discover for myself. Silly as that sounded, I soon became aware of an inexpressible Love, a direct personal response which could only come from the One I had asked. Towards such an encounter the mind can point, but never reach by itself. My new journey was not always smooth. Doubts arose not least from a psychiatrist who labeled it all a new species of delusion. These questions re-awakened my mind, but as I wrestled with them, I sometimes wondered: was I simply seeking to support what I desperately needed to believe? Though I can hardly answer this question comprehensively, let me list three ways in which Christian faith came to make intellectual sense.
First, I was soon drawn into much Bible reading, worship, and contact with other Christians. There I repeatedly found my kind of experience confirmed and clarified. If I were hallucinating, this was an incredibly rich, complex, centuries-old, world-wide hallucination. Christian faith, despite some horrifying counter-examples, had inspired stable, restorative, highly admirable ways of life for countless millions. As a set of behavior-patterns and underlying convictions, it was certainly consistent and "reasonable" in any ordinary sense, even though often counter-cultural. Still, someone might object: this does not prove that Christian faith is true. Over the years, I came to believe that when our limited minds deal properly with real life situations, proof is not the issue. When anyone considers, say, what job to take or whom to marry, there is no way to prove that any decision is best. That depends on the future, which no one can control. Still, great differences exist between using and not using our minds; between having good and bad reasons. For instance, a couple who learns to know each other in many different situations before marriage is far more likely to succeed than one who elopes while stoned. All Christian living is oriented towards the future, or eschatological, and so is proper thinking about it. The mind, by itself, cannot take us to the End of this path. It can only help us, by carefully investigating the terrain and the goal, to reach it by other means. This is a limited, but very important rational task. Nevertheless, the Truth which the mind only apprehends in part will not be fully revealed until the "the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea." (Habakkuk 2:14) This means, third, that theological concepts do not provide full explanations of anything. They simply make the best sense we can of our basic convictions in light of Scripture, tradition, and our journey of discipleship in Christian community. Take the question that proved too large for my mind before becoming a Christian: was Jesus really fully divine and fully human? As I began guiding my life by his teachings and example, I gradually realized that I was assuming that he was truly human. For if he were not, but lived as he did only because he was God, I could not possibly follow him. Further, I realized that I was following Jesus because I also believed he was with me, could be known through worship and prayer, and would always be with me, saving me from final defeat and eternal death. But only God could do such things. In other words, I came to realize that belief in Jesus' humanity and deity was no abstract, puzzling doctrine. It was the very basis of my overall life-orientation. I had, indeed, only been living as a Christian because I believed this implicitly all along. Only gradually did my mind begin to apprehend this explicitly, and discover what sense it made in light of Scripture and tradition. And though I now have strong reasons for believing that Jesus is fully divine and fully human, I will never understand fully what this means or be able to prove it. My belief, then, is rational in the limited way possible for a human mind, but ultimately rooted in love for, and from, Jesus, and in hope for his final coming.
I have described my first change of mind because it was so basic for all that followed. But how did I change a second time and become a Mennonite?
My first change, at age 21 as a college drop-out, occurred among evangelicals. This subculture seemed extremely strange. Had I not been humbled enough to admit my own weakness, I likely would have scoffed at its simplistic message and ways. Had I been raised in these circles, I might have rebelled and felt impelled to keep on bashing evangelicals, as do some of my colleagues. But I will always be grateful for the sincere ones, including even some fundamentalists, who risk looking and perhaps even being quite foolish, to communicate the Love that powerfully moves them. Despite occasional doubts, I enjoyed, for about 10 months, something rare for an intellectual: a simple, untroubled, happy faith. Not that my mind stopped. I read the Bible voraciously, and discovered many new and wonderful things. Had I, at that time, approached Scripture through a rigorous "critical" lense, I would have diluted, and even been defending myself against, its vitality, and perching once again on skepticism's endless ladder. Memories of that ladder brought shudders whenever I pondered returning to college. But before long I realized that salvation was not only rescue from distress, but also a long process of becoming whatever God created me to be. That, much as it frightened me, meant taking up philosophy, psychology, and theology all over again. I chose an evangelical college, which was indeed a culture shock. Whereas my former school was notorious nation-wide for drinking, my new one banned even cards and movies! I puzzled why freshman and sophomore men had to take R.O.T.C. (and was glad to have transferred as a junior!), and why the military was occasionally praised in chapel and elsewhere. What conduct was more ungodly than that of most soldiers? And even if military defense was sadly necessary, why should Christians, of all people, glorify it? I began to sense a disjunct, not fully articulate, between such things and the faith I had embraced.
My questions intensified as hostilities in Viet Nam increased and I entered an evangelical seminary. Budding pastors were encouraged to focus not on "social and political affairs" but "the Gospel." Gradually, though, I realized that many folks in these circles approved, openly or tacitly, involvement in Viet Nam, but not Martin Luther King. I increasingly wondered what a biblical social theology might look like, but got little help. Sojourners and The Other Side were still a few years off.
For my Ph.D., I chose one of the most liberal campuses I could find. Like many people born around World War II, the folly of the Allies' slow response to Hitler had been drummed into me. Like many of them, I initially accepted Viet Nam involvement as a timely assumption of responsibilities under the S.E.A.T.O. pact. But if evangelicals had provided little guidance on this issue, neo-Marxist campus radicals soon unmasked the economic and military networks involved, and convinced me that "responsibility" or "defense" were hardly the basic motives.
For me, neo-Marxism provided insightful critiques of Western society, but no real solutions. The issue of a Christian response to war kept gnawing at me. My wife, who was Mennonite, and I began a study of Matthew, asking what each appearance of "the Kingdom of Heaven" meant. The outlines of a counter-culture devoted to peace, equality, and economic sharing stood out vividly. I gradually realized that while Scripture mentions Jesus' saving and judging activity, it tells us to emulate only the first sort, never the second.
Finally, help for folks who took the Bible seriously and were influenced by evangelicals arrived. From Sojourners and The Other Side (then Freedom Now) I learned that while Evangelicals emphasize individuals but not social structures, and while Liberals do the reverse, the Anabaptist notion of the Church as an alternative community stresses both. This model, however, usually affects macrostructures not so much directly (say, by supporting candidates or legislation) as indirectly, by creating alternative structures. (1)
I would not become a Mennonite for more than a decade (in 1983) chiefly because I wondered whether this community, with its ethnically ingrown and sociologically isolated past, would really welcome people like me (it did!) But the changes of mind mentioned here were the main ones that brought me to an Anabaptist and pacifist commitment.
Like most people, I first assumed that Anabaptists could contribute much to ethics, but nothing really to theology. Only after a year in Germany (with Wolfhart Pannenberg) did I discover hints to the contrary: first in a short chapter in John Howard Yoder's Politics of Jesus; (2) second, more extensively, in Robert Friedmann's Theology of Anabaptism, (3) though I came to dispute some of its content. At this time I was also deeply moved by Jürgen Moltmann's Theology of Hope (4) and The Crucified God, (5) and rightly intuited their compatibility with Anabaptism. I began to realize that Anabaptists always had what Friedmann called an implicit theology, and that this could be rendered explicit today. This was perhaps my third significant change of mind. It has furnished my chief scholarly goal ever since.
Because all my subsequent changes could double the length of this article, let me describe a just a few more briefly. All are consistent with my initial understandings of Christian faith, Anabaptism, and Anabaptist theologizing, but represent significant changes of emphasis within these frameworks.
1) I have increasingly sought to explicate Anabaptist theology in an ecumenical context. Shortly after joining the Mennonites, I was surprisingly asked to represent them at a meeting of the National Council of Churches' Faith & Order Commission. I have done so ever since! Initially, I considered myself more "evangelical" than "ecumenical," and felt skeptical about the latter's aims and institutions. But over the years, ecumenicals have usually welcomed me more warmly, and taken me more seriously, than evangelicals. My concern, even passion, to discover Jesus' true Church and help its diverse members strengthen each other keeps on growing. For this reason, I find it important to express Anabaptist convictions in language intelligible to other theological traditions, rather than insisting repeatedly, in in-house lingo, on our "distinctives." (6) I have also discovered that Anabaptists can learn much from other traditions. At the same time, however, we can contribute much to them. Our dialogue will become pointless if, while seeking to communicate clearly, we dilute and obscure our distinctives. We must express these, even if others resist or reject them; otherwise, we will surrender our main contribution to them. (7)
2) Environmental issues have become increasingly important. (8) Perhaps concern for the entire creation has emerged partly from that encompassing, nurturing, "feminine" awareness of God's presence that I have sensed since childhood. This comprehensive concern is also expressed in my recent effort to characterize the Anabaptist outlook as a thoroughgoing awareness and hope for "The Coming of the New Creation." (9) I have increasingly realized how closely environmental destruction is linked with social, economic, and military strife, and how much reversals of these must be accompanied by environmental restoration.
3) I have become more and more interested in spirituality. This stems partly from my own needs and growth, and partly from the increasing spiritual hunger among Anabaptists today. All this has strengthened my conviction that historic Anabaptism (ca. 1525-1575) cannot, and current Anabaptist theology should not, be largely reduced to social-ethical dimensions. This, for me, entails no diminishing of social-ethical content. I find that proper attention to the spiritual dimension energizes social-ethical praxis, and vice-versa. Attention to spirituality also brings ecumenical connections and possibilities to the fore. Significant links between historic Anabaptism and medieval Catholic spirituality emerge, (10) while interchange among Anabaptists, Catholics, Orthodox, and others appear possible and desirable. Though no direct links between historic Anabaptism and eastern Orthodoxy are known, I have discovered themes in the former that, surprisingly, somewhat resemble the latter. With some caution, I have proposed that divinization, Orthodoxy's primary notion of salvation, can express an Anabaptist understanding more adequately than justification, sanctification, holiness, or even discipleship. (11)
4) Though I do not know what discernible impact it will have on my theology, my efforts in musical composition have increased in recent years. Only in my 50s did I really realize how severely a congenital hand-eye co-ordination problem had limited my ability to play piano, and consequently to sound out and transcribe harmonies and other complex patterns. Still, I have recently written and produced a three-act Lenten-Easter musical drama, (12) and a cantata honoring Mary, mother of our Lord. (13) Musical expression supplements my written and verbal expression in important ways. In fact, I have always viewed my theological writing and speaking as creative, artistic activities, however little that might be recognized by people unfamiliar with the field.
1. esp. Art Gish, "The New Left and Christian Radicalism" The Other Side 6:5 (September-October 1970), 16-22; see also The New Left and Christian Radicalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970).
2. "Trial Balance," 94-114 in The Politics of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1972).
3. Scottdale, PA.: Herald, 1973.
4. New York: Harper & Row, 1969.
5. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.
6. For my fullest treatment of this, see "Appropriating Other Traditions While Remaining Anabaptist," Conrad Grebel Review 17:2 (Spring 1999), 52-68.
7. The ecumenical perspective is at the forefront in articles like "Initial Mennonite Response" to Frederick Bauerschmidt, "Baptism in the Diaspora" in Gerald Schlabach, ed., On Baptism: Mennonite-Catholic Colloquium 2001-2002 (Kitchener, ON: Pandora, 2004), 63-79; "An Anabaptist Perspective on Justification" in M. Opocensky and P. Reamonn, eds., Justification in the Traditions of the Reformation (Geneva: World Alliance of Reformed Churches, 1999); "A Mennonite Theology for Interfaith Relations" in S. Mark Heim, ed., Grounds for Understanding (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 69-92. 44-86. "The Way to Nicea" Journal of Ecumenical Studies 24:2 (Spring, 1987), 212-231.
8. My most comprehensive attempt is Self, Earth and Society (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1997); also see "Trinity, Ecology and Panentheism," Christian Scholar's Review 27:1 (Fall, 1997), 74-98; "Modern Alienation and Trinitarian Creation," Evangelical Review of Theology 17:3 (April, 1993), 190-208; "Evangelicals, Eschatology and the Environment" (Evangelical Environmental Network: The Scholars' Circle, Monograph #2, 1998).
9. An overarching theme in my A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology: Biblical, Historical, Constructive (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004).
10. see "An Historic Anabaptist Social Spirituality," Conrad Grebel Review 22:3 (Fall, 2004), 93-104.
11. see esp. A Contemporary Anabaptist Theology, 113-132, 148-156; also see "Anabaptism and Eastern Orthodoxy: some surprising similarities?" Journal of Ecumenical Studies 31-32 (Winter/Spring 1994), 67-91.
12. "Mary Magdalene Anointing," "Peter's Betrayal," and "Jesus' Resurrection Appearances to Mary and Peter." The first two Acts were performed at Reba Place Church, Evanston, IL, during Lent in 2002 and 2003.
13. "Blessed Mary," performed at the Ekklesia Project Conference, Chicago, IL, July 2004.
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