Building a capacity to love: Confessions, authority, and virtues in the Mennonite Church

In the ongoing discussions around authority and the Being a Faithful Church (BFC) process in Mennonite Church Canada I recently heard a well-known leader in the Mennonite Church suggest that we suspend the authority of our Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective for a period of, say, 1o years. As much as I can be critical of the various institutional mechanisms of authority in the Mennonite church I was not sure of the usefulness (never mind possibility) of such a suggestion.

However, as I reflected on the practicality of such a statement I was taken back to the premise of the BFC process. BFC 1 (waaaaaaaay back in 2009) affirmed that “Seeking clarity in faithfulness in Christian life is the never-ending, non-optional vocation of God’s people.” The church is called to ongoing discernment. While I would disagree with some of the ways discernment is framed in BFC 1 onward I appreciate the document’s openness in saying that the result of the discernment process typically falls within three responses; 1) Repeat what has been said before 2) Modify what has been said 3) Change what has been said. The document outlines how these three options have happened both within the Bible as well as the church’s history.

If it is true that discernment is the “never-ending and non-optional” work of the church and if we realize how the Bible itself gives witness to these openings and changes then we do need to consider how to practically suspend the authority of our confessions, otherwise discernment is just going through the motions with no chance for insight or change. The process we have entered into demands that we consider what it means to suspend our Confession’s authority. This is not to say we don’t remain in relation to our Confession. It does not mean that our Confession is meaningless, it just means that it’s form is more dynamic then we often give it credit. Again, our Confession indicts as much affirming that its role is to “support but not replace the lived witness of faith.”

Vincent Lloyd’s work on political theology provides a useful framework to think through what this means for individuals and for the church. A guiding principle in The Problem with Grace[1] is that there is always a discrepancy between norms (what we are expected do and what is expected to result) and practices (what we actually do and what results from it). It is simply impossible for each individual to properly fulfill all norms through their daily practices. Work hard and you will succeed. Follow the rules and there will not be trouble. Work harder on your marriage and things will work out. One can quickly see that this is simply not the case for many people (never mind the reality when different norms contradict each other). And the closer we look at the relationship between norms and practices we notice that there are certain groups of people who came come closer to others in being able to satisfy the given norms of a time and place. Depending on the prejudices of a time and place some people’s very existence already marks a failure of norms.

Of course the Bible also had to work this out. There were times when people believed that if you obeyed God then you would be blessed; or that if you simply followed the law then justice would result. The prophets, Job, psalmists, Jesus, etc. pushed against the idea that there was ever a perfect alignment of norms and practices.

So what is left? One option is to reject the law; to reject the role of the norms of a given time and place. Lloyd rejects this option. Lloyd observes that this approach often comes under the guise of grace. Grace comes as a message of salvation from some unknown and unconnected place. It proclaims release for the captives but it does so in such a way that does not acknowledge and engage the actual conditions that the captives live within. It does not acknowledge the resources that the captive has developed to make life liveable. And further, it does not offer the redeemed any new or improved resources for actually navigating life ‘post-grace’. Lloyd is primarily taking aim at what he names Christian supercessionism, that is, the project of Christian mission that proclaimed a new order by the authority of a transcendent and impassible God. Lloyd is quick to point out that the secular West has picked up this logic seamlessly though often naming the authority as Science, Reason, or Progress. The result of these approaches is the disruption and potential erasure of local knowledge and practices ultimately leaving the vulnerable even more vulnerable in relation to governing powers that are not disrupted by this message of salvation.

So Lloyd rejects the option of supercessionist grace but he also rejects the notion of then doubling down on the law because there simply is no full alignment of law and life. What Lloyd presents then is a series of virtues that can help individuals live in the middle of a world that is “textured, messy, viscous, and difficult” (13). These virtues flow from the related and fundamental virtues of love and faith. Love is often the image that heralds the era of grace, the seemingly magical overcoming of the law. But this is only an image, an act of the imagination. For lived experience love names the difficult path of navigating competing commitments and norms. We love many things but we cannot love all things the same way. At various points we are confronted with competing claims at love. Will I chose loyalty to family or spouse, religion or culture, security or opportunity? To take love seriously is to encounter sadness; the sadness that not all loves can be equally shared. But this sadness is not to be evaded by some word of heavenly grace. The virtue of love intensifies and does not escape life calling the individual to put their values at stake and to enter into negotiation and discernment that is “complicated, and never-ending” (46). Here we find the language of love coming close to the BFC language of discernment. To put a finer point on my question of authority Lloyd says this of those willing to practice love,

“They set aside their social roles, bracketing the norms which would give them guidance. . . . Love does not occur between two individuals following social norms; it occurs when it is as if those norms are absent. Of course, they are not absent, but the ability to act as if they are when one person is in the proximity of another makes love possible. To have this ability is to have the virtue of love” (46-47; emphasis mine).

Here it is worth quoting Lloyd at length as offers his definition of a virtue,

“A virtue is a disposition, a tendency to act certain ways in certain circumstances. To have a virtue is not to be competent at following a norm. It is not the ability to do what one ought to when one ought to do it. Rather, it is to have a capacity to deal with all norms in a certain way. In the case of love, it is the capacity suspend norms and negotiate practices in proximity to another, to put one’s self, in all its complexity, at stake. It is a virtue because it is a capacity that is unequivocally beneficial for life as such. . . . The better one is at negotiating between practices of two, the better one is at negotiating between practices and social norms” (47; emphasis mine).

Love calls us into the messy work of negotiating unanticipated and often unprecedented realities in life. It requires that we bracket the norms that would give guidance. We do not act as though there are none. We take these norms (like our Confession) into account, they are part of the negotiation but they cannot foreclose the necessary and messy work of remaining attentive to those we offer our commitment of love.

In this model faith becomes the substance, the nourishment, required for the risk of love. Faith gives us the capacity to live in the various brackets keeping us from grasping at various external authorities that would proclaim grace or demand law. “Faith is a practice: it is the practice of continuing to grapple with the world, realizing that the world is, and always will be, uncertain. . . . [A] person with faith will wholeheartedly engage in the activity of positing concepts (norms) and testing them against reality (practice), and will always be willing to revise the concepts he or she posits” (62-63).

Lloyd’s language aligns closely with the trajectory from BFC 1’s statement of commitment to ongoing discernment and also aligns with the recommendations found in BFC 7 which affirms that “we need to give space within our Body for testing.”

So while the notion of suspending our Confession may appear drastic or foolish to some of us it is in fact what we have been building a capacity for as a national church in the BFC process. If we have taken this process seriously it is now possible to think differently about what it means to be a faithful church, that is, a church that no longer grasps for objects of God’s authority, objects that are projections of our own agendas but rather decides if it will value loving each other. In this way love is hardly a bland or vacuous term. Love is the hard work of life and faith is what nourishes such work. It is my hope that we are building such capacity as Mennonite Church Canada as we look forward to gathering this summer.

[1] Vincent Lloyd, The Problem with Grace: Reconfiguring Political Theology (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).

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