‘Tis a gift to be complex

by Emily Ralph, eralph@franconiaconference.org

John Rempel preaching at Salford on Sunday. Photo by Ben Wideman.

We’re a simple people, right?

Yes, I’m a seminary student, but I am often frustrated with those who want to find answers for every single question in the Bible or to debate all the ins and outs of theology.  I’m comfortable with a simple faith that learns and accepts, that ponders and lets go, that embraces the ambiguity.  I only need to understand theology as far as it affects the way I live.

I assumed I thought this way because I’m postmodern, but Sunday evening John Rempel suggested that I may just be steeped in a historic Mennonite worldview.

Rempel, professor at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Indiana, gave a presentation at Salford on helping congregations discuss difficult issues theologically.  He said that traditionally, Mennonites haven’t tried to create a theology that answers every possible question.  In fact, the Anabaptist impulse was in response to what seemed to them to be too much theology and not enough practice.

The Mennonite ideal has been to keep the question as simple as possible and get on with living the Christian life.  But questions these days are not so simple—in fact, they are growing in complexity.  Unfortunately for us simple folk, said Rempel, the more complex the challenges, the more complex the answers have to be.

And this calls for serious theological reflection.

As Anabaptists, we believe that every follower of Jesus is filled with the Holy Spirit and that God can and will speak through any member of the church.  But we also believe that the Holy Spirit is in community, so we collectively struggle to decide how we are to behave as Christians, Rempel said.  How exciting!

How terrifying.

It suggests that the word of God is living and active.  It suggests that we trust the Holy Spirit in one another to bring us to unity on divisive issues.  It suggests that we struggle and wrestle and persevere.

So where do those of us who are allergic to deep theological reflection start?  First, find a healthy balance between prophetic leadership and the priesthood of all believers, Rempel said.  Then look at biblical themes (also called “trajectories”), especially those of grace, hospitality, covenant, and discipline… and discern solutions that do justice to all of them.  We also need to accept new understandings of the Bible that adapt to our culture, according to Rempel, while still honoring traditional interpretation.

Am I the only one that feels exhausted?  How many balls do we have to keep in the air?

And yet there is freedom in the possibility that our answers don’t have to be simple, that there is room for nuance.  There is hope if we will give ourselves permission to experiment—together.  There is a promise of peace if we simple folk can learn to embrace a little complexity now and again.