Our Moral Tribe’s search for a robust vision

Our Moral Tribe’s search for a robust vision

Thoughtful friends occasionally send me reading suggestions. Carl Keener, professor emeritus of biology at Penn State University, wrote to me last week with extended comments about a book called Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013). His comments were so germane that I passed them on to David Miller, associate professor of missional leadership development. He responded to Carl, comparing the current divisive time to the polarizing debates of a previous generation when H.S. Bender’s Anabaptist Vision galvanized new unity and momentum. Can we, in our day, articulate a robust enough vision to provide a center for our “moral tribe” in company with a growing group of persons who are publicly identifying themselves as Anabaptist with greater joy and clarity than many Mennonite congregations?

Carl Keener:

There can be no doubt that the current Mennonite Church has at least two “opposing religious camps,” influenced by liberal and conservative ways of seeing the way the world works. In Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap between Us and Them (Penguin Press, 2013), Harvard social scientist Joshua Greene offers the opinion that moral tribes (his designation for “opposing religious camps”) will not find common ground for discussion based on one’s views of God and the Bible, pure reason, or science. To be sure, many, if not most, Mennonites think that somehow the Bible will solve the problem of the deep divide over gay and lesbian issues. Here’s Greene, again: “If we want to find moral truth in scripture, we have to decide which interpretation of which passages in which texts from which religious traditions are truly authoritative. Because people on opposite sides of a religiously fraught moral disagreement are unlikely to agree on which texts, passages, and interpretations are authoritative, appeals to scripture are unlikely to settle all but the most narrow and scholarly moral disagreements” (182ff.).

Greene suggests that what is needed to bridge the gap between moral tribes is to seek some sort of common currency (for him, as a secular humanist, it’s happiness + the Golden Rule). For Mennos, I think, minimally, it’s the confession that Jesus is Lord, that we function within communities, and seek the way of peace and nonviolence ….

I think Greene has an important basic point we Mennos have been missing. One just cannot convert a moral tribe by reason, scientific jargon, or favorite Bible verses. I am convinced that the only way forward is to find our common currency as Mennos. What is it that can tie us together, not separate us .... ? Blessings and peace, Carl

David Miller responds to Carl:

In light of a conversation we had in faculty meeting today, Sara took the liberty of sharing with me your email to her.

Your comments regarding Joshua Greene's concept of Moral Tribes resonated with an idea that several of us were testing with each other today. When the Mennonite Church was at risk of coming apart at the seams in the modernist-fundamentalist debates in the early-mid 20th century, H.S. Bender provided common ground in his "Anabaptist Vision" address.

His address provided a usable history, a hermeneutic for reading the Bible together, and a cohesive center for an otherwise fragmenting community. It was rich enough to engage the church's scholars, setting in motion a good half century's worth of historical and theological work. It contributed to the mission and service agencies engaging in a different mode of mission that provided models of non-Constantinian witness and service. And congregations gained a narrative which they could pass on to another generation. These combined to allow enough Mennonites to see that the Modernist-Fundamentalist debates were not our debates. Mennonite scholars and popularizers found enough of a core in Bender's work to provide a powerful and energizing vision that took the church into the 21st century.

However, that cohesion has fragmented for numerous reasons. Some was an inherent weakness in Bender's own work, which the historians finally declared to be too neat of a story. Other influences--particularly religious broadcasting and the erosion of Mennonite publishing and Sunday School materials chipped away at a shared narrative. Bureaucratic rather than communal forms of leadership too often finessed and avoided direct discussion of differences (here I am thinking of the formation of MC USA) in such a way that we got an uneasy truce, rather than a compelling vision for becoming one. Suspicion was institutionalized and now is readily summoned in the service of fearful partisanship.

While all of this has been going on, however, there has been a simultaneous discovery of Anabaptism among those who have no genetic or ecclesiastical connection to the movement. We recently had Greg Boyd (author of The Myth of a Christian Nation) on campus. He represents a growing group of persons who are publicly identifying themselves as Anabaptist with greater joy and clarity than many Mennonite congregations.

This is oversimplifying in many counts, and yet I think we are in a similar moment. The participants for meeting the challenge now will necessarily be more diverse in terms of age, gender, race, and ethnicity than the leadership of the mid-20th century, but the challenge and need for leadership is similar.

It may be that the Bible will indeed help us resolve the divisions, but not by focusing on finding the answer to a single moral or ethical issue. It will help, if we can find a reading that provides a robust enough vision to provide a center.

Perhaps the work to which we should be giving ourselves is to re-articulate that common currency--one that persons outside of Anabaptism are finding compelling. Only then will we have the capacity to find a way on the lesser matters that we have permitted to become the defining issues ….

Thanks, Carl! Grace and peace to you, David