Salvation, the Self, and the Mennonites

by Ralph Friesen, Nelson, B.C.

Paul and Silas, in their missionary journeys, came to the Macedonian city of Philippi, where they exorcised a demon from a young woman who brought her masters money through her soothsaying.  After that, the woman was of no further use to her masters, so they brought Paul and Silas to the rulers of the city, with angry accusations of trouble-making.  The rulers commanded the two men to be beaten and thrown into prison.  At midnight, as Paul and Silas prayed and sang, an earthquake happened, opening the doors of the prison.  The jailer, supposing that the prisoners had escaped and that he would be held responsible, despaired and drew his sword to kill himself.  But Paul prevented him, reminding him that all were still there.  Trembling, aware that he was confronting something or someone from a different world than his, the jailer fell down before Paul and Silas, and cried out: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”1

It is the great human question.  Most of us will ask it, at one time or another, in a state of personal crisis like the Philippian jailer, or in a state of calm reflection, or just because someone else told us to.  Although most of us who grew up in one or another of the Christian traditions have been taught that we need ask it only once, provided we find the “proper” answer, our day-to-day experience teaches us that, in fact, the question arises many times.  Repeatedly, in our lives, we are reminded of some “unsaved” quality, something missing, lacking, or even intentionally hurtful that we do.  We’re reminded of our sinfulness.

Paul and Silas’ answer to the jailer is familiar to most readers: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”

The words are familiar but questions remain.  What did the jailer have in mind when he said that word, “saved”?  What did he think he needed saving from?  Or, when we ask the question ourselves today, what do we think we need to be saved from?

The answer I and other children learned in Sunday School in the Steinbach Evangelical Mennonite Church basement in the 1950s, is at the ready and unequivocal, springing directly from the infallible (as we were told) word of God: you are born a sinner, and being a sinner, damned to hell and its torments, for eternity.  You need to be saved from damnation.2

Robert Friedman was a prominent scholar and Anabaptism. He was born into a liberal Jewish family in Vienna. He was imprisoned briefly in 1939 and emigrated, going to the United States upon his release. He taught at Western Michigan University. He published many articles on the Hutterites, a tradition he appreciated deeply. Photo Credit: GAMEO.

Robert Friedman was a prominent scholar and Anabaptism. He was born into a liberal Jewish family in Vienna. He was imprisoned briefly in 1939 and emigrated, going to the United States upon his release. He taught at Western Michigan University. He published many articles on the Hutterites, a tradition he appreciated deeply. Photo Credit: GAMEO.

We don’t know whether the Philippian jailer thought that; presumably, as a pagan Greek he had been schooled to have different assumptions about sin and punishments than the ones Paul and Silas had, or the ones which have developed since over thousands of years as the Christian religion found a multitude of expressions.  But we do know that it is questionable as to whether our Anabaptist ancestors, in the 16th century and later, had that Sunday School, Fundamentalist-fueled preoccupation with our sinful state and the consequent punishment of it.  Here’s Robert Friedmann in The Theology of Anabaptism:

Man is not only and not primarily a sinner deserving eternal punishment save for the unmerited grace he receives through faith.  The Anabaptists would rather say: As man receives grace a new life arises in his heart and makes him ready to be a follower of Christ, and as such to be a lover to his neighbour . . . .3

Well, somebody should have told my Sunday School teachers!  As well as the travelling evangelists who descended upon the already overly-churched town, usually in spring, to deliver fiery “you’re a sinner bound for hell” sermons to the mostly decent but nevertheless frightened and self-doubting throngs of Mennonites who assembled in the tabernacle or under the great canvas tent. 

The Anabaptists would say: as we receive grace a new life arises in our hearts, and this life makes us ready to be a follower of Christ—and as such, a lover of our neighbour.  What did this mean to them, and what does it mean to us?  Our ancestors lived in a much more communal social environment than our own.  Many of our Mennonite compatriots, especially in Mexico and in South America, still live in such an environment.  We have been made painfully aware, through various media reports and stories, of some of the heart-rending problems plaguing some of these communal societies.  It’s evident that in some respects these societies are very much in need of learning.  And yet it is still possible for us to ask, whether with reference to our ancestors or to present-day traditional Mennonites, if we might learn something from their response to the Philippian jailer’s question.

In searching thus, we come up against a slippery, unstable, and mind-boggling construct—the self.  The question is: “What must I do to be saved?”  But what sort of “I” asks this question?  What sort of “I” can be saved, or not saved?  Fundamentalists have popularized the term “soul,” as in: “souls to be won for Jesus.”  We are told we can make a decision to save our souls—or not.  In such phrasing, the word “soul” has an impersonal and rather abstract sound to it, given further impersonality when evangelists and churches tote up statistics on numbers of “souls” saved.  If we think of “soul” as a word that echoes the teaching that we are created in God’s image, then our souls have no need of salvation; they already participate in divinity.  What needs salvation is “I”—my small ego self.

In communal societies all over the world, historically and today, the self is not something conceived of as a distinct, enclosed entity.  In some way, there is no such thing as an individual, and many of the ostensible boundaries between self and other are fluid.  Back to what Paul and Silas told the Philippian jailer: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.”  And so it turns out.  We are not told what the jailer says in response to the invocation to believe, but we learn that he takes Paul and Silas from the jail, washes their stripes, and gives them a meal.  He and all of his family are baptized, and we are told that they all do believe.  It seems like a communal experience more than an individual one—the jailer doesn’t consult with his household first to see what they think of this belief issue.  The distinction between self and others, which seems so real to us moderns, doesn’t seem to exist in the same way for the ancients.

The existentialists and post-modernists have shown us that the “reality” of the perceived distinct and individual self is actually constructed, through the choices a person makes, or by the social and cultural influences impinging on all persons.  Also, for centuries the Buddhists have put forward the mind-boggling teaching that there is no hard entity we can call a self—it’s an illusion.  Even as we acknowledge the possible validity of such ideas, however, we continue to experience ourselves as . . . well, as distinct selves.  I feel that I am I, and not you, regardless of what the Beatles might have sung.4 But somehow we aren’t satisfied with this lonely conclusion of self-enclosed isolation.  We long for a greater sense of connection, and sense that our every-day little “I” with our collections of habits and our repetitive rounds of worries, and our personal little aches and pains, and our needs, and our endless, recurring wants—this is all rather paltry and inconsequential.  There must be something more than just me!

FriesenR02

I am a Walrus was released by the Beatles in 1967. The first line is “I am he as you are he as you are me/And we are all together” Photo Image: www.alldyland.com

Here’s a contemporary psychotherapist’s depiction of this modern, bounded ego-self, and how it has come to be.  Does it resonate?

Various historical forces and events, such as the loss of a sense of community and the needs of post-World War II capitalist economies to stave off another worldwide depression, combined to create in the United States and Western Europe an economy based on the continual consumption of nonessential and quickly obsolete consumer items. . . .  The consumer society was achieved through the constructing of a self that was empty, a self that feels naturally and irresistibly driven to consume in order to fill up the emptiness.5

Acquisition of “stuff” does connect with one of life’s basic energies; we must acquire at least to some extent, or perish.  Well-off as we are, though, we can quickly recognize that there’s more to life than this, and that acquiring and consuming can become habit-forming, alienating ourselves from ourselves, not providing the fulfillment that advertisers so tantalizingly promise.  What must we do to bring salvation to such a capitalist-consumer constructed self and its drivenness and emptiness?  (Of course the question still pertains for atheist-communist societies and the empty selves constructed by such societies, but our concern begins with our own situation.)  Do we simply believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and become instantly and immediately and permanently saved, as, for example, the American fundamentalist preacher John R. Rice (1895-1980)6 taught?

That’s tempting, too.  Yet our everyday human experience indicates something profoundly different.  First, there’s something appallingly self-centred in the idea of saying a few magic words and thus saving your own soul, others, literally, be damned.  Second, being human, we know that we become fearful, we offend those we love, we fail to consider others, we feel superior to outsiders, we lie, we over-indulge our appetites—and this still happens, even after we’ve had an instantaneous conversion experience.  Our own lives teach us that, whatever else salvation might be (the Latin root is salvus, safe) it is a process.  One moment in time will not provide us with on-going safety from thenceforth.  As life-changing as a given moment of grace can be, there follows another moment, and another, and before long we are confronted with our everyday situation and everyday self-perception again.  We walk a path, a way.  The walking itself is inherent to our salvation; in some sense it is our salvation.7 We do it with conscious intention, each of us individually.  But we never travel the way in splendid isolation; we can only do it in relationship with others.

What was our ancestors’ understanding of all this?  For early Anabaptists, said Robert Friedmann, the belief prevailed that one cannot come to God (that is, attain salvation) except as one comes to Him together with one’s brother.  The brethren, the body of believers, constitute the Christian realm; hence brotherly love, agape, is more than mere ethics.  It is one of the basic qualifications of living in the kingdom in the here and now.8

To practice this agape, this brotherly love, is to walk the narrow way, with discipline.  This is love, not necessarily showing itself as warm fellow-feeling (though such feeling is not excluded), but with a quality of self-sacrifice.  Living in the kingdom is living in relationship; living in relationship requires that, at times, the demands of the ego be set aside.

Such love is not easy.  Our ancestors were aware of the difficulty, and often evoked the image of the cross as an illustration. Through the cross we are redeemed, not by “the isolated event at Calvary alone but the cross that every believer faces when consistently living a life of discipleship.”9 To be an Anabaptist meant to live in some form of community; to live in community meant to live in obedience to the rules of the community, the Ordnung.

An Amish buggy on a road in Lancaster County. The term Gelassenheit, yieldedness, resignation, ‘let it be’, is an important aspect of the conservative Mennonite ethos. Photo Credit: Ad Meskens, Wikipedia Commons.

An Amish buggy on a road in Lancaster County. The term Gelassenheit, yieldedness, resignation, ‘let it be’, is an important aspect of the conservative Mennonite ethos. Photo Credit: Ad Meskens, Wikipedia Commons.

 And to live faithfully under the Ordnung required a spirit of yieldedness, quite contrary to the demands of the ego for self-assertion, or perhaps self-aggrandisement:

Sin in its deepest sense means disobedience to God, a reliance on self-will and self-righteousness. . . .  Hence the disciple has to learn one thing above all: the art of self-abandonment (in German called Gelassenheit, yieldedness or resignation).10

What must I do to be saved?  According to Friedmann’s rendering of Anabaptist teaching, I must abandon my “self,” insofar as “self” and “ego” are equated.  And this is an art, to be consciously cultivated and practiced daily, whether painfully or joyfully.  Salvation is not then an idea of self-fulfillment, except insofar as we become more truly ourselves when we practice Gelassenheit.  Rather, it is an idea of self-sacrifice—symbolically, self-crucifixion.

I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I shudder to think of being “saved” in this way.  But the shudder is just a natural reaction, isn’t it, to the prospect of the extinguishing of one’s self?  To the prospect of death, in short?  Hans Schlaffer (martyred in 1528) spoke of the “depth, the lowliness and resignation into which everyone is led, and it is called hell. . . . Into this depth all men have to go who long to be saved in Christ.”11 So is that hell?  The experience of ego-death in the service of a communal ideal?  There appears to be some terribly painful intersection here, of hell and the cross.  Every Christian must go to hell, in this sense.  If we push further, through the shudder, we find a long tradition, mainly mystic, in pursuit of just this kind of ego-death, whether through fasting, meditating, solitude, or ingesting artificial or natural substances.

Here in Nelson, B. C., where there may be a greater interest in altering one’s mind than in most Canadian communities, my wife and I recently attended a one-actor production of “Medicine,” a play by T. J. Dawe.  Dawe himself performed an autobiographical monologue about his experience with taking the Peruvian psychotropic shamanic plant medicine ayahuasca.  It was a brilliant play, we thought.  Graphically, humorously, and compassionately, Dawe described the death of his ego brought on by the medicine, and his emergence on the other side of this experience as . . . changed.  Not that all his problems (he had been quite transparent about them in his presentation) disappeared.  “Ayahuasca doesn’t solve your problems. It shows you what you need to see, but it’s up to you to do something about it.”12

Boiling Ayahuasca produces a psychedelic brew. It was first described in academic literature in the early 1950s. The plant was used by indigenous peoples in the Amazonian Peru for divine and healing purposes. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Boiling Ayahuasca produces a psychedelic brew. It was first described in academic literature in the early 1950s. The plant was used by indigenous peoples in the Amazonian Peru for divine and healing purposes. Photo Credit: Wikipedia.

Those who ingest ayahuasca almost all find that they have to vomit afterward, and Dawe’s description of what happened to him is both repellent and hilarious.  Interestingly enough, even here we can find a connection to our theme of losing one’s self.  In Philippians 2:7, Paul states that “Jesus emptied himself.”  The Greek verb is kenōsis, the action of emptying, from kenoun, to purge, empty, from kenos, empty.  Commentators have interpreted this to mean that Jesus relinquished divine attributes in becoming human, and thus showed us the way of “self-emptying of our own will so that we can become entirely receptive to God’s divine will.13

Traditional Mennonites were not in the habit of experimenting with mind-altering substances, even if we can acknowledge that breweries were owned by some Mennonites in 18th century Prussia.  Yet they were, and are, acutely aware of the need for us to alter our minds and empty ourselves.  The way of true Gelassenheit is perhaps just as frightening and painful as Dawe describes his experience with the Peruvian hallucinogenic as being.  But it’s not something you can ingest, experience, and emerge from.  It’s a long way—life-long.  It manifests itself in obedience, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, and love.  It has its dangers and pitfalls as do other paths; the “artist” of Gelassenheit is subject to self-righteousness, rigidity, guilt, suspicion—and, yes, neglect—of him- or herself.  He or she needs to remember that after the crucifixion comes the resurrection.14 Yet the way of Gelassenheit stands in quiet dignity in contrast to the way of the self-involved, self-gratifying modern individual.

Having believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, our task does not end.  Really, that’s only the beginning.  We then still have risks to take, self-denial to practice, and, above all, we have the challenge of continuously creating the kingdom through loving our neighbour.

For good or bad, our ancestors in South Russia, as also latter-day Mennonites in the United States and Canada, seem to have manifested a particular genius for getting quite rich, materially, even in a communal setting, and possibly aided by that setting.  Our ancestors viewed this genius with great caution; they saw the dangers in it to their salvation.  In more modern times material wealth is enthusiastically pursued, helped by the adopted Calvinist notion that this pleasant turn of events is the natural consequence of being God’s people and getting God’s blessing.  But surely this rationalization can be seen for the self-serving shallow sham that it is.  The Gelassenheit artist cannot be overly preoccupied with making money, especially when this involves taking advantage of his neighbour.  That path leads to quite a different kind of kingdom.

David Schroeder notes a fascinating difference in the interpretation of salvation between evangelical Mennonites and conservative Mennonites: “In the evangelical churches it is customary to emphasize the past tense of salvation (I have been saved) whereas the conservative churches have in the past emphasized the future tense of salvation (I will be saved).”15 Both are biblical, he says, though they produce different mind-sets and result in different iterations of Christian faith.  But as we have seen, there is evidence that early Anabaptists, at least, believed that salvation was also manifested in the present, in the Christian’s daily walk: “. . . man cannot come to God except together with his brother.”  Or, just to keep gender from getting in the way: “woman cannot come to God except together with her sister.”  In other words, the brother, the sister, the neighbor, constitutes an essential element of one’s personal redemption.16 My salvation cannot be accomplished without you, as yours cannot be accomplished without me.  Maybe the Beatles were onto something, after all.

Endnotes

  1.  The account is found in Acts 16.
  2.  Of the many Fundamentalist expositions of this interpretation, one of the most clearly representative is that of John R. Rice (1895-1980), for example in his booklet, What Must I Do to Be Saved? – The Plan of Salvation Made Plain to Sinners from the Word of God, still available online at: http://www.wholesomewords.org/resources/saved.html.  Apparently millions of copies of this tract have been distributed, some, no doubt, from my father P. D. Friesen’s store on Steinbach’s Main Street, the Evangel Book Shop.
  3.  Robert Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1973), p. 74.  Whether the fact that Friedmann was born a Viennese Jew has any bearing on his interpretations of Anabaptist thought I will leave for you to consider.
  4.  “I am he as you are he as you are me / And we are all together”: from “I Am the Walrus,” lyrics by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, 1967.
  5.  Philip Cushman, Constructing the Self, Constructing America: A Cultural History of Psychotherapy (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1995).  Excerpt in Psychologica, Official Magazine of the Ontario Association of Consultants, Counsellors, Psychometrists and Psychotherapists, Vol 32, Number 1, Winter 2010, p. 11.
  6.  I choose this example because Rice was influential in re-shaping the thinking of many North American Mennonites.
  7.  “The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination.”  (Carl Rogers)
  8.  Robert Friedmann, “The Doctrine of the Two Worlds,” in The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision, ed. Guy F. Hershberger (Scottdale: Herald Press, 1958), p. 113.
  9.  Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism, p. 85.  See also Luke 9: 23: “And he said to them all, if any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
  10.  Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism, p. 66.
  11.  Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism , p. 83.
  12.  T. J. Dawe, Medicine, 2012.
  13.  Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenosis, retrieved March 29, 2014.
  14.  See Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond: The Search for our True Self (New York: Jossey-Bass, 2013).
  15.  David Schroeder, “Evangelicals Denigrate Conservatives,” Preservings No. 15, December, 1998, p. 47.
  16.  Friedmann, The Theology of Anabaptism , p. 81

Preservings

An annual magazine that appears each December.

Funding

Fellowships, grants for research, and publication.