Present Tense: A Mennonite Spirituality
Gordon Houser. Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2011. 172 pages.
I read this book at about the same time that I read Greg Boyd’s Perfect Present, another book about spirituality. If these titles are representative, they would seem to indicate that contemporary Christians are interested in a spirituality that takes the present seriously. In the past, spiritualities were often concerned with a rich historical tradition or visions of what we could or should be like in the future. As the title indicates, this is a book in the present tense.
The few books that address Mennonite spirituality do so mostly in terms of a particular season of Anabaptist or Mennonite history, as in Snyder’s Following in the Footsteps of Christ, or in the form of a prophetic call to live in a particular way, as seen in David Augsburger’s Dissident Discipleship. In fact, some might say that “Mennonite spirituality” is an oxymoron; we can talk about Mennonite ethics or even theology, but spirituality is for Catholic contemplatives and charismatic Christians, not for Mennonites. Yet there are those in the Anabaptist tradition who have been drinking at the wells of contemplative traditions that yearn for an articulation of a unique Anabaptist/Mennonite spirituality.
Gordon Houser provides one such articulation, one that is primarily descriptive and very personal, yet also strangely universal in our time. Houser, as a long-time journalist who comes to the tradition from the outside, seems uniquely well-suited to the writing of this volume. He is familiar with words and language, but uses them with sensitive care and deliberate precision. His preface is very helpful, both in opening up and providing boundaries for the key words of the title and subtitle. It also provides a context and a summary statement of this present Mennonite spirituality—“It is about how we live as bodies, not how we escape our bodies.”
The eight chapters then each explore one way that Houser, members of his congregation, and other Mennonites live the Spirit in their bodies. Each chapter is headed by one word beginning with the letter “p.” This is unfortunate for those of us who immediately discount as trivial anything that is alliterated too cleverly. But, needless to say, it is an effective mnemonic device.
Each chapter is a collection of a wide range of anecdotes, stories and personal reflections related to the key word or concept. For example, the chapter on patience includes a discussion of the German Anabaptist concept of Gelassenheit, a word that captures the essence of Anabaptist spirituality, as highlighted by Arnold Snyder and others. Houser also includes a discussion of personality inventories such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Enneagram and a particularly poignant story of his Hopi Mennonite friends, the Myrons, as a way of explaining patience, understood as learning to trust God rather than taking things into our own hands. Perhaps patience is the spiritual root and foundation of the notion of peace, a term more commonly used in Mennonite circles.
The chapter on politics is a pleasant surprise. Instead of writing about partisan politics or protests, Houser shares everyday stories of life together in his evolving faith community, New Creation Fellowship, how they dealt with attempts at a common purse and how they seek to practice decision-making. The most important aspect of Mennonite spirituality here is that “we cannot follow Jesus alone” (90). The following chapter on “play” is really an extension of the chapter on living together. Here he discusses everything from singing and dancing to suffering and death—all of which are best done in community!
Although Houser ends the book with “presence,” I think the climax comes with the previous chapter on “perfection.” He borrows liberally from other traditions throughout the book, since no such thing as a pure Mennonite spirituality exists. And here he drinks deeply from the Orthodox tradition and its concept of deification to helpfully point us toward wholeness rather than falling in exhaustion at not being able to achieve perfection.
Those in the Anabaptist tradition can be tempted to rely on a rich spiritual history or be caught up in ethical activism to make things turn out right, but this book’s contribution to Mennonite spirituality is its unpretentious focus on living fully engaged in the present.