Book review: Education with the Grain of the Universe

(Reposted from: Mennonite World Review.  August 27, 2018)


Over the past several decades, one remarkable initiative in Mennonite higher education has been in the new academic field of peace and conflict studies. Mennonite schools across North America — from Fresno Pacific University in California to Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia — have established peace institutes, peace curricula, academic publications and leadership programs. Mennonite schools have gained reputations for innovation and excellence in teaching on their campuses as well as for helping off-campus institutions resolve conflicts — from local school boards to church congregations.

At Bluffton University in Ohio, professor of religion J. Denny Weaver has fostered campus discussions and conferences that resulted in two volumes of creative essays. The first, co-edited by Gerald Mast, professor of communication, was published in 2003: Teaching Peace: Nonviolence and the Liberal Arts. That book focused on ways that peace ideals can influence the disciplines of liberal arts — history, humanities, the arts and social and natural science.

Now comes a second volume, Education with the Grain of the Universe, published in the C. Henry Smith Series, which highlights a theological background for Anabaptist-Mennonite peace education. The subtitle is “A Peaceable Vision for the Future of Mennonite Schools, Colleges and Universities.”

As in all collections of essays, the editors are challenged to provide a common focus and argument for all the writers. In his overall introduction, three chapters and introductions to the other chapters, editor Weaver provides 132 pages of his own thinking and theological reflection. Central is the “narrative of Jesus,” the biblical story of Jesus including his birth, teachings, confrontation with the authorities and journey to the cross and resurrection. Mennonite peace education, Weaver argues, should be grounded in the Jesus story but also be in dialogue with secular and other alternative stories.

Here, as in his other writings, Weaver makes the case for a non-violent God and atonement. In his view, the Old Testament includes not just violence but also many stories of God’s will for peace. Jesus’ life and teachings did not reject the Old Testament but continued and resolved a conversation on the side of nonviolent resolution of conflict.

Each of the essays makes its own contribution under the general headings of theology, the Bible, ecclesiology, literature and peace, the natural sciences and conflict studies. A persistent theme is the call for diversity, dialogue and pluralism in Mennonite peace teaching. Theological dogmatism as allegedly practiced by Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder is passé.

But how can Mennonite pacifist educators be simultaneously committed and open? Benjamin Bixler creatively embraces this tension. On one hand, he affirms that “claiming Christian self-identity is a critical first step.” At the same time, Mennonite education “must also be willing to take risks in engaging in dialogue with those who may challenge those Anabaptist understandings.”

But what does this mean for hiring faculty in Mennonite schools? For all his fervent commitment to dialogue and openness, Bixler apparently would have opposed a decision some years ago by a Mennonite college to hire a peace studies director who was not a Mennonite and did not believe that commitment to Christ should be central for peace work. In general, the essayists in this volume assume a Mennonite ethnic-religious identity that may have been more dominant in Mennonite schools two or three decades ago than it is today.

Issues related to race, gender and sexuality loom large in this book. The more recent issue of Mennonites and Nazi totalitarianism, recently the hottest topic on the “Anabaptist Historians” website and at some Mennonite schools, is not raised here. Perhaps this is because these essayists are mostly from Bluffton, Goshen and Eastern Mennonite, with the colleges of Mennonite Dutch-Russian background hardly represented at all.

One intriguing essay by Lowell Ewert of Conrad Grebel University College in Ontario urges that Mennonite schools should add departments of international law. Ewert claims that the trajectory of total war from the Civil War to World War I, World War II and potential nuclear war is not inevitable. Indeed, writes Ewert, total war is exceptional.

Gerald Mast, Weaver’s colleague at Bluffton University, has a provocative essay that calls Mennonite schools to invite students to attend church and learn the ideals and challenges of peacemaking not only from the pulpit but from congregational experience of internal conflict. Mast has written a book on this topic. But the prospect for bringing such a vision to full reality on Mennonite campuses, with their declining percentages of Mennonite students, seems remote.

The meaning of the phrase “The Grain of the Universe” in the title is not altogether clear. The phrase will remind some readers of the statement attributed to Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” For King the “arc” implied social progress. It justified hope for cultural improvement — as was represented by the achievements of the civil rights movement. Is the “arc” equivalent to the “grain”?

Weaver quotes John Howard Yoder as the source of the phrase. Stanley Hauerwas used it for the title of his 2001 book, With the Grain of the Universe. Weaver does not refer to Hauerwas. Yoder’s “grain” refers to the life, teaching, death and resurrection of Jesus made manifest first in the church. The central image is the cross, and the main arena for action is the church, not the nation.

Weaver, more than Hauerwas, argues that the reign of God is to be seen beyond the visible church. Jesus taught that the kingdom of God was already present in the world. The assumption that successful conflict resolution, more than ongoing violence, reflects the grain of the universe needs further clarification and analysis.

If Anabaptist-Mennonite education is to fulfill its long-range mission of peace education, more books like this need to be written. And Mennonite educators need to put these visions into practice.

James C. Juhnke is professor emeritus of history at Bethel College in North Newton, Kan.

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