What Does It Mean to Be Mennonite? Anonymous, April 2011
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I don’t know. I don’t know what it means to be Mennonite. I thought I had some idea, but then I took this class. Mennonites seem to cover such a wide spectrum, from conservative to liberal, from Northern to Southern. It’s hard enough for me to figure out how the Mennonites that form one congregation in my area are under the same religious umbrella as the Mennonites that form a different one, let alone how the Mennonites in the United States are the same as the Mennonites in Paraguay or Ethiopia or Botswana or Korea or Russia or Switzerland. I guess if I had to explain what a Mennonite is, I’d say that Mennonites are Christians who think Jesus meant what he said and who try their best to live by Jesus’ example. They care about the oppressed and the suffering, and while trying to alleviate them from such, Mennonites try to remember the humanity and value of the oppressors and enemies. Mennonites try to live in peace and harmony with all those around them and throughout the world.
Religiously, I am a pluralist. Not in the laid back attitude of “it doesn’t really matter at all” or “who am I to say who has it right?” but in the sense that I deeply believe in both human spirituality and in the functionality of religion. I believe that, whether created this way or if humans just happen to function in this way for no explainable reason (it really doesn’t matter to me), the fact is that humans have a deep spiritual need. All humans. We long for something. We need to be a part of something greater, something bigger, something outer, something other than ourselves. The thing that no words can express. No image can quite convey. No music can adequately reveal. These attempts can be so close, perhaps the closest we’ll ever get, but at the same time miss the mark by so much.
I believe in God. I believe that God is that something that we all long for. I can’t prove that God exists and I think it’s ridiculous to try because God is that something that we can’t explain or express or reveal. It is my belief that God created us with this longing for something, this longing for God. Out of this longing, religion formed. People needed a way to try to understand God, the Great Something. So, over time, humanity made religion. God didn’t directly make religion, humans did. God gave us the capacity to organize, to gather together, to be vulnerable, to debate, to ponder, to experience, to rejoice, to share, to revere—everything needed for the formation of religion. Most people need the aid of an organized body of thought and people and experience to understand their own ponderings and for an outlet for their spiritual expressions.
I believe there is a very small percentage of people who don’t need anything to satisfy this longing. In fact, they may not be aware of this longing because they are so well satisfied. However, these people are far fewer than what may appear. Most people who don’t do anything or try anything to satisfy their need for that something are really just ignoring their need for whatever reason. Then there is a group of people who have learned how to satisfy their longing on their own. They have an individualistic spirituality, usually associated with the mystics or those in search for spiritual enlightenment. Their journey is very self-driven and independent, but for them, it is seldom lonely. But the third group, and the vast majority, I feel the need to reiterate, needs the structure and support of a formalized, organized religion.
Religion is a tool. A wonderful tool, developed by humans out of this need for expressing and exploring their spirituality; a need given by God. Because I believe this, I can’t see how only one religion, only one attempt at understanding God, only one expression of spirituality could be True. Why would God make people so unique, so different from each other with different personalities and worldviews, just to say only a small portion of people have it right? I can see how one religion might be closer to the truth than another, but not that one is right and all else is wrong. If religions are structures, built like stairways, attempting to lead to God, why would God refuse to come down any of them? Wouldn’t the shear fact that an attempt is being made count for something? Why would God not want to be with the children God so lovingly created? Is God so far removed from humanity that God won’t budge and inch in our direction and we are all alone in the endeavor of communing with God?
I’m sorry. It may seem that I have been babbling for two pages about pluralism and not the Mennonite faith at all. But I just wanted you to know what background I’m coming from. I believe in God. I don’t know how to explain why I do. I’m fully aware of the four epistemological sources Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. But I don’t trust any of them. I can find fault in all four. In the end, I believe in God because I do. Because God does something for me. God gives me hope. God feeds me. God somehow keeps me going and fascinates me. Similarly, I am Mennonite. I am Quaker. I am Christian. But ultimately I am created by God. And trying to commune with God. Commune is such a beautiful word. It makes me think of lovely things like community, communication, communion (the Eucharist), and communion (common-union). I think of shalom. Peace within, peace without, peace above and below and in between.
I may not know what it means to be Mennonite. Or Christian. But I think if someone wants to identify themselves with an organized body of thought, people, and spiritual expression (my definition of religion), they obviously see something that is similar between that religion and themselves, or what they hope to be. For me, that is a good enough reason for taking on a label like Christian or Anabaptist or Mennonite.
This essay was completed for an Anabaptist/Mennonite History class at Goshen College in April 2011.