I look forward to reading the work of pastors. Pastors live close to the ground, in the muck and mire, vulnerable to the minutiae of birth, death and all the life in between. Pastors quickly learn everything is complicated. Pastors know there are no easy answers, that we’re ever learning our way into our lives of faith.
Ryan Ahlgrim is a pastor with over three decades of lived experience from which to speak. He led a congregation through a discernment process around human sexuality. He has pastored several churches in multiple Mennonite conferences. He is a “convinced Mennonite,” someone who came to our tradition out of conviction rather than heritage. He no doubt has seen more beauty and horror than can be contained in a 15-volume series.
Sick Religion or Healthy Faith? hints at Ahlgrim’s experiences over the years. You can imagine the pastoral care, the conversations around beliefs and practices, the church-life meetings, the Sunday school classes and the community traumas that led to the writing of this book.
But the reader is left to her imagination for such things. Instead, the book is an array of theological positions that structure Ahlgrim’s belief system, a system that tries to fit together wide-ranging topics like science, biblical authority, spiritual practices and the Trinity, among others.
The book is a summary of Ahlgrim’s brand of orthodoxy, a treatise on where he has landed on a variety of theological, political and social topics. It’s a conglomerate of finalized statements on theology, church practice and community commitment, much of which is still in question after thousands of years and millions of written pages.
I have no doubt that these conclusions did not emerge from nothing. I have no doubt that Ahlgrim came to these theological commitments after decades of hammering them out in lived communities, among people who questioned and asked and questioned again.
Those communities are largely invisible in Sick Religion or Healthy Faith? There are dozens of stories and quotes that support and explain Ahlgrim’s conclusions. But almost none of those anecdotes are spoken by people in the churches where he served as a minister. We never hear the voices behind the conclusions. We never hear why churches require his tight belief system to be healthy or how he’s tested the theory that all faith communities can fall into a specific rubric of healthy practices.
The longer I am a pastor, the more concerned I am with the “why” and “how” of our theological commitments, not simply where we land at the end, when we can name our beliefs. The philosopher J.L. Austin reminds us that “we seem never to ask ‘Why do you know?’ or ‘How do you believe?’ ” The interesting questions, the ones that reveal who we are, are those least likely to emerge.
“How” and “why” — these are the questions that give life to a community that wrestles with God, that grows closer to one another and therefore also to Christ in our midst. I’ve seen this in my own ministry — how my beliefs are constantly pruned, uprooted, replanted, grafted by the life I’ve experienced in the church. That’s a scary place for a pastor, but this is the pacifism our tradition confesses: We are vulnerable to one another as we constantly seek the Holy Spirit anew.
I came away from Sick Religion or Healthy Faith? wanting thick descriptions of “why do you know?” and “how do you believe?” Two-thirds of the book consists of arguments and statements on right belief, “core convictions.” Get the belief system right, add a regimen of spiritual disciplines — the reader is left to conclude — and then you’re on your way.
That may be true. But if it is true, then why is it so? How have these convictions become true for churches under Ahlgrim’s care, and what does it look like for congregations to live into these truths? Why is it that “core convictions give a community its identity”?
I do appreciate that Ahlgrim’s orthodoxy is indeed generous, that he makes space for ideas and commitments that have traditionally made Mennonites anxious. For example, he leads the reader into ways of relating to people of other-than-Christian faiths, into acceptance of scientific advancement, into a posture where we don’t have to fear theological commitments that differ from the ones we hold dear.
But if his theological claims are to matter for our communities, if they are to matter for me, we will need to know more about the communities that birthed them, what was lost and what was found in order to arrive here. We put our faith in the Word-made-flesh — not lists and structures and systems of belief. If Ahlgrim wants us to believe with him, he needs to tell us about the bodies that live, breathe, grieve, desire and die into the propositions put forward in his book.
Melissa Florer-Bixler is pastor of Raleigh (N.C.) Mennonite Church.