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Mindful Discipleship

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The following is a conversation between MB Herald interim editor J Janzen and Canadian Mennonite University faculty Gerry Ediger (professor emeritus of Christian history) and Gordon Matties (associate professor of biblical studies & theology, and dean of humanities and sciences). Together, they challenge the idea that study is only for academics and explore what mindful discipleship might look like for the ordinary Christian.

Hi Gerry. Hi Gordon. I have a boyhood memory of someone at church declaring ominously that university made people “think crooked.” There still seems to be a strong undercurrent of anti-intellectualism among Mennonite Brethren. For example, thoughtful questions are cut short with, “You have to believe more,” and good planning trumped by, “We just have to pray harder.”

Yet, many people face vexing challenges: How do they parent in a video-gaming culture? When do they stop using medical technology to extend life? What does a globally responsible, environmentally sustainable lifestyle look like? The Bible doesn’t offer clear answers on these issues.

It seems to me many Mennonite Brethren have really great hearts and very active hands, but could benefit from some better thinking. My guess is they would like to have the assurance that they have (to paraphrase Paul) a similar mindset and servant attitude as that of Christ (Philippians 2).

What do you think?

I affirm your concern, J, that Christian believers cultivate a habit of theological reflection in their walk of discipleship. And also that they be alert to the degree to which their habits of thought reflect obedience to Christ as Lord. In other words, you want to call us to be more mindful, thoughtful Christians and, at the same time, to be more Christ-like in our thinking.

Indeed, faithful Christians of goodwill and faithful intent may be more confident in their hearts and with their hands than they are in their heads. They may not see themselves as persons gifted and competent to think “Christianly.” People long to experience the encouragement of Paul’s assurance to Timothy: believers engaging with Scripture can indeed be adequate, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:17).

There’s a catch-phrase that’s been around the halls of Christian education for some time: “the Christian mind.” Many who have spent time in Christian colleges and universities resonate comfortably with that phrase. We assume that developing a Christian mind will enable us to live Christian lives. And certainly, this assumption often comes true in experience – though not always.

I do wonder, however: What about the vast majority of Christian believers, past and present, who have never had opportunity, or interest, or aptitude to study the Bible formally or to study theology? They probably haven’t invested in developing “a Christian mind” in the formal sense. Are they doomed to being inferior Christian disciples? Or are there other dimensions to “being mindful disciples” that we should consider?

I have three responses, J, to your comments. First, we continue to wrestle with new challenges (as you begin to name) and with the ordinary messiness of life. We do well not only to think about living according to “the mind of Christ” (Philippians 2), but also to consider the limitations to which humans have always had to come to terms. It’s not as though this “mind of Christ” is transparent and disembodied; it comes to us through the wisdom of experience, discernment, and reflection in community. Wouldn’t it help us – again with the apostle Paul – to imagine ourselves as the “body of Christ”? Not as some ideal to be worked out “in the mind,” but a reality to be worked out through a messy process of trial and error. In all things, we “know only in part” and we perceive the reality in which we live “in a mirror, dimly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). Life’s ordinary decisions are often more enigmatic than we might wish.

Second, I take comfort from the book of Ecclesiastes. Make the best of your situation by making the wisest decision you know how to make, given the information you have – with the assurance you’re likely going to be wrong some of the time. Still, in all this, trust God, because that’s how God has made us: human beings who know very little in the grand scheme of things. In other words, mindful discipleship will mean not expecting simple answers. Didn’t Jesus teach mostly with enigmatic sayings and stories? Didn’t he often assume that life was complex? Didn’t he nudge people toward recognizing God’s purposes for the world by teasing them into reflection on stories that didn’t have one-dimensional solutions?

Third, let’s assume that God’s Spirit is present in all things. God expects us to wrestle with tough questions. We stumble along in the grace of God. And as we do so, all we can do is trust. In one of the handful of pages my father ever wrote is an account of his struggle to come to terms with having to cope with my mother’s illness. He wrote, “I can’t work my way out of this, I can’t buy my way out of this, I can’t run away from it, I can only trust my way through.”

So, Gerry is saying you don’t need a PhD to be thoughtful; mindful Christian thinkers can include farmers, mechanics, stay-at-home parents, etc. Gordon, you say we have to trust that God has given us what we need, and we should act on what we know. Yet I can’t help but think that sin prevents us from “thinking straight.” Sometimes, we accidentally see only what we want to see; sometimes, we deliberately ignore reality.

I wonder if some people might throw up their hands and say, “Then what’s the point? Why bother with the chore of learning to be a mindful disciple?”

Your comments are useful in helping us understand why many Christians lack confidence in their ability to think Christianly. As Gordon says, we only know partially and that’s part of our human condition. We often get things wrong. We should live humbly, accepting the ambiguities that cloud our understanding and decision-making. J reminded us we’re finite and fallen. Isn’t it because we’re limited and flawed creatures that we really need to do the work of learning?

I suggest “Yes!…” but by this we oughtn’t expect we’ll all turn into perpetual students in the more formal sense. Among the twelve classic Christian practices Richard Foster describes, he names fasting and living simply alongside study. Disciplines, like fasting and living simply, are really quite counterintuitive to us in our cultural and economic setting, but the biblical call to both is clear.  Likewise is the call to “study,” but not necessarily in the manner we often think about study and learning. If we think of study apart from the way we’ve been conditioned, we may find that we study more than we think we do.

Children can help us here. Think of 10-year-old Robert, who has become a sophisticated expert on dinosaurs, or 13-year-old Rebecca, who is fully conversant with the parts of a sailing dinghy and also knows how to sail it. No one has assigned these subjects of study, but these young people have gone about the work of learning with focused, careful attention, deliberate concentration, a certain investment of time, and considerable joy. Many adults have similar experiences “studying” everything from classic cars to golf to the geography and history of far-away places.

The early Anabaptists, often illiterate, engaged in this kind of study, memorizing Scripture in significant quantity and with deliberate intent – to be ready to give an account of the hope that was growing within them. In real life, we also naturally “study” what seizes our passion and interest. What children do by instinct and aptitude, however, responsible adults can do with deliberate intent. And sometimes, deliberate disciplined attention precedes passionate and persistent engagement.

Deliberate, disciplined attention – or thoughtful attention – or being mindful – are inherently human capacities. Christian believers are called also to exercise this gift deliberately in the presence of God. Paul admonishes the Romans to aspire to a renewed mind and to think deliberately. He instructs the Philippians to “think on these things.” In other words, just as we choose to study gardening or major league box scores, we can choose to devote similar concentration and attention and passion to the “study” of our daily life with God in Christ by the Holy Spirit. And especially when we take up such study humbly in the company of other believers, we can do so with reasonable confidence.

Gordon, it’s helpful to hear you reminding us that Jesus engaged his listeners through exciting their curiosity. In fact, scholar Tim Geddert tells us that Jesus asked more questions than he answered. And this echoes the wisdom tradition as you mention in citing Ecclesiastes. While some are called to cultivate a wise Christian mind through the careful rigour of the academy, all are called to reflect on that which is true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, of good reputation, excellent and worthy of praise (Philippians 4:8) – and to practise these qualities as a result. This is a wisdom to which all can aspire. This is being formed with the mind of Christ. But such formation takes time, and patience, and honest transparent dialogue with Christian friends. Growing in our confidence to think Christianly involves risk and persistence.

Thank God that our congregations continue to offer helpful settings where we can grow this confidence over the long haul. Sunday school hours, small group home Bible studies, sermon debriefing sessions, congregational book clubs, perhaps even engaging the online forum on the MB Herald website: these are just a few of the opportunities to consider. The key to ensuring that these venues really do help us cultivate a Christian mind is to take the risk of injecting our real-life Monday to Saturday questions – no matter what they are – into the dialogue. We can’t afford detached, irrelevant study that doesn’t translate into daily life. And we dare not settle for study that allows us merely to listen passively to the expert “expound the Word” without persistently asking out loud, “So what?!”

We cultivate our thinking capacity by engaging in authentic dialogue, not by merely listening quietly. It’s highly unlikely we’d hear lectures at our church’s classic car show and shine. But we would hear plenty of animated conversations; interesting stories and questions and answers are exchanged while two people find themselves becoming friends as they check out what’s under the hood. Practising to think Christianly is never merely academic. Thinking Christianly engages our minds in real life connection to our hearts and our hands.

I agree. We want to encourage one another to go deeper in our thinking. Could we say that wherever we find ourselves is where God wants us to flourish? In whatever situation we find ourselves, we take up the challenge of passionate thinking and thoughtful action. Here’s an example: a friend who works in the business world said theology professors don’t understand the real world. My response is to suggest we’re in this together; the theology professor has as much to learn from the business person as the business person from the theology professor. It’s not about pitting one kind of expert knowledge against another. That sets up a dualism that doesn’t respect the complexity of human knowledge.

True wisdom grows out of experience – and human experience is messy. Bringing the mind of Christ to bear on the body of Christ requires mutual submission. And here’s an irony: we cannot separate the mind of Christ from the body of Christ. The wisdom of the body is directed by a mind shaped by Christ’s self-giving love. Yet the body of Christ shows us what the mind of Christ looks like.

Gerry, thanks for drawing my attention to the fact that a mindful disciple won’t necessarily read a lot of books but will, in some fashion, engage with Scripture regularly, speak truthfully, practise purity, and pursue that which is lovely – all to the best of his or her ability. Gordon, your point is well taken: becoming a mindful disciple requires humility – we need to be willing to learn from others.  You’ve both observed that we become mindful disciples by being part of a community that takes the risk of patiently talking about the messiness of life, and not necessarily coming to a quick conclusion.

This sketch of mindful discipleship is quite helpful. In fact, it looks to me like we’ve experienced what the two of you have been describing.


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