Glimpses of Grace Donald Stoesz

       An Intellectual Autobiography of my Life


Secularization was important because I went from a strong religious community and faith nurtured in a small town in southern Manitoba to a city and the variety of beliefs and non-beliefs represented therein. I believed at the time, bolstered by my Bible college professors, that one had to make a (radical) distinction between faith and society in order to deal with the non-historical aspects of the first eleven chapters of Genesis, secular institutions such as the university, and the peculiar beliefs, practices, language, and communal living of Mennonites that appeared strange to others. Existentialism was in vogue and encouraged by these same college professors, a la Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling, that bolstered a dualistic view of faith and life.

This dualistic understanding of life was reinforced when I studied under Don Wiebe at the University of Manitoba. He believed that the university had to be objective and value-free in its study of religion. Having come from a deeply religious, Mennonite Bible School background himself, he wanted to shed that past and adopt, a la Auguste Comte’s positivism, a scientific understanding of religion.

I began to question this dualistic understanding of faith and life during graduate work at McGill University. I wrote an article entitled, “A Shift in Don Wiebe’s Method,” in which I showed on an internal basis of his thought that while Don once considered the subjective aspects of faith relevant to a study in religion, he now rejected that in favour of a thoroughgoing positivism. Others have questioned the validity and emphasis of Don Wiebe’s work.

My doctoral thesis looked at the relativistic and apologetic aspects of Gordon Kaufman’s thought in hopes of resolving this religious and ethical dilemma of faith and life. Interestingly enough, after Kaufman wrote a Systematic (Mennonite) Theology: A Historicist Perspective – a work that I considered key to my faith and ministry -- he wrote a book entitled God the Problem. Adopting Kant’s nominalism which states that God is unknowable (and therefore not there), Kaufman chose process theology and ordinary language references to God in order to overcome this dualistic endeavour.

Kaufman embraced a conceptual relativism that made room for sectarian groups like Mennonites while moving toward an ontological belief in the existence of a triune God of Mystery at the end of his life.  The latter affirmation was his attempt at universalism. Joseph Runzo has endorsed the idea of conceptual relativism to account for the multiplicity of faiths and religions that claim to be universally true.

My subsequent journey has been to assert spirituality and the religious as sui generis, namely present in the world and therefore worthy of study, adherence, belief, and worship. I continue to be a pastor because of this belief. More generally, I have used Winnifred Sullivan’s assertion of religion as sui generis in my Prison Chaplaincy Manual to undergird the value of chaplaincy in public life (see her book, Ministry of Presence).  Karl Rahner’s transcendentalism, outlined in Foundations of Christian Faith as that spirituality which raises a person to a new and critical consciousness, could be used as well.

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Importance of Grace

I was fortunate enough to take on a course on Reinhold Niebuhr’s two volume work entitled The Nature and Destiny of Man (sic) in the first year of Bible college.  Helmut Harder was the instructor.  Although I would not describe my Mennonite upbringing as legalistic, it represented a closed community that did not know how to include outsiders. Language itself was a clear demarcating tool of inside/outsider relations.  Switching from English to Low German was an effective way of showing how one was different.

Reinhold Niebuhr showed how self-interest played a part in all aspects of life.  His Augustinianism and deep respect for sin caused him to look at the ways in which religion, economics, social relations, politics, and church were used to promote one’s own agenda. I resonated with much of what Reinhold Niebuhr had to say. His Germanic heritage, early affirmation of pacifism, and extended treatises on the sufficiency of grace helped place my communitarian Mennonite heritage and Christian faith into a more gracious position. Reinhold Niebuhr helped modify the overly moralistic ways in which Christianity was presented during my upbringing.

Niebuhr also introduced me to the world of politics, American ideals of democratic expansionism, theological justification of World War II, and deep commitment to Christianity.  These ideals, principles, and beliefs have continued to influence the way that I view and respond to life.

Problem of Eros and Agape

 One of the problems with Niebuhr’s dialectical approach to law and grace was that it tended to create an existential impasse like Saint Paul experienced when he became deeply conflicted by flesh and spirit (Romans 7). The role of paradox in Kierkegaard’s writings that I had affirmed was now transferred to the dialectic of law and grace in Niebuhr’s writings.  This dialectic specifically revealed itself as the struggle between eros and agape. If one acts primarily on the basis of self-interest, how can justification of faith be any more than a tragic interpretation of forgiveness of evil rather than victory in life?

I found an answer in two books, Anders Nygren’s Eros and Agape and Gene Outka’s Agape. Nygren showed his Lutheran colours of being constantly in a state of sin and salvation through his dualistic understanding of eros and agape.  Self-interest was ultimately resolved only through grace, with agape an unrealistic ideal.

Gene Outka, on the other hand, saw agape as part of natural law, as something created in human beings that represents natural grace. I found Outka’s explanation more conducive to my own experience. The weight of the discussion tipped toward genuine altruism rather than by sin being constantly freed by grace.  As a child of the Enlightenment, born with essential reason, and as a child of Mennonitism, which believed that good works were naturally possible without obviating the need for grace, I found myself more Catholic than Lutheran regarding eros and agape. Agape was a natural part of people’s intentions and actions.

Eros as associated with the libido and driving desire could also be seen as a positive force that resulted in profoundly intimate relationships, creative achievements, and happiness.  Eros as expressed through self-sacrifice in order to achieve what it desired was able to attain many things without descending into narcissism, introspection, and self-centredness. Giving up things resulted in tremendously positive results.  One thinks of Harville Hendrix’s insightful use of eros and agape in his book on relationships, Getting the Love You Want (by giving it away).

World War II and Cold War Realism as Tragedy

 One of the problems with a tragic view of life is that it leaves little room for redemptive action in the world.  Niebuhr’s justification of World War II as the least evil response was not adequate from my point of view. I turned to Karl Barth and discovered that he had justified World War II on the basis of a good, Church Dogmatics, Volume 4.  God is good and so the war needs to be seen as a greater good instead of a lesser evil. I resonated with Barth’s understanding of the gospel and his affirmation of God as good. The idea of a common good was something that I experienced in relation to agape as well as in people’s generally positive view of what was possible in life (One thinks of Dr. Suess’ children stories in this regard).  Barth’s response to evil was more redemptive than Niebuhr’s pessimistic view. I wrote a paper on the subject, “Karl Barth’s Theological Justification of World War II.”

The end result of Niebuhr’s pessimism can be seen in his Cold War rhetoric in the 1950s and 60s.  Love and justice turned into power and politics with little of the former ideals and faith practices in evidence. While Karl Barth helped me understand theology and World War II better, Gregory Baum represented a Catholic theologian who was Enlightenment driven and deeply optimistic about the possibilities of life.  He was an Augustinian as well, entering a Catholic Order shortly after he converted to Catholicism in the 1950s.  His affirmation of the Enlightenment balanced the Protestant Reformers’ rediscovery of original sin during the Reformation. Walter Klaassen’s book, Anabaptism: Neither Catholic nor Protestant, dovetailed nicely with Gregory’s dialectical approach to theology.  Baum represented a way out of the morass that I found myself in (1) my journey from Kierkegaard and existentialism in relation to secularization to (2) Niebuhr’s trajectory of grace as justification by faith that ended up as Cold War realism.

Gregory Baum’s Sociological Contribution to my Understanding of Mennonitism

 My unexpected encounter and involvement with Gregory Baum during graduate school at McGill University was fortuitous in many ways. I was in the midst of writing a PhD thesis on Gordon Kaufman and running amuck of my thesis supervisor, Douglas John Hall.  Himself a devout Lutheran and dedicated to a theology of the cross which looked promising from my perspective, I soon discovered that Hall’s theology represented more of a lament over modernity, reminiscent of the writings of George Grant, than an engagement with modernity. He interpreted Luther in more or less the same way, saying that his theology was closer to the effects of medievalism than with the power struggle between the pope and princes going on in Germany and Rome.

Having picked Gordon Kaufman as the basis for my thesis created a problem because Kaufman was affirmative of modernity, enlightenment, creativity, historicity, and the value of the self. I could not put the radicalness of evil to which Luther’s theology was a response together with the optimistic presentation of Kaufman’s thought. Although I successfully defended my thesis with some revisions, the outcome was ultimately disconcerting. I could not reconcile the effects of original sin with the Enlightenment, thus leaving me in a quandary once again: first, an existential duality of faith and life because of secularization, then, a duality of justifying grace and sanctification because of the evils of World II, and now a duality of original sin and the Enlightenment steeped in the history of the Reformation and Renaissance.

A solution to this problem can be illustrated by comparing the above two protagonists’ response to the fate of Quebec Catholicism in the last fifty years. When Douglas Hall looked at the closure of so many Quebec Catholic churches, he lamented the demise of Christianity and placed the blame on its triumphalism and grasp at being “Empire.” His solution to the problem was to emphasize the suffering aspect of the gospel through an emphasis on the cross. 

When Gregory Baum looked at the same situation, he asked the sociological question: Why did these churches close?  Although Baum came up with a similar answer as Hall, concluding that Catholic religious leaders had overreached their grasp of political power and control of the Quebec people in the last three hundred years, Baum was interested in the swift rise of nationalism that replaced the decline of Catholicism.

Quebecers found a new religion in politics, succeeding in one generation from being a deeply religious people to becoming devout Quebec nationalists through the quiet revolution. Baum was as interested in understanding the ethical and religious issues that arose from within this new nationalism as in the fate of the church itself.  While committed as a theologian to reflecting on a “New Ecclesiology” and commenting on the possibilities of change from within the Catholic church, Baum was on a sociological quest of understanding the social dynamics of change within churches, social groups, politics, and nations.

Baum’s sociological quest resonated deeply within me because I was attempting to come to terms with the sectarian effects of my Mennonite upbringing.  Hall’s all encompassing view of the church as Empire did not resonate with my experience as a Mennonite. Mennonites have generally been on the receiving end of history, during the Reformation when it came to their stance on adult baptism, and more recently regarding their stance on pacifism, especially during World Wars I and II. Mennonites represented more of a persecuted minority than shining example of fallen Empire.

To Hall’s credit, he understood that Mennonites had much to offer in terms of a future minority church within the world. Their radical orthodoxy dovetailed nicely with Hall’s own quest of responding from within a minority position of the “established,” i.e. mainline churches.  He could not, however, develop an adequate minority ecclesiology to deal with this issue.  His forte was in providing broad-based theological treatises.

I found all of this somewhat humorous because Gordon Kaufman’s journey was somewhat similar. After writing a massive systematic theology which I considered the future, Kaufman gave it all up for God the Problem. In Hall’s case, it was the triumphalism of the church that was the problem.  He gave all that up for the suffering and theology of the cross that Luther had espoused.

Neither of these theologians addressed the issue with which I was wrestling, namely, how to assess Mennonite ecclesiology from an analytic perspective. Baum had switched from theology to sociology because he was disturbed by the failure of his own church to change in relation to Vatican II.  He turned to sociology to come to terms with these social dynamics, hence his book, Religion and Alienation.

I did the same regarding my own upbringing, albeit in a round about way.  In my work as a chaplain with Rastafarians, I realized that their twentieth century beginnings in Jamaica could be favourably compared to the rise of Anabaptism in the sixteenth century. In spite of the fact that these two groups were religiously and theologically quite different -- and separated by four hundred years -- their response to the dominant culture in which they thrived was surprisingly similar. 

I argued in a paper entitled “Strategies of Resistance: A Comparison of Anabaptism and Rastafarianism,” that Anabaptists had chosen adult baptism, a civil marker of initiation, as their tour de resistance as much to make a radical statement about the difference between church and state as to claim that it was more biblical than infant baptism. I also argued that they chose pacifism as much to show that they were not anarchists as to argue that it was more biblical than just war.

Rastafarians made similar moves which helped me understand my religious background better. They chose ganja as a religious rite to thumb their noses at the ruling class. They chose pacifism because of the death of so many of their religious leaders, who had been revolutionaries and committed to violence. Both of these groups could be interpreted as adopting their religious principles as much for sociological as for Scriptural reasons in order to show their difference from the dominant society.

This sociological comparison helped me come to terms with the Mennonitism of my upbringing.  The word sectarian was applicable to the extent that it showed how Mennonites have continued to negotiate with modernity while responding in creative ways to it. The Amish’s (1) critique of technology in order to sustain communal manual labour, their (2) distinctive clothing to make a significant religious statement, and their (3) maintenance of a Germanic language to sustain a boundary marker were applicable to Rastafarians, namely in their (1) bricolage industries and subsistence living, (2) dreadlocks and yellow, red, and black kerchiefs, and (3) I-talk. The sustenance of both groups depended on their commitment to an alternate way of life that was bolstered by religious and biblical accounts as well as by sociological strategies to survive and thrive.

This sociological comparison made me rethink the religious validity of Mennonitism. If pacifism and adult baptism were as much rooted in historic and sociological factors of minority status and survival in the face of opposition as in biblical accounts, then one could conceivably jettison these boundary markers at such a time as they became religiously irrelevant. Given different historic and sociological factors, could pacifism and adult baptism become less important to the centrality of Mennonite faith?

Addition of a Third Principle: Communitarianism

While the above sociological analysis of Mennonitism made me content with the validity and place of my upbringing within larger society, it forced me to rethink the religious validity of its central beliefs. If adult baptism were a boundary marker relative to its time, and pacifism dependent on historic factors, could Mennonitism with these two central principles adapt if there were new theological and ecclesiological issues with which they had to deal? 

A myriad of responses has been given to this question. There was a movement in the 1970s toward a Believers’ Church consensus in which Mennonites, Baptists, and other evangelicals could claim the centrality of adult baptism. The voluntarism associated with this movement, steeped in the democratic and Enlightenment traditions of choice, was seen as the engine that would drive this pan-evangelical movement forward.

Two scholars have viewed adult baptism as the dividing line between Anabaptism and other churches. Stuart Murray, in his book, Naked Anabaptist, and Anthony Siegrist, in Participating Witness, have argued that adult baptism continues to be the litmus test of the believers’ church.

The other trajectory present within Anabaptism has been the ideal of pacifism turned into an active social justice agenda that makes peacemaking at the heart of its message. Whether one considers the works of Gerald Schlabach, who has been instrumental in a Mennonite-Catholic dialogue centred on this principle, or more generally the Mennonite Church, which has a dove carrying an olive branch as its logo, peacemaking and reconciliation have been regarded as the way of the future for the Mennonite church.

While both of these movements have provided renewal and vision for the future, the same-sex marriage debate has divided Mennonites along progressive and conservative lines. The congregationally-based emphasis of the Mennonite church has placed the decision-making authority of this ethical issue squarely in the hands of the gathered congregation.  While denominationally committed to a variety of Mennonite conferences, the same-sex issue has revealed the strong democratic basis of the Mennonite church. It believes that theological and religious and ethical issues are a matter for the local church, regardless of more general pronouncements on the subject.

 This ideal of a gathered community symbolizing most clearly the kingdom of God represents a third principle of Mennonitism. While mainline churches would say that objective grace is present in the reception of the host, Mennonites would tend to say that this objective grace is present insofar as the gathered congregation is a reconciled congregation.

This idea was basic to my understanding of communion during my upbringing. Communion was held twice a year on Sunday evenings because of the fear that congregants during a morning worship service would not be fully reconciled nor understand the full meaning of communion. Preparation sermons were preached at least one Sunday beforehand to emphasize the fact that believers could only take communion if they had reconciled differences among their fellow neighbours, friends, and believers.  Sanctification was regarded as essential to the partaking of the elements.

The daunting aspects of this task and belief made Mennonites reconsider the role of communion within their worship services. Open communion became more common as it began to be regarded as an objective sign of grace regardless of its sanctified reception within the (collective) body.  Communion became a real sign of grace and was received as such in Mennonites’ renewal and reinterpretation of this central doctrine.

Communitarianism has continued to be important in two ways: (1) Mennonites’ thoroughgoing democratization and (2) Mennonites’ (curious) belief that if the gathered community dialogues long enough about divisive issues, it will come to some common agreement. Each of these issues needs to be considered separately.

Democratization of the Mennonite Church

The democratization of the Mennonite church happened in my own tradition in the 1960s, when the Bergthaler Church of Manitoba decided to drop its episcopal system in favour of localized pastors and greater congregational authority, Henry Gerbrandt, Adventure in Faith. The priesthood of all believers represented a principle that was used to affirm this shift of authority. Constitutions became the way of the future and were regarded as the best way of resolving many issues that had been solved by the Lehrdienst (authoritative regional pastoral council) before.

One reason for this shift in authority had to do with the facts that the congregations wanted more power to hire their own pastors, have them baptize and serve communion, and to make more of their own decisions about financial support.  The subsequent trend was to democratize everything so that each member had more say in the congregation’s decision-making processes. Conference ministers and conference affiliation were seen as surplus values of this system, with less authority given to each of these denominational offices to rule individual congregation affairs.

Local Congregation as Reconciled Community

Combined with this shift in authority toward the local congregation was the remnant idea of community as representative of a reconciled community. All issues could be resolved by discussion and dialogue within the community. The Holy Spirit was active in its role of reconciliation and effective in bringing about consensus.

The same-sex marriage debate placed a strain on this belief.  “Being a Faithful Church” represented a major initiative within my own denomination to initiate dialogue and bring about consensus. The end result of this endeavour brought about the exodus from the conference of most congregations who did not affirm same-sex marriages. The idea that dialogue would bring about reconciliation and commonality of belief was misplaced. Each congregation was left to make its own decisions about this ethical issue, regardless of what other congregations thought and believed.

The failure of dialogue to bring about consensus has made me reconsider the importance of community as a theological concept within Mennonitism. Voting on everything has tended to bring division, not consensus.  The same-sex marriage issue has caused many congregations on one side of this debate to leave. If asked about this situation, these “conservative” congregations would say that they were being a “faithful church” in regard to the Scriptures, therefore fulfilling the purpose of the initiative that had begun as an effort to be a “faithful church.”  Those who advocated for solidarity and justice and inclusion of same-sex couples within the church would also say that they were being a “faithful church.” Both sides of the debate were acting on the same principle, albeit with different results: reconciled congregations in terms of the ideal of “being faithful” while divided along ethical lines.

An Aside: The Role of Confession

The role of confession needs some comment before I turn to a more full-blown consideration of the importance of community. Confession has always been important for Mennonites, especially as it concerns reconciliation before the partaking of communion. Rather than confession being said to a priest or only to God, Mennonites believed in the reconciliation of Christians as part of the process of taking communion.  One wonders why confession has not continued as a practice in this way, rather than being usurped by dialogue as a way of getting to unification?  If one confesses to another the nature of one’s prejudices and wrongs, is that not a way of cleansing one’s soul and being made right with God and one’s neighbour, even if one continues to disagree on a variety of religious and ethical issues?

The reader may surmise by now where I am going with this reflection.  Confession continues to be a key aspect of mainline church services, whether privately or publicly. Is this one way that one can point toward reconciliation and unification without actually getting there eschatologically?

Community Conceived Differently in order to Achieve the Same Thing

I am suggesting that worship in some of the mainline churches successfully integrates a variety of things that Mennonites are trying to achieve, albeit in a slightly different fashion. Having confession and affirmation of forgiveness at the beginning of each service cleanses the personal and communal soul. Taking communion announces the reality of the reconciled kingdom while acknowledging that the church is still very much divided. Pacifists and veterans, same-sex couples and strait-laced conservatives partake of communion together after confessing their sins while acknowledging that the final say on these matters continues to be up for grabs.  One can speak of an objective grace present in communion that announces that we are part of the gathered kingdom regardless of race, gender, colour, or nationality, or for that matter, religion, ethics, theology, and ecclesiology.

The Lectionary: Another Piece of the Puzzle

I would like to briefly discuss the role of the lectionary in helping us come to some understanding of what is needed in our time and age.  While studying Mennonite sermons from my own tradition, I discovered that the Sommerfelder church had retained the use of the lectionary while more progressive churches dropped the use of it in favour of educated pastors, Canadian Mennonite Ministers’ Use of Scripture, 1874-1977.  Pastors educated at Bible School and Bible College were seen as the new authorities of Scriptural interpretation and worship.  One did not need to follow a historic set pattern of reading Scripture during worship.

The importance of the pastor in choosing key Scripture passages for interpretation had the unintended consequence of congregations becoming more dependent on the gifts of the minister. As the new professional hired to oversee worship and meditations, the minister was expected to be “all things to all people.” The lay ministry movement that had been active historically became less important as more authority was placed on the minister.

 I found in my study of conservative Mennonites that their retention of lectionary readings for worship modified and channeled their energies and gifts in a certain direction. These ministers were “lay” in the sense that they were not as educated as some other ministers. They also were not paid for their services. At the same time, they had been ordained by the congregation and were viewed as authoritative in terms of preaching and presenting the Gospel in the best way they could.  These ministers knew that they needed something like the lectionary to guide them in the rhythm of worship and authoritative preaching.

My discovery of the lectionary showed me that there were many historic ways in which the church considered certain elements of worship to be indispensable.  Like the confession of repentance and affirmation of forgiveness noted above, the lectionary represented a valuable resource in systematically including Scripture reading in worship.

A Hierarchy of Values in Relation to Worship

The mainline churches' order of service includes confession at the beginning, Scripture reading and a sermon in the middle, and various prayers and communion as the culmination of the service. Word and sacrament are held together within a structure of musical interludes that begins with an opening confession to prepare one for the service, continues with Scripture and a sermon in the middle, and ends with various confessions, prayers, offering, and communion as responses. Silence, Spirit, song, repose, meditation, reflection, partaking, and prayers ascend heavenward. Silence is possible because of the order that has been established beforehand. Spirit works mightily through all aspects of the service. Songs signify worship. Repose is possible in a way that is more difficult in frenetic styles of worship.  Reflection on the Word through meditation, reflection on the sacrament of grace through participation opens up a spiritual world that was not as visible before.


I present this intellectual autobiography of my life in the hope of other people better understanding my faith journey.  It has been a little convoluted, to say at the least. At the same time, I have tried to retain key aspects of my Mennonite faith while reworking them in a different soil. Adult baptism can be compared in analogical fashion with infant baptism and confirmation. Pacifism continues to be my ethical and religious ideal. Community represents an integral aspect of the church; however it is conceived.  Each of these elements has been retained in some fashion while being reconceived and practiced in a different denominational environment.  I trust that the leading of God’s grace and love will continue to be evident, however I present my faith and practice my theology.