Anabaptist spiritual guidance, part 1: Intro

I took a class this semester on Spiritual Guidance in the Christian Tradition, in which we studied models and histories of spiritual guidance (direction, companionship) in Orthodox, Wesleyan, Ignatian, French humanist, feminist, interfaith, Jewish, artistic, Quaker, African American, desert elders, and communal contexts. Seeing the particular gifts and challenges of spiritual guidance within each framework inspired the following questions that followed me throughout the semester:

What might a model of spiritual guidance particular to the Church of the Brethren look like, drawing on Anabaptist and Radical Pietist heritage and practice?

What unique gifts and challenges would such a model potentially offer to a broader, ecumenical understanding of spiritual guidance?

In this post and the four that will follow, I intend to explore these two questions a bit. Those of you who are familiar with the tradition will perhaps notice at least a couple of hurdles. First, current Anabaptists tend to consider themselves too practical for spirituality and skeptical of the individual revelation that spiritual guidance often seems to imply. This is tempered a bit, for Church of the Brethren folk, by the Radical Pietist part of us that inspires a warmth and tendency toward (a somewhat diffident) mysticism. Looking to early leaders of both stripes, we find the categories to be much less clearly drawn, but the fact remains that today’s faithful are much more likely to talk about obedience, discipleship, and service than devotion, spirituality, or mysticism. Many of us are from farming stock… who has time for all that froofy stuff? We follow Jesus with our feet on the ground and our hands at the plow.

The second hurdle, especially when looking to early sources, but also when looking to current sources, is that we are a tradition that has not valued spiritual and theological writing as much as we have valued spiritual and theological living. This means that many of the existing writings are addressed to a particular situation, within a particular context, and by particular lay ministers (letters from prison or hymns, for example). It is very difficult to say anything categorical about what Anabaptists and Radical Pietists believe(d) or practice(d) in general, especially about spirituality or spiritual guidance.

My assertion from within this tradition is that our spirituality is as wholesome and rich as Iowa topsoil. This spirituality is connected to a daily and practical mysticism that sees obedience as an outworking of a warm devotion to a personally and communally encountered living Christ. Because this spirituality does not generally express itself in ecstatic, charismatic, or typically other-worldly encounters, we are likely not to name it as mysticism. But I think we are a people who expect Jesus to literally show up in the midst of our everyday lives, who expect God to move through the rhythms of our days with as real a touch as our grandmothers’ steady pressure on the bread dough, and who expect the Spirit to stir us to build new worlds in God’s name with as tangible a voice as a construction foreman’s.

Someday I’m sure I’ll expound on my understanding of the ways in which our spirituality manifests itself. Hints of that will find expression in the following posts, but for now, I leave you to explore that avenue in comments or elsewhere. Instead, I will shift my attention to this question: Given a uniquely Anabaptist / Radical Pietist expression of spirituality, what might spiritual guidance look like?

Next up: Balthasar Hubmaier (an early Anabaptist leader and theologian with a wicked cool name), an Anabaptist view of human nature, and possible models for spiritual guidance (like midwife, parent / elder, witness) in the Anabaptist tradition based on that anthropology.

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