Experiments in Love An Anabaptist Theology of Risk-Taking in Mission

Experiments in Love An Anabaptist Theology of Risk-Taking in Mission. By Emily Ralph Servant.
Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick Publications. American Society of Missiology Monograph Series 49. 2021

This book was reviewed for the Mennonite Quarterly Review, July 2022, pp. 468-70.

Originally written for a doctoral dissertation, Experiments in Love by Emily Ralph Servant expresses concern that Mennonite theologians no longer demonstrate risk-taking in mission endeavor as did their Anabaptist forbears. Ralph Servant prefers that new stories of “experiments in love” combine insight from social and behavioral sciences, along with feminist and liberation theologians, as well as the Anabaptist tradition. Those stories need to reflect God the Source who risks being vulnerable in our world.

In light of varied views toward missioning, a clear definition of mission for the writer early in the book would be useful. Ralph Servant mentions being a child of a church planter, sharing stories of Jesus, anticipation for revival meetings, and “bringing neighbors to reconciliation with God and others.” (xi-xii) She sees that for Mennonites faithfulness in mission came to be linked with martyrdom and suffering while for Jesus’ mission meant to “bring all of creation into union with God.” (129) Katie Eisenbise, Anabaptist theologian writing in Brethren Life and Thought, characterizes Jesus’ effort as: “restoration—in terms of releasing the captives, restoring sight to the blind, and delivering the oppressed.” (159) When done through taking risks, it would seem that all such ethnicity is what Ralph Servant expects Mennonites to practice in missioning.

Chapter 1 presents a history of early Mennonite Church patterns of mission effort including evangelical urgency (in part due to a sense of approaching end times), a volunteer church, making disciples, Jesus being the way to salvation, and a commitment to piety and church purity that prompted multiple schisms. The model also included local mission outposts and international efforts advanced by individuals specifically called to that task rather than the entire church membership.

Ralph Servant notes that when the number of immigrants near Mennonite communities increased, they often feared losing the distinctive features of their identity as related to war, nonconformity or modernization. She observes a 2006 survey by sociologist Conrad Kanagy’s suggesting that as fertility and evangelical outreach declined, fewer Mennonites formally related with unchurched folk. The focus of the chapter then shifts to a need for God-stories of love. Ralph Servant’s claim that Mennonites give excess attention to a Christocentric emphasis on ethics and costly discipleship at the expense of attention to God and Spirit continues to be a worthy judgment.

Ralph Servant’s call for a “correlational methodology of liberation” is the focus of Chapter 2. Her theology—which both draws on and differs from that of theologian Paul Tillich—reflects Divine risk-taking via broad feminist and social science voices that both convey Jesus’ life and teachings and emerge in relationships of love and discipleship. She prefers to call the latter term “formation.” The practice of such risk-taking involves vulnerable relationships, a loving community, creativity, admission of failure, and ethical justice.

Chapters 3 and 4 highlight risk-taking, its practice and theology respectively. However, given that the chapter 4 content focuses on five writers who fail to demonstrate risk-taking, this reviewer wonders about giving so much attention to their inadequacies. Might Ralph Servant’s focus instead have focused on God’s wisdom in planning for diversity of religions and on balancing loyalty to one’s faith with that diversity? Compared to five centuries ago when Anabaptists and other Reformers felt compelled to bring change to some Roman Catholic practices, a primary need today is for genuine understanding and community with others, a willingness to learn from people of religious faith who differ from us.

Might Ralph Servant be averse to commending features of those loyal to the one God through other religions? With her mention of “mindfulness,” (66) she could credit Buddhist insight. Her references to “diversity” (69, 71) could be illustrated from religious pluralism. What is she implying when she writes that early Anabaptist risk-taking may not be “as relevant today for Mennonites living in the relative safety of religious plurality in the United States.” (98) Do we not have responsibility to take vulnerable risks to speak for or unite with Muslims, Jews, and Sikhs when they are unfairly stereotyped and persecuted in the US?

Readers of Experiments in Love should anticipate extensive discussion of writers who illustrate key points in multiple chapters. Over 400 resources and 1100 footnotes appear in this book which can sometimes obscure the main point and basic content. The writer may refer to six different writers within one paragraph or nine notes from one resource might appear on one page (75), six of which appeared within ten pages of each other. This reviewer wonders why Ralph Servant’s arrangement of an original author’s content is more valid. Accuracy in citation is a concern. Since this reviewer owns many of the resources by feminist writers that are quoted, she is aware that not all page numbers given are correct. Other features of Ralph Servant’s writing might be improved: occasional rambling, failure of paragraph development to build on the first sentence, some footnote ties to risk-taking effort in mission, and excess discussion of J. Denny Weaver’s focus on atonement.

Ralph Servant specifically faults Mennonites in relation to risk-taking in mission for their fear of change. No doubt the fear of what change requires or might lead to is real, not only with theology. The titles of Chapter 5—“New Room to Breathe”—which repeats concerns about Mennonite aversion to risk-taking because of fear for change—and Chapter 8 “God’s Dream, Fulfilled” anticipate improvement and newer stories. But Ralph Servant might miss her goal of attending more to God’s or the Spirit’s transforming qualities given that titles for chapters 6 and 7 both focus on Jesus: “The Human One” and “Jesus of the Spirit.” The latter does discuss how Jesus depends on the Spirit’s activity as she “Hovers” in the World, in God’s community, in Jesus, and in the Church. But a reference to professor Elizabeth Johnson’s fine book She Who Is could have offered profound insight into change.

Experiments in Love needs to be read by scholars of Mennonite history as well as people in the pew. The word “experiments” in the title suggests a testing quality; not all features desired will be achieved or equally worthy. But learning takes place in the process. To practice love expresses readiness to extend or receive well-being. Religious people expect the Divine One to model love for human interaction. Characteristics prominent centuries ago, for all church reformers, may not be the ones most needed today because times change. While risk-taking suggests a cause or incentive behind an action, mission builds on conviction. Most people have some fear of difference or change due often to misinformation. As readers feel challenged to broaden their sources for missioning stories, what Christians call “the Golden Rule” will continue to be practiced by people of all religious faiths as we anticipate Divine Inclusive Will being done.

[The reviewer regrets several deletions made by the MQR book review editor in this review. For example, the end of the next to last paragraph above originally included: “ . . . change such as that noted in Johnson’s chapter titled “Spirit Sophia” in which she details how biblical writers and interpreters since have diminished the Spirit’s value by transferring some of her key qualities to Jesus instead.” Why are readers of MQR kept from knowing and sharing the truth?]