A Proposal For a Conference
to be held at
Bluffton College
August 6 - 8, 1998

Since about 1993 a number of Anabaptist scholars have begun to concern themselves with the relationship between Anabaptism and postmodernity.  More recently interest in this relationship has increased as postmodernity has seemed to become a more pressing reality.  Most recently, in April 1997, Mennonite Quarterly Review published an issue dedicated to essays on "Mennonites and Postmodernity."  This special issue marks a pivotal point in studies in Anabaptism and postmodernity since it recognizes that such inquiry is worthy of more than rare scholarly attention.

From August 6 through August 8, 1998,  Bluffton College will host a conference dedicated to study and dialogue about Anabaptists and postmodernity.  By encouraging face-to-face discussion of this important topic among scholars and intellectuals coming from a variety of academic disciplines, religious backgrounds, and cultural perspectives, this conference promises to expand as well as contest the conversation that is currently developing in our journals.

It has never been easy for Anabaptists, whether of the 16th or 20th century, to relate to the cultures within which they have lived.  Indeed, the history of Anabaptists is well told as a series of struggles for discipleship and survival in varying social settings.  Thus, Anabaptists were martyred for adult baptism, hid in caves to protect the visible church, were imprisoned for pacifism, lived as the quiet in the land, built bureaucracies for world-wide mission, etc.  Throughout their history Anabaptists have sought to live faithfully in the tension between being in the world but not of it.  Thus they have suffered as they challenged and succeeded as they were assimilated into their cultural milieu.

As the end of the twentieth century approaches, Anabaptists continue to live this tension but they do so in what seems a particularly difficult context.  This is so because the cultural milieu still has certain modern characteristics--in some, if not most quarters, technology is embraced, progress expected, and "God is dead".1   Against the "forward" march of science and technology over God, living the simple life of faith and discipleship is difficult.  But, compounding the difficulty is the degree to which the contemporary culture is postmodern, which is to say, governed by a cultural logic in which consumption drives life, knowledge is suspect, history is forgotten, truth is relative, and "man is dead".2   In such a context, it is not only difficult to live a simple life of faith and discipleship against "progress" but, in addition, it seems rather impossible to determine what discipleship and faith are and, worse yet, whether living by such commitments is even significant.  For in postmodernity, differences proliferate to infinity and, thereby, render most differences insignificant except insofar as they constitute another market niche.  Thus, in postmodernity, to be a faithful Anabaptist is no longer "simply" a choice between being different and suffering, on the one hand, or being assimilated and succeeding, on the other.  Rather, in postmodernity, Anabaptists must consider whether they can choose at all, and, if so, whether or how such choices (for faith, community, nonconformity) even matter as differences.

Some Anabaptist scholars have begun to wrestle with these questions and issues.  They have, for instance, wondered what the supposed death of man means for the believers' church, what the seeming relativity of truth means for cultural distinctiveness, what the suspicion of knowledge means for a usable past, what the return to the body means for the body of Christ.  That is to say, they have begun to assess critically Anabaptist theology from the perspective of postmodernity and through postmodernism.  Such efforts are risky insofar as they require the critical evaluation of what once was presumed to be secure: Truth, History, Discipleship, Community, Nonconformity, Believer, etc.  However, as John D. Roth argues in the April 1997 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review,3 such efforts are also necessary insofar as we live in and cannot escape the challenges of postmodernity and, further, since "it is indeed possible for critical analysis informed by postmodern thought to move beyond the 'deconstructionist' impulse towards a prophetic vision of a new heaven and a new earth rooted both in Christian convictions and in Anabaptist/Mennonite sensibilities" (166).

So the discussion has begun in printed and forthcoming publications as well as a few conference presentations.4   And as the appreciation for the importance of this discussion increases, so does the need for scholars to gather for discussion dedicated to it.  Moreover, that need is at least two-fold.  First, the discussion which has been happening largely in print needs to happen in a face-to-face context wherein intellectuals (be they scholars, cultural workers, or students) from a variety of disciplines, backgrounds, and perspectives can engage the issues, debate the theories, and argue about responses.  Second, as enriching as the discussion has been in print, it has largely focused on Anabaptist theology and postmodernity.  This work must continue but must also be augmented and contested, as appropriate, by work that takes up questions of economy, literature, technology, art, rhetoric, science, politics, psychology, etc.

Presentations and Discussion Questions
After publishing a call for papers, the conference planners were swamped with proposals.  Those selected for presentation seek to answer or contest aspects of the following questions: What is postmodernity?  Is postmodernity a socio-historical condition within which Anabaptists are obliged to live?  If so, what are its particular conditions in terms of economy, technology, history, communication, politics?  What significance does postmodernity have for Anabaptists?  In other words, in what ways are Anabaptists already living in and of postmodernity?  What are the problems and/or possibilities of postmodernity for Anabaptists theologically, politically, economically, socially, artistically, etc?  What is Anabaptist identity after polygenesis and its attendant dissemination of the origin of Anabaptism?  Is polygenesis the Truth of Anabaptism or a truth of postmodernity?  Can we even speak of contemporary Anabaptists after polygenesis?  If so, what is distinctive about Anabaptists theologically, socially, culturally, politically?  How should Anabaptists live, theorize, create, and worship within postmodernity?  Where/what is Anabaptist community in postmodernity?  Is it in rural America, urban centers, cyberspace?  What is/should be Anabaptists' witness to postmodernity?  Is postmodernity a perspective (theoretical, theological, artistic, etc.) Anabaptists may adopt or reject?  If so, what is that perspective and how should Anabaptists respond to it?  All who seek to discover faithful answers or to offer courageous challenges to the exigences posed by these questions are invited to join the conversation at the Anabaptists and Postmodernity conference at Bluffton College, August 6-8, 1998.

Susan Biesecker-Mast


1 Technology is embraced, for instance, in the ever expanding possibilities of computers and the internet. Progress is expected, for example, through the accumulation of knowledge about the genetic code and, thereby, toward genetic cures for a whole host of diseases. Finally, belief in Nietzsche's claim that "God is dead" at the hands of Reason and Science holds sway wherever humanism remains hegemonic.

2 This characterization is indebted to Fredric Jameson's work and, in particular, to his book Postmodernism or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke UP, 1991). There Jameson argues that now is a relatively unique cultural moment which carries with it certain traces of modernity (mentioned above) but which also exceeds modernity. Unique to postmodernity, Jameson argues, is the collapsing of the distinction between surface and structure that had made possible Kant's categorical imperatives based in universal reason, Freud's psychoanalytic diagnosis of the psychic causes of madness, Marx's science of ideology and economy, liberal humanism's civic governance of "man" on the grounds of the reasoning subject, etc. Absent the logic of the structure (truth, psyche, economy, reason) as determining the surface (ethics, behavior, ideology, politics), postmodernity seems without causes, without explanations, without reason, and, thus, chaotic, meaningless, terrifying. Put differently, if Jameson is right that there is no foundation in which behavior, beliefs, politics, etc. are grounded, then these aspects of human life can neither be explained nor controlled nor predicted. Indeed, without structure everything seems to become surface and play. What appears to remain after the disappearance of foundations is "mere" signs of things which are connected to nothing and, thereby, can mean anything. In postmodernity, then, not only does God seem dead but so too "man" (as the historic agent and ethical arbiter) seems also dead. If this is so, then we appear to have neither anchor nor transcendence, neither meaning nor choice, neither faith nor hope.

3 The April 1997 issue of Mennonite Quarterly Review focuses on "Mennonites and Postmodernity" and includes essays by Julia Kasdorf, Rudy Wiebe, Gerald Biesecker-Mast, Scott Holland, Elaine Swartzentruber, Lydia Harder, and Duane Friesen about theology, the body, discipleship, culture, etc. As mentioned in the introduction, this is the first full issue of a Mennonite scholarly journal devoted to an inquiry into the relationships among Anabaptism, postmodernity, and postmodernism.

4 For instance, prior to the April 1997 MQR issue, Alain Epp Weaver interpreted two of the foremost Mennonite thinkers, John Howard Yoder and Gordon Kaufman, as postmodern theologians in his essay, "Options in Postmodern Mennonite Theology," [Conrad Grebel Review 11 (Winter 1993) 63-76]. In his essay, "Toward a Radical Postmodern Anabaptist Vision" [Conrad Grebel Review 13 (Winter 1995), 55-68], Gerald Biesecker-Mast reread Harold S. Bender's "Anabaptist Vision" for a postmodern Anabaptist discipleship. Also, in the fall of 1996, Crystal Downing published her essay, "Seeking the Mennotaur: The Multicursal Mennonite" in Conrad Grebel Review [14 (Fall 1996) 229-240] to which Lamar Nisly responded [Conrad Grebel Review 15 (Winter/Spring 1997) 163-166]. At the "Anabaptists in Conversation" conference held at Elizabethtown College June 19-21, 1997, Michael King presented a paper titled "Angels, Atheists, and Common Ground: Toward a Separatist and Worldly Postmodern Anabaptism" which has been published in the most recent issue of Conrad Grebel Review. Although his was the only paper that directly took up Anabaptism and postmodernity, related questions and issues animated the discussion throughout the Elizabethtown conference. This, of course, is not an exhaustive bibliography but, rather, suggests the recent interest and growing body of scholarship on Anabaptism and postmodernity.

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