Throughout their history, Mennonites have generally been what sociologists of religion call “sectarian”—not in the sense of a wacko cult, but in the sense of seeing ourselves as set apart from the world. One of our favorite scripture passages is Romans 12:2, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds . . .” (NRSV). Not that we’ve always done much transformation through intellectual renewal; but being nonconformed to “the world,” the dominant society and its values, has long been central to fidelity to the calling of Jesus among Mennonites and other Anabaptists.
All kinds of problems can arise from this way of being Christian, as can all kinds of deep faithfulness and mutual love. In any case, it leads to an emphasis on the particularity of divine presence and activity: Jesus is followed within this community, and it is understood that among such followers he is truly present and at work.
Thomas Merton, by contrast, is better known for an emphasis on small-c “catholicity,” seeking unity more than distinction regarding those who are different, including those who follow other religions. (And Protestants, including Mennonites, would have been counted as “other religions” by many in 1950s Roman Catholicism.) Merton, in more than one place in his essays, journals, and letters, spoke of the presence of the risen Christ and/or the divine Wisdom/Sophia throughout the universe, not merely within one faithful group of disciples.
I’m probably oversimplifying this (what else is a blog for?), but the difference is real. I’m going to explore both of these options, the “sectarian” and the “catholic” (or “global” or “universal”), in more detail in other posts. Here, having introduced the subject, let me just offer two brief points, both to be expanded later.
First, both of these approaches are needed. The early church was clearly a “sectarian” group, that is, a small group that had broken off from a larger, established religion, and saw itself as offering a new and distinctive way. But as Christianity grew, it often drew on concepts and practices from the religious cultures it encountered in its mission, first from Greek philosophy, and then from others. (Happy Yule, everybody!) Both sectarian and “universalist” or “syncretistic” tendencies are present in the history of Christianity. The challenge is for those of us who think mostly along one of these lines to acknowledge the other and give credit for its contributions.
Secondly, Merton and positions like his clearly offer a challenge to the Anabaptist view of Christian belief and life. (He also offered a challenge to the Roman Catholic view of Christianity in the 1950s and 60s!) On the other hand, the Anabaptist tradition offers a challenge for churches that have seen themselves as having a powerful place in the world and a guiding role in society: to acknowledge that their future is likely to be much more sectarian than their past. Christianity is well on its way to becoming a minority position in the societies where it has held sway. Atheists shouldn’t be the only ones celebrating this; perhaps surprisingly, Thomas Merton often saw things that way too. More on the sectarian Merton (and on both these challenges) in other posts.