Anabaptist Ways of Knowing: Conversation about Tradition based Critical Education

Sara Wenger Shenk (Telford, PA: Cascadia, 2003)

A revew by Brian Haymes

Sara Wenger Shenk is a Professor of Christian Education at Eastern Mennonite Seminary, in Harrisonburg, Virginia and a founding pastor of a local Mennonite congregation. She has a wide international experience and has written before on family spirituality, culture and educational matters. She presents us with a fascinating and thoughtful book.

The author begins with reflections on modernity, especially the flight from traditional authorities. What has happened is that, without a tradition to live within, we find ourselves intellectually homeless and vulnerable to loud self-interested voices. We thought that we could ground our understanding of the world in detached rationality, only to discover that such a stance is impossible. We thought that knowledge was provable, and justified true belief. But such convictions have not carried us as far as we hoped, not least in matters of morality and education in schools and universities. Shenk covers some familiar ground in all this but does it with clarity and fairness.

She then invites us to picture a round table conversation, she the host with Anabaptist convictions. I suspect, however, she is never in her mind very far from her students and fellow members of the congregation. The book is seriously academic, yet one senses all along this local, practical concern. To the discussion she invites some others for dialogue. First she outlines Anabaptist perspectives on ‘knowing'; the emphasis on the practice of discipleship, the corporate congregational tasks of discernment, the telling of stories and the living tradition. She hints at this stage at some practical educational possibilities.

The first of the partners to share the discussion about knowledge and knowing is the classical Greek notion of paideia (roughly translatable as education but richer than this). Her insights into virtue and education as character formation, dispositions and practices are splendid. They raise important questions about educational priorities. Then comes a long chapter when we hear the voices of Michael Polanyi on tacit and personal knowledge, Rebecca Chopp on feminist insights and person-centred education, and finally Nancey Murphy on the relationship of scientific and theological thinking, the priority of the ethical and theological and the role of tradition. This chapter is at times a demanding read, as a lot of deep thought is concisely expressed, but it is worth the reader's effort. The host listens carefully and then makes some further comments, suggesting an emerging consensus, drawing on the significance of tradition, narrative, action and imagination. Her final chapter argues that Anabaptist ways of knowing are more creative than we realise. She imagines some educational settings where reappropriating the tradition would renew faith and life, namely the family, the church and the school. She stresses the communal aspects of life in Christ and has some helpful suggestions about how we might relearn Core Practices. I would wish for a more detailed examination of the varied biblical material and the forms in which claims to knowledge are made in the narrative text. This would add further strength to her argument.

Some awareness of current debates in philosophy, education and theology will be an advantage to reading this thoughtful book. Others may initially find it demanding, but the author has provided a helpful glossary of terms and is determined, like a good teacher, to be understood and helpful. The result is a significant contribution to education theory and, I suggest, pastoral theology. Here is an appropriation of the Anabaptist tradition, demonstrating its creativity and timeliness.