The Anabaptist Moment

Improper Beginnings, Ecclesiopolitical Decision, and Braitmichel’s Ominous Silence

On a winter night in 1525, Conrad Grebel, Georg Blaurock, Felix Mantz, and a number of others gathered in a home in Zurich, prayed, and then baptized each other. The event solidified their breach with the reformer Zwingli and was in an important sense the beginning of the Swiss Anabaptist movement. It is a singular story: no other similar events of mutual baptism are reported in the sixteenth century, and all further Anabaptist baptisms might even trace back to this event. In the Mennonite imaginary, it takes the place of an origin story, even occasioning the date of Mennonite World Conference’s World Fellowship Sunday and currently the Anabaptist 500-year celebrations.

An ecclesial (re)beginning such as this “Anabaptist moment” raises profound theological and philosophical questions and embodies a number of unusual possibilities for thinking divine-human interaction and the grounding of the Church. Yet no in-depth investigations into the event exist: neither historically into its significance and interpretation in the Anabaptist movement of the sixteenth century, nor systematically into what possibilities a contemporary reading of such an ecclesial (re)beginning might offer to theology. This second task is one this project hopes to begin. What might this Anabaptist moment, mean to us, today? What possibilities might a contemporary reading present to our thinking?

In general, the research will begin from the intuition that the immanent logic of the Anabaptist moment reads first of all as that of the founding moment of an ecclesial community, the Church beginning again. Yet there is trouble everywhere: its beginnings are improper, beset by contradiction, the community thus founded is de-centered from the start. This tensive character means that to anyone in their right mind – not least of course to the established (reformed) Church order – the Anabaptist moment represents madness, trouble, and danger. In this light, Braitmichel’s ominous silence on any kind of divine fiat for the Church beginning again reads as a self-aware admission, but perhaps also as openness to the possibility of Christ’s uniquely nonviolent sovereignty. In this reading, the Anabaptist moment philosophically could not possibly be the origin of a tradition in any strong sense of those words that would demand an obedient loyalty: its very structure already entails its proliferation and repetition, that is, its own de-centering and softening towards the other and a more creaturely togetherness.

The project identifies at least seven sub-themes for reflection:

  • “Improper” Beginnings, as Grebel baptizes without himself being baptized or indeed ordained, and Blaurock is joined to a Church that does not yet exist.
  • Decision and divine solicitation, as Braitmichel’s text is marked by an ominous silence on the Spirit or any kind of divine fiat for the event — the moment of decision is, to anyone in their “right” mind, madness.
  • Political Theology, as the Anabaptist moment is the founding act of a community, yet a founding act troubled and crossed from the start, suggesting a powerless or indeed nonviolent sovereignty of abdication.
  • Ground and Contingency, as this founding moment is also a grounding moment, a moment in which the grounds of a fellowship are disputed and (re)established, suggesting paradoxically, in one stroke, their contingency and abyssal nature (suggesting a reading of the Anabaptist moment as a “baptism of the abyss”).
  • The Moment, as the logic of temporal contraction and in-vention of this irreducibly particular moment likewise discloses a more general condition, is likewise every moment of the ecclesial: another Anabaptist moment will always have been possible.
  • Time and Tradition, as the Anabaptist moment grounds precisely by not founding as an origin but by instilling repetition, that is, creative Entstellung, and by itself being a repetition of that other beginning in the New Testament.
  • A Wider Togetherness, as the ecclesiopolitical church-world differentiations on which the Anabaptist moment relies are troubled and fail to harden into (Schmittian) friend-enemy distinctions – in spite of themselves, grâce à Dieu.

This research project is undertaken primarily by Marius van Hoogstraten as a postdoctoral study.

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