Friday, May 17, 2013

Amish Spirituality

Unrelated to Dress and Non-Conformity  
          The story is told of an Amish farmer, while preparing his field for planting with his team of horses, came upon a bird nest that had fallen out of a tree and into his field. The nest had several fledglings in it, and a concerned mother bird fussing around it. The Amish farmer guided his team around the scene, being less efficient with his planting, but recognizing the sanctity of life, even the life of “insignificant” birds, and his place within the natural order. There are numerous other stories showing the Amish respect for nature and viewing themselves as part of it; not detached from it.
            One wonders if a modern farmer, sitting in an air-conditioned tractor cab going full speed with his favorite music blaring, even if a nature lover, would have noticed the fallen nest in time to avoid destroying it and the life within it.
            Because their technology is closer to nature and its natural rhythms, and because most of them are farmers who depend on nature for their livelihood, the Amish have a respect and reverence for nature. They do not worship nature, but they respect it and view it as God-created and given for their stewardship and care. This care for nature can be seen in how they manage their farms; for three hundred years they have developed top-notch sustainable agricultural methods. Respect and reverence for nature is part of Amish spirituality.
Another very strong aspect of Amish spirituality is community; interdependence rather than independence. The Amish generally do not buy commercial insurance, relying on the community to bail them out if there are unusual expenses. They are known for their “barn raisings,” social events where the whole community unites to help each other when there is significant property loss through a fire or a storm. But this aspect goes beyond their own community. When disaster strikes around the country, Amish work crews are some of the first to show up to clean up, and some of the last to leave as the rebuilding progresses. Their spirituality not only calls for mutual aid for their own, but also for reaching out to help others in need.
There is another aspect of their communal spirituality that is often criticized by evangelical Christian groups, including some of their cousins; the Mennonites. With a few exceptions, Amish groups do not emphasize individual salvation. It is interesting to me that this notion of individual salvation of souls apart from the community of faith and the community of nature is being discussed by writers of Christian Celtic spirituality such as Philip Newell. In the prelude to his book Christ of the Celts, Newell writes, “In Chapter Eight [I] explore[s] the doctrine of individual salvation as an obstacle in recovering our sense of the oneness of the universe.” What he means is that saving individual souls will not heal the brokenness of our world if we do not also save the relationships we have with each other as people groups and as nation groups. It will also not heal the brokenness and estrangement from God’s created order. All of created matter matters, and we are all part of the whole; not just individual souls.
One can see his point if more than 500 years (since the Reformation) an over emphasis on the saving of individual souls hasn’t brought western society close to the wholeness desired in God’s original plan for creation and salvation. In fact, it has probably created more fragmentation.
Newell continues, “My well-being will come only in relationship to our well-being and the well-being of all things [including our relationship with nature]. We are being invited to seek a new salvation. It will come through and with one another, not in separation from one another.” Their focus on community and oneness with the universal All, is the essence of Amish spirituality.
What is interesting is that one can see evidence of this spirituality throughout the world among aboriginal “tribal” peoples. They see themselves as a part of nature and other created things. I first became aware of this while visiting the Kekchi (Q’eqchi’) Mennonite peoples in Guatemala. They had become Christian but maintained much of their Mayan reverence to the created order, including religious rituals during their planting and harvesting, and surrounding their worship with an unbelievable array of flowers and other natural items. Their salvation often followed communal paths; when the main leader of the group converted, so followed the rest of the village. When criticized by missionaries for their practices (because they were non-western?) they replied. “We do not renounce all of our ancient Mayan beliefs [particularly related to their reverence for nature]. Those practices were our Old Testament that prepared the way for us to know and accept Christ.”
In many ways, Amish spirituality is similar to the tribal spirituality found all round the world, including the Kekchi of Guatemala. It is also very similar to Celtic spirituality which through many writers on spirituality is helping us move toward a more holistic view of our place within the cosmos, both as individuals and as people groups.
 “We are so deeply part of one another, and of all things, that it is meaningless to speak about wholeness in separation,” wrote Newell. “Wholeness comes in relationship, not in fragmentation.” To achieve this wholeness, we would do well to look at the Amish for an example of a spirituality that does not fragment; does not overemphasize individualism, and is mostly at peace with God’s created order.

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