David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship, and Me

This last week I had the double blessing of reading David Augsburger’s Dissident Discipleship AND hearing him speak in person.

The subtitle of his book is a mouthful: “A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor.” It’s what he calls “tripolar spirituality”—in contrast to monopolar spirituality that focuses only on self-discovery and in contrast to bipolar spirituality which focuses only on the self and seeing God. Tripolar spirituality “links discovering self, seeing God, and valuing people into a seamless unity.” (7)

“Spirituality,” “spiritual practice,” and related words are sometimes vague, so I appreciate David’s careful work in defining what he means by spirituality. In his view, authentic spirituality is not only an inner sense of peace, not only an upward response to God, but it is an outward journey also with others. Drawing on his Anabaptist tradition, he explores seven distinctive practices of this tripolar spirituality:

  • Radical attachment (to Jesus)
  • Stubborn Loyalty (in community)
  • Tenacious Serenity
  • Habitual Humility
  • Resolute Nonviolence
  • Concrete Service
  • Authentic Witness

Taken together, these form a “subversive spirituality,” an “upside down spirituality” that David details with many references to other works and with many stories to illustrate his points. Here are just a few gems from his book:

“The natural habitat of any true disciple of Jesus is community. Those who seek to know Christ know that he is most truly known in community.” (65)

“Nonviolence is right not because it works but because it is the way of Jesus.” (138)

“Tripolar spirituality sees love of others as the primary way we go about loving God, so that where we stand socially and politically is also where we stand religiously and spiritually.” (206)

While David clearly makes his case for tripolar spirituality, he also includes “On the Other Hand” sections and plenty of questions throughout his book.  As part of this ongoing dialogue with other authors and even with himself, I have a few “on the other hand” questions of my own:

1. I understand that tripolar spirituality is in part a corrective to spirituality that focuses only on personal piety, only on Jesus and me. But as a corrective, does it swing too far the other way? Is the focus on mutuality so strong that it becomes monopolar the other way, with not enough room given for the inward and the upward dimensions of spirituality?

For example, he said at one point, “I’m not called to be Christ to the neighbor, but to see Christ in the neighbor.” But I wonder, is this a case of either/or? Isn’t our calling both to be like Christ and to see Christ in my neighbor?

At another point of the afternoon, David recognized, “We are all wounded people, and God meets us there, and leads us toward steps of  healing and growth. So we resist the temptation to say one kind of spirituality is better than another.” But do we need to go further? Not only recognizing that tripolar spirituality is not better than monopolar or bipolar spirituality, but that we need all of these poles of spirituality. At least for myself, I need a spirituality that is inward and upward and outward.

2. Where is the place of piety, of Scripture, and prayer? There is little said in the book about Scripture and prayer as spiritual practices, and from his talk I’m not sure whether Scripture and prayer fit into spirituality from within or above or below. I think of them as all three—where Scripture is the word of God (reflecting the upward dimension), and it’s for my personal reflection (the inward dimension), and grew out of community and is meant to be read and interpreted with others (the outward dimension).

Likewise, prayer connects me with God (upward), and focuses my mind and heart (inward), and is radically other-oriented (as, for example, we pray to “Our” Father for “our” daily bread). In this way, I hold Scripture and prayer—what some might call personal piety—as essential for Christian spirituality, as important as service and mutuality.

While David’s work is solidly grounded in Scripture and prayer, I would have also appreciated hearing more directly about Scripture and prayer as part of spiritual practice.

3. I read this book and heard David speak as part of our Mennonite Church BC leadership sessions this year. So for those of us who took part, I wonder how can we take all of that and engage those who weren’t there and who haven’t read the book?  To do that, we’ll need to continue to wrestle with some of the language and concepts. I hope we can also retell some of the stories—like the one about Rev. Benny Newton who saved a man on the street who was being beaten, or the story of the mother who became a mentor to the girl who bullied her daughter.

I’d love to share how David and his home congregation say the Apostles’ Creed each week—instead of the original “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,” they fill in the life, teaching, and ministry of  Jesus. We don’t often say the Apostles’ Creed, but filling in that “Anabaptist comma” is a great way of illustrating the importance of Jesus’ life in addition to his suffering and death mentioned in the Creed. David has graciously agreed to share the wording, so you can see the Apostles’ Creed with the “Anabaptist Comma” in this Emmanuel blog post.

4. How will this transform me? I suppose this is a question of “monospirituality,” but I think it’s just as important as the more tripolar questions.  Just as we need to ask  how can we live this out and engage others, I’m also asking myself, how do I live this out? Do I have the courage of Rev. Benny Newton? In what ways do I practice dissident discipleship?

Thank you, David, for your excellent work, for your gracious presence among us, and for your stimulating and inspiring sessions!


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6 thoughts on “David Augsburger, Dissident Discipleship, and Me

  1. April
    I could not be there, but would love to read his book.
    From what you have written, I guess that he goes a bit strong with a corrective to our over-spiritualized Mennonite constituency. Sometimes we need a wake up call–though that may shock. Friendships are hard to realize in our churches if you are not a Church Worker in full-time ministry.

  2. April:

    Thanks for the review of David Ausburger’s Dissident Discipleship. I have a copy–read it in part–and also heard him speak as I had on a few other occasions. It was good to read your detailed account and review. I will still read the rest of the book!


  3. I know what you mean, Robert, and with some books I confess I just have to settle for reading reviews! But Bill, I think you’ll appreciate reading the whole book–you’ll note that it includes some prayers/hymn lyrics, and I used some of these in our worship last Sunday, as call to worship, pastoral prayer, benediction. Walter, yes, I think you’re right that a corrective may need to make some strong statements as a wake-up call. You would have enjoyed David’s presentations.

  4. This book has been hovering near the top of my wish list for some time. I think it’s going to move up on that list now. Thanks for the review and the engagement. Your thoughts will help me read with more depth.

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