Amish Country

2023-11-10 • 5 min read


He rarely watched movies anymore, but not long ago he let himself enjoy Peter Weir’s Witness, a film about a police detective who goes into hiding among the Amish. It had been billed as a crime thriller, but he found its crime and thriller elements forgettable – it was the drama of the stranger among the Amish that was worth seeing. The drama was most beautifully expressed in the famous barn-raising scene, where guest and host work alongside one another and all the good parts of Amish culture come together on a gentle Pennsylvanian hill. True, he thought, the way that Witness presented Amish life and thought was not subtle – in that sense, it was very different from that other Anabaptist movie, Silent Light, which he had watched many years ago – but it captured, through its tender pictures of rural landscape and Maurice Jarre’s simple music, the pastoral serenity that was what he imagined was the essence of Amish culture.

Seeing the movie, he was struck in particular by the beauty of the Anabaptist Gelassenheit (“yieldedness”, “letting-be”) and the way it was reflected in the life of the Amish as he knew it. The Gelassenheit was a giving up of the self, a practice of simplicity and restraint and a submission to God’s will. It was (so he understood) a thing that permeated Amish life. You saw it in their ideal personality (reserved, modest), dress (simple, unvaried), values (humility, obedience), labour (manual, communal) and worship (domestic, traditional). It seemed to him that the Gelassenheit was not an idea, though it occupied people’s minds. Nor was it a value, though it was valued. It was more like a stance or an attitude. It seemed to be always there, affecting one’s decisions, mediating one’s experiences, almost like an atmosphere.

To let be is to find peace and acceptance, and that is beautiful. To live according to one’s beliefs is to live authentically, and that also is beautiful.

For the first time, the Amish reminded him of his ancestors in the Unity of the Brethren, or as it later came to be called, the Moravian Church, after the Czech region from which its early members escaped persecution. (His own ancestors were Germans living in Saxony who only converted to the Church in the 1750s, decades after the Moravians had first arrived there.) Influenced by Jan Hus and his followers, the Unity of the Brethren came about in the 15th century. It survived for two centuries in Bohemia and Moravia, for a while under the tutelage of the great pedagogue Comenius, and then another century in northern Moravia, the Kuhländchen, where its members lived in the shadow of a suffocating Habsburg Counter-Reformation. In due course many of them fled, reaching Saxony where, under the wary eyes of his Saxon forebears perhaps, they were rescued at last by Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf.

Although he himself was a lifelong atheist, and though he had never, as far as he knew, even spoken with a person of the Moravian faith, thinking about those people made him feel small, like he was part of a great human journey – people moving this way and that, traversing the land and staying put, enduring deep pain on account of their beliefs. What were they all doing? Why were they so recklessly endangering themselves? He knew why. They were seeking an answer to a question. The question was: How can one come into a right relationship with God?

Seeing the film about the stranger among the Amish, he knew that the Anabaptists’ Gelassenheit was an answer to that question. He began to feel a desire to live a life of radical, all-embracing authenticity. But what was the Gelassenheit? What is an attitude? He decided that an attitude is a settled feeling or way of thinking about something: an appraisal. An attitude helps answer the question: How should we relate to this thing? The Gelassenheit was an attitude. It was an attitude towards life and the world. He thought, The Anabaptists say about life: “Its purpose is to follow God’s will; hence, we ought to give up our individuality, and live without any thought of selfishness, merely submitting to His will.”

The Anabaptists’ quiet battle cry reminded him of the manifesto. The manifesto as a literary form had been out of fashion for decades. In the new century people often misunderstood it. They thought the manifesto was intended to communicate empirical claims. They would scan it for factual and logical errors, as if they were reading a scientific paper. It was not, and they were not. The manifesto was always meant to communicate only an attitude. It was not meant to convince you that the attitude it conveyed was the correct one. Its aim was to remind you of what you already knew.

The Anabaptists did not need an actual manifesto: they already had the Bible to give body to their vision. One can find in certain psalms, for example, solemn expressions of humility and trust in God: “My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content …”

Although he liked the psalm about the humble-hearted man, it did not speak to him; and although the Amish were a model of authentic living, their beliefs seemed implausible to him. That was not only because he lacked faith, but also because he was less interested in preserving the old than in improving it – in a reforming of the old, creating of the new, progressing towards a better future. So it occurred to him that he had to formulate his own all-enveloping attitude, at the core of which had to be placed a guiding purpose – not the purpose of life, but a central purpose in life. A central purpose in his life was to help others, to create beauty and to live happily – in other words, to seek good things. What is good? He could not know, but supposed it was whatever creatures who value, value. What does one do when one “seeks good things”? To seek, he reasoned, was to try to locate and obtain something, an intentional activity involving ongoing effort and movement. He was now ready to state his guiding purpose: to deliberately move towards whatever it was that creatures who value things, value.

From that formulation he derived his ideal personality (compassionate, open-minded, positive), dress (practical, earthy, comfortable), values (honesty, beauty, good judgement), labour (charitable, cooperative, productive) and rituals (study, dialogue, commemoration). Now all that remained was to put those ideals into practice. But suddenly he could see the good-hearted Amish father figure of the movie look disapprovingly at his daughter-in-law and knew that after a while, after he had finished thinking everything through, he would give up his plan to reform and distil his approach to life. The thought gave him an uneasy feeling that lowered him back down onto the floor of his apartment.

What was it about authenticity that appealed to him? Couldn’t he live ethically without an all-embracing attitude? Wasn’t there a lot of beauty in his life already? Was it possible to live at once ethically and beautifully? How could he know where he was heading? He remembered the dangers of all-encompassing attitudes. An attitude packages a belief, one that cannot easily be dislodged, so what is one to do when an experience runs contrary to that belief? What do the Amish do when circumstances cry out for them to not yield or let go, but to grab hold and resist? Isn’t it nearly impossible for them to discard their faith in God, even in the stark light of a child’s senseless suffering? No one can easily discard a false belief when other beliefs, not to mention a whole way of life, depend on it. Those are not easy things to shed.

Picturing the Amish on their gently sloping hills, he hesitated. In general, he reasoned, the way to avoid motivated reasoning was to always actively seek ways to counteract it. The other way was to avoid having unnecessary reified beliefs in the first place. Could one live authentically while also remaining free to seek the truth? Wasn’t he obliged to retain some flexibility? In the swiftly passing autumn, when he sat looking out the window at the yellowing oaks and birches, he thought: “Unlike the Amish, the belief I am reifying is both necessary and also almost certainly true.” But his next thought was that the Amish would have said the same thing about their Gelassenheit. Then he gave up any hope of following through, not because it seemed like a bad idea, but because he suddenly lacked the conviction.