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A Mennonite and his questions

14 May 2012

Yoder is increasingly influential, says HughRayment-Pickard


The New Yoder
Peter Dula and Chris K. Huebner, editors
The Lutterworth Press £23.25
Church Times Bookshop £20.90

THE Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder was one of the most important influences on Stanley Hauerwas, and it is through Hauerwas that Yoder’s thinking is now becoming increasingly well known. The New Yoder reflects Yoder’s growing presence in Anglophone theology, and shows how Yoder’s ideas resonate with Nietzsche and “post-modern” thinkers such as Derrida, Foucault, and de Certeau.

Hauerwas owes a great deal to Yoder’s pacifism, his critique of Constantinian Christendom, and Yoder’s portrait of Jesus in his 1972 classic The Politics of Jesus. But unlike Hauerwas’s polemical style — which, like Marmite, tends to divide readers into devotees and antagonists — Yoder’s more nu­anced and reflective prose draws readers of all kinds into theological engagement.

Yoder makes new approaches to theological topics by questioning the fundamental terms of debate.

As Peter Blum puts it in his essay, “he responds to questions not by answering them in their own terms, but by enquiring where the ques­tions come from.”

So there is a non-dogmatic spirit to Yoder’s theology, a preference for exploration as the way of receiving tradition. In her essay, Nancey Murphy describes Yoder’s work as a doctrinal “research pro­gramme”.

Another of Yoder’s strategies is the use of “patience”. Whereas Hauerwas tends to close down debate by driving towards definitive conclusions, Yoder keeps issues in play, waiting for, and listening to, what time may bring. The reality of our time-bound existence de­mands theological patience, be-cause life is handed out one day at a time. Yoder pictures the faithful Christian as the sailor of a small boat on the seas of time: “what we are looking for . . . is not to keep dry above the waves of relativity, but to stay within our bark, barely afloat and sometimes awash amidst these waves.”

Dwelling as we do in the vast flux of history, Christian claims must necessarily be modest, modelled on what Romand Coles describes in his essay as “the vul­nerable and am­biguous identity of the giving and receiving body of Christ”.

Because Jesus is an icon of vul­nerability, the followers of Jesus cannot participate in the domina­tion systems of worldly politics. This also means that the gospel can never be coercive: “our recognition that we may be wrong must always be visible.”

And Yoder insists that the Church must never claim moral superiority over others: “The question is not whether one can have clean hands but which kind of complicity in which kinds of inevitable evil is preferable.”

The New Yoder makes fascinating but demanding reading, and al­though the authors make some effort to provide explanations of, say, Foucault’s and Derrida’s think­ing, they tend to assume that readers will already be familiar with the ideas and thinkers under discussion. Nevertheless, there is still plenty in this book for the non-specialist reader; and those involved in theological study will find much here to stimulate their thinking.

The Revd Dr Hugh Rayment-Pickard is the author of Impossible God: Derrida’s theology (Ashgate, 2003).

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