It’s not uncommon to hear Yoder critiqued for giving too little attention to the Holy Spirit, to the Trinity itself really; for being somewhat “Christomonist” (I think that’s Zizioulas’s slam, not applied to anyone in particular). So it was interesting to find this little passage in one of Yoder’s earliest “professional” essays, “Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Pacifism” (paper given 1953, published in the Mennonite Quarterly Review in 1955). He names three doctrines Niebuhr underplays, and then says this:
The common denominator of the above-mentioned doctrines of resurrection, the church, and regeneration is that all are works of the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit is likewise neglected in Niebuhr’s ethics. In the New Testament the coming of the Spirit means the imparting of power, and that power is not a mythological symbol for the infinite perfectibility of human rationality but rather a working reality within history and especially within the church. This power opens a brand-new realm of historic possibilities; not “simple possibilities,” but crucial possibilities.
I don’t think it would be hard to make the case that Yoder carries through on this, stressing throughout his life the “brand-new realm of historic possibilities” opened up by the Spirit, and maintaining that without the Spirit, those possibilities are not possible. But if not, at least there’s an early indication that Yoder at one point thought he should have said so.
I hesitate even to post it, since for those not already familiar with Yoder this could dissuade you from doing so at all. But it’s so surprising, so passionate and somewhat atypical, I can’t help myself. It has a slightly Milbankian flavor, but works at total cross-purposes from him.
The attempt to reverse the New Testament relationship of church and world, making faith invisible and the Christianization of the world a historic achievement with institutional form, was undertaken in good faith but has backfired, having had the sole effect of raising the autonomy of unbelief to a higher power. Islam, Marxism, secular Humanism, and Fascism—in short, all the major adversaries of the Christian faith in the Occident and the strongest adversaries in the Orient as well—are not nature- or culture-religions but bastard faiths, all of them the progeny to Christianity’s infidelity, the spiritual miscegenation involved in trying to make a culture-religion out of faith in Jesus Christ. As religious adversaries in our day, these hybrid faiths are more formidable than any of the pagan alternative faced by Paul, by Francis Xavier, or by Livingstone. Those who have refused to learn from the New Testament must now learn from history; the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.
“The Otherness of the Church” (1960), p. 61 in The Royal Priesthood.
I just reread one of my favorite Yoder essays, “Peace Without Eschatology?”, which is one of his earliest.* He wrote it in 1954, twenty seven years old, still in the beginning stages of his Th.D. at Basel and working for Mennonite Central Committee as director of a couple homes for children and as a peace advocate. It’s amazing to see how much of his later thinking is already present, or at least provoked, by such an early piece.
What really struck me this time was the way he talks about the state as needing to subject itself to a “higher moral instance,” the need to recognize certain limits on its authority deriving from the fact that it is subject to the reign of Christ. That weirdly resembles the view of someone like O’Donovan, who thinks that the “conversion” of the state to Christ partly includes its deliberate self-limiting.
But Yoder doesn’t think that this deliberate self-limiting is part of “the ideal state” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there’s any such thing as the ideal state. He rejects O’Donovan’s search for “true political concepts” for the simple reason that he doesn’t believe that there are such things as true political concepts. Politics is about maintaining a “tolerable balance of egoisms,” which is a completely contingent, permanently fallible, context-dependent enterprise.
When Yoder says that the state has certain limits, he’s saying that from a Christian point of view, the state cannot be invested with ultimate significance. From the perspective of things that do have ultimate significance—i.e., from an eschatological perspective—Christians should believe that the state has the very limited function of making sure sinfulness doesn’t get out of hand within its own domain. And Christians should be willing to tell the state when it’s doing something more or less than that in specific cases, “denouncing particular evils and inventing particular remedies.” Since sinfulness does tend to get out of hand when a state overestimates its importance, it’s perfectly legitimate for a Christian to tell the state it should limit itself. So even the claim that the state has limits is not derived from any idea of what the state really ought to be according to theology, but from a pragmatic concern to keep the world from devolving into chaos and violence.
I’m more and more taken by this approach, which simply abandons the Platonic search for an ideal politics (which I think is present in most communitarians) and proceeds instead by analyzing specific political realities and making suggestions as they appear.
* For the curious, it was published for the first time in 1961 in pamphlet form, and then again in 1994 in The Royal Priesthood. That’s the best place to find it now.
I’m increasingly suspicious that Hauerwas’s “ambiguous ecclesial position,” which he obviously knows is a problem for him, means more theological trouble for him than he realizes. Take this quote, from his response to Stout’s Democracy & Tradition in Performing the Faith:
We betray the very gospel we are to serve if we have “positions” that become substitutes for what the church is about. Put in Catholic terms that Yoder would not have liked (though John often said his only problem with bishops is that they did and do not act like bishops), the bishop remains the theological heart of the church. That is why theologians are subordinate to the bishop and should be disciplined by the bishop if our work threatens the unity and holiness of the church. (233)
This amounts to a total reversal of what it means for a theologian to be accountable to the church—a matter of subordination to the community’s most powerful member, and not, as for Yoder, “subordination” to the weakest. Does he think it’s possible to make this kind of claim while leaving the bulk of his dependence on Yoder intact? Does he think that Yoder’s refusal of a clergy/laity distinction, or of any fixed hierarchy in the community, is finally unrelated to Yoder’s pacifism, his ecclesiology, his Christology?
Somehow, embarrassingly, I’m only just realizing that the last sixth months have seen two new collections of essays on the work of John Howard Yoder: Power and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder (eds. Anthony Siegrist and Jeremy Bergen) and The New Yoder (eds. Peter Dula and Chris Huebner). Most of the essays will already be familiar to those who follow this literature, unfortunately, but it is extremely good news that the work of interpretation and application is being continued in public. Hopefully these collections will continue to prove that Yoder’s work has more than in-house Mennonite significance—see especially Nekeisha Alexis-Baker‘s essay on Yoder and womanist theologies, Peter Blum’s essays on Yoder and Derrida and Foucault, and Dan Barber‘s essay on Yoder and secularity. Also, given how protective Mennonites have tended to be of Yoder, their one famous theologian, it’s good to see that serious critique is apparently now openly underway.