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Does Yoder Need a Defense?

03/23/12+ Share

Branson Parler has recently written a devastating critique of Paul Martens' new book, The Heterodox Yoder. Though I appreciate what Martens has done to publish some of Yoder's previously unavailable material as well as his sincere attempt to expose problematic tendendencies in Yoder's thought, I cannot help but agree with Parler's assessment.

Rather than rehash the debate between Parler and Martens, I will address a particular concern that this debate has surely raised--a concern voiced by several scholars who take issue with those who have defended John Howard Yoder against their criticism.

In Another Reformation, for example, Peter Ochs affirms Yoder's unique contributions to postliberal and Jewish thought, but then bemoans the defensive tone of Yoder scholarship saying, "I do, however, wish that his students and disciples could accord his words no less than the humanity and fallibility we Jews tend to assign our biblical heroes" (163).

Paul Martens seems equally bothered. After stating his intention to upset the apple cart in The Heterodox Yoder, he seeks to ward off potential criticism saying, "I intend to dispense with the defensive gnosis that has governed much of the interpretation to date" (16).

In response to my review of his controversial book, Defending Constantine, Peter Leithart wittily retorts, "If my book suffers distortions because I took up a solicitor’s stance Defending Constantine (not my preferred title, by the way!), Nugent’s review is blinkered because he set out to write Defending Yoder" (my "blinkered" review and Leithart's response are available here).

These scholars worry that the progress of scholarship will be hampered if people in the conversation insist that Yoder can do no wrong and rally to his defense every time someone says anything negative about him. Such a blatant pro-Yoder bias could impede genuine conversation about Yoder's legacy and stunt the theological maturation of his project, which can only happen after it is stripped of all the problematic baggage that Yoder's critics presume to have identified.

On one level I appreciate this concern. Though most scholars stop short of claiming that their interpretation of Yoder or anyone else's work is completely unbiased, they nonetheless want the conversation to proceed in the least biased way. They want all parties to evaluate their argument as objectively as possible on its own terms. It would thus inhibit genuine dialogue should their chosen foil (in this case, Yoder) be deemed immune to criticism by a large number of vocal and articulate sycophants.

Though I believe Yoder's critics are genuine in voicing this concern, I fear that such protestations do not advance the conversation. Rather than robustly engage the secondary literature to show where Yoder's defenders fail to read him carefully, they simply complain that people protect Yoder too much and then go on to state their own theses based on the primary sources.

Without sufficient engagement of the secondary literature, however, this amounts to a mere cheap shot—a rhetorical ploy that casts suspicion on opposing interpretations without actually engaging them. Anyone who challenges a particular criticism of Yoder can now be pegged a mindless toady and ignored. Regardless of whether the defense is accurate, it is suspect on grounds of its apologetic posture.

I realize, however, that engaging the secondary literature is not nearly as interesting and rewarding as engaging Yoder himself. It is much more gratifying to fell a theological giant directly. Moreover, writing anything on Yoder is difficult enough as it is given the sheer volume of primary works you have to wade through before you can be confident that you are not overlooking a highly germane piece that is tucked away in an out-of-print Mennonite magazine.

So the thought of having to engage all the secondary literature as well can be paralyzing. It is no wonder that most mainstream writers choose not to engage Yoder. The motto prevails, "If you can't do it well, don't do it at all." On top of that, if you only half do your homework, the Yoder watchdogs will track you down and quickly identify and publicize any gaps or errors they might perceive.

Indeed, publishing in an internet age is a highly vulnerable enterprise. Anyone with a blog and Twitter account can attack anyone else's work and virally spread their misgivings to an extremely broad audience within days. To ignore such attacks gives the appearance of conceding defeat, but to engage them can become a significant time drain that is not likely to end in an irenic manner. Internet etiquette is in short supply and skilled moderators are seldom employed.

I here offer no solution to that dilemma, though I commend the use of moderators to facilitate online dialogue in ways that respect the dignity and time commitments of the main conversation partners. I have more to say, however, about the kind of dialogue that will best serve Yoder studies.

First, as with all other fields of study, those who truly want to advance the conversation cannot avoid reading carefully and widely in both the primary and secondary literature. My experience reading Yoder parallels my experience reading Karl Barth: you have to read hundreds and hundreds of pages before you begin to acquire the vocabulary and categories necessary for understanding him well, you cannot fill in gaps with common stereotypes about how people from his ecclesial tradition routinely think, and the secondary literature is a mixed bag of accurate and inaccurate portrayals.

With Barth, however, there are two distinct advantages: we have George Hunsinger's masterful work, How to Read Karl Barth, and the bulk of Barth's work is readily available at most research institutions. Those who want to read Yoder will have to do so without a hermeneutical guide and they had better have access to a good interlibrary loan system.

Second, if you don't want to invest the time necessary to read widely among the primary and secondary sources—and who could blame you—then why not be more modest about where you are coming from and what you are seeking to accomplish? Why not admit to being an amateur, submit your work to serious peer review, avoid sweeping away the secondary literature with a caricature, and then go ahead and publish your piece?

Don't claim to be offering any more or any less than you are offering and don't assume that those who interpret the material more charitably must be ignorant, naive, or fideistic in their approaches. Yoder himself wrote a great deal from the perspective of an amateur and was not ashamed to admit it. His work is equally scrutinizable from an "outsider" perspective and any Yoder scholar who is worth his or her salt should recognize this.

But isn't Yoder different, you may wonder? Didn't he intentionally resist systematizing his thought? Wouldn't he rather others spend less time re-presenting and defending him and more time doing what he was doing, namely, proclaiming the implications of Christ's lordship for all of created reality?

I am sure Yoder would have resonated with such sentiments, but I am not sure we are forced to choose between clarifying his thought and extending it in new directions. Yoder scholarship should proceed like all scholarship. Primary works need to be revisited time and again and those seeking to clarify or criticize his work ought to be read carefully and engaged critically.

Since the purpose of publishing a book is to start or join a conversation, authors should rejoice when others take their work seriously enough to engage it at length. Yoder should certainly not be immune from criticism, but neither should his critics.

Nor should those who resonate with Yoder be forced to conform to the artificial pattern of saying one thing negative about his work for every five things positive they say. Authors should present the thesis that they are qualified and motivated to present, and readers should engage what they say without imposing arbitrary restrictions up them or whisking them away with cheap rhetoric on a priori grounds .

One gets the sense that some scholars are weary of Yoder and wish he would just go away. Those antithetical to his theological track long for someone to derail it for good so we may all move on. More sympathetic scholars from his own tradition tire of hearing his name spoken synonymously with Anabaptism and would like to see robust engagement of Mennonite thinkers other than Yoder.

But there is a reason why Yoder will not go away. Many who have read him recognize that he was not a trendy theologian who made a quick splash and will quickly fade into the background. Rather, he articulated a rich theological tradition the full effects of which have yet to be felt. This is a tradition with deep roots and a thick trunk, and it will not tip easily despite the social awkwardness, horrendous marketing savvy, and sexual impropriety of its foremost proponent.

This leads to my third and final point. In Whose Justice? Which Rationality? Alasdair MacIntyre deftly explains how viable traditions survive. Following Aristotle’s concept of a teleologically-ordered community, he holds that a given tradition has its own ends, language, criteria for truth, and web of practices that constitute and institute identity.

MacIntyre then identifies three stages in the development of a healthy tradition: "a first in which the relevant beliefs, texts, and authorities have not yet been put in question; a second in which inadequacies of various types have been identified, but not yet remedied; and a third in which response to those inadequacies has resulted in a set of reformulations, reevaluations, and new formulations and evaluations, designed to remedy inadequacies and overcome limitations" (Whose Justice, 355).

MacIntyre labels the moment when a given tradition begins to falter under such testing an “epistemological crisis.” For a tradition to endure and mature in the face of such a crisis it must locate a solution that satisfies three criteria: (1) it must solve the pressing problem in a coherent way; (2) it must explain what went wrong to render the tradition incoherent; and (3) it must show how its solution stands in continuity with the fundamental beliefs that have sustained the tradition up to this point.  Successful resolution strengthens and perpetuates the tradition; failure leads to its defeat (Whose Justice, 361-366).

So instead of complaining when different individuals speak up to clarify Yoder's thought or defend his position on a particular issue, consider that such persons may be performing the work necessary to refine a theological tradition they perceive to be truthful in the only way a tradition can be refined.

People are not "protecting" Yoder, they are trying to clarify his thought in conversation with others who are trying to do the same (presumably). At what point would honest scholars want others to stop trying to be as clear as possible about what Yoder, Barth, Aquinas, Calvin, and others actually say?

I am unaware of any scholar seeking to defend Yoder by silencing his critics or dissuading them from pointing out perceived flaws. To do so would surely not do Yoder or anyone else any good. It is only through direct criticism that one is able to test the strength of one's position.

Such criticism must be seriously engaged in order to discern whether it is fatal, such that it undermines the integrity of the tradition; off-base, such that it misdiagnoses the tradition and prescribes a useless or noxious remedy; or constructive, such that it calls for adaptations or reformulations that strengthen a tradition and prolong its viability.

Silence is not an option. For any tradition to mature, neither its detractors nor its defenders may be muted. So, may criticisms of Yoder's work continue and may those who are familiar with it continue to engage such criticisms, both affirming what they believe to be right and exposing what they believe to be wrong—albeit with an open mind as to what they, too, might learn. For until someone finds a way to conjure up Yoder's ghost, he will not be able to speak for himself.

http://www.walkandword.com/

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