Friday, January 21, 2011

A journey to Yoder and beyond

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Don't write this guy off...
The first time I heard the name "John Howard Yoder" out loud, in conversation, was the middle of March, 2008, not even three years ago. It was uttered in the form of a question - Had I heard of him? (No.) - from Sara Wenger Shenk, who was at the time associate dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary/EMS (now the president of sister school, Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary). We were walking down the hallway on the top floor of the seminary building, having just walked past the office of prof. Mark Thiessen Nation. It's only in hindsight now that I appreciate the significance of having heard Yoder's in such close proximity to Mark's. (More on that later.)

This conversation and others were part of my family's campus visit trip from Iowa to Virginia and the campus of Eastern Mennonite. This trip was the first time I ever had face-to-face encounters with Mennonites, which might be surprising if one is familiar with the history of my tradition, the Church of the Brethren, having one of its historical-theological poles staked in the Anabaptist tradition along with Mennonites. I often refer to Brethren as the "little cousins" to the Mennonites. So read on after the break for a bit of reflection on how I came to know and began to appreciate the theological project of John Howard Yoder...

My first year of graduate studies at EMU, including the seminary, began the autumn of 2008, following my conversation with Sara and a whirlwind relocation to Virginia. At EMS, the first year Mdiv student's schedule is filled mostly with the basics courses that include a year-long course on the millennium-spanning Christian tradition and its history, worship, and theology. Consequently, historical-theological Anabaptist thought was given only brief introduction in this bear of a course, so my absorption of the Anabaptist tradition was mostly implicit by virtue of my being in a Mennonite seminary and the wider university community. John Howard Yoder remained a mostly shadowy figure to me, wrapped in hushed, reverent tones which spoke of his brilliant mind and the difficulty often encountered by students approaching his work.

In the summer of 2009, fresh off my first two semesters of grad school, I was taking a course with Mennonite pastor and former Middle East Mennonite Central Committee/MCC worker, Roy Hange. The course was "Faith-based Peacebuilding," offered at the Summer Peacebuilding Institute, put on each year by EMU's Center for Justice and Peacebuilding/CJP, where I am studying for my second degree and also working as part-time staff. To supplement my reading in that course, I was having conversations with Mark Thiessen Nation, with whom I was becoming a regular conversation partner, and he turned me toward great material. It was at this time that I took one step closer to Yoder, picking up and reading Mark's book, John Howard Yoder: Mennonite Patience, Evangelical Witness, Catholic Convictions.

What I first appreciated about Yoder's project is best summed up in Mark's subtitle: Mennonite, Evangelical, Catholic (by which he means "universal"/ecumenical). This immediately stuck a chord with me. The Church of the Brethren has long prided itself on its ecumenical work but I've often observed that work being carried out on the assumption that all particularity needs to be bled out in favor of some bland, toothless, mainline Protestantism, or an ecumenism that's primarily expressed by writing letters to lawmakers in Washington, protesting various things (war), advocating others (peace, defined in various questionable ways), codified by signatories from various "peace churches" or other ecumenical bodies. These letters no doubt promptly go in the trash in congressional offices, lost in the sea of protests and advocations from myriad other social/political action groups, Christian or otherwise. Yoder's work as introduced to me by Mark struck me as quite different, hardly bland (in that it's often polemical) and containing a mouthful of teeth (evangelical, particular) for the broader church to deal with.

In the spring of 2010, mid-way through my second year studying at EMS and CJP, I finally dove into Yoder's own writing, The Priestly Kingdom. I read it in the context of a class called "Living Theology," which, because Mark was on sabbatical, was being taught by a philosophy professor, Christian Early, from the undergraduate Bible & Religion department. In addition to Yoder we read the Doctrine volume of James McClendon's systematic/narrative theology. McClendon, who was Mark's dissertation advisor at Fuller, had been influenced by Yoder and in conversation with neo-Anabaptist, Stanley Hauerwas. We also read a great little book by Barry Harvey, Another City, which had the intellectual fingerprints of Yoder and Hauerwas all over it. So it was in this class that I began to get the conceptual meat of (neo-)Anabaptist thought. Words like "(post-)Christendom" and "constantinianism" began to take shape, forming new ways of seeing, knowing, and living. Anabaptism began shifting from a historical descriptor about a rowdy and persecuted band of 16th century European Christians to a robust hermeneutic (way of reading/interpreting).

Since last spring, my studies have consisted of a steady diet of Yoder and/or Yoder-influenced material. Even still, I believe I've only started to scratch the surface of how profoundly different Yoder's approach is, and that of those who follow him. I've also only started to glimpse the profound implications necessarily following from Yoder's work for our faithful expression of the Christian faith. Indeed, here on campus I've heard a retired Mennonite theology professor, who was once a contemporary of Yoder's, express his regret that he didn't take Yoder seriously enough at the time he was most productive. A prophet is often taken least seriously in his "home town," and that certainly seems to be some of the case for Yoder in relation to fellow Mennonites.

For my own tradition, the Church of the Brethren, there was once in the 60s and 70s an Anabaptist renaissance when Brethren suddenly realized they had a rich resource in their tradition. This no doubt had to do with Brethren historian, Donald Durnbaugh's interactions with John Howard Yoder in the convention of the Believers Church conferences, and the earlier work of Mennonite scholars like Harold S. Bender and his "Anabaptist Vision" raising the academic profile of Anabaptism in the mid 20th century. Sadly, this renaissance strikes me as having been short-lived and Brethren now seem locked into either the bland, toothless, mainline Protestantism or nationalistic American Evangelicalism, each battling out what it even means to be "Brethren" these days. Some remain focused on recapturing some cultural distinctiveness that was lost in the early 20th century, while others focus primarily on liberal social justice understandings of peace(making/building). Few seem terribly interested in neo-Anabaptism that has been most recently and prominently carried on by Stanley Hauerwas and has made its way into surprising places in the church catholic/universal, including some Roman Catholic scholars such as William T. Cavanaugh or "Mennonite Catholic," Gerald Schlabach.

It's my hope as a minister of the Christian faith and a disciple of Jesus Christ to take the important lessons and challenges of neo-Anabaptism back to my own tradition, the Church of the Brethren, but also with the persistent yearning for church unity that Yoder and Hauerwas both impress. With the first social-ethical task of the church to be (faithfully) the church, I place myself in service to that body, the body of Christ. With the knowledge that the church is not the world but that ultimately Christ is the Lord of all and therefore both (Yoder, "The Otherness of the Church," from The Royal Priesthood, p. 56), I work to humbly and patiently discipline myself and others in the body to trust in the Spirit's guidance and vitality to animate our work toward the reconciling of all things unto God (Colossians 1:20) and the realization of God's peaceable kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. May it be so.

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