Skip to content

The Precarious Nature of Christian (dis)Identity

Right now I’m utterly enjoying Chris Huebner’s recent book, A Precarious Peace.  In it he offers a series of “Yoderian reflections” on theology, knowledge and identity.  His central concern is to engage in theology from the paradigm of John Howard Yoder’s “methodological non-Constantinianism.”  What this meant for Yoder went beyond the simply historical narratives of how Constantianianism transmogrified the church into medieval Christendom.  Rather, for Yoder, methodological non-Constantinianism meant the refusal to impose a sort of closure or certainty on any and all aspects of Christian thought and life.  Central to Yoder’s understanding of the church and theology was the ultimately disruptive, dislocating, and destabilizing presence of Christ.  Thus, Huebner asserts that “Yoder never finally assumed that he knew what peace was.”  The peace of Christ is not something for which  a stable and totalized account can be given.  Rather, the peace of Christ always interrupts and destabilizes our notions of peace by revealing our multi-leveled complicity with violence. 

Huebner’s book proceeds in three sections, the first centered on Mennonite theology and practice, the tradition from which Huebner hails and in which he remains.  He argues for a disestablishing of Mennonite theology, seeking to question the common assumption on the part of the historic peace churches that they have “got peace right.”  Here he questions the idea of “narrative theology” as a methodological paradigm for doing theology, and engages with Milbank and Radical Orthodoxy on the concept of ontological peace and gift. 

His second section moves into a discussion of disowning knowledge where Huebner explores the possibility of a pacifist epistemology and the nature of truth and martyrdom.  Again the focus is on moving from an understanding knowledge as mastery in which the objects of knowledge are “given” to an martyrological understanding of truth as always interrupting and disowning our attempts to master it.

Huebner then moves on to the issue of Christian identity, which, he argues must be constantly dislocated if it is to be faithful to the apocalyptic word which calls the church into being.  This is the part of Huebner’s book which I find perhaps most helpful.  In a great many of the discussions of ecumenism and ecclesial identity that take place in Christian circles seems to be the quest for a distinctly unproblematic account of Christian ecclesial identity.  All Christians who care about unity and the church’s integrity vis á vis the world, it seems are in search of (or have found, some claim) some such unproblematic and final account of the identity and form of the church.  What Huebner helpfully shows is that such a quest for an unproblematic identity is at odds with the shape of the gospel itself.  The gospel dislocates our identity and continues to do so over and over again.  The gospel is always apocalyptic, always disruptive, always supervenes on our attempts to develop a secure and unproblematic account of ecclesial identity. 

Being the church means being constantly put into question by the peace of Christ, by the love of Christ, by the unity of Christ.  Being the church means remaining in the struggle to be open to the radically disruptive and unsettling newness that consistently shatters our world as Christ’s presence continually confronts and interrupts us.  Against the siren’s call to discover some sort of unproblematic account of ecclesial identity in which we have achieved total closure, Huebner calls us into the vulnerable and risky drama of being dislocated, disestablished, and called to disown that which we through we knew.  The drama of discipleship is one of constant dispossession and interruption.  The proper mode of Christian faithfulness is to avoid seeking to tidy up the messy drama of Christ’s interrupting presence, but instead to allow ourselves to be disestablished and dislocated, and to discover within that very experience of disruption the new creation of the triune God breaking in on us.

One Comment

  1. I admit that I’ve only read this book haphazardly, jumping between chapters and even then not very closely, but I’ve found it rather more frustrating than enthralling. It often seems to me like Huebner is pushing the church’s constant need for repentance back onto God’s own character, or our now-partial vision onto the very nature of truth.

    I do appreciate his pastoral intent, as it were, to keep the church following our mysterious and surprising God. Yet it seems to me wrong to push this to the point where the church no longer has any truth or life or love in which to rest, or any desire to recognize and imitate God’s constancy–which Huebner’s frequent injunctions against stability and all its synonyms discourage. To call truth itself agonistic, for example, seems quite wrong–since there is no measure of agonizing within God or in God’s work on our behalf, but only unceasing and unquestioned love. Isn’t an important part of the church’s witness in this world of agony to testify that the truth actually is unendingly harmonious?

    Do correct me if my sparse reading is unfair, but those are the reasons I’ve repeatedly found myself disappointed in Huebner’s own ‘totalizing’ statements. The church ought never entertain the illusion of total closure on either God’s or its own identity, certainly, but neither can we deny the mysterious fullness of the God whose promises we trust and proclaim.

    Monday, December 24, 2007 at 8:57 am | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site