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Martyrological Epistemology

In his superb book, A Precarious Peace, Chris Huebner explores the connection between epistemology and martyrdom:

“Martyrdom names and approach to knowledge and a way of life more generally which assumes that the truth of Christ cannot somehow be secured, but is rather a gift received and lived out in vulnerable yet hopeful giving in return. On such a reading, the martyr is not one who dies for or because of her beliefs. Rather, the death of the martyr is in some meaningful way the very expression of belief itself. Martyrdom does not arise out of a feeling of control over death. Rather, it is but an expression of a way of life that gives up the assumption of being in control.” (p. 137)

This opens up a crucial vista on the nature of truth, the gospel, and the promise of peace through Christ. The martyr does not give “evidence” for the truth of Christian belief so much as embody a particular way of knowing that refuses to understand truth as a possession. The reality given to us in the gospel, the peace of Christ, is not something that is settled, stable, or under our control, or even ever able to be totally assimilated by us.

“Peace is itself and agonistic reality. It does not name a settled territory that we can fully embody or own. It is not something we own as a first instance called knowledge, which then informs our actions. Rather, it is a gift that might be given through us only when we no longer seek violently to control it.” (p. 142)

Thus, a martyrological epistemology, a mode of knowing and bearing witness to the truth of the gospel as given to us in Christ will take the form of constantly laying ourselves open before the ever-new Word of God which speaks Christ unexpected peace to us in the form of gratuitous and unprecedented gift. Thus the Christian way of knowing, in step with the martyrs, must eschew attempts at offering a total perspective, a closed circle, an indubitably justified belief:

“The knowledge of the martyrs is not preoccupied with epistemic justification but is shaped by the epistemological virtues of patience and hope. It is an agonistic mode of knowledge that proceeds in fragments and ad hoc alliances, not the development of large-scale totalities. This knowledge resists closure, refusing the lie of the total perspective and the search for a purified idiom of speech, recognizing that language about God is finally not limited to our current vocabularies.” (p. 143)

The epistemology of the martyrs is constituted by the refusal to totalize our way of knowing the truth, but rather to live in a constant state of kenotic openness to the gift of God’s truth in Jesus Christ. And only by embracing such a martyrological way of knowing can we be grasped by the truth, stand for the truth, and be found in the truth without reducing that truth to our own possession which we are driven to violently defend


  1. scottprather wrote:

    I wonder what you make of the theological merit of the book as whole, Halden – not so much it’s “tone” (i.e., Huebner’s sensibilities), but the logic and grounds given for the conclusions he reaches. I, also, enjoyed the book, and as one indebted to Yoder, largely agreed with most of Huebner’s judgments.

    But I have to say that I found the method a bit too eclectic (moreso than Hauerwas, even), in the sense that Huebner seems to be relying largely on a certain reading of Yoder, in tandem several late-modern philosophical texts with which that reading overlaps. The problem, as I see it, is for readers concerned to root convictions such as this in the dogmatic tradition. What is the role of doctrine here – its actual function in the text? Could such an account of Christ’s peace be given if the conversation partners were first and foremost that tradition within which Barth and Bonhoefffer worked?

    I suspect it could; indeed I have a lot hanging on the fact that it can! I just have to admit that, despite my deep agreement with many of Huebner’s insights, I’m a bit disappointed it wasn’t done here.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 4:25 am | Permalink
  2. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    That’s an interesting point, Scott. I hadn’t thought of it in reference to the book. First of all, I think the book is made up of compiled essays that Huebner had written at various times. I think this helps to explain the sort of “eclectic” nature of it. Yet, I also think it is meant to follow in the “occasional” style of Yoder and Hauerwas. I agree that Huebner could have engaged more with the dogmatic tradition, but I thought his approach was refreshingly creative, especially for Mennonite theology. I thought his choice of interlocutors was really creative.

    I don’t think Huebner intentionally disregarded the dogmatic tradition, of course, but I wonder if he would be resistant to writing a Barthian style dogmatics, for instance. Obviously, he has been immensely influenced by Barth and Bonhoeffer, but I wonder if he would see their method and style as somewhat wrongheaded, insofar as they attempt to present “totalizing” visions.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 7:23 am | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Scott, from my perspective Huebner’s book really embodies Yoder’s whole theological method of epistemological non-Constantinianism. I think the fact that it engaged heavily with certain philosophical voices more excited me than made me worried, precisely because as such it represents part of the breakthrough we see happening in Mennonite theology, starting with Yoder.

    I do think that everything Huebner talks about can be argued from within the dogmatic tradition (though I’m not quite sure what that terms means, or how narrow we should make it definition). Clearly Huebner is in conversation with the tradition (e.g. his chapter using Barth to critique Milbank). I think the sort of minority tradition that anabaptism represents (esp. in its Mennonite form) lends itself to this sort of ad hoc and creative theologizing. As such I don’t see it standing outside of the dogmatic tradition, but rather constituting a sort of minority voice within it.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:49 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Oh, and I don’t think that Huebner would read Barth at least (I don’t know about Bonhoeffer, but I suspect not) as offering a totalizing dogmatics. Barth’s dogmatics was always unfinished, constantly revising itself, it very strongly resisted the same sort of epistemological closure that Huebner (through Yoder) argues against. And to my reading Bonhoeffer exemplified this even further. Clearly he never wrote or intended to write an exhaustive dogmatics. All of his theological writings are ad hoc engagements in which he seeks to bring the Word of God to bear on the realities the church was facing. As such it is the very sort of ecclesial theology of decentering that Huebner is also trying to put forth.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  5. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Halden, I thought you might take issue with that and perhaps you’re right. I didn’t mean to suggest that Huebner thinks Barth and Bonhoeffer practiced methodological Constantinianism. But, to me there seems to be fundamental differences in approach and style. Think of how Yoder differs from Barth stylistically -I’m not so sure this is merely incidental.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 10:22 am | Permalink
  6. scott wrote:

    All those points are well taken, and I mostly agree. I still think there’s a question – perhaps for Mennonite theology itself, maybe just for theology “after Yoder”. I would share the prejudice against a “totalizing dogmatics”, yet that still begs the question of the nature of theology itself. Barth’s theology, it seems to me, while certainly ‘unfinished’ and ‘constantly revising’ itself, is quite different than a merely ‘occasional’ or ad hoc theology. It was, to put it bluntly, still dogmatics.

    And I’m with you on not being provincially dogmatic – as if philosophers were a part of another sort of intellectual venture that’s off the theological table. Philosophy doesn’t worry me. But the question is how to have genuinely theological “conversation” that can learn from, while not simply becoming, a rationale other than that which stems from God’s revelation in Christ. And on that point, I simply thought Huebner’s arguments would be much more convincing and (theologically) precise if he grounded them more explicitly in conversation with Scripture and those seeking to interpret it faithfully in doctrinal terms. I think one could easily read a lot of the methodological points Huebner is arguing, precisely about the nature of theology, doctrine etc., as stemming from late-modern anti-method critiques, its preoccupation with ‘embodied’ knowledge, etc – none of which are necessarily wrong, but their articulation in a theological view of reality can’t be simply taken for granted, unless all one is concerned to do is argue on a formal level against certain false theological presumptions (e.g., about propositional truth) which late-modern philosophy might rightfully criticize.

    Perhaps my point is simply about audience – who would be convinced by it? But I think the point goes deeper. In my view, Huebner’s own method doesn’t lend itself to reasoning convincingly from the interpretation of scripture within the dogmatic tradition’s specific rationale. Unless you’re already a Yoderian – which means taking for granted a certain account of incarnation, a certain view of history, etc. At least that’s my interpretation.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 10:30 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    I can see your point, there Scott. I suppose I always think that most arguments could be strengthened with more thorough engagement with Scripture and the Tradition.

    And yes, I doubt that Huebner’s orientation would be convincing to those that deny his fundamentally Yoderian presuppositions. But, I suppose he would think that he trying, along with Yoder to offer a witness that derives from a specifically anabaptist perspective, rather than trying to refute other views or establish his own in a definitive manner. His book constitutes an offer for consideration and vulnerable dialogue. And dialogical vulnerability is just that, vulnerable.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 11:25 am | Permalink
  8. scott wrote:

    I’m sure you’re right about his intentions, and I hope my remarks didn’t obscure the fact that I am actually very grateful for Huebner’s book. I think the question he’s raising about the significance of an epistemology that reflects, on the methodological level, the peace of Christ is a very important point indeed.

    Thursday, August 7, 2008 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

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