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A Yoderian Camping Trip

And yet again I am back. The trip ruled. Rivers were floated down and swimmed in. Conversations were had. I totally used my massive Dutch oven for the first time ever. Fantastic trip. I recommend them.

I also finally did a cover-to-cover reading of John Howard Yoder’s The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited. I really regret waiting so long to really bite into this one. Honestly I’m not sure we can really understand Yoder and his important critique of Constantinianism without this book. I’ll probably post more on it shortly, but for now, here’s just one of the many money quotes:

Radical reformation and [Jeremian] Judaism have in common that they see God as active in correlation with historical change and criticism more than with sanctifying the present. For one tack of socio-cultural analysis, it is possible to distinguish ‘religion’ as that which sanctifies and celebrates life as it is, things as they are, the personal cycle of life from birth to death and the annual cycle of the sun and the culture from spring to winter. Over against this understanding of ‘religion’, the category of ‘history’ represents the morally meaningful particular processes, which may not go in a straight line but at least go somewhere; they are non-cyclical, stable, repetitive.

Such a blunt pair of prior categories is far to simple to deal with many important distinctions we need to make: yet there is something to it. Where it does fit, we find majority Christianity on the ‘religion’ side, and on the ‘history’ side we find the Jews, radical Protestants, and (today) the theologies of liberation.

This means that God is not only spoken about and prayed to as the One who once acted. God is expected to keep on acting in particular identifiable events within history, in discernible and in fact to some extent even predictable ways. The way God acts will be the same, yet will continue to challenge and to change. Salvation or wholeness or peace will come, often at great cost for God’s best friends and at the price of surprise, paradox and humiliation for those who felt the power game was already clear.

~ John Howard Yoder, The Jewish-Christian Schism Revisited, 108.


  1. Peter Forrester wrote:

    “God is expected to keep on acting in particular identifiable events within history, in discernible and in fact to some extent even predictable ways.”

    Predictable, i.e., in ways agreeable to radical Protestants, liberation theologians, and other of “God’s best friends”?

    I don’t mean to sound sarcastic, but I reflexively (so I may well be wrong) get suspicious of Christians who are keen about their critical and prophetic roles, especially with respect to those of us in the common herd of “majority Christianity”.

    They seem to have a very high-minded, even theologia gloriae view of the church, and of course their own role in the church and the wider world. They seem all-too-happy being signs of contradiction, and the bigger the signs the better!

    It all brings to mind Barth’s assertion: “All reformers are Pharisees.” Maybe I’m just a latitudinarian Anglican, but I think there’s some truth to that.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:12 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    I suppose its normal that members of a majority position would be suspicious of a minority critiquing them. That does indeed stand to reason.

    And what would be the alternative to saying that God’s action is discernibly constant in some sense? Is God’s action supposed to be erratic and utterly unpredictable? Or is the real problem even attempting to give serious place to God as active over against us at all? This is what I suspect is really operative in most of these sort of sneering reactions.

    When we actually think God as truly active, as one who really impinges on us in the present things start to get uncomfortable and most people don’t want to tread water there. This is likely this reason for the kind of high church condemnation of Yoder that I often see. Without even engaging the argument, he is batted aside on the basis of the fact that…its a minority position…or that it just disputes with the majority of the Christian establishment. One has to do better than that, I’m afraid.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:17 pm | Permalink
  3. Hill wrote:

    Blung? Past participle of bling? Am I being dense?

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:28 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Don’t know how the spell-checker missed that. To put it bluntly.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:30 pm | Permalink
  5. Peter Forrester wrote:

    “I suppose its normal that members of a majority position would be suspicious of a minority critiquing them. That does indeed stand to reason.”

    It has nothing to do with my being in a majority, and everything to do with the self-righteous tendencies of some self-proclaimed critics and prophets who see the hand of God in every slight against the status quo, and attack everything they hate or envy under the rubric of “idolatry”.

    In fact, I have a very low view of the church, and because of that I recoil at both leftwing and rightwing attempts to collapse God into Caesar, and vice versa.

    Jesus made a point of hanging around with publicans and centurions, as well as the prostitutes, disabled, et al. It was Judas who insisted that Jesus focus on the poor.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:33 pm | Permalink
  6. Peter Forrester wrote:

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting Yoder or you, Halden, or anybody else specifically fall into that category. I’m simply venting about a tendency to use Yoder’s ideas to promote a conception of the church as a group of “visible saints”.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:36 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Well, Jesus hung around the poor plenty, too so lets not castigate the utterly correct impulse to insist that the church be “the church of the poor.” That’s just biblical.

    And I find nothing self-righteous in Yoder’s comment (though as you admit in your follow-up comment, apparently you’re not really talking about the quote itself). Yoder is clear that God’s action in the world is one that comes “at great cost” for those he identifies in his own camp. There’s nothing highbrow here, let alone any sort of smug self-confidence, just the opposite. All he’s doing is making an attempt to accurately articulate his understanding of his tradition. If one has a problem with that, one should do a decent job of stating material disagreements, not just complaining that there are self-styled prophets out there who are annoying. We all know that.

    I don’t think I’ve ever found Yoder refer to the church as a group of “visible saints.” But why the revulsion at any notion of visibility? The church is supposed to be a witness, right? Kind needs to be seen for that…

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Peter Forrester wrote:

    But witnessing can take many forms.

    The church is described as salt and leaven, which suggest an effective, but almost invisible witness.

    And some in the tradition (Luther and Barth come to mind, but there may be others) see the church through the cross, such that the church almost conceals God more than it reveals him.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    Indeed it does. However, the basic picture one gets from the New Testament narratives about the church is that the church is a clearly visible and quite interruptive social phenomenon. I see no reason to thrust that predominate image of the church aside on the basis of…not liking it.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 3:01 pm | Permalink
  10. Peter Forrester wrote:

    “the basic picture one gets from the New Testament narratives about the church is that the church is a clearly visible and quite interruptive social phenomenon.”

    I totally respect your conclusion, and most people I know would agree with you, but for myself reading the NT — except perhaps for references to communal living in the beginning of Acts — I don’t get the same sense of the church being all that socially radical.

    The church’s inner life definitely seems different than the wider communities’, but it’s not clear to me that that translated into much visibly vis-à-vis the outside world.

    Paul’s readers had families, slaves, jobs, livelihoods, Roman citizenship, etc.; they seem pretty ordinary. I defer to NT scholars, of course, but that’s my impression from reading the NT.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 3:13 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Well, ok. However, I don’t think its too much to claim that an extremely basic reading of Roman and Church history confirms my statements.

    A very well-known and well argued case for this sort of reading can be found in the works of Wayne Meeks, to cite just one example.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 3:20 pm | Permalink
  12. roger flyer wrote:

    You mean blungly.

    Monday, July 20, 2009 at 5:01 pm | Permalink
  13. Peter Forrester wrote:

    ‘the utterly correct impulse to insist that the church be “the church of the poor.” That’s just biblical.’

    Biblical? The impulse strikes me as the fruit of bourgeois anti-bourgeois sentiment fermented in the vats of late 60s European theology faculty lounges. It’s an attempt – representative of a “majority” of mainstream contemporary theology – to make Jesus into a 1st century hippie.

    Jesus insisted on caring for people’s material needs, to be sure, but I don’t see how that translates into anything as decisive as “the church of the poor”, unless poor is used in a very broad sense. Indeed, at times, Jesus seems downright ambivalent about material poverty.

    Instead, he emphasizes interior poverty and detachment, as well as lowliness. But he doesn’t speak as much about material poverty as we’re led to believe in introductory theology courses, which usually amount to attempts to persuade college kids that Jesus, lo and behold, promoted the values of 25 year-old single American graduate teaching assistants.

    I think it’s too easy to argue along the lines of Jesus cared about the poor, therefore something like Gutierrez’s ecclesiology must be true.

    In fact, publicans and centurions – roughly equivalent to our upper-middle and upper classes – have a more prominent role in Jesus’ public life than the poor.

    Which isn’t to say that Jesus had a preferential option for the middle classes, but it is to say that he didn’t have a preferential option for any class.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 7:29 am | Permalink
  14. Halden wrote:

    Have you even read Gutiérrez? Sobrino?

    The notion that Jesus merely “emphasizes interior poverty and detachment” is ludicrous. If anything is a “bourgeois sentiment” it is this sort of thinking. And moreover, even a cursory reading of the New Testament dispels this sort of formulation (let along NT scholarship, virtually all of which is against this little notion).

    Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.” (Luke 6:20, 24)

    . . . that’s gotta be about interior poverty and detachment, right?

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 7:43 am | Permalink
  15. Peter Forrester wrote:

    So you’re suggesting that salvation is inversely related to your bank account? That’s cheap grace.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:09 am | Permalink
  16. Peter Forrester wrote:

    And I fully acknowledged that the theological majority embraces the Jesus-as-social-revolutionary model, which is very much a bourgeois idea, just as the New Left and radical chic of the late 60s and 70s were bourgeois phenomena.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:13 am | Permalink
  17. Halden wrote:

    You have a problem with Jesus here, not with me.

    And I take it from your silence that you’ve never actually read any liberation theologians.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:16 am | Permalink
  18. Peter Forrester wrote:

    Are their soteriological poverty guidelines?

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:18 am | Permalink
  19. Halden wrote:

    And the ubiquitous notion among the North Atlantic Middle Class that Jesus is my little inner spiritual buddy who says nothing about how I practice my actual life is supposed to be what? Authentic Christianity? My how lovely for us!

    If you think that Gutiérrez’s life spent among the suffering on the streets of Lima is bourgeois then you’re sick. If you just want to pontificate about how justified you think your life and views are (without making any actual arguments of any sort whatsoever), find somewhere else to do it.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:24 am | Permalink
  20. roger flyer wrote:

    Is Peter banned from the camping trip?

    Peter-You’ve walked into a bling trap and you better blung out quick or engage Halden from another angle before you are driscollized.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 8:54 am | Permalink
  21. Halden wrote:

    Camping is a chic bourgeois phenomenon of the late 60s and 70s. I doubt he’d want to go.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 9:44 am | Permalink
  22. Peter Forrester wrote:

    I probably have to work that day, anyway. :)

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 9:51 am | Permalink
  23. roger flyer wrote:

    Jesus camped out with the poor (until he got tired of it) and then had to get away by himself. (original chic bourgeoisie…)

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  24. Hill wrote:

    It’s the people who read Gutierrez that are bourgeois. Zing!

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:32 am | Permalink
  25. Halden wrote:

    Oh, snap!

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:41 am | Permalink
  26. Chris Donato wrote:

    On this point, Peter, I must agree—with one qualification. We can, I think, describe the “life” of the ekklesia as an “interruptive social phenomenon” (as opposed to always or necessarily with respect to the “outside world,” as you put it). First-century mores were simply trod underfoot when the crucified and risen God interrupted people’s lives.

    But again, I totally agree: “Paul’s readers had families, slaves, jobs, livelihoods, Roman citizenship, etc. — they seem pretty ordinary.” Indeed, he enjoined them to be so (in a certain sense and for a certain purpose).

    In my opinion, the best way to read Yoder as a part of the gloriously shameful institution known as the Christian church is to let him make us uncomfortable, challenging us to challenge the world in our midst, all the while committing ourselves ever more to the purity and peace of the established church. Even Jesus learned from the Zealots (tongue-in-cheek, that).

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink
  27. Cortney wrote:

    Well as soon as I have read my first Yoder book I’m going to schedule a “chic” Yoderian camping trip. Where we’ll discuss strategies on how to be “invisible witness” to the starving and malnourished children in our own country and around the world, the women and children sold into sex slavery, poverty, AIDS in Africa, genocide, racism and of course the generally oppressed. With examples such as the Samaritan woman at the well, the feeding of the multitude (even though he was trying to go and rest with his disciples), the healing of the sick, I’m not sure how one could not see the perfect and holistic example in Christ. Christ met their physical need and then told them that He was their final healer. I’d say that Christ’s life was the perfect example of the Isaiah 58 true fast …”Is this not the fast which I choose, To loosen the bonds of wickedness, To undo the bands of the yoke, And to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; When you see the naked, to cover him; And not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”… I am not a theologian but it seems pretty simple.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 12:21 pm | Permalink
  28. roger flyer wrote:

    You’re not a theologian? I think you quite passionately (and my biases are showing) accurately just exegeted a few texts!

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 12:40 pm | Permalink
  29. Cortney wrote:

    Thanks Roger. I guess even in my hiatus from “the church” and struggles with Christianity it only made sense to attempt to imitate Christ’s perfect example.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  30. roger flyer wrote:

    Hope it’s a hiatus. If not, join the diaspora.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 3:59 pm | Permalink
  31. roger flyer wrote:

    Have you heard of spiritual direction? I think you would be a very good candidate and it might be very helpful.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 4:00 pm | Permalink
  32. Halden wrote:

    The church is also in diaspora…

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 4:06 pm | Permalink
  33. Cortney wrote:

    If you’re referring to general spiritual direction i.e. from a pastor or through regularly participating with an established church body…then yes I’m on the path. I’ve been attending church with Halden. Reading his blogs, recommended books and having extremely helpful conversations. If that’s not what you’re referring to feel free to expand.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  34. roger flyer wrote:

    Hi Courtney-
    I mean spiritual direction with a spiritual director. It would take too long to explain it here.

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 7:18 pm | Permalink
  35. roger flyer wrote:

    Shalem Institute would be a good place to visit on the web…

    Tuesday, July 21, 2009 at 7:20 pm | Permalink
  36. myles wrote:

    I’m indebted to Yoder for a lot of things, namely–part of my dissertation. But the Constantinian thesis is to my mind, a convenient scapegoat that becomes a dominant theme for Yoder, the apex of which is seen in Schism. In Schism, ultimately, the lines between Judaism and Christianity get blurred because of their common dissent from ‘Constantinianism’, i.e. both reject power dominance, and…thus, they’re closer than we suspect because of their common social minority stance?

    Ah, for the early Yoder of Concern…

    Wednesday, July 22, 2009 at 6:32 am | Permalink

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