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Powers and Practices §1: Chris Huebner

One of my new aims this year is to blog more consistently about what I’m reading. One way I’m going to do that is by doing more chapter by chapter reviews/notes on books. I’m hoping to do one of these most weekdays. To kick it off, I’m starting with Powers and Practices: Engaging the Work of John Howard Yoder, edited by Jeremy M. Bergen and Anthony G. Siegrist (Thanks to Herald Press for the review copy). Hope it’s helpful.

This book is one of a couple recent projects that is not merely doing work on Yoder, but thinking with Yoder in conversation with multiple other — and highly diverse — thinkers and ideas. Powers and Practices is a welcome collection of essays contributing to important theological work that takes Yoder seriously — something I am very much on board with.

The first chapter in the book is by Chris Huebner, entitled “The Work of Inheritance: Reflections on Receiving John Howard Yoder.” This essay is a very helpful and readable introduction to Yoder’s mode of theological reflection, and specifically his understanding of “inheritance,” that is of faithfulness to “tradition” or “history.” Huebner notes that “Throughout his meandering engagements and conversations, we constantly find Yoder striving to articulate a posture with respect to history that does not reflect a possessive will to somehow manage and control it” (p. 20). According to Huebner:

[Yoder's] work is everywhere laced with notions of memory and hope, of historical discernment and openness to the surprises of the new. But these themes are not to be understood in a manner that suggests a simple or straightforward activity of repetition, of narrowly factual accuracy, or of what we might describe as archival sensibilities. Neither do they present a vision of hope that consists in the desire to realize some given end, as if the future somehow rests squarely on our shoulders. They reflect neither a primitivist or preservationist reification of the past, not a progressive construal of hope as a future goal to be achieved. Rather, we find in Yoder a vision of inheritance that is interruptive and radically transforms those who are in a position to receive it. Indeed, echoing Barth, he emphasizes that it is not so much we who remember, but rather that we are made a part of God’s memory, and in being so remembered have our very we-ness redefined. At the very least, the question of receiving an inheritance is, for Yoder, fare from straightforward. Inheritance names a kind of work, a life’s work of ongoing transformation in which the very identity of the one said to be doing the receiving is somehow part of whats at stake. (p. 21)

This is crucial to understanding what it means to appropriate tradition and history in the task of theology. For Yoder “inheriting a tradition is thus crucially not uni-directional. It does not consist in a linear gaze backward to the past, nor does it give rise to a clear and unambiguous path looking forward. Rather it involves a constant ‘looping back’ to the origins in light of unpredictable, often surprising encounters with other dialogue partners” (p. 23).

In conversation with Wittgenstein, Romand Coles, and Rowan Williams, Huebner hints at what this notion of “the work of inheritance” means both for theological approaches to tradition and history, and more specifically, for our own approach to the work of Yoder. What this involves then is not an attempt to systematize Yoder or get him “right.” Rather we ought to engage in the ongoing and open work of “looping back” to Yoder and inheriting his ad hoc and diasporic mode of theology in conversation with others. And as Huenber notes, this is a more fruitful and faithful way of engaging Yoder’s work, indeed the conversations into which we can bring Yoder often tend to be “more fruitful that some of Yoder’s own encounters with those same figures” (p. 25). This, importantly gives us a way to be both “for and against” Yoder as with think with him in vulnerable receptivity to other, often unexpected dialogue partners.


  1. Josh Rowley wrote:

    “Rather we ought to engage in the ongoing and open work of ‘looping back’ to Yoder and inheriting his ad hoc and diasporic mode of theology in conversation with others.”

    I think I want to know what this statement–especially “ad hoc and diasporic mode of theology”–means. Could you restate it?

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 4:48 pm | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Josh, Huebner actually fills this out a lot more in his book A Precarious Peace. I use those terms here because they are the ones he uses in the article. What he means is that Yoder’s work was self-consciously not systematic or totalizing. Yoder always resisted what he called “methodologism”, namely the notion that one can secure a given starting point for certainty (Yoder also called this “epistemological Constantinianism”).

    So ad hoc means just that, Yoder’s way of doing theology/ethics was to respond to whatever needs or challenges he was encountering by “looping back” to the apostolic witness to Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection (i.e. “the politics of Jesus”). Diasporic also refers to this sort of de-centeredness. Yoder also spoke of this sort of posture as “dialogical vunlerability.”

    Hope that helps.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 5:41 pm | Permalink
  3. Bobby Grow wrote:

    It’s weird, I’ve not read much Yoder, at all; but everything I’m exposed to by him (and I did partially read Huebner’s other book A Precarious Peace, actually this represents my most direct connection to Yoder, other than your blog, Halden) and his thought kind of gives me a nice “fresh” impression of Christianity . . . maybe it’s because of all the ‘Reformed’ stuff I’ve been strapped with :-). Thanks for sharing this, Halden. I’m going to have to actually read Yoder at some point; can you give me a suggestion (again) for starting . . . although, know, I’m afraid I’ll never be a “strict pacifist” (well until Heaven ;-).

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 8:06 pm | Permalink
  4. Josh Rowley wrote:

    It does help. Thanks.

    Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 9:02 pm | Permalink
  5. Kampen wrote:

    Bobby: start with The Politics of Jesus.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:36 am | Permalink
  6. myles wrote:

    Why does everyone insist that to read Yoder, you start with the Politics? Start with Christian Witness, and Original Revolution, and only then does Politics make sense.

    I didn’t really care for A Precarious Peace, but I’m glad you’re reviewing this volume. Of the volumes on Yoder, this is one of the better ones.

    A questions for “dialogical vulnerability”: is anything identity stable in these conversations in order for this dialogue to continue?

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Myles, I think the “stable” element is precisely Jesus himself. Here Yoder is very Barthian. The “stable” or the “given” that we have is not a center within ourselves that we control or grasp but precisely that which lies outside ourselves in the revelation of Jesus and his politics, or rather his love.

    The dialogue is vulnerable precisely because we cannot grasp what Jesus means as any sort of totality. Therefore when we encounter problems, people, issues, etc in our life of discipleship we must constantly be “looping back” to the apostolic witness to Jesus not knowing exactly how things will turn out, but only knowing that we have nowhere else to go. So to speak.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 8:25 am | Permalink
  8. myles wrote:

    It’s all fine and good to say that, but how can one “loop back” and identify anything as regulatory or determinant in Jesus without violating the principle of dialogical vulnerability? It would seem that to remain open to dialogue is to be willing to be Derridian in that sense, rather than pointing to something programmatic or revelatory in Jesus’ person.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 10:04 am | Permalink
  9. Halden wrote:

    I think a key difference between Derridian “deferral” and Yoder’s dialogical vulnerability is that in Derrida it is precisely absence that constitutes the lack of closure. For Yoder is is Christ’s own excessiveness, his abundance (and this is precisely revelatory) that requires us to constantly “loop back” to him in searching, dialogically for how to continue following him in different situations.

    Obviously this is all premised on the trust that Jesus and the apostolic testimony to him is not a “wax nose” (as Yoder often said), or simply an object for our own conceptual or linguistic rendering, but rather the living and active God.

    Or to put it differently and in a way that maybe answers your question more directly, what is “regulatory or determinate” in Jesus is that Jesus is Lord and that the meaning of that Lordship is not something we possess or control or can positively specify in advance. This, however is not because it is indeterminate, but because it is in some sense excessively-determinate. It exceeds our attempts at circumscribing it in light of something else, some created, controllable criterion.

    Thursday, January 7, 2010 at 10:28 am | Permalink

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