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.