Skip to content

Mission, skepticism, and uncertainty

The skeptic who in the face of missionary Christianity says, “Yes, but what about all those good Hindus who lead decent lives and don’t believe that Jesus is the only one?” is not really expecting to become a good Hindu or even to be friends with good Hindus. Certainly this skeptic does not plan to get involved at all in the problems of differentiating between good Hindus and bad Hindus but only to back away from the call of Jesus, who has always admitted that if we entrust our life to him and his cause, we will never be proven right until beyond the end of the story and cannot count on being positively reinforced along all of the way. What is thus stated in the form of a general rejection of all particularity in favor of a vision of universal validity it, when more deeply seen, more particular and more negative; namely, a specific pattern of avoidance of the particular claims of Christian loyalty in its continuing risk and uncertainty.

~ John Howard Yoder, A Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 112-13.

If I didn’t know better I’d almost think that Yoder’s channeling Lesslie Newbigin and Rowan Williams here.

11 Comments

  1. MikeK wrote:

    Re: channeling Newbigin and Williams. Well put…

    Saturday, June 19, 2010 at 11:08 am | Permalink
  2. Grace wrote:

    No No, I don’t think that’s fair one bit. I’m no academician, and certainly a poor theologian, but how can Yoder say that? Should we also follow other views/agendas/political-stances decidedly and without resignation in the face of a large amount of uncertainty and risk? Should I be a loyal conservative to the end or else be considered wishy-washy? And if it is the avoidance of the particular claims of Christian loyalty that is the negative here, should we not say that the avoidance of the particular claims of Hindu loyalty is also negative? And maybe a Hindu should be as staunchly loyal to Hinduism as our loyal missionary Christian? What then is the purpose of missionary Christianity? Yoder is living a modernist’s dream with his loyalty. Loyalty to humans, now….that I can see. But I seriously doubt that Jesus is going to resent our confused and possibly wishy-washy skeptic merely because she’s not quite sure to which religion or political side to be eternally loyal to, especially if her loyalty IS eternal to family,, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, reducing suffering and increasing self-awareness, spiritual exploration and an appreciate of creation and life together and working out the problems of this world as best we can. Thoughts??

    Saturday, June 19, 2010 at 4:03 pm | Permalink
  3. dbarber wrote:

    I think Grace makes an excellent point when saying, “And if it is the avoidance of the particular claims of Christian loyalty that is the negative here, should we not say that the avoidance of the particular claims of Hindu loyalty is also negative?”

    Sunday, June 20, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  4. Pliggett Darcy wrote:

    The argument doesn’t make much sense to me. The skeptic is presumably judging Hindus by non-Hindu standards (that’s the work that “decent” is doing in the sentence). But why do those non-Hindu (and evidently non-Christian) standards have to be an evasion of Christianity in particular, provided that one has no prior allegiance to the claims of Christianity? I suppose one could argue that the secular Westerner has inherited much of his moral framework from Christianity whether s/he realizes it or not, but that doesn’t seem to be the argument Yoder is making here.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 8:52 am | Permalink
  5. Pliggett Darcy wrote:

    I now see I was reading this much too uncharitably. Yoder is saying that in the context of this conversation, the skeptic is simply evading Christianity, because he’s not actually interested in whether a “good” Hindu will meet his standard of “decency.”

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:11 am | Permalink
  6. Charlie Collier wrote:

    “The skeptic” in Yoder’s passage is characterized as speaking in response, not to a general question about the meaning of life, but to “missionary Christianity.” Yoder, as always, is dealing with one particular historical phenomenon, i.e., the phenomenon of some people backing away from the call to Christian discipleship by appeals to “other” religious traditions that they are not actually interested in. I think Yoder is here calling into question a particular Western appeal to universality that, in practice, amounts to little more than a way of avoiding in particular Christian missionary activity.

    As for Grace’s question, seconded by Dan, I’m not sure it gets the risky nature of Christian faith for Yoder. He says a few things in the passage cited—e.g., to trust in Jesus is to enter into “continuing risk and uncertainty,” not to flee from it to the safety of “Christian loyalty.” But Yoder would also, I think, find it odd to see simply juxtaposed “Hindu loyalty” and “Christian loyalty,” as if they were obviously in conflict. Indeed, I doubt that Yoder thought they were necessarily in conflict. It’s the modernists who came up with the idea that there is a set of “world religions” and that their diversity is ultimately irrelevant because they all point to the same ineffable God, or, in reaction to this move, that they are mutually exclusive systems of thought and practice. Yoder avoids the horns of this modernist dilemma by suggesting (elsewhere, e.g., The Priestly Kingdom) that Christians will in all likelihood discover something genuinely new about the gospel in and through vulnerable exposure to Hindu loyalties. Which is to say that “the gospel” for Yoder is never something Christians are fully in possession of, as the content of the gospel is actually discovered, partially but also actually, in concrete missionary encounters. So “Christian loyalty” for Yoder is something that should actually open us up to a risky engagement with Hindu loaylties. The modern universalist disavows risky engagement altogether. At least that’s my reading of this passage.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:41 am | Permalink
  7. dbarber wrote:

    Charlie, thanks for that exposition. The idea of “interparticularity,” rather than monological universality or Hobbesian all-vs-all, mutually exclusive diversity, is one to be supported.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 9:52 am | Permalink
  8. Pliggett Darcy wrote:

    Given that the interlocutor’s rhetorical appeal to Hinduism is just that, I don’t see why replying to it is very interesting. Replying to a “canned argument” of that sort strikes me as a less-than-sincere move.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  9. Charlie Collier wrote:

    “Interparticularity” is a keeper. Thanks for the word-gift.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm | Permalink
  10. Grace wrote:

    “. Which is to say that “the gospel” for Yoder is never something Christians are fully in possession of, as the content of the gospel is actually discovered, partially but also actually, in concrete missionary encounters.”

    That certainly clarifies it a bit more. I think that’s a clearer way of explaining it. Though I do second Pliggett’s last point as well, and sort of….wonder why.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink
  11. Pliggett Darcy wrote:

    Yeah, I liked that part of what Mr. Collier said as well — clarifying and genuinely inspiring.

    Monday, June 21, 2010 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

Switch to our mobile site