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For the Nations: Essays Evangelical and Public
by John Howard Yoder
Eerdmans, 240 pages, $28

This book collects twelve essays, most of them previously unpublished, by the eminent Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder, who died at age seventy just before New Year’s Day 1998 [see Stanley Hauerwas, “Remembering John Howard Yoder,” FT, April 1998]. A student of Karl Barth in Europe, Yoder’s long academic career had culminated in tenure within the ecumenical confines of the University of Notre Dame’s theology department. I knew Yoder only slightly, from a few ethics discussion groups and chance meetings in the faculty office corridors and along the campus iceways when we both taught at Notre Dame. I remember him as a large, imposing figure with a heavy beard and a countenance that seemed grave even when he smiled.

Yoder is best known for his effort to reconceive the relation between Christianity and the state, and this work carries that project forward. If its subtitle relates it to Yoder’s other recent collection of essays, The Royal Priesthood: Essays Ecclesiological and Ecumenical, then its title marks it as a kind of response to Against the Nations, a book by Yoder’s friend (and former colleague at Notre Dame), Stanley Hauerwas. Hauerwas embraces a “sectarian” position of a sort often associated with Yoder’s novel articulation of traditional Mennonite withdrawal from the world. As its introduction and initial group of essays (mostly from the nineties) make clear, For the Nations is Yoder’s effort to voice his misgivings about the label “sectarian” and the substantive position he thinks it identifies. To Yoder, “sectarian” connotes “cutting off community” and that misleadingly suggests that Christians may properly isolate themselves from the wider society around them, leaving it to its own devices, so long as they are left to theirs. Instead, Yoder advocates a position he characterizes as “evangelical” in the root sense of bearing the gospel’s good news to the world, especially by the example of the kind of life lived in that Christian community with which Yoder identifies ekklesia. It is unclear whether this “evangelical” position really contradicts anything Hauerwas’ “sectarianism” asserts: both are antinationalist, both oppose the political and religious status quo in the West, and both emphasize the distinctiveness of Christian communities as camps of “resident aliens” within modernist, pluralist societies. The confrontation with Hauerwas, though, is never direct.

Yoder’s evangelicalism is not that of the modern evangelical movement. Though several of these papers were written at the invitation of evangelical groups, who apparently consider Yoder within their circle, Yoder himself is characteristically ambivalent about them and their movement. He says, for example, that the emphasis of Billy Graham that spiritual conversion can help us face life’s difficulties “is not wrong; it is right,” but immediately adds that it misses the point of the Gospels. I say this is characteristic because Yoder seems to have been unable to feel completely at home even within his own denomination. Here, he trenchantly criticizes the Mennonites both for their practice of social withdrawal (pointing out that Jesus himself went the opposite direction, abandoning his craft and leaving small-town life for a life of preaching consummated in the big city) and for their history of securing possibly compromising protection from the politically powerful.

These collected essays, treating diverse subjects, were mostly written on request for conferences or seminars of various sorts, beginning in the mid-1960s. Yoder’s introduction acknowledges drawbacks in publishing them in one place”these include repetition, inconsistency across “chapters” placed together but written at points far apart in time or authorial thinking, the absence of a developing line of argument, and changing “voice” and assumptions as different audiences are addressed. He expresses hope that by showing how his view has responded to diverse topics suggested by others, its inherent consistency will manifest itself. This hope is fulfilled to a surprising extent.

Yoder can write in an oddly pedantic way, avoiding straight answers. Thus, rather than saying whether he considers himself an evangelical Christian, Yoder discusses three senses of “the adjective ‘evangelical.’“ Since he never clarifies which apply to him, and since the question is really about whether he is an evangelical, this pedantry has the effect of obscuring things rather than clarifying them. Sometimes, this mode descends into caricature. Yoder laboriously points out, for example, that a certain book, despite using the term in its subtitle, is not a “primer” in any of five dictionary senses, including that the book is neither a first coat of paint nor an initial draft of water through a pump!

More important than this quirk, the language and preoccupations of several essays betray their origins in the sixties. For Yoder, ethnocentrism is not just dangerous but “demonic,” and the arms race “fits the apocalyptic language of dragons and angels.” He predictably sides with social rebels and makes much of the “countercultural.” His dismissive remarks on “orthodoxy” are shallow and all-too-typical of those times.

Yoder was no Chesterton. He was a man of his times, whose social critique a little too comfortably allies him with a self-conscious and self-satisfied cadre of elite protesters who have only grown in numbers, academic prestige, and self-righteousness in the intervening decades. There are exceptions, most notably Yoder’s prescient doubts, expressed in an early essay on the civil rights movement, about whether its carefully veiled rhetoric of a “higher law” against racial segregation really invoked God’s will or merely constitutional principles. Similarly, his misgivings about the language of “revolution” are thoughtful. Even there, however, we find too little skepticism that the changes aborning were really as deep, novel, or desirable as the self-proclaimed “revolutionaries” liked to think.

One revolution that did occur in those times was in matters sexual. On these issues, where the public has so desperately needed Christian evangelizing, the essays are silent. According to a recent press report, even today Amish families average seven children. One would think a Mennonite such as Yoder (the Amish splintered from the larger Mennonite movement) might have anticipated the culture’s turn away from marital procreation and toward recreational sex and free divorce, and might have taken the culture to task for that turn. Yet Yoder was not a visionary of that order. Understanding Jeremiah’s injunction as directing us to “seek the salvation of the culture to which God has sent you,” he nevertheless tended to restrict his critique to issues”social justice, civil rights, and, especially, the antiwar movement”where he enjoyed the company of the sixties’ secular intelligentsia.

One searches largely in vain through these essays for paragraphs criticizing the values and beliefs of the counterculture, let alone anticipating its inevitable break over traditional Christian family morality. The seventies and eighties have made the old counterculture into a new cultural orthodoxy on sex (and rock ‘n’ roll, if not yet drugs) and transformed the Christians into a new counterculture on family matters. The Christian now can stand as prophet and witness against the culture, condemning it and evangelizing it with the passion of Jeremiah”a special hero to Yoder”but Yoder seems not to have stepped forward to lead here.

His erudition in matters scriptural, historical, and theological is imposing. Yet, though he shows significant familiarity with the methods and literature of twentieth-century Anglophone moral philosophy, I cannot say the same of the gestures he makes here toward moral theory. His complaint that “utility” is a bad name for what is considered an ultimate good is well taken, but it leaves the utilitarian system untouched. The critique of utilitarianism he does offer is unimpresssive, even omitting the point, clearest after Rawls, that utilitarianism’s commitment to equality is as shallow and unreliable as its support for justice. I think he is on to something important for moral theory when he insists that the moral importance of an action lies in “what it signifies” rather than in what it causes. Yet he provides no follow-through on his insight that actions matter as expressions of inner states”no development or defense of this view, no articulation of its implications for moral theory, thinking, and action.

Likewise, there may be merit to his suggestion”taken up most notably by others with Notre Dame connections, including Alasdair MacIntyre, David Burrell, and Hauerwas”that ethics be understood as “narrative.” However, anyone presenting that thesis as an alternative to systematic ethics needs to elucidate what narratives can teach (if they don’t teach rules and principles), and how narratives can explain why some actions, traits, and people are virtuous while others are vicious. Yoder fails even to address these matters, let alone to justify his positions. He intriguingly calls following Christ a “decision and path” before it is a “goal and principle,” but the intended contrast is obscure: isn’t the path’s destination therein a goal? Doesn’t the decision include adoption of principles?

Yoder’s central idea, underdeveloped but striking, is that Christians must avoid what he calls the “Constantinian temptation” to speak to society from its throne, advocating instead the outsider’s stance he associates with Jeremiah. He finds in Christian galut (dispersion) a calling to witness to a scornful culture and to serve as a model of Christian living. We are outsiders to a godless intellectual culture, an increasingly paganized popular culture, and the secular state; I find inspiring Yoder’s reminder that our outsider status is not a reason for despondency but a noble vocation. It is also timely now, when some believers are tempted Constantine-wise by the British theologian Oliver O’Donovan’s talk of a “new Christendom.”

Efforts to “Christianize the culture,” as Pope John Paul II has called for, are all to the good, but only as long as this effort aims simply to inject Christian influences rather than to exclude un-Christian or anti-Christian elements. An exclusively Christian culture must await the day when it naturally arises within a thoroughly Christian population. To think we can first create a pervasively Christian culture as a means to that end is to toy with an oppressive and illicit shortcut. (Nor is this merely a denominational split: O’Donovan is an Anglican and Yoder’s anti-Constantinian worries boast no less Catholic an ally than Dante Alighieri.) Yes, it is better for us to be outsiders or prophets than emperors, but are these really the chief options? And hasn’t pretension to the role of prophet itself become a form of self-righteousness and self-importance?

The most moving lines and imagery in these essays Yoder borrows from the Jewish writer Stephan Zweig’s 1917 poem-drama “Jeremiah.” In one passage, the victorious Chaldeans marvel at the spirit of the defeated Jews: “See how they go with their face to the sun/See how they are walking to meet the sun . . . . They themselves shine with the strength of the sun. Mighty must their God be!” Yoder’s anti-Constantinianism calls Christians to emulate the Jews, finding in our cultural and political marginalization, as they found in military defeat, both a call to evangelize and a moral victory. Yoder’s soul has completed its walk into God’s brilliance. As we trudge on in this cultural and political darkness, his works and days can help keep our feet in the lamplight and serve as a reminder to keep our faces to the sun.

Jorge Garcia is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers Univeristy.