A Precarious Peace: Yoderian Explorations on Theology, Knowledge, and Identity
Chris K. Huebner. Waterloo, ON and Scottdale, PA: Herald, 2006. 250 pages.
The Polyglossia series, of which this book is the first publication, could well be described as a missiological project, one that promotes a “way of thinking theologically that requires precarious attempts to speak the gospel in new idioms.” In this volume, Chris Huebner, professor of theology, philosophy, and ethics at Canadian Mennonite University, engages in “Yoderian” explorations of theology, knowledge, and identity. His overarching concern is to unsettle or complexify precisely those notions that are prematurely or illegitimately settled in the minds of Christians, a settling that prevents the church from engaging in the kind of patient vulnerability that is necessary in conversations with contemporary movements.
Huebner’s collection of essays, many written during his doctoral studies at Duke University, is organized under three rubrics: Disestablishing Mennonite Theology; Disowning Knowledge; Dislocating Identity. The titles are telling—Huebner is engaged in a series of attempts to reveal and resist Christian triumphalism, which rears its head in ways and places that are sometimes surprising. For example, he is keen to show that such triumphalism is evident in epistemology, our pursuit of peace, practices of martyrdom, and so on. That is, often it is in places where Christians think they are particularly vulnerable that attempts at control and domination are especially tempting, and powerfully so because we have been able to hide such grasping even from ourselves. So, it becomes clear throughout the book that where we are confident in our weakness is the location where we need to be confronted with our propensity to monologues that we control, and even with a tendency to use martyrdom as a conversation stopper, since we have tended to see death as a guarantor of the “truth.”
Therefore, to the extent that the chapters in this book display recognition of the various attempts at control, whether in epistemological or other forms, the book is important as a source for and example of missiological work. Huebner is after all addressing Christian readers even while he engages voices from outside the church, and all of this as a way of moving the gospel into ever-new territory. It is this self-criticism that is coterminous with speaking the gospel in new idioms that is the strength of this book. In this, Huebner’s debt to John Howard Yoder is obvious and clearly acknowledged, but he also extends Yoder’s work, albeit in a style that is inherent to that work, rather than remaining mired in in-house debates about Yoder.
The spirit of Huebner’s book calls for dialogue, and so several questions are in order here. First, the thought of the Radical Orthodoxy movement plays a significant role in this book. One of the poignant critiques brought forward reveals a certain tendency on the part of the movement to shift away from the embodied practices of the church in favor of the abstraction of theory. Fair enough, but this criticism does not lead to enough re-narration of embodied practices in the church on the part of Huebner. It seems that the inclusion of a sermon within the book is a gesture in this direction, but nevertheless, the critical analysis of Radical Orthodoxy stops short too quickly after the criticism.
Further, dialogical vulnerability, dislocation, moves into new territory and so on, need to be shaped more explicitly by robust exegetical practice (I acknowledge here a helpful conversation with Professor Travis Kroeker of McMaster University). To follow Andrew Walls, mission work needs to be understood as translation—the original translation of course being the Incarnation. Walls shows that mission work is the perpetual retranslation of Christian faith and practice into new territory. Central to all of this is the role of the Bible, which is of course translated into new languages, a process that changes both the source language and the receptor language. Therefore, when precarious attempts are made to speak the gospel in conversations with philosophers, social theorists, and other such interlocutors, presumably those conversations should also include the biblical text, and not just the texts currently being produced. Similarly, texts from within the historical Christian tradition would also enter the vulnerable dialogue. The Bible and the exegetical and theological traditions do not enter the conversation once it has started on other grounds, but are always already part of the dialogue.
To conclude, the importance of Huebner’s work should not be underestimated, since it is often the areas in which we are most confident that we need the most keen reconsideration, and Huebner motivates just the kind of discernment that, if heeded with care, can prevent smug triumphalism, the truncated self-righteousness of moralism, and the self-deceptive confidence that shuts off new possibilities of faithful discipleship and the speaking of the gospel.