Influential Books: AUFS For the Uninitiated 5

This post is different from those of my comrades, because my studies have fallen more strictly within theological lines. Also, I want to note that I am here sharing, in a more personal manner, about books that have influenced how I do theology, rather than focusing on “positions” I hold (as some of the others have in fact done).

The first significantly influential book I read, as a sophomore in undergrad, was John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. Many other books could have had a similar effect on me, but it was Yoder’s chapter entitled, “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” which destroyed my individualistic reading of the Christian tradition. With the illumination of the social nature of soteriology (reconciliation), Yoder also articulated my pacifist leanings, and pushed me over the edge into what I know as Christological pacifism (Incidentally, I did not grow up with pacifist tendencies. However, with a couple of years of intense study of scripture behind me, when 9/11 happened I somehow knew intuitively that I was against any response other than enemy-love, even though I had yet to rigorously think the issue through). I find these two ideas united in the following quotation: “It is the good news that my enemy and I are united, through no merit or work of our own, in a new humanity that forbids henceforth my ever taking his or her life in my hands.” Yoder has continued to be hugely influential on me, unlike any other contemporary theologian.

Another formative book I read early on in my theological education is Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology, especially due to the chapters entitled “Wonder,” “Solitude,” and “Doubt.” Barth shaped my self-consciousness as a theologian, and articulated the struggles I was going through as an awe-struck and struggling young academic:

If anyone should not find himself astonished and filled with wonder when he becomes involved in one way or another with theology, he would be well advised to consider once more, from a certain remoteness and without prejudice, what is involved in this undertaking. The same holds true for anyone who should have accomplished the feat of no longer being astonished, instead of becoming continually more astonished all the time that he concerns himself with this subject…A specific astonishment stands at the beginning of every theological perception, inquiry, and thought, in fact at the root of every theological word. (ET, 63, 64)

Barth also spoke to the loneliness of the academic life of the theologian, which I was beginning to experience, as I began to espouse more critical, prophetic (“left-leaning”?) social stances in a way that alienated me from many people:

Whoever takes up the subject of theology discovers himself immediately, recurrently, and inevitably banished into a strange and notoriously oppressive solitude.

Instead of support, he will often receive the painful impression that innumerable Christians and non-Christians find it quite easy to withdraw more or less unscathed from the shock that makes one a theologian.

Admittedly, [the theologians] voice will be that of the ‘lonely bird on the housetop,’ resounding pleasingly only in the ears of a few, and constantly exposed to the danger of being shot down by the first comer—a risk that is perhaps no insignificant.

As is well known, in Barth’s perspective a theologian’s task never ends, and he or she will always begin afresh. This means that doubt plays a critical role for theology: “In this sense doubt springs from the theological necessity of treating the quest for truth as a task that is never completed, that is, instead, set before the theologian time and again” (ET, 121). Also, he adds, “doubt simply marks the fact that nothing in theology is self-evident. Nothing can be had for nothing. Everything must be worked through, in order to acquire validity” (ET, 122). By no means have I set out to fulfill this method, yet, when I think about it, this has been how I have proceeded. I have avoided identifying myself with a particular movement or school of thought, because theology (in my understanding) is a very Socratic enterprise. I suppose that as I progress as a scholar I will come down harder on certain issues than I currently do, but I am very wary of joining some school of thought as if I were going to play for a sports team (I think this is all too prevalent right now). 

The study of theology was an encounter that turned me into a scholar—without theology, I would never have become an academic. I was, like Jacob when he wrestled an angel of the Lord, permanently marked. I found Barth’s words to describe my life, as one “who has been afflicted and irreparably wounded by theology and the Word of God.” Theology became for me an attempt to work out these ideas with “fear and trembling,” in the company of thinkers like Søren Kierkegaard, who has been the third influential thinker for me.

Kierkegaard taught me to be wary of systems, especially (in Kierkegaard’s case) “Hegelian” systems (although I am not certain that Hegel himself was a “Hegelian”). Allow me to quote my favorite passage from The Sickness Unto Death:

A pastor certainly ought to be a believer. A believer! And a believer, after all, is a lover…Is it not true that he would be capable of speaking about his beloved all day long and all night, too, day in and day out? But…do you not think he would find it loathsome to speak in such a manner that he would try to demonstrate by means of three reasons that there is something to being in love—somewhat as the pastor proves by means of three reasons that praying is beneficial, because praying has become so cheap that in order to raise its prestige a little three reasons have to be adduced. Or the way the pastor—and this is the same, only even more ridiculous—proves with three reasons that to pray is a bliss that ‘passes all understanding.’ What a priceless anticlimax—that something that passes all understanding—is proved by three reasons, which, if they do anything at all, presumably do not pass all understanding and, quite the contrary, inevitably make it obvious to the understanding that this bliss by no means passes all understanding, for ‘reasons,’ after all, lie in the realm of understanding. No, for that which passes all understanding—and for him who believes it—three reasons mean no more than three bottles or three deer!

So, a tendency I have picked up from Kierkegaard is that I am not primarily interested in arguing three reasons for doctrine “X” (though I am secondarily), but in “witness,” not in the pietistic evangelistic sense, but in bearing witness: in Acts 1:8 we have it that Jesus tells his apostles (“sent ones”) that they will be his witnesses (martyrs). I prefer the ambiguity between the meaning of witness and martyr. This tendency became clearer for me in my reading of the autobiography of Daniel Berrigan, The Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire. Berrigan took a route neither of “effectiveness,” nor of one who believed that “the inherently greater strength of the good guys” brings justice (to use Yoder’s words), but one who performed his witness according to the logic of cross and resurrection.

But I have taken a more academic route than Berrigan (which is my topic here), and have been engaging the works of Henri de Lubac, Hans Urs von Balthasar, Hegel, Radical Orthodoxy types, and voices “outside” Christian tradition from whom I hear things fresh and “other” (e.g., Badiou, Mark C. Taylor, Zizek…), although I have found none of the above listed thinkers to be as influential on me as Yoder, Barth, and Kierkegaard.  I find RO to be generally right in their approach, as Adam has put it: “engaging with the latest European philosophy and political theory and putting it in contact with the tradition.” Of course, I don’t agree with many things folks like Milbank argue for, and I am less interested in apologetics than he is (I’m not batting for his team). But I am also not interested in being a fideist. I see the task of a theologian as a diverse one, which means the thinkers I engage and the ways in which I write will vary—from Kierkegaardian attack, to arguing for three reasons about something or other in Hegel or Paul. In the preface to On Christian Theology, Rowan Williams distinguishes three styles of theological reflection, none of which are mutually exclusive during particular theologizing: 1) celebratory language tries “to draw out and display connections of thought and image so as to exhibit the fullest possible significance in the language used,” exemplified in liturgy, or language that tries more to evoke vision than to argue; 2) communicative theology “seeks also to persuade or commend… experimenting with the rhetoric of its uncommitted environment,” for example, the “colonizing” of philosophical thought for communication; and 3) critical reflection brings attention to the “inner tensions or irresolutions” of theology, found especially in apophatic and negative theologies. I find myself in all of these at different times, and reading accordingly.

13 thoughts on “Influential Books: AUFS For the Uninitiated 5

  1. Hmm. Maybe that was unfair, and did not come across as intended. My apologies. I did not intend to emphasize that I was not taking a position, and others were, but simply that I would be reflecting more on how I do theology, rather than on my theological positions. I should not have made #2 a difference that set me apart.

  2. I guess I just don’t see anything here but a particular method and one that is shared by people hoping to synthesize Yoder and RO, which is really a synthesis between pacificism and colonialism. Telling is Williams second mode of theology, while the third mode is rarely found.

  3. I did not at all say that I was trying to synthesize RO and Yoder (any more than Adam is synthesizing RO with anything), but you are right that there is not much more to see other than a method (one which is tied to concerns for social, peace-loving, and prophetic Christianity). Are you saying I need to state more positions? I’m not clear what you are getting at.

  4. Thomas,
    Thanks for posting this, I found it extremely interesting. Could you point to any particular books that do a good job at pointing out where Barth and Yoder converge and diverge? Also, which of the current interpreters of Yoder do you find the most interesting or persuasive?

  5. Thomas: I think your emphasis on method is entirely appropriate if not necessary. Yoder and his work on methodological constantinianism have been largely pushed to the ghetto. The deep and wide world of theology is still much more concerned with message than medium. Discussions on method, while common on the rooftop I find myself, are rather far and in between.

    APS: Really? You see herein a method that tries to synthesize Yoder and RO?

  6. This is an object lesson in not commenting after drinking and dancing for 8 hours.

    Thomas, I think I was just taken aback by the opening remarks which suggested we’re being fideists, while many of us did talk about method. You put me to shame though with your post as you brought out some choice quotes from the book.

  7. mshedden,

    I would begin with Karl Barth and the Problem of Ward and Other Essays on Barth by Yoder himself–this would be where Yoder most explicitly and consistently engages Barth (You may already have done this). I think Dan Barber and Nate Kerr are better equipped to answer your question than I am, and I welcome your thoughts and anyone else’s on this. as for who is the best reader of Yoder: maybe I will have an answer when I am done studying for my exams in 8 months.


    I have a friend who has an app on his phone that does not allow him to send text messages between 12- and 4-a.m. without first completing a set of math problems. Maybe we ought to install a similar app for AUFS comments? I’m kidding. My opening comments were unfair, and were more of an attempt to cover my back and make up for lack of “taking positions” (or maybe “taking sides,” something I have been criticized for) rather than say what others were doing. I apologize to Dan, Adam, and Brad as well, if I have said that they were fideists or not speaking of method. I think none of you guys are fideists.

    Kampen: what rooftop are you on?

    I’m off to play basketball.

  8. Thomas: The top floor of Canadian Mennonite University houses the departments of Theology/Philosophy/Ethics. It’s a small rooftop with birds like John Howard Yoder, Harry Huebner, Chris Huebner, Paul J. Griffiths, William Cavanaugh, Michel Foucault, Paul Virilio, Jarem Sawatsky, John Paul Lederach, Rowan Williams, Gillian Rose, and Mary Carruthers, to name a few of the more prominent conversation partners.

  9. I was puzzled by your original opening, but not offended. What was strange to me was that you immediately started talking about how Yoder convinced you to adopt pacifism (i.e., a position), though I can see how throughout the rest of it there are more “method”-type questions.

    In any case, thanks for doing this — if anyone else with posting powers wants to do one, you’re all more than welcome.

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