Harry Huebner, Echoes of the Word: Theological Ethics as Rhetorical Practice. Kitchener, Ont.: Pandora Press, 2005. Pp. 264. ($25.00paperback) ISBN 1-894710-56-8
Most Mennonites do not value theology, and some Mennonites with fine theological minds have contributed their analytic, synthetic, and imaginative skills largely to church institutions and their administration. These include Harry Huebner, most of whose writings have been commissioned by different agencies and are scattered through various books and journals. This volume makes the broad scope of his contributions to contemporary ethics and theology more visible by bringing together seven previously published articles, three new articles, four substantially revised essays and presentations, and four sermons.
By including writings from various settings, Echoes of the Word shows how Huebner's scholarly work is informed by and contributes to his church involvement, and vice-versa. Harry deals with issues like the post-9/11 mood and care of the elderly with compassionate, insightful, pastoral sensitivity.
Following Ludwig Wittgenstein, Huebner tells us that "words do not mirror the world" or describe "a set of facts;" instead, they "construct" or envision a world (p. 1). Theology's main task, accordingly, is to help the words of Scripture and church traditions, which sometimes grow stale, "open up vistas of meaning" so that the Word can be "heard over and over in whatever form its reverberations come." (2) Theology, then, is a "rhetorical practice." Its fruits often appear in the book's chapters, which are gathered under six headings: "Word," "Church/World," and then four virtues: "Patience," "Hope," "Peace," and "Wisdom." Yet these groupings are somewhat loose, and the "rhetorical practice" theme seldom links them explicitly, as is not surprising in a collection of writings.
In a helpful autobiographical introduction, Harry tells how John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas, and Alasdair MacIntyre became the three main influences on his theology. Huebner follows a discernible trend shaped largely by them, which highlights particularity: of biblical narrative, Jesus' teachings, and the church; and also tradition, especially the church's role in forming ethical norms, virtues, and character, and thereby alternative communities which render a unique socio-political orientation visible.
Like Hauerwas, Huebner often contrasts this tradition-oriented approach sharply with attempts to derive ethics from universal or rational principles. Since "Human beings are essentially storied people" (37), "there can be no rationality which transcends tradition;" or, otherwise stated, "There is no place outside of tradition where we can stand" to view the world "objectively." (38)
This approach has the apparent advantage of developing ethics not from "abstract first principles but the real experience of valuing communities." (120) Further, it challenges the claims of dominant socio-political powers that their values are rooted in universal principles, and hence are superior to values of particular traditions, which emerge from their idiosyncratic experiences. For the former values also arise from particular traditions. Moreover, dominating powers really appeal to these values to further their own particular interests and to impose uniform behavior on their subordinates. For example, appeals to "freedom and democracy" can legitimate and mask quite different goals, and call for widespread loyalty and sacrifice to attain them.
Huebner, in contrast, advocates an "epistemological sectarianism" which, commencing from biblical narrative, seeks to develop "a way of knowing commensurate with the incarnation of God in Christ" and his call to "a particular way of life." (65) I affirm this general orientation, though I am uncomfortable with his label. I also question Huebner's frequent claims that his approach, like Yoder's and Hauerwas's, starts with "the language of ordinary people," in sharp contrast to most other ethics, which begins more universally, from "the arrogance of imposed theory." (124)
My questions are prompted by a rhetorical stress that I often find in Huebner's chapters. Since theological ethics, for him, is "rhetorical practice," I want to articulate these questions somewhat pointedly. Afterwards, I will show how these chapters offer some answers, when read more analytically.
First, when the pattern of any ethic is articulated in a scholarly way, it will include some statements which operate as assumptions whose reference is universal, such as: "Human beings are essentially storied people" (37) and "there can be no rationality which transcends tradition." (38) Perhaps Huebner would reply that these statements do not really function as assumptions, since he begins from biblical narrative. Biblical narrative, however, stretches between one universal horizon and another, from creation to consummation, and is directed to all people. This starting point also includes assumptions and claims with universal range and significance.
I do not find it problematic that Yoder-Hauerwas-Huebner ethics, like all others, involves universal principles of some sort. I do find problematic their frequent portraits of other ethicists, who make their assumptions plain, operating on some wholly abstract intellectual plane, as if they never examined concrete issues which could challenge and modify their assumptions. Such stereotyped rhetorical contrasts, which implicitly include most ethicists in the latter category, tend to blur the broad assumptions involved in Huebner's approach, or to convey the impression that there are none.
Second, such rhetoric often implies that ordinary people will find this approach congenial and relevant, but will find "abstract, rational" ethics exclusive and intolerant. But might Huebner's outlook strike some ordinary people in the second way? Think of the countless modern/postmodern individuals who lack stable families, cultural traditions, and often close friends, who yet search for ethical direction in their rootless situations. How would the upfront declaration that ethics is impossible apart from traditions strike them? As inviting them to search for a community? Perhaps; but more likely, I think, as excluding them from the start.
What about assertions that this ethics has "no interest in explaining," say, "faithful human existence. . . for everyone, only for followers of Christ." (124) How will that sound to most people of other religions or none? If we take mission seriously, will it be enough to practice our distinctive ethics and explain it in our terms? Or might it often be necessary to enter other cultural spaces, to consider the beliefs and practices of others, and explain our ethics with reference to broader principles which mesh with theirs?
Anabaptist Christians seldom realize that their efforts to follow distinctive teachings can not only attract some outsiders, but also put off many. Rather than thinking, "there's a group I'd like to join," many such people suppose, "they're too exclusive; they'd never understand my problems; I'd never be welcome!" I want to ask pointedly: how often in its actual function does "distinctive community" rhetoric, despite what we say and perhaps intend, serve largely to keep our boundaries visible and so exclude most others? Groups which highlight their distinctiveness not only dominant classes and institutions can appear exclusive and intolerant, even when they don't intend it.
Third, Huebner acknowledges that Christian ethics is ultimately meant for everybody, or has universal significance. Yet I find the rhetorical force of nearly all references to universality negative: against starting from universal principles, against building on universal foundations, against manipulative, "Constantinian" uses of universals. I generally agree with these critiques. But amidst so heavy a barrage, I find few hints as to how a universal affirmation might be made, or even make sense.
Yet if the church is entrusted with a global mission, must it not find ways of affirming, to as many peoples as possible, that certain beliefs are always true, and that others are never true, of the gospel? Is not violence, despite the difficulty of defining it exactly, always excluded? Further, many pressing issues, such as nuclear proliferation and environmental destruction, affect everyone on earth. Is not movement towards common understandings and commitments by many nations crucial to their solution? Should not Christian ethicists, then, despite their particular starting point, work at articulating such commitments in language which can be understood and accepted by everyone?
Nevertheless, while Huebner's rhetoric, as I read it, often disparages rational and universal considerations, I also find him taking these seriously. In discussing Mennonite theologian Gordon Kaufman, Huebner insists, as usual, that people search for truth within particular traditions. Yet he points out that people also search for truth beyond it. The quest for truth, that is, is a quest for more and more truth, and is implicitly directed towards a telos of truth beyond all traditions (40-41, 43, 45).
Huebner also finds Confessions of Faith important. While he considers Biblical narrative the "bearer of life" and "truth," so that confessional statements can "only point to truth" (49), he believes that they should function together, and resists prioritizing the Bible over doctrine (52). Huebner also opposes dividing "the fundamental unity of word and deed." (57) Rational and experiential-ethical apprehensions of truth apparently interact with each other, with the former occasionally preceding the latter: "For how can children growing up in the church. . . be taught to love the Bible unless they are taught something about it (doctrine)?" (52, italics his)
Huebner also argues that many basic ethical issues are also theological. For instance, an ethics like James Gustafson's, which draws its content mainly from nature, history, and society, considered as revelations of God the Father, has a low Christology. It drives a wedge between God the Creator and Jesus, and makes "the redemption of God morally irrelevant and 'fallen' nature morally normative." (75) The Yoder-Hauerwas-Huebner emphasis on Jesus, in contrast, entails a much "higher" Christology. Huebner also highlights Jesus' resurrection, which overcomes Enlightenment dualisms between history and nature, and between theology and science (74-75).
In these and other ways I find Huebner seeking to integrate rationality and activity, universality and particularity, despite his strong rhetorical accent on the latter in each pair.
Huebner also portrays ethical life consistently as a response to God's prior initiative and grace. His ethic is mainly one of "invitation-participation." (82) He discusses spirituality at some length (esp. 131-143), as well as developing the virtues: mainly patience, hope, peace, and wisdom. Huebner's ethics is inward as well as outward, individual as well as communal. It is also rational as well as engaged. Yet I fear that his rhetoric sometimes disparages the former in ways that (despite his intentions) can justify provinciality and obscure the values of a more global, universal orientation towards a theology and ethics of mission. Nonetheless, I affirm what may be Echoes of the Word's main theme: the truth of Jesus is living truth which must again and again be concretely embodied.
by Thomas Finger