In 1970, Geoffrey Hartman, a young professor of literature, brought his friend Paul de Man to join him in the English department at Yale. In the ensuing years, the two of them became close colleagues in the American reception of Jacques Derrida for whom, in 1975, they arranged a recurring visiting appointment. The three became close friends and together changed the way American professors and students thought about literature. But they couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds. At the age of nine, Hartman had been in Kindertransport, the program that evacuated Jewish children from Germany to England in 1939. He didn’t see his mother again for 6 years. Derrida had to leave his school in Algiers when the quota for Jewish students was reduced and Algerian Jews lost their citizenship. De Man, it turns out, was a crassly opportunistic Nazi collaborator who wrote a series of anti-Semitic articles in the Belgian press in the ‘40s1. What does it mean that these three, with such different histories, could agree on so much about literature and philosophy?
Reading the reviews of Evelyn Barish’s new book on de Man2, I couldn’t help but think of John Howard Yoder. As de Man’s students and colleagues have struggled to come to grips with his Nazi past, so Mennonite theologians and others are now, finally, trying to learn how to think about Yoder’s violence against women. We all owe Barb Graber and Ruth Krall a great deal for refusing to let us (by which I mean myself and other Mennonite theologians who write about and teach Yoder) continue to ignore the facts of Yoder’s violence. Graber asked us to do something specific:
Welcome, encourage and make efforts to include analysis of the astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s orthodoxy and his severe lack of orthopraxy.3 In what follows, thanks to Mennonite Life, I take up that invitation. I begin with de Man’s case not to imply that such a task is impossible, but to acknowledge how complex it can be. All ideas are products of a social location. But, as the de Man story shows, how they are so, is an incredibly complex question. There is no straight line of determination between life and work; there are countless crooked and tangled threads. In what follows I try to identify and follow one thread in Yoder.
While I am a theologian, deeply indebted to the work of Yoder, my teaching responsibilities tend to be for EMU’s Religious Studies curriculum. So aside from an essay in our introductory Christian ethics course and an essay in an anthropology of religion course, I have only taught Yoder at length in one class, a topics seminar on political theology in the Fall of 2011. That seminar spent one class period (out of four on Yoder) talking about Yoder’s sexual violence and if and how we should relate that to his work.
This was new territory for me. For most of my academic life I read Yoder and once co-edited a book about him assuming that the life and the work could be kept separate. I wasn’t exactly comfortable with this state of affairs, but I was at a loss to know what to do about it. I wasn’t ready to deny that there were connections between Yoder’s life and his work, but I also couldn’t see those connections and lacked the imagination or energy to discover them. Anyhow, didn’t a wide range of twentieth century literary criticism from the New Critics to the Yale poststructuralists teach that authors didn’t matter and hence texts could be liberated from the interpretive tyranny of things like authorial intention and biography? Though it makes me cringe to recall, in response to concerns raised about Yoder at an MCC peace committee meeting in the late ‘90s I blithely quoted Alexandre Nehamas’s famous lines about Nietzsche,
In engaging with his works, we are not engaging with the miserable little man who wrote them, but with the philosopher who emerges through them.
But by the Fall of 2011, I had begun to think about it a bit differently, in part because of the publication of Alex Sider’s
Friendship, Alienation, Love: Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder.4 Sider’s essay doesn’t mention Yoder’s violence against women, but upon reading it I was convinced that the most plausible connections between Yoder’s life and work would be drawn through the argument Sider makes so I assigned it to my students that day.
The problem Sider’s essay identifies and explores is the tendency in Yoder to
resolve issues of personal and existential alienation by treating the unhappiness many people experience as a kind of misdiagnosis that can be solved via a judicious application of ecclesiology (418), thereby compounding the alienation. A striking example is the Festival Quarterly interview with Yoder where he was asked if he was happy, to which he responded,
I haven’t found it very useful to ask that question. According to Sider, a similar attitude pervades Yoder’s work. We consistently see an avoidance any talk of selfhood, psychology, or subjectivity in favor of more talk about ecclesiology and church practices. Here is an example of a Yoder passage that Sider rightly finds both problematic and typical. The concerns of those evangelists who understand salvation as
restored selfhood, liberation from anxiety and guilt are not wrong…BUT ALL OF THIS IS NOT THE GOSPEL. This is just the bonus, the wrapping paper thrown in when you buy the meat, the ‘everything’ which will be added, without your taking thought for it, if we seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness! (433) Leaving aside the bizarre metaphor of bloody packing paper as
bonus, the claim is that if you try really hard to be a radical messianic alternative community, then your shattered selfhood, your anxiety and guilt will take care of themselves. This isn’t necessarily or always wrong. It is sometimes true that the immersion in good work can be therapeutic, but in that case it isn’t a
bonus; it is the thing itself or at least a bonus deserving a far more dignified metaphor than wrapping paper destined for the trash bin. And it often is wrong, just insofar as church practices can often only be therapeutic if we deliberately and explicitly talk about, not ignore,
affective registers of desire and delight (434).
Why does Yoder end up here? Why does it seem like ecclesiology and psychology have to exist in a zero-sum relationship where the ecclesiology has to drive out the psychological? One answer may be that Yoder, like many other pacifist theologians, fears that moral psychology, the attempt to understand why the good is difficult, can become an excuse for why the good is unachievable. Another answer is that Yoder inherits from Barth a suspicion of pietism’s emphasis on the individual believer’s subjectivity, of the way pietism could seem to shrink the stage of Gods’ work from the cosmos to the individual heart.5 Sider’s essay helps us see that both answers function in Yoder as a flight from himself, a flight he desperately needed for all the wrong reasons. Refusing to think theologically about any selves makes it a lot easier to avoid thinking about his own self. His response to Festival Quarterly’s question about happiness should have been
I have found it very useful to avoid that question. Or
I have found the question too hard to bear.
Of course, Yoder wasn’t just in flight from himself. He was in flight from his victims. But it is a poor account of selfhood that makes those two flights alternatives. It would be a mistake to replace Yoder’s other without self with the old Cartesian/pietist self without other. Self and other are always necessarily intertwined. At its most basic level, it is simply that who I am is always someone in a range of relationships. So I may be a spouse, a brother or sister, a parent and/or child, a teacher and/or student, an employer and/or employee, a victim and victimizer. In each of these cases, to know who I am, to say,
I am a brother, is to make a statement about another. And to deny or ignore that I am a brother is to deny or ignore the brother or sister.
It so happens that the previous year had been my first opportunity to teach my way through Augustine’s Confessions. The conventional Anabaptist view has long been that Yoder and Augustine are opposites. I am sympathetic with, and have learned a lot from, the efforts of theologians like Gerald Schlabach6 and Charlie Collier7 who have tried to upset that consensus by reading Yoder and Augustine alongside each other. But in at least one respect, perhaps we should resume thinking of them in opposition, though now for very different reasons. Augustine, whose penitent self-awareness, produced by a range of friendships, made for the most profound moral psychology we have and Yoder, whose flight from himself and violence against others, made for a striking absence of even the most rudimentary moral psychology. Augustine loved the moment in the parable of the prodigal son upon which the story hinges. Luke 15.17 begins
he returned to himself. But nothing is more important than noting that returning to himself, quite clearly means returning both in his immediate thoughts and in his subsequent action to the one he had sinned against.
Is any of this plausible as an attempt to account for the
astoundingly ironic disconnect between Yoder’s life and work? I think it is, but I began with the de Man case in order to flag my awareness of how difficult such an undertaking is. For some, the complexity has been a reason to say that they can’t see any connection at all between Yoder’s life and work.8 That claim isn’t necessarily wrong; connections are hard to see. And it is usually good scholarly practice to be confident in your thesis before articulating an argument. But in some cases, such as this one, the best scholarly practice may be something like the opposite. It is to cut loose our imaginations to toss up risky experimental, hypothetical theses not because we are sure they are right but precisely because we are not sure of anything except that such a practice may be the only way a genuinely illuminating conversation of the kind Graber and Krall are demanding can become fruitful.9