Closing The Omega

So then, modern theology operates within the conceptual confines of the Cartesian theater, crafting a theology that is simultaneously individualistic

3° M. O'C. Drury, "Some Notes on Conversations with Wittgenstein," in Rush Rhees, ed., Recollections of Wittgenstein (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 105.

31 Cited in Fergus Kerr, Theology after Wittgenstein (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), p. 32.

32 Wittgenstein, Zettel, section 144. 33 Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, p. 85c. 34 Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus, p. 17.

(in that religion is founded upon my experience here and now} and to-talizing (in that human nature is presumed to be everywhere uniform). Postmodern theology inhabits a different space altogether, for if the language by which religious experience is enabled and described is not of an individual's own making, then religion itself has an irreducibly social and historical component. Investigation into religious reality is never more profound than when the faithful historical community is its object. Thus Lash asks: "What kind of community is it that might be realistically and concretely envisaged as the symbolic or sacramental expression of escha-tological hope, of a hope that is effectively critical of all idolatrous abso-lutization of particular places and times, nations and destinies, projects and policies?"35 If Lash has been prodded by Wittgenstein to change the very questions he inherited from modern theologians, John Howard Yoder can be seen to occupy a similar space in so far as he transforms their answers.

Yoder was a walking set of contradictions: a Mennonite theologian36 who studied under Barth and ended his career teaching at the University of Notre Dame; a proactive pacifist who tirelessly advanced the "modest proposal" that Christians refrain from killing each other as the first step toward abolishing war; a sectarian (by Ernst Troeltsch's standards) who advocated strong social action (Yoder himself both served Mennonite relief and mission agencies throughout Europe and Algeria as well as spent twenty years working in various capacities for the World Council of Churches); a church historian who is as much postmodern as he is pre-modern by virtue of his affirmation that Jesus' life and teachings, including the prohibition of killing, are normative for us today

Yoder entered the fray of contemporary theology through the door of church history and focused his energies on the historical reality of the community that worships Jesus. Yoder understood the unbroken historical continuity of that community not only as permission to say "this is that" (i.e., this church today is that church back then), but also as that which validates this community's present moral judgment (by virtue of the present Christian community's approximation to the first-century church's discourse and form of life). Yoder was thus suspicious of the modern obsession to find foundations for ethics and theology in theoretical demonstrations of first principles since this overlooks the obvious prior condition: "There had to be a human social fabric, in which people's relationships were mediated

Yoder resisted the term "Mennonite theologian," preferring instead to view himself as a theologian of the church catholic.

by communication, through various kinds of signals but most evidently in words."37

In the absence of theoretical foundations, Yoder suggested that ethics must begin with "a phenomenology of moral life" - that is, with a description of the moral life of an actual community. Ironically, such a description is, in fact, less biased than accounts of putative first principles, because community life is subject to criteria that philosophical discussions are not: the viability of a historical community depends on the ongoing felicity of its communications. Thus, "for the society to be viable, most of this communication has to be 'true' most of the time; i.e. it has to provide a reliable basis for structuring our common life, counting on each other and not being routinely disappointed." This social matrix is simply the given beyond which ethics cannot go. "The fabric exists, and functions more or less well, before anyone asks for an accounting about why it works. The 'accounting' that we can do is therefore not 'validation' but a posteriori elucidation."38

For Yoder, then, Christian ethics could not be separated from theology since both involve explication of the Gospel as it has been embodied in the form of life of the believing community since the New Testament. Jesus matters for contemporary believers because Jesus mattered for the original lot. Yet Yoder is not advocating a naive biblicism that might be offered in place of other reductive methodologies. He explained: "Precisely because of my commitment to a community which in turn is committed to canonical accountability, I saw no way to squeeze such accountability into such a straitjacket [as biblicism]."39 In contrast: "Skepticism about methodological reductivism and respect for the 'thick' reading of any real history, in which the Bible belongs, go naturally hand in hand."40 Consequently, Yoder understood there to be a dialectical relationship between canon and community.

On the one hand, the canon shapes the community. Faithfulness to the cruciform pattern established by the story of Jesus is the chief aim of those for whom the biblical texts are taken to be Scripture. The biblical texts have been read in various ways - as literature, as science, as fiction, etc. - but those for whom the biblical texts are canonical read them as Scripture and thus submit themselves to interrogation by the text rather than become the interrogators of the text. Yoder's "precritical"41 reading strategy enabled him

37 Yoder, "Walk and Word: The Alternatives to Methodologism," in Stanley Hauerwas, Nancey

Murphy, and Mark Nation, eds., Theology without Foundations: Religious Practice and the

Future of Theological Truth (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994), p. 79.

41 See Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: a Study in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century Hermeneutics (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

to be well informed of historical-critical debates over the textual minutiae (such as are incorporated into the copious footnotes of The Politics of Jesus*2) yet remain untroubled by historical-critical challenges that take the Bible as an object of study rather than the lens through which the world is brought into focus.

On the other hand, community life is determinative for the proper reading of Scripture. Before we can know how the Scripture ought to be read, Yoder wants us to get clear on who is the "we" doing the reading. Thus in "The Otherness of the Church" he insists on the enduring distinctive identity of the church over and against the world by recounting the narrative of Christian history both prior to and after the church's (lamentable) Constantinianization.43 Similarly, Yoder writes that Jesus' "original revolution" was the establishment of the church as the social embodiment of a radical pacifist alternative to secular strategies for living together.44 When this community rightly reads Scripture, its reading takes the form of an ecumenical conversation that is sometimes reforming and other times prophetic, and only insiders have a sense of timing that is developed finely enough to tell the difference.

Modernity, wrote Stephen Toulmin, is a giant ^-shaped detour.45 If Toulmin's metaphor is apt, then we should not be surprised to discover that postmodern philosophy shares much in common with its premodern cousins (a thesis not pursued here) and that postmodern theology finds a kinship with premodern theology. While Lash has crafted his theology with an eye toward Wittgenstein, Yoder's theology resonates with Anglo-American postmodern thought even though he explicitly eschewed philosophy in favor of close reading of the historical Christian community. In our view, both Lash and Yoder disclose the way forward for theologians who have grown lonely under the bewitchment of Cartesian solipsism.

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