Ted Grimsrud—June 25, 2013
What do you get when you put together an appreciation for well-known postmodern thinkers such as Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Emmanuel Levinas with a self-identification with Anabaptist theology, membership in a Mennonite congregation, a (tentative) commitment to pacifism, and an affirmation of the core theological project of John Howard Yoder? Then you add an academic location that combines the field of social theory with a professorship at a notorious bastion of libertarianism and Republicanism (Hillsdale College)? And for good measure, include some rock and roll….
Well, you could get an incoherent mess. Or, if the person who embodies all these disparate influences (and more) is intelligent and clear-thinking and a good writer and has a whimsical sense of humor, you might get a remarkable and pathbreaking collection of essays. Happily, Pete Blum’s For a Church to Come: Experiments in Postmodern Theory and Anabaptist Thought (Herald Press, 2013) fits in the second category.
The value of experiments
Perhaps the operative term in the book’s title is “experiments.” The seven essays here are each characterized by an openness, a tentativeness, and a gentleness of spirit. Blum addresses challenging issues. He’s an amazingly clear writer even as the themes he addresses are not easy or superficial. But there is a humility here, a sense of invitation to a conversation. There is no show-boating or disdain. No sense of seeking to shock or intimidate.
This is a collection of conversations—Blum talking with his thinkers and trying to get them to talk with each other. Some of the conversations are maybe a bit surprising—pairing the biblicist Mennonite pacifist Yoder with the French revolutionary atheist Foucault and then Yoder again with the only slightly less notoriously radical Jacques Derrida.
The essays having Yoder talk with these two Frenchmen are my favorite two in the book. Blum gets a great conversation going, and successfully makes the case in both essays that Yoder has important things in common with the postmodernist icons. Blum asserts (cautiously, as is his wont) that we should welcome many of the emphases of deconstructist thought, especially insofar as they help us appreciate the value of suspicion toward absolutes (intellectual and political) and free us to affirm humanizing praxis over bodies of doctrine.
Yoder joins the postmodernists in rejecting a quest for absolute Truth and for totalizing systems of thought. So there is “a deep kinship” possible between postmodernism (carefully defined) and Anabaptism (especially as embodied in Yoder’s thought—in these essays, the “Anabaptist Thought” of Blum’s subtitle is pretty exclusively Yoder’s thought). That is to say, the intentions of Foucault, Derrida, and (maybe especially) Emmanuel Levinas are more peaceable and constructive than often perceived by Blum’s fellow Christians—and the implications of Yoder’s thought are more unsettling and disorienting than many would expect from a Bible-centered Christian theologian.
The centrality of the Other
This is great stuff. Blum models a kind of irenic style that begins with a commitment to peace (as in biblical shalom, wholeness) and seeks to find help in embodying that commitment wherever it may be found. Blum’s friendly reading of his philosophical interlocutors (to use a favorite term of Yoder’s) leads to numerous insights.
The discussion of Derrida and Yoder brings to the table the crucial notion of relating to the Other—one of the reasons for more relativity in relation to thinking about truth is to allow for actual encounters with those who are different than us. Both Derrida and Yoder center their thought on the reality that only by recognizing the necessity of learning from the differences we have with others might we move toward the deeper understanding that is at the heart of being truly human. Much of modern philosophy as well as many of the practices of Christian churches fail to respect the value of otherness—hence, on-going legacies of terrible violence.
John Caputo’s gracious and perceptive foreword to Blum’s book correctly identifies “peace” (again, “peace” in a profoundly transformative sense) as at the heart of the concern in these essays. Following the discussion of Derrida and Yoder, the middle section of the book, surely to be read as the heart of Blum’s concerns, develop more deeply the significance of respect for the Other and need to resist “totality.”
Blum’s longest and most difficult essay (“Overcoming Relativism? Levinas on Otherness and a ‘Return to Platonism'”) engages the thought of Levinas as a way of grappling with the issue of relativism and an affirmation of the possibility of finding “something like an ultimate (that is, not culturally specific) ‘meaning'” (p. 83). This essay demands careful reading and re-reading. One key point is clear, though: Levinas’s (and Blum’s) assertion of the importance (and possibility) of affirming “the absolute value of the person” (p. 102). This is where our hope lies.
To reinforce (and make more accessible) the point about the need to affirm the existence of the Other as other (and as potential friend), Blum’s following essay, “Otherwise Than Totality: The Openness of Community and a Church to Come,” makes the case for an ecclesiology of hospitality. Such an ecclesiology has at its heart an openness to those outside the community. Such openness to persons rests on an openness to other views of reality. We cannot genuinely have hospitable faith communities so long as we seek to establish “community as totality.” This is a challenge to all attempts to establish doctrinal absolutes as criteria for being the “true church.” We must allow for unsettledness, difference, and even “heresy” (Blum doesn’t use that term here but it is one he likes) in order to be hospitable. And we must be hospitable in order to be truthful (and follows of Jesus should seek to be “truthful,” not to possess the “Truth”).
I wish, though, that Blum’s chapter on Levinas had been revised a bit more. He writes at the beginning that to explore “the philosophical contours of the concept [of the Other] in some depth . . . will involve my most extended departure from the specifically Anabaptist focus of other chapters.” But he also believes this exploration “is (or should be) of particular interest in relation to Anabaptist ecclesiology” (p. 77). I certainly agree that Blum and Levinas on the Other is of immense relevance for Anabaptist (or any other) ecclesiology. But I don’t see why Blum could not have scattered a few paragraphs through the chapter spelling that relevance out more directly.
The Levinas discussion seems crucially important for those who wish to face the challenge of giving their lives to meaningful engagement that helps affirm in practical ways “the absolute value of the person” in the midst of the challenges of cynicism, even nihilism, that characterize much of the postmodern situation. I think Blum does his readers a bit of a disservice in not making this discussion a bit more accessible and applicable.
In general, these essays are written more in a descriptive key than as works of advocacy. The implications for ecclesial and socio-political life are clear and significant, but Blum’s tone is a bit detached from practical concerns (somewhat in contrast with his mentor, John Howard Yoder). The book’s final essay, “Two Cheers for an Ontology of Violence,” concludes with sentiments I found a bit troubling. Blum does critique John Milbank’s acceptance of violence (though too mildly for my tastes), but he ends with this comment: “The point of my ‘two cheers’ for an ontology of violence is not to finalize the choice of one ontology, so much as to warn against finalizing the choice of another” (p. 159). This is a good point—and Blum’s essay does issue this warning effectively.
However, I would have liked a stronger statement. Blum does a nice job of presenting the idea that peace is “impossible” yet still to be aspired to. But, using the title of Peter Marshall’s history of anarchism, I would like to “demand the impossible.” It’s not enough, I suspect, simply to unsettle superficial certainties (including superficially certain pacifism) even while allowing for the relevance of sustaining some ideals. I think we also need more directive and concrete thinking about how to live as pacifists (or anarchists, for that matter) in a world where it is “impossible.”
I quibble, though. I appreciate Blum’s book a great deal—it will help me in my work of trying to figure out how best to demand the impossible.