Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Question About Yoder's Supposed Influence and Current Graduate Theological Programs

There seems to be a sense, generalized among those in top-tier seminaries and schools of theology, and especially among those who worry about Stanley Hauerwas, that the influence of John Howard Yoder is prevalent and powerful in the academy, in students, and so on.

I have recently come to seriously question this judgment. Other than Duke -- and there, more or less confined to Hays and Hauerwas, the former now dean and the latter soon to be retired -- is there another top flight theological program with any identifiable slant in Yoder's direction? Are there even such schools with prominent individual Yoderians?

I am thinking: Yale, Princeton (x2), Chicago, Harvard, Virginia, Union, Vanderbilt, Emory, Drew, Notre Dame, Marquette, SMU, GTU, and so on -- do any of these have a Yoderian strand, leaning, or even openness? Would it not rather be more correct to say that an interest in or preference for Yoderian study is, at best, a neutral self-identification in relation to these schools but possibly, at worst, a strike against one's attractiveness as a potential student or professor?

(This is not even to mention the situation with schools in the U.K.)

If my reading of the situation is correct, why is this so? Is it mostly bound up with anti-Hauerwasian concerns? Is it a reaction to Yoder's popularity? Is Yoder (or are Yoderian scholars) perceived as too "something" for these schools -- sectarian, pacifist, political, apolitical, evangelical, biblicist, radical, non-methodological, apocalyptic, white male, or some such other institutional liberal allergy?

Or, perhaps, I am over-reading or misrepresenting the matter. Rebukes and/or amens are welcome as appropriate.

15 comments:

  1. His views are too out of sync (sp?) for our age, I think. Sadly.

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  2. I can't think of anyone who works with Yoder in particular at Chicago, but I imagine one could work with faculty on Yoder so long as a Yoderian position didn't obstruct serious critical engagement with other folks as well. He is not listed as required on our Theological Ethics exam reading list (see here), but he is listed as a recommendation for a section of the exam where you have to pick two thinkers and examine their work (although if you're planning on doing a diss. on Yoder, you may be discouraged from focusing on him in your exams too much). I don't think there's a predisposition to look down on someone who's interested in Yoder, though. Your only hurdle would probably be to convince an admissions committee that your project makes sense with the faculty, so you'll need to tie in Yoder's significance with other things to justify its relevance for a prospective advisor (Elshtain has done stuff on just war, for instance... not Yoderian, but one could easily imagine how Yoder's thought would fall within the realm of her research interests. Other examples are surely present).

    I do think (and this comment is not about Yoder, but rather a more general one) that you are wise to be cautious about assuming what is or is not important in the theological academy today. I think the theological blogosphere is a perfect place for schools of thought or personalities to increase exponentially in significance, in a way that doesn't at all reflect the actual academy and can offer distorting impressions if one isn't careful. And that's not to say that what's popular or counts as an adequate line of reasoning in the theological blogosphere isn't good or worth pursuing... it's just to say that highly productive and spirited conversations amongst largely like-minded people can create an unreliable sense of normativity concerning what the "live issues" are in theology today.

    [for context, I'm a 1st year doctoral student in theology at UChicago and don't have much experience with Yoder myself]

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  3. In general, you read Vanderbilt correctly. However, Lindsey had a class last semester that assigned a Yoder reading. And I know a handful of students who are Yoder enthusiasts who get by. But Yoder by no means represents the popular spirit of the place. But that doesn't mean he's entirely squelched.

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  4. Baylor. Paul Martens' book on Yoder comes out this Fall, and there's a number of folks (myself included) who do work with him.

    But, generally, you're right--once Hauerwas retires, there's a void.

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  5. Before responding individually, I should clarify myself: I don't mean this post as a personal bemoaning, such that *if only* there were people to work with on Yoder. Nor do I mean it as an explicit critique -- if true, it doesn't mean that there is anything bad or negative going on, just that there aren't too many "higher up" scholars working on Yoder. I only noticed it and wanted to open up others to respond because I myself am working on him, and found myself surprised by what seemed to be the case.

    Myles,

    You're right to remind me of Baylor, which I continue to hear marvelous things about. Baylor didn't make my "tops" list, of course, but not having to do with the quality of the program, only its reputation/status. But realizing that Martens, Tran, and Harvey are all there is a good reminder that some solid Yoderian folk are working together.

    (I also didn't mention Fuller, but with Stassen and Murphy, among others, there, I assume Yoder is not an untouchable name.)

    Andrew,

    I want to be clear that I wasn't meaning to impugn any programs for not housing Yoderians, and Vandy is a perfect example, with Nate Kerr having done his dissertation on Yoder under Paul DeHart, who is not himself particularly interested in Yoder (by self-admission).

    Evan,

    If I seemed to suggest that I was coming from a place of comparison between the blogosphere and scholarship, I certainly did not intend to. What provoked me was not how many bloggers love Yoder (though they, myself included, are legion), but rather how enormously well-known and responded-to Yoder was in his forty years of work. At least half a dozen books are out merely comprising essays engaging his work, and another half dozen (likely more unpublished) are dissertations comparing him with others. Not to mention the fact that he was engaged in practical matters of peace, ecumenical dialogues, and taught at a prominent Catholic university. And finally, since most people know Hauerwas, everyone knows Yoder's name, at least, by that route.

    Having noted all that, my question was simply: Apart from Duke, are there any identifiable schools (in both the institutional sense and that of "schools of thought") which house a serious Yoderian scholar or contingent of scholars? Or: If one were a serious Yoder scholar, where (other than Duke) would one first look? Does anywhere prominent come to mind?

    Myles suggested Baylor, which seems right. My only question -- coming from a place of sincere wondering -- is whether there is anywhere else; and if not, why is that?

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  6. I realized that my post was both blogosphere oriented and application oriented, though I don't think your original question necessarily implied either of those vantage points. I thought those angles might be common/helpful ways of looking at the problem, that's all. And again, I'm not trying to pit the blogosphere against the academy in any way... I think theology blogs are a particularly fertile place for academic discussion of theology, and probably relevant to the sort of "generalized sense" that you speak of at the beginning of your post. But no, I didn't think that you were suggesting anything about the blogosphere in particular or that my response hit at your question directly.

    Hopefully my comments on Chicago helped to give a sense of a school that I take to be not especially Yoderian, as well as a sense of how working on/with Yoder might look at a place like Chicago.

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  7. ...also, from your mention of Yoder's oeuvre (and that of Yoder scholars), I should clarify in case it wasn't clear that I wasn't at all trying to dismiss the importance of Yoder for the "real" world of scholarship (as opposed to the blogosphere) or for certain "relevant" institutions (as opposed to an out-crowd). I was simply saying that impressions of the state of the discipline as practiced in schools throughout the US and further can be deceiving based on smaller circles of conversation, and that this is no more true of Yoder than it is of someone like Lonergan (perhaps one of the best comparisons that could be made w.r.t. his strong presence in some places and lack of any presence in others). I take it I was agreeing with you on this, too, and affirming what you said about coming to "seriously question this judgment [of Yoder's broad reception in theology programs].

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  8. Evan makes a good point--the same statement could be made of a variety of folks at the places Brad mentions.

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  9. That has to be the most self-evident comment I've ever made. Let me try to recover here:

    One possible approach to your quandry might be to explore what openness there might be Yoder through the ethics of various faculty. Case in point: you probably won't have much luck with Lovin at SMU or with Elshtain at Chicago, in their commitments to various forms of realism. You may have more hope with, say, Duff at PTS or with Steve Long at Marquette. Neither of them particularly work on Yoder, but their commitments lead toward, rather than actively away from, an openness to his work.

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  10. Brad, considering the fact that Yoder only died 10-15 years ago, I'd say his presence in the academy is pretty strong. For instance, compare Yoder to a guy like Jenson who has had a pretty major impact on theology over the past few decades (arguably more so than Yoder); can you think of a single school with a resident Jensonian? Certainly the connection with Hauerwas is a strong one and turns a lot "academic" theologians off from Yoder, but it also seems to me that it is pretty remarkable just how active Yoder interpretation has been over the past decade, perhaps especially in its relative independence from Hauerwas. I think it's helpful to remember that most of the scholars who are doing work on Yoder are young and they're in smaller universities that don't have PhD programs. The one exception here is Baylor; but you could also do some work on Yoder with Michael Baxter at Notre Dame I would think.


    @ Myles, Steve Long strikes me as the farthest thing from Yoder and I would doubt he'd have much time for him.

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  11. Myles and Ry,

    That seems right. I don't want to sound petulant or blind to the undeniable fact that Yoder continues to have significant influence 13 years after his death and that most programs would be open to some sort of engagement with him, which means that they take him seriously as a thinker.

    Time's up, more on this later.

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  12. Who are we talking about at PTS? Hunsinger?

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  13. Hey Brad,

    I think you're right on two counts: many people feel that Yoder has a significant influence in contemporary theo-ethical scholarship, and there are very few serious scholars in doctoral programs working on Yoder.

    In my opinion, the reason for this take on his significance is 1) the significance of Hauerwas in the field today, 2) the explosion of Yoder scholarship that has been published in the last decade, and 3) the significant numbers of relatively young faculty, many who studied w/ Hauerwas, in smaller liberal arts colleges which may represent the breakdown in doctoral programs in the next generation. As to your second point, it definitely seems to me that Hauerwas and Stassen are the most significant people who work on his thought. I'm not aware of anyone else, and haven't heard much about the Baylor folks...

    I think R.O. Flyer's analysis is correct - it's quite astonishing how quickly Yoder has become part of the "canon." In my two years of coursework here at Emory in Christian Ethics I've been in courses that have taken Yoder seriously in two seminars (one in Christian Social Ethics and one in a War and Peace seminar), and it is not uncommon for him to be on an exam reading list. (Generally speaking, the ethos at Emory has him listed with Rauschenbusch, Niebuhr's, King, Gustafson, Ramsey, and Hauerwas as the most influential American Christian ethicists.) Also, the general perception here is that if one is interested in that type of work one should use Yoder and be skeptical of Hauerwas. His thought is definitely respected and taken seriously in this program.

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  14. Brad,

    Good discussion here. I would have put Fuller on the (initial) list; but, of course, I am biased. In my M.Div. and doctoral work there, Yoder figured prominently. And while that is largely because of Stassen, I think that his influence will alter the trend that you (rightly) identify. At least, I hope so.

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