Fall 2014 · Vol. 43 No. 2 · pp. 274–276 

Book Review

The Trace of the Face in the Politics of Jesus: Experimental Comparisons Between the Work of John Howard Yoder and Emmanuel Levinas

John Patrick Koyles. Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2013. 150 pages.

Reviewed by Maxwell Kennel

In this book, John Koyles explores connections between John Howard Yoder and French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas. The book begins by making a case for opening up Yoder’s work to future connections with other thinkers, traditions, and scholarly disciplines. Koyles is both honest about Yoder’s hesitations about philosophical language and courageous in his attempt to push past Yoder’s fear that Christocentrism would be compromised by interdisciplinarity. Referring to Yoder’s concept of “middle axioms” (common reference points for communication between church and world) in The Christian Witness to the State, Koyles suggests that “What the Christian tradition does can be communicated across its boundaries to the outside world in terms that make sense without jeopardizing the Christian nature of that practice” (4).

Framing his work as an experiment in seeking new connections, Koyles begins chapter 1 by examining Yoder’s hermeneutics and attitudes towards methodology and his concept of “revolutionary subordination.” Agreeing with Yoder that “methodologism” is a path to absolutism and superiority, Koyles affirms plurality and complexity but rejects the skepticism and relativism that often accompany them (17). It is clear, however, that he is unprepared to accept Yoder’s declaration that “the turn to philosophical materials [is] a way of extinguishing all conversation” (27). Koyles’s book is inspired by the possibility that philosophical materials can in fact significantly and fruitfully stimulate theological conversation. The Trace of the Face is therefore both an implicit and explicit critique of Yoder’s attitude towards philosophy.

Whereas chapter 1 describes several aspects of Yoder’s theology, chapter 2 presents several angles on the charge of sectarianism often levelled against Yoder. Koyles covers criticisms of Yoder from James Gustafson {275} (on Yoder’s rejection of philosophy), A. James Reimer (on Yoder’s suspicion of metaphysics and creedal formulations), and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza (on the weaknesses of revolutionary subordination in light of power imbalance). Chapter 3 then engages Yoder’s supporters: Craig Carter (and his critique of Reimer), Stanley Hauerwas (and his connections with Romand Coles and Alasdair MacIntyre), and Chris Huebner (and his work on Yoder’s dialogical vulnerability).

In chapter 4, Koyles offers a counterpoint to the critical perspectives of the previous chapter and disagrees in particular with Huebner’s rejection of the idea that Levinas is a valuable conversation partner for Yoder. Having refuted arguments that dismiss a connection between Yoder and Levinas, Koyles proceeds to advance scholarly discourse on the relationship between pacifism and nonviolence and metaphysics and ontology. In what is undoubtedly the heart of the book, Koyles brilliantly reflects on Levinas’s critique of ontology vis-à-vis Yoder’s concepts of methodologism and revolutionary subordination, building on their complex but mutual affirmation of kenosis (self-emptying) as a key category.

Koyles describes how Levinas critiques ontology for its all-encompassing purview and its expectation that all discourses should justify themselves before it (94). He points out that for Levinas “The comprehension achieved by ontological thinking is brought about by resolving the difference between the same and the other through a neutral middle term” (95). This middle term tends to reduce the “encounter” between the same and the other, often by reducing the otherness of the other to the sameness of the same (96). Levinas’s critique maintains that no self should think itself able to entirely grasp the other in perception or thought. In fact, the distance between the same and the other is what makes dialogue possible, and this distance generates “the possibility of thought and language” (97). The ontological framework corresponds to the tendency to ignore the radical difference between the self and the other, and according to Koyles, “This reduction is a violent grasping of the other person” (99). Levinas sees these violent tendencies in the way that reductive ontological thinking conditions the experience of encountering the other, face to face. The point for Levinas is not that ontology should be done away with, but rather that ethics is the best way to do ontology.

Koyles picks up on the resonance of this critique with Yoder’s thought and matches Levinas’s affirmation of our responsibility for the other with Yoder’s critique of efficacy (111). Koyles sees this connection as resting upon a shared understanding of kenosis as an ethical rather than an ontological category (110). For Yoder, God’s self-emptying into the particularity of a human being involves an ethical and political vision, and for Levinas kenosis can be located in his Jewish tradition in a way that {276} both names the suffering of the Holocaust and resists supersessionism and Christian idleness in face of their neighbors’ oppression (109). In my view, the connection between Levinas’s critique of ontology and Yoder’s critique of efficacy is strong without the more tenuous connection between their understandings of kenosis, but at least Koyles’s discussion of the term does not weaken his argument substantially.

The Trace of the Face joins the work of Chris Huebner, Peter Blum, Jamie Pitts, and Daniel Barber, who also see an affinity between Yoder’s theology and Continental philosophy. Koyles’s book is a valuable addition in that it offers a cohesive account from start to finish, unlike the essay collections published on the topic to date. Its prime weakness is that it focuses more on the possibility of a rapport than on developing it in detail. Even so, the book in many ways exceeds other work on Yoder and the philosophical tradition, and should be regarded as a rich contribution to this sub-discourse of Anabaptist Mennonite theology.

Maxwell Kennel is a Master of Theological Studies student at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario.