The Heterodox Yoder?

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The Heterodox Yoder.  By Paul Martens.  Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2012. Pp. 166. $20.

Let me say at the outset that I think this book is wrong in its central argument, profoundly wrong.  However, I also think it is instructive, perhaps importantly instructive in a couple of ways.  So, what is its central argument?

As indicated by the title, Martens’ central claim is not subtle.  It is intended to provoke. However, it is also intended to be precise. “To be as clear as possible at this point,” says Martens early in the book, “I argue that Yoder’s distillation amounts to a complex narration of the early Christian church in primarily ethical terms.  Thus, his narration provides an account of the early church’s particularity (a particularity that eventually earns the title of the politics of Jesus), but, as Yoder’s corpus progresses, his narration of the early church’s particularity eventually—and perhaps unwittingly—advocates an ethical or political particularity that becomes so ‘distilled’ that the defining activities of the early church become abstracted into a general and universalizable, not-particularly-Christian ethic: Jesus becomes merely an ethico-political example or paradigm within a form of ethical monotheism (at best) or a for a form of secular sociology (at worst). This, in my judgment, is a heterodox account of the particularity and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.” (pp. 3-4)

Thus what Martens is arguing is that Yoder’s “theology” is finally reducible to ethics or politics.  Martens unfolds his argument in five chapters, roughly in chronological order.  The first chapter sets up Martens’ interpretive schema.  Engaging various texts in chapters two and three, Martens explores the way Yoder discusses discipleship and church in a way that culminates in “the prioritization of politics,” as announced in the title of chapter three.  The following two chapters attempt to establish—through a discussion of Yoder’s work on Jewish-Christian engagement and ecumenism—that in fact his work following The Politics of Jesus most clearly displays the way in which “the prioritization of politics” or social ethics has become centrally defining for Yoder.  Though Martens believes he has shown that this was always Yoder’s tendency, it has become particularly obvious by the late 1970s to the end of Yoder’s life in 1997 that his ethic is not a “particularly-Christian ethic,” but rather a universalizable ethic for everyone.

Martens’ claim about Yoder reducing theology to ethics is not unique.  What is unique is the scope of the argument and the specific way he makes it.

I’ve come to believe that one of Martens’central methodological moves is misleading.  In his opening chapter he implies that it is only because of privileging a certain inner canon of Yoder writings that some of us can claim Yoder is deeply theological.  We have excluded other writings that would challenge our claims.  This is deceptive in at least two ways.  First, serious Yoder scholars do not exclude any of Yoder’s writings.  However, we do respect the fact that Yoder himself intended some of his writings to be more centrally defining than others. But second, and more significantly, Martens is in fact implying through his use of the image of “the prioritization of politics” that Yoder’s best-known work, The Politics of Jesus is quite properly seen as central.  Because really, according to Martens, this book has announced Yoder’s agenda.  However, having suggested that some of us ignore certain important writings by Yoder, Martens can then claim to have given a more honest portrayal of Yoder’s true theological colors.  And then one of his tasks must be to engage in misdirection so that we forget, e.g., that Yoder said in The Politics of Jesus that his convictions stated there were “more radically Nicene and Chalcedonian than other views.”  That he in fact was affirming “what the church has always said about Jesus as Word of the Father, as true God and true Man” and that Yoder’s effort is simply to show that such claims should “be taken more seriously” when it comes to embodying social ethics.

Only those with extensive knowledge of Yoder’s overall corpus can engage Martens’ detailed argument.  Truly to refute his central claims requires a contextualizing of the many quotations from Yoder’s writings over his career that Martens provides, as well as alternative contextualized quotes that would challenge his claims.  I cannot offer such detailed rebuttal here. But, let me provide a small sample. Martens claims that one can see the “primacy of the ethical . . . especially as we turn to Yoder’s articulation of community.”  However, I would suggest that it is particularly Yoder’s view of the Christian community that shows Yoder’s consistency in not reducing theology to ethics over his whole career, which is in fact precisely why many non-Mennonite critics have seen him as sectarian.

In his 1954 essay, “The Anabaptist Dissent” Yoder was arguing against the dominant view regarding “responsibility” joined to an understanding of justification by grace through faith as merely forensic.  In that context Yoder suggested that we ought not to be “optimistic about either the world’s or the Christian’s goodness.”  However, in Christ Christians know “empowering grace,” so that “we may walk in newness of life.”  This is what sets the church apart, claimed Yoder.  He affirmed this again in his provocative 1960 essay, “The Otherness of the Church,” which he reaffirmed in 1994 by including it in the collection, The Royal Priesthood.  Among other things, here Yoder says, “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church.  The short-circuited means used to ‘Christianize’ ‘responsibly’ the world in some easier way than by the gospel have had the effect of dechristianizing the Occident and demonizing paganism.”  In his book Nevertheless, in both the 1970s and the revision in the 1990s, Yoder distinguished his own understanding of pacifism from the many others described in the book. There he says: “To say that this is the pacifism of the messianic community is to affirm its dependence upon the confession that Jesus is Christ and that Jesus Christ is Lord.”  “Therefore,” says Yoder, “in the person and work of Jesus, in his teachings and his passion, this kind of pacifism finds its rootage, and in his resurrection it finds its enablement.”  In critiques of Reinhold Niebuhr, Constantinianism and H. Richard Niebuhr from the 1950s to the 1990s Yoder would argue that each of these problematic approaches had a distorted view of the church community that denied empowering grace, the power of the Holy Spirit and the regeneration made possible in Christ.

Though I believe Martens is wrong in his central claim, nonetheless there are two reasons why I see the book as helpfully instructive.  First, it helped me to see more clearly the strands within Yoder’s writings that have led some mistakenly to claim that Yoder didn’t believe that true theological convictions mattered that much.  That is to say, he believed that strictly theological matters regarding God, church, Jesus Christ, salvation, etc. are really not that important, except as means to an end; thus they are dispensable means to an end.  Because the true end, really, of Yoder’s central project is a full embracing of progressive politics and peacemaking—in an effort to transform the world over into a religious image of “Democracy Now” (the most progressive political program on NPR).

Second, I have come to agree with Martens that his book is a cautionary tale.  Even more than Martens, James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World, in the midst of a caricaturing portrayal of Yoder and Hauerwas, has nonetheless helped me to see how the “politicization” language of neo-Anabaptism can easily become theologically reductionistic.  I have come to believe—especially with influential writers like Yoder—it is not enough merely to signal reminders of what we should believe (e.g. orthodox beliefs about Jesus and the trinity).  We must continually offer theologically rich accounts of discipleship, social ethics and “politics.”  Similarly, Yoder should have listened more carefully to the cautions of his teacher, Karl Barth, about apologetics.  Yoder knew—especially after the popularity of The Politics of Jesus—that many dismissed him for being sectarian.  Perhaps he worked too hard, or without enough theological carefulness, to demonstrate he was not sectarian.  And thus some of his very language for doing apologetics to convince the cultured despisers could be turned against him.

Sometimes it is helpfully clarifying to have a faulty argument that names important issues, such that it elicits careful, thoughtful critiques.  For this book clarifies the elements of Yoder that have been distortingly drawn upon to make arguments that don’t truly fit Yoder’s central project.  Thus I am hopeful that the more thoughtful critiques of Martens’ book will bring some clarity to some false ways of appropriating Yoder.  (In relation to Martens’ basic argument as presented in earlier essays, I attempted to do this in an essay published last fall: “The ‘Ecumenical’ and ‘Cosmopolitan’ Yoder,” The Conrad Grebel Review (Fall 2011): 73-87.  Already, a quite helpful, 38-page review of Martens’ book has been written by Branson Parlor as an e-booklet, The Forest and the Trees [PDF], followed by an exchange between Martens and Parler in the online book review, The Englewood Review of Books.  Branson Parler’s new book, Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture will also indirectly challenge Martens’ argument.)

A closing thought.  Karl Barth says: “Our contention is, however, that the dogmatics of the Christian Church, and basically the Christian doctrine of God, is ethics.” (CD II/2, 515) Perhaps if we can simply convince those deceptive Barth scholars to quit privileging the Church Dogmatics we could establish that Barth really reduced theology to ethics. It’s just a thought.

(I wrote this a couple of months ago. It will be published in The Mennonite Quarterly Review. When it is published–or when I know it is close to publication–I will remove most of it from here.)


Elections & Idolatry

& Uncategorized.

John Nugent, a young Yoder scholar mentioned here before, has recently written an entry on “nation/nationalism” for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Bible and Ethics.  Out of that research he is writing three blog posts.  The first one has just been posted on his blog, Walk and Word.  The other two will be up within the next few days.  I am sure these will be well worth reading as we head into the national election.


Election Day Communion–Indeed!

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I had been meaning for weeks now to add my affirmation to the effort by Mark Schloneger, Kevin Gasser and Ben Irwin to call for Election Day Communion. (The first two, I am happy to say, are former students; Mark gave me the name for my blog.)  I think this is a wonderful statement—and a good statement to post as we head toward the presidential election.

I am in total agreement with what is stated in their brief set of commitments. And then I hope that churches who use this for framing an election day communion will also keep the following cautions in mind:

Will we, in affirming what this effort calls for, imply that issues at stake in this election are really not that important (because the real issues are spiritual)?

Will we imply that the Christian faith is only about something spiritual and personal/private and politics (education, etc.) is really about something else—those matters that are discussed and decided in the public realm? (“It doesn’t matter who you vote for, as long as you vote,” is one of the many ways this sentiment can be expressed.)

Or do we really believe, as John Howard Yoder put it, that “the church’s responsibility to and for the world is first and always to be the church”?

Do we truly believe, to put it differently, that the church is a theo-political polis?

Will we refuse to employ superficial slogans, such as God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat (while continuing to sound very much like we are committed to one of these secular ideologies)?

And will we truly continue to wrestle with the ways in which our souls and lives are corrupted by accepting these worldly divisions—and thus attempt to allow the gospel of Jesus Christ to shape the whole of our existence, as we seek wisdom and discernment to know what it means to embody this gospel faithfully, yearning to live lives of justice, righteousness, compassion, humility and kindness in the midst of our present culture in the U.S.?

The Naked Anabaptist or Particular Anabaptists?

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This post is offering reflections on the book, The Naked Anabaptist by Stuart Murray.  For a book published by Herald Press, a Mennonite publisher, it has been a fairly popular book, studied within many Mennonite churches in North America.

I love clever, evocative book titles.  What Would Jesus Deconstruct? is one of my favorites.   A well-chosen title concentrates the mind, it acts like intellectual Velcro—attracting pieces of the book that adhere to the images evoked by the title (while mostly leaving behind those that don’t).   I think the word “Naked” linked with the word “Anabaptist” in this title functions this way for many North American Mennonites.  Animated by the cool breezes flowing from the British Isles, The Naked Anabaptist suggests a breath of fresh air.  No stuffy cape-dress, plain-coat traditionalism here.  No unimaginative Bishops destroying people’s lives through repressive restrictions—all in the name of the Mennonite tradition.  No, this is the good stuff: stripped-down Anabaptism, the essence, “the bare essentials of a radical faith,” as the subtitle has it.  Isn’t that what we want?  More importantly, isn’t that what we need for the 21st Century?  Here we have Anabaptist values that are universalizable, exportable to other countries, like post-Christendom England, where Murray resides.  This message can travel the globe. (more…)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer the Assassin? Challenging a Myth, Recovering Costly Grace

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Some of the readers of this blog will be aware that I have been working on a book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  I have been working on this subject off and on for over thirty years.  But I have been working on this project directly, off and on, since my last sabbatical, 2009-2010.  I am as excited about this project as any I have worked on.  As of this morning, August 13, 2012, I submitted the 400-page manuscript to Baker Academic.  Hopefully we will have a book within a year.  I say “we” because I have written this book with two former students, Anthony Siegrist and Daniel Umbel.  The title of the book, named in the caption here, signals the thrust of the book.

I am not going to say more about the book now.  I probably will later.  But for those who want a slight taste of the argument, I will give you a link to an oral lecture I gave in the spring of 2011.  (Feel free to leave comments about the oral lecture here.)

Purposeful Plan: Mennonite or Mennolite?

& Mennonite, Uncategorized.

Note: This essay offers reflections on “The Purposeful Plan,” a document written to guide the Mennonite Church USA some years into the future.  It was discussed at the last national convention in Pittsburgh in 2011It has been or will be discussed by individual Mennonite congregations, by delegates within regional conferences this summer and as I understand it will be discussed by delegates at the national convention next summer in Phoenix.  Below are some of my reflections on the document.  I hope they will generate helpful conversations



“We believe that God is calling Mennonite Church USA

to develop a culture of high expectation for people who call themselves members of the church.

Each church will provide a welcome

to seekers, skeptics, doubters, or explorers

and invite them to become fully committed disciples of Jesus Christ,

meaningfully engaged in God’s mission in the world.”[1]



I love this quote from the “Purposeful Plan” of the Mennonite Church USA.  It names very well why I became an Anabaptist over thirty years ago, got my first Master’s degree at AMBS, became Mennonite and now happily teach at a Mennonite seminary myself.  It also names what I have seen as descriptive of a number of the churches I have been a part of throughout my Christian life, beginning at age 17.  I am always delighted to be a member of a Christian community that holds a vision before us that entails high expectations (while, in the midst of this, offering a broad welcome to potential disciples).  As Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “[The gospel] is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.” Knowing what this means, in its fullness, requires a lifetime.  But that journey is a part of what constitutes the Christian life.

I know that some regional Mennonite conferences will be discussing “the Purposeful Plan” this summer.[2]  And in fact it is specifically designed to shape our conversations about our identity as a Church over the coming years.  I wanted to offer some reflections on the document for two interconnected reasons.  First, I am called to be a theological teacher within our Church.  And second I have some questions about the document.  In a sentence, my concern is that I don’t think the Purposeful Plan, as a whole, articulates the “high expectations” named in the two wonderful sentences I quoted at the top of this page. (more…)

Defending Constantine? A Critical Engagement of Peter Leithart

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Against Christianity and For Constantine:

One Heresy or Two?

Mark Thiessen Nation


Introduction: The Heresy of “Christianity”

Although this paper will focus on some specific critiques of Peter Leithart’s thoughtful and well-researched book, Defending Constantine, I want to begin by naming striking similarities between Leithart’s project and the primary target of his polemic, John Howard Yoder.[1]  Leithart himself identifies some overlap between his position and Yoder’s in Defending Constantine.  However, these similarities are stated even more clearly and provocatively in Leithart’s 2003 book, Against Christianity.[2]

The first 120 pages of Against Christianity are remarkably Yoderian.  There is also a wonderfully provocative freshness of expression in the book that is rhetorically perhaps more akin to Stanley Hauerwas than to Yoder.  In a phrase, the book was claiming, as Yoder had already in 1964, that the church is a polis.[3]  The alternative to this understanding, Leithart says in various provocative ways, is what has become “Christianity.”  In fact, Leithart claims that standard-issue North American Christianity has become heretical.[4]  How so?  “Religion is private: This is the heresy of Christianity in a nutshell.”[5]

Christianity, as a religion, argues Leithart, has reduced the Christian faith to a belief system—to merely “religious” beliefs and practices over against publically relevant convictions that animate political, secular and social practices.  Thus, “Christianity is biblical religion disemboweled and emasculated by (voluntary) intellectualization and/or privatization.”[6] Within this privatized understanding words like “salvation” are at most only tangentially related to the church; they are fundamentally words about one’s private experience.  But of course even if such theological vocabulary were more deeply connected to the church, the understanding of “church” itself has been domesticated.  Church has been reduced to a merely religious entity, assuring us that it has nothing to do with a public social existence.  To fill out his claims further, Leithart offers chapters on theology, sacraments and ethics, showing how the dominant language related to each of these terms—in the context of standard modern understandings—colludes in the privatization, the spiritualizing of religion, thereby rendering what goes by the name of “Christianity” innocuous.

So, what is the alternative according to Leithart?  It is that the church is a polis.  And what does this mean?  It means, on the one hand, that salvation is inherently social; that is to say, “the Church is that social form of salvation.”[7] Since salvation is inherently social this means that those who are members of the body of Christ embody a way of life peculiar to the salvation made available in Christ.  Therefore, “to be a Christian means to be refashioned in all of one’s desires, aims, attitudes, actions, from the shallowest to the deepest.”  “If one is a Christian at all, he or she is (however imperfectly) a Christian from head to toe, inside and out.”[8] All of this implies, in terms of ethics, that “transformation of life is not an implication of the gospel but inherent in the gospel, because the good news is about transformation of life.”[9]

Furthermore this entails that the church as a social body is also a public assembly—as should be apparent in the very word ecclesia.  Thus the church is by definition secular, social and political. It is not some private “religious” club but rather an assembly of those whose lives are formed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Therefore, to proclaim and live the gospel is to be political.[10]

With all of this understood, we will realize, insists Leithart, that the real “competitors” to the Church are not just other religions but nation-states, international bodies, Americanism, and any other ideology that embodies alternative beliefs and practices in the public realm.[11] Here is Leithart at the end of his first chapter:

“The gospel is the announcement that the wall is broken down and therefore the Gentiles are welcomed into the community of the new Israel on the same basis as the Jews; thus the gospel is sociology and international relations.  The gospel is the announcement that God has organized a new Israel, a new polis, the Body of Christ, and that the King has been installed in heaven, at the right hand of the Father; thus the gospel is politics.  The gospel is about the formation of one body in Christ, a body in which each member uses his gifts for the benefit of all, in which each member is prepared to sacrifice his own for the sake of others; thus the gospel announces the formation of a Christian economy in the Church.

The gospel announces a new creation.

The gospel brings nothing less than a new world.

If we are going to stand for this gospel, we must stand against


John Howard Yoder could easily have written these words, as well as many of the other paragraphs in the first 120 pages of this book.  So, what happens between these first four chapters and the last one, which is entitled “For Constantine”—a chapter which is, as it were, a précis for Defending Constantine?

Clues that help to answer this question can be found in the opening paragraphs of Leithart’s response to the critics of his book, Defending Constantine in the October 2011 issue of The Mennonite Quarterly Review.[13]  Leithart began by arguing that the central issue dividing his critics and himself was a disagreement about the gospel.  Two paragraphs later he modified that claim by saying that the disagreement was not so much about the gospel itself but its trajectory. Some comments from Yoder will help us to see that it is both and that ecclesiology is crucial for understanding the link between the two.


All Things to All People?

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In some ways I see my ministry for many years as being “all things to all people.”  But not everything I write speaks to everyone.  That is understandable for many reasons.

I am writing this just now because I will soon be posting two things that will appeal to rather specific audiences.  I am, for instance, soon posting an academic lecture I presented last November (in a somewhat shorter version) at the American Academy of Religion meeting.  This annual meeting is a gathering of nine to ten thousand people (well, it is when it coincides with the Society of Biblical Literature, as it does currently).  This is a meeting mostly of those who teach Religious Studies or Biblical Studies in institutions of higher education. There are hundreds of sessions.  Mine was presented in a session that dealt with a newish book called Defending Constantine by Peter J. Leithart.

A friend of mine tells me that  posts on blogs should really be no longer than 750-1000 words.  I’m sure he’s right.  But I also know that some academics post much longer essays.  That is what I will be doing when I post my essay on Defending Constantine.  Also, since this essay is slated to be published sometime over the coming year, I will remove it when it is published (or a bit before; I’m still learning).

Also in coming weeks I will publish some reflections on “The Purposeful Plan,” a document intended to help provide guidance for the Mennonite Church, U.S.A.  I realize this set of reflections may have little relevance to non-Mennonites.  Although I think in an illustrative way it might.  Opinions on that would vary.

Naming What Unites Us

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The well-known theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer met Karl Barth, a theologian that had deeply influenced him, for the first time in July of 1931.  He loved his lectures.  But even more he was taken with Barth the engaging conversationalist over dinner.  He reported on the conversation in a letter to a friend of his, Erwin Sutz.  “He is really fully present,” said Bonhoeffer.  “I have never seen anything like it nor thought it possible.”  He mentioned in the letter that Barth was concerned about Bonhoeffer’s over-emphasis on grace.  Barth said that Bonhoeffer “was making grace into a principle and was bludgeoning everything else to death with it.”  Ever since first reading this letter I have wondered if Bonhoeffer would have written The Cost of Discipleship if he had not had this conversation with Barth.

Whether it was this exchange that spawned the idea or something else, I’ve come to realize that Bonhoeffer’s problem was hardly unique.  I have come to believe that one of the things that goes wrong in many conversations that relate to moral issues—especially contentious issues, though not just them—is that we too often over-emphasize ONE thing.  We do this either because this one thing matters a great deal to us or it simplifies matters.  But the simplification too often over-simplifies, reducing something genuinely complex to something simplistic.  Thus we too effectively bludgeon “everything else to death with it,” that is with the ONE over-emphasized word, concept or point.

Therefore I wrote an article for the most recent issue of The Mennonite, the official magazine for The Mennonite Church U.S.   It is called “Naming What Unites Us.”

Yoder’s Legacy Will Continue: I Can Die in Peace (Discussing Three New Books on Yoder)

& Yoder.

Stanley Hauerwas is the most famous convert to pacifism John Howard Yoder ever made.  Hauerwas tells the story of how he discovered Yoder in a bookstore at Yale.  There in the late 1960s he found a mimeographed copy of Yoder’s 1957 essay on Barth that became the 1970 book, Karl Barth and the Problem of War.  He was immediately taken with Yoder’s sophisticated analysis, but resisted some of the implications.  When Hauerwas joined the Notre Dame faculty a few years later he sought out Yoder, met with him and took away a stack of unpublished writings and was on his way to having his theology and life transformed.  The stack included writings that became The Politics of Jesus.

In the first edition of the first volume of his systematic theology, Ethics, Jim McClendon, my doctoral supervisor, says: “Nineteen seventy-four, I believe, was the year I read John Yoder’s Politics of Jesus.”  This is his way of signaling that Yoder also transformed his theology, culminating in the way he approached the task of writing a systematic theology.

My own story is that I became a pacifist within a year of becoming a Christian in a General Baptist church.  I registered as a conscientious objector in 1971.  Something like five years later I read The Politics of Jesus, followed within the next couple of years by three other books by Yoder.  As I see it Yoder helped me to begin to integrate my theology with my ethics.  Having become conscious of, and actively engaged in, issues related to peace and social justice, it was through my reading of Yoder (along with a growing list of authors) that I was helped in integrating my convictions with my life in the church—and discerning how that life related to my witness in the world.  As I see it now, Yoder set me on a theological path that I have been on consistently since the mid-1970s.  In other words, I was becoming an Anabaptist (and many years later, a Mennonite).

That beginning part of my journey—in the Christian faith and a little later with Yoder’s writings—was a long time ago.  I would later study with Yoder, read most of his writings—the most central ones many times—and become a friend of his.  I decided to write my doctoral thesis on him, which was published as a book.  I have edited or co-edited several of his books. And I have now written more than a dozen essays, and about as many reviews, directly related to Yoder’s work.

I’ve been aware for some time that the stories of Hauerwas, McClendon and my own are hardly isolated cases.  Yoder has been of similar importance to many.  And in fact, in recent years, his influence has only increased. I am incredibly grateful personally for this.  I’ve also seen it as a part of my vocation for some time now to perpetuate the influence of Yoder (and Hauerwas, which is a story for later).  Since I attempt (mostly) to keep up on the vast secondary literature on Yoder’s writings, I am keenly aware of various readings and appropriations of Yoder.  In fact within the last decade or so it has been interesting to watch the varied—and competing—streams emanating from Yoder’s writings.  In the midst of this cacophony of readings of Yoder, I have seen it as a responsibility to honor Yoder by keeping alive what I believe are the core—crucial and revolutionary—insights of his. This sometimes requires offering critiques as well as pointing readers to very helpful writings.  This is the reason for this post.