Scholars Debate Radner’s Latest
  • Tuesday, December 3, 2013

By Eugene R. Schlesinger

In The End of the Church Ephraim Radner deployed figural exegesis to show that the divided Church is a dead Church, deprived of the Holy Spirit, corresponding to Jesus’ own dead, deprived, and broken body on the cross. In his latest book, A Brutal Unity, Radner contends that the divided Church is murderous, complicit in all sorts of violence, such as the Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust. To curb these violent tendencies, God has raised up the liberal state, which at once judges the Church’s failures and shows something of what she has failed to be: a people that embraces her enemies, like Christ himself does with Judas and the rest of us.

On November 25, a panel at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion discussed Radner’s elegiac and provocative book. Convened by Timothy J. Furry of Cranbook Educational Community, a former student of Radner’s, the panel consisted of Francesca Aran Murphy (University of Notre Dame), William T. Cavanaugh (DePaul University), Paul Hinlicky (Roanoke College), and Peter Ochs (University of Virginia). That Radner offers pointed critiques of Cavanaugh’s work, particularly The Myth of Religious Violence, made this a lively panel indeed, and Radner was present to respond.

Francesca Murphy began not by addressing herself to A Brutal Unity but rather by offering her own critique of Cavanaugh’s work. She commended Radner for countering Cavanaugh’s “bizarre thesis” in works such as Torture and Eucharist and The Myth of Religious Violence. She contends that this thesis leads to a sort of “ecclesiological dualism,” which lets Christians off the hook for their misdeeds. Religious violence is very real, she said, and it is absurd not to hold Christians in particular to a higher standard amid this violence. Simply put: it is more scandalous for a Christian to engage in violence than someone with no Christian commitment. Cavanaugh’s account, she feared, flattens this out into an undifferentiated sameness.

Murphy had her own criticisms of A Brutal Unity: Radner refuses to abstract the ideal of the Church away from her concrete, sinful instantiation. But don’t we always do this for our loved ones? Don’t we love them for the ideal of who they are in the eyes of God, their deepest self, all the while acknowledging their faults? Going further, we need to ask the question of who the Church is; who it is who is so ideally lovely. Mary, the Immaculate Mother of God and mother of us all, is this person who is so loved.

Cavanaugh, as one might expect, devoted himself to defending his work, yet made it clear that he was not attempting to “agree to disagree,” but rather to “disagree to agree.” He demonstrated that several of the ways Radner characterized his work cannot be substantiated by a fair reading of his book. It is not that there is no such thing as religious violence. Rather, the sort of violence carried out in the name of political or economic commitments is no less “religious” (the proper term is idolatrous). It is not “essentially different” or “inherently more troubling” than religious violence. Christians in the West are indeed guilty of violence, Cavanaugh contended, but they kill only for the nation-state, and it is this which he tries to unmask in his book. Cavanaugh’s fear is that Radner, with his endorsement of the liberal solution to religious violence, might allow Christians to blind themselves to this fact.

Hinlicky turned away from disagreements and offered a self-described irenic reflection, focusing on Radner’s proposal that Christian unity can only be enacted by the sacrifice of conscience. Because it is historically demonstrable that the Church cannot agree its way to unity, Radner contends that Christian unity is only enacted when one suspends conscientious positions for the sake of remaining near others. This is amounts to a refusal to allow conscience to abridge unity. This refusal is grounded in Jesus Christ’s own sacrifice of conscience, his own drawing near to sinners. This is the shape of history, of our being caught along in the wake of Christ’s redemptive movement. Liberalism’s hegemony is a loving judgment upon the Church, meant to humble it, and to show it where it has failed to embrace the other, the enemy, the sinner.

Hinlicky registered two “perplexities” at this proposal. First, is this sacrifice of conscience, rooted in Christ’s sacrifice, not itself conscientious? Isn’t it simply the sacrifice of all idolatrous allegiances, rendering them subordinate to the gospel? Second, given this Christ-centered grounding, isn’t this sort of sacrifice contestable? Might not someone demur from it? If so, does that not make it just as likely to divide as to unite?

Peter Ochs, reflecting on his own Jewish tradition, compared Radner’s view of the Church’s relation to the world to the relation between Sabbath and six days of work. The Sabbath, replete with more light than any other day, sharing in the glorious light of the coming great day, is nevertheless more like working days than one might think. They are not contradictions but rather contrary; they are not the same, but they do not preclude or exclude one another. Similarly, the Church is filled with heavenly light, but is itself quite worldly. Radner’s Church is earthy, with all that entails, for good or for ill. Ochs appealed to the image of Jesus walking on the soil of the liberal state. The liberal state is indeed the environment in which the Church lives, but the Church’s Savior moves through this environment: touching it, changing it, and doing his redemptive work.

According to Ochs, Radner has resituated both liberalism and the Church not as contradictions, but as creatures. What if, instead of fighting, they were to speak to one another? A Brutal Unity represents, in his opinion, the most adequate grounding of postliberal theology since Hans Frei’s much-lauded work, but Radner has grounded it in a thoroughly christological and pneumatological manner. Radner provides a doctrine of scriptural hermeneutics focused not on deriving propositional content but on reading and rereading (and so on) the biblical text, to discern and join the movement of Christ through history.

In his response, Radner addressed himself to each panelist, conceding some points and clarifying others. Most importantly, he noted that A Brutal Unity is about the Church and the Church’s unity. This is the central argument. Everything else, from arguments about liberalism to forays into marital dynamics or language acquisition, was meant to serve this point. All else is subsidiary. This is what tends to be eclipsed as reviewers focus on this or that detail. The Church cannot agree her way to unity, and so if a true Christian unity is to be found it must be found otherwise. And this other basis of unity is the unity given in Christ; it is the sacrifice of conscience. This is something we all do in our daily lives. It’s not just something we should do, but what we actually do. Moreover, it is something we will do as Jesus takes us along where he is going: to the embrace of sinners.

Surely there is a deeper and true unity than what we perceive, but we do not have a window into it. Indeed, whenever we think we can see it clearly, we make excuses for ourselves and fail to grapple with our complicity in violence, which is not only idolatry but also blasphemy. People are suspicious of the Church these days, says Radner, and rightly so. And this is just what St. Paul said would be the case: “For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you’” (Rom. 2:24). We don’t know what this unity looks like, but only that it looks like Jesus.

We are not devoted to the Church because it is loveble, according to Radner, but because it is loved, even if we cannot account for why or how this is so. Christ loves us as sinners, not as future angels. The Church as such is not other than its members as such. And these members are sinners. The Church, personified as Mary, may not be the Immaculate Bride we understand ourselves to be, but fundamentally the Marian Church is loved. Ought not we, therefore, love her as well?

Eugene R. Schlesinger is a graduate theology student at Marquette University.

Image of Ephraim Radner by Sue Careless


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