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A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
Ephraim Radner
Baylor University Press, 2012
500 pp., $49.95

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Matthew Milliner


Lenten Reading

How the church has betrayed Christ.

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It is not (so far as I can tell) that Radner disagrees with, for example, the Council of Chalcedon. Rather, he begrudges any appeal to providence that would gloss the savagery surrounding such councils. This leads to one of the book's most fruitful insights, as Radner takes on John Henry Newman's conclusion that the Miaphysites—by demurring from Chalcedon—were on the wrong side of history. Indeed, Newman's 1845 conversion to Catholicism was clinched with the realization that he, as an Anglican, was in the place of the Miaphysites, that is to say, a branch cut off from the church's main trunk. But Radner shows how Newman's view of Christian disunity cannot take account of the astonishing progress that has been made in recent reconciliation of the Non-Chalcedonian communities, where both parties cautiously admit there to have been misunderstanding. This does indeed, it seems to me, erode a facile appeal to providence (while not, we can hope, ruling out providence itself). It is, furthermore, an argument to which we should be especially sensitive considering the current plight of Miaphysite Christians in Egypt. I might add here that Newman's epithet for Geneva (i.e., Reformed Christianity) as having "ended in skepticism" can make little sense of the orthodox resurgence of Reformed thinkers like Karl Barth.

Having blocked off self-serving appeals to providence—even going so far (too far, I think) as to compare them to ethnic cleansing—Radner takes aim at his next target: The notion that due procedure is a harbinger of true unity. In discussing the variegated history of Conciliarism, he discerns a "proceduralist turn," or "the reduction of truth to procedural agreement." Radner traces the source of our naïve faith in the ballot box with lengthy and fascinating reassessments of Nicholas of Cusa, Henry of Navarre, and Thomas Hobbes, concluding that Conciliarism's pneumatic hope defaulted to process, and that the process failed. From the ashes of this defeat (to summarize a vast argument), the phoenix of liberalism emerges, with neologisms like "conscience" and "solidarity" in its wings: "The liberal state is not the antithesis of the Christian Church, but it nonetheless was partially driven, in its evolution, by the Church's failures of integrity …. [T]he Church's failures stand as a mirror image of the state's incapacities."

Following this geneology of liberalism, the book is then infused with bibliographic steroids. In addition to historical theology, Radner draws upon sources as varied as game theory, linguistics, neuro-science, and the literature of conflict resolution. But this is not mere strutting, for his purpose is clear: "Schism, heresy, discipline, fracture, discord negotiation, consensus, decision making, and reconciliation as practical forms of life bound up with diverse meanings and social constraints—all these have been studied with far greater care by sociologists than by the Church's theologians." Can we not see, argues Radner, that divisions have rendered Christian churches useless in evaluating human interaction? And this is why the world's effort at conflict resolution judges the church:

[T]o engage such study as a Christian demands new humility that is not easily assumed, for it would expose the actual human dynamics that order ecclesial relations as frequently primary, and only masquerading as divine imperatives, gussied up by appeals to the Spirit and slothful and self-serving prophecies of pneumatic providence.

One thinks here of the summer assemblies—familiar to so many Mainline Protestants—that assume the winds of the Spirit can be harnessed with a majority vote.

Having dismissed a sweep of Christian history, one expects from Radner some kind of way forward, a revamping of what consensus-seeking might look like—something that can avoid the "procedural providentialism" that has been so unsuccessful. What he actually offers, however, is frustratingly elusive, however pious: Christian self-giving, "kenotic pragmatism," or simply the Beatitudes. "One would pray for the multiplication of pastors of unity such as this, and for their overwhelming of the structural political order that is its inadequate although inescapable shadow."

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