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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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Medieval mysticism is replete with saints meditating upon, even entering, the wounds of the body of Christ. Having worked through the entirety of this book, I can now relate. For indeed, the wounding of Christ's body is the figurative truth that seems to unify Radner's alarming rhetoric. "Division is bound to the Lord of life himself …. What is unity? It is not something that can cleanse itself of division, since if it is a unity of love, it is born of division and bound to division." Division, furthermore, "is the central part of the history of the Church as a whole and in its parts." Though he does not put it quite this way, Radner's "robust 'somatic' ecclesiology" includes the wounds. Somehow this scrambles our traditional theological categories:

In this life that is God's, any Anglican—or Roman Catholic or Methodist or Lutheran—can be Pentecostal; any Catholic Protestant can be an evangelical Protestant; any member of one church can be a member of another church that has separated from the first; any Roman Catholic can be a Protestant. Any Christian can do this, not because standards of truth have been cast away, but because the standards can be suffered, in their very contradiction by the place where he or she will go with Jesus.

As this suggests, Radner is after some kind of sacrificial knowing, and his postliberal formation at Yale under George Lindbeck here certainly shows. Could we call this a saving compromise? Radner (unsatisfyingly) answers this question with more questions: "But compromise with what? With truth? With unity itself? No: the compromise was long effected by the Church and churches through their catastrophic indolence." Nor is this an attempt to evade institutional necessity: "There are no anti-institutional 'strategies' for the Church. For bodies cannot take as their presupposition that they have no form." We are bound to those forms—Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox—and to the forms of the democracies most of us inhabit as well. We can escape from none of them, neither from our ecclesial divisions to safer communions, nor from our national situations to purer places.

Radner has done his best to seal off all the exits and force us to come to terms with his unpleasant thesis. Surely more objections could easily arise (from Cavanaugh especially), and one can imagine Protestant and Catholic responses that defend the church's traditional ecclesiologies, all less cruciform than Radner's. Radner may be right to distance himself from the traditional use of Mary as a figure for the church which, because of the doctrine of her sinless conception, has justified Catholicism's presumably immaculate "Church as such." But there are other ways of thinking of Mary's figural relation to the church that are left unexplored. And where is the theme—so prominent in church history, including Calvin—of the church as mother? I imagine Radner's answer here would be that our mother is a whore.

An Anglican critic might impolitely suggest that Radner's determination to stay Episcopalian has affected him to the point that he has inadvertently written the ultimate Episcopalian theology: inclusion at any cost. If unity "lunges in an almost annihilating direction with respect to diversity," should orthodox Christians cease saying the Nicene Creed in solidarity with the Arians they once rejected? Hopefully this is not the "sacrifice of conscience" for which Radner repeatedly calls. I wonder if there is enough traction left in Radner's truth claims to let him name supercessionism the heresy that it may be. Is "Epiphanian" exclusion, furthermore, not already present in the New Testament itself (2 Tim. 4:3-4; I Cor. 5:2; Matt. 18:15-17; 1 John 4:1-6)? And yet, of all the things one can say about this book, to say it is unscriptural is not one of them. A Brutal Unity is biblically saturated in its substance, scope, and penitential shape. Having eaten Radner's book, my stomach is bitter—but the Old Testament has never been more alive. And one verse from the New—interpreted figurally—seems to summarize Radner's thrust, whether applied to our own fractured churches (of whatever communion) or to the liberal state itself: "Paul said to the centurion and the soldiers, 'Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved'" (Acts 27:31).

Let the figural interpretation continue: When David was insulted and pelted by Shimei of the house of Saul, David's companions rallied to his defense, threatening to decapitate his adversary. David's response surprised them. Permit Shimei's harangue, he told them, for "If he is cursing because the Lord said to him, 'Curse David,' who then shall say, 'Why have you done so?'" (2 Sam. 16:10). In the same way, as much as Radner frustrates and unnerves me, I hesitate to defend ecclesiology as I know it from his reproof, lest his message also be God's. That said, most of us will prefer the lying prophets of feel-good ecumenism (1 Kings 22:22) to this Micaiah. They tell us our divisions are good; "everybody gets a prize, for each church carries a special 'charism.'" But Radner refuses to stir up another tonic to settle our stomachs. Instead, he swallows the gall of ecclesial realism to the dregs: "It is not only the case that the Church is fallible, but that the Church is actually deformable, pervertible, turning into the contradiction of her own claims." On that note, can somebody please pour me a drink?

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