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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
488 pp., $49.95

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Matthew Milliner


Lenten Reading

How the church has betrayed Christ.

Imagine (as if we have to) a cantankerous public debate between a Christian and one of the new atheists. After the predictable sparring over whether or not God exists, the dispute takes its historical turn. The atheist recites the great litany of ecclesial sins—ways that the church has elicited or even sponsored violence. The Christian then comes to faith's defense, relaying as much of William Cavanaugh's The Myth of Religious Violence as a pithy sound bite allows. But what if, rather than defending the church, the Christian goes off script, replying instead with a range of accusations against Christians that surpass what the atheist has offered, thereby transforming the debate into an act of public penance? Gone is the fear that Christianity might not be true (one that gives rise to so much nervously animated apologetics). Replacing it is a different fear—and a profound sense of disorientation. Such might be the performance of Ephraim Radner, professor of historical theology at the University of Toronto's Wycliffe College, were he to pinch-hit for the latest defender of the faith. Or so we can gather from his latest publication, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church.

Penitential scenarios like this have been conjured before—in Donald Miller's bestselling Blue Like Jazz, for instance, in which Christian undergraduates construct a reverse confessional booth where they apologize for the church's failings ("You know, the Crusades and all that stuff") to revelers at Reed College; or in the general inclination of any number of enterprising evangelicals to distance themselves from the church's disappointing historical "baggage." But Radner's approach differs from such accounts as a gritty, high-stakes playoff game in the NFL differs from a pick-up game of Ultimate Frisbee. Indeed, A Brutal Unity rivals Charles Taylor's A Secular Age and Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation in its scope and complexity, and might even be considered an attempt to retell just those stories. Radner, a Protestant, agrees with his Catholic interlocutors that something in our modern world has gone wrong. However, he places the blame for this less on an elusive pattern of secularization (Taylor) or on Protestant fragmentation (Gregory) than on the much wider phenomenon of Christian disunity itself, for which there is ample blame to go around. Indeed for Radner, Christian disunity is what gave birth to—or rather, miscarried—the liberal democratic state.

These are massive claims, and Radner marshals the erudition to uphold them, or at least to make an impressive attempt. His work builds upon his earlier publications, such as Spirit and Nature: The Saint-Médard Miracles in 18th-Century Jansenism, on a group of reform-minded Catholics who (unlike their Protestant counterparts) did not press their agenda to the point of breaking communion. Radner's 1998 book The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West argued that the Holy Spirit has abandoned the church. Based on a figurative reading of the Old Testament, Radner suggests that fleeing to another communion (a Protestant becoming Catholic, for example) would be like an Israelite, after the sack of Samaria by the Assyrians, fleeing to the "safety" of Judah, which would eventually be sacked by the Babylonians. One might suggest that his figural reading was so effective that Radner's argument has been about as popular in our day as Jeremiah's was in his. That said, Radner has practiced what he preaches, plunging himself into scandalous situations of Christian complicity in his mission work in Burundi, and more recently as an ordained Episcopal priest who, though being of a more traditional persuasion in the matters of the hour, insists on staying put.

A Brutal Unity is Lenten reading. Radner is immensely learned, and his prose does not go down easy. His book seems triggered with some kind of advanced security device that prohibits casual readers from coming away with a quick summation. The only way through this trail of tears is to walk it slowly, page by painful page. A Brutal Unity is less an ecclesiology than an "eristology," which Radner defines as "the study of hostility in its disordering forms and forces." Christian ecclesiologies, he charges, have not taken division seriously enough; in fact, Protestant and Catholic thinkers have expressly denied that disunity is fundamentally real. To disabuse us of this evasion, which he terms "schismatological idealism," Radner works his way through past church divisions and their debilitating present effects. Aware of the depressing impact of his rhetoric, Radner ends each harrowing chapter with a sermonic refrain, though offering little comfort: He riffs on Peter's tears, abandoned Jerusalem, or the apostolicity of Judas, in which we mysteriously participate. Because they offer the opposite of feel-good American evangelicalism, these sermonettes might be packaged separately and marketed under the title, "Your Worst Life Now."

Radner's opening argument involves an extended polemic against William Cavanaugh's aforementioned The Myth of Religious Violence, a book that—in Radner's view—unjustifiably absolves Christians from their share in the violence of the liberal state. On the contrary, the church needs the liberal state as much as the liberal state needs the church, because the nations as we know them arose from the inability of Christians to refrain from mutual murder. One thinks of the Muslim who holds the key to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, because Christian factions so frequently erupt into fistfights at ground zero of their resurrected life.

Radner marches his readers deep into the killing fields of Rwandan genocide and the Holocaust, and returns to these two catastrophes throughout the book, as if tightening a cilice. By documenting how Christians were unable to prevent them, Radner is not suggesting that religious division causes violence as much as that it coheres with it, which is to say, Christian division is not the exclusive inflamer of violence, but it is a central one. In the case of Rwanda, Radner painstakingly catalogues how embedded Christian divisions caused a "moral paralysis" and "handicap[ped] the gospel's power to model a Christian community with any effective integrity." Radner's sources on the Holocaust are even more thorough. He unearths a horrible instance of ecumenical cooperation: Among the members of death squads, "most were in fact at least nominal Christians, who had been formed in some fashion by their churches …. They were Protestants and Catholics both."

If this sounds familiar, it is because many opponents of religion have marshaled such statistics to vilify Christianity. Radner is well aware of such accounts, their exaggerations and unwarranted conclusions. But this does not deter him:

[T]he historical evidence does show that Christian division, especially in the case of the Holocaust, did indeed occupy a facilitating role and was at least informed by prior relationships of antipathy that were never overcome in the face of evil—we can and must say this at least, and accept its challenge to our ecclesial self-understanding.

To suggest otherwise, Radner says—whether to exonerate Pope Pius XII or to overemphasize the role of Bonhoeffer (who had to leave the wider church behind)—is to succumb to what he terms "hallucinogenic fantasy." Figural readings of the Bible are often dismissed as fanciful, but Radner's figuralism has teeth, and his reading of the Church "as herself Jew" does much to properly acknowledge the extent of Christian complicity in the Shoah. "The failure and often outright refusal to treat the Church and Israel as joined has proven disastrous both to the Jewish Israel's existence and to the Christian Church's integrity." And here is a sentence to provoke heart-warming discussion at the next neighborhood Bible study: "The dead bodies, as it were, are already gathered by the time churches admit to complicity in their murder."

Radner explores Catholic and Protestant (and, to a lesser extent, Orthodox) attempts to deny the reality of Christian disunity by carving out an inviolable space of "the Church as such" in contrast to its earthy, sinful reality. But, for Radner, " 'the church as such' can never be reduced to the claims of exhaustive Catholic specificity or eschatological Protestant spiritual aggregationalism." Catholic ecclesiology, "complete in itself, admitting of neither diminution nor increase," and a Protestant vision of the church which is "circumstantial and contingent … occasional and disclosive" are equally inadequate. The saving of the church from her own sins by concocting an invisible or elusive sanctity is, admittedly, a traditional theological move, but it has been a disastrous one. Were this approach employed Christologically, it would be plainly Gnostic. What then makes it permissible in a theology of the church?

Beginning with the Bible's Jerusalem Council, A Brutal Unity offers a small church history in and of itself, moving through Gregory the Great's Pastoral Rule, the Conciliar Movement, and into early modernism. Radner finds a workable model of church unity only in the pre-Nicene era, making the villain of his story Ephiphanius of Salamis (d. 403), who listed heresies and distanced the church from her enemies, especially the Jews. This, according to Radner, inaugurated the "Epiphanian paradigm" and its program of exclusionary violence. What follows from this, if I am reading Radner correctly, is the church's "brutal unity." Providentialism and proceduralism are the blinders that prevent the church from realizing its unholy predicament. The former is the notion that God was somehow at work in church councils despite the messiness of the process, however violent; the latter is the idea that somehow bureaucratic decisions and parliamentary process betray the hand of God. We should, Radner believes, trust neither.

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."

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?

Matthew Milliner is assistant professor of art history at Wheaton College.

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