Symposium Introduction

To describe the Church as “united” is a factual misnomer―even at its conception centuries ago. Ephraim Radner provides a robust rethinking of the doctrine of the church in light of Christianity’s often violent and at times morally suspect history. He holds in tension the strange and transcendent oneness of God with the necessarily temporal and political function of the Church, and, in so doing, shows how the goals and failures of the liberal democratic state provide revelatory experiences that greatly enhance one’s understanding of the nature of Christian unity.

William Cavanaugh

Response

A Response to Radner’s A Brutal Unity

WHAT YOU ARE ABOUT TO READ is the typically unsavory spectacle of an academic defending himself. I apologize in advance for the unavoidable display of bruised ego, but I assume the reason I was invited to a session on Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity was to respond to Radner’s indictment of my book The Myth of Religious Violence, and I hope the result will be what Peter Maurin used to call “clarification of thought” and not just self-defense.1

Unfortunately, limited space means I will have to skip over all the nice things I would like to say about Radner’s book, and about his work more generally. I learned much from A Brutal Unity; the careful parsing of what consensus and unity could mean, for example, is worth the hefty price of the book. Some of my strongest points of agreement with Radner come in the first chapter of the book—the one in which he takes me to task—when he insists Christians and Christianity cannot be excused from complicity in violence in early modern Europe, Rwanda, and elsewhere. What I don’t get is why he thinks this is a disagreement with me. In what follows, I will not be agreeing to disagree; I will be disagreeing to agree, at least with the thesis of the first chapter, that Christians and Christianity have been complicit in violence. Where our real disagreement comes is in how this realization ought to shape the church’s life in the liberal nation-state.

In the first chapter, Radner makes my work the foil for his argument that the church’s historical failures lead us to the conclusion that “Religion—and I will use the Christian Church and churches as the instance in this chapter—does in fact need the liberal state.”2 According to Radner, my argument “encourages religious groups like Christian churches to face away from their own responsibility for violence.”3 It does so, Radner thinks, by shifting the blame for violence away from religion and onto something else. Radner appears to think my argument is a defense of religion from the charge of violence.4

Radner lays out my argument in two contradictory ways, both of which are misreadings of the text. In the first way, he thinks I argue that so-called religious wars are not really religious but political: “It is erroneous, Cavanaugh argues, to call these conflicts ‘religious wars’ because their impulse was more fundamentally political, driven by territorial interests of various ruling individuals and groups.” To make this argument, Radner continues, I “must reduce ‘religious’ conviction to a sideshow in some other performance. The result is that, in history’s most horrendous moments and corridors . . . the world is ironically depicted by Cavanaugh as being at its most disenchanted, the product of political powers and self-interest without reference to faith, because fundamentally unattached to faith’s potential perversions.”5

I have no idea how Radner, alone among reviewers of the book, could have come to this conclusion about my argument. My book has been reviewed favorably by Rowan Williams, Charles Taylor, Cyril O’Regan, Lisa Cahill, Brad Gregory, and many other astute readers, and none has detected the argument that Radner thinks he finds in the text. As I state in the introduction to my chapter on the “Wars of Religion,” I do not argue that these wars were not really about religion, but were really about politics or economics or culture. . . . To make such arguments is to assume that one can readily sort out what is ‘religion’ from what is ‘politics’ and so on in Reformation Europe. But these wars were themselves part of the process of creating those very distinctions.”6 As I sum up later in the same chapter, “I think we must conclude that any attempt to assign the cause of the wars in question to ‘religion’—as opposed to politics or other ‘secular’ causes—will get bogged down in hopeless anachronism. The same, of course, is true of attempts to pin the blame on political and economic causes as opposed to religion.”7 The idea, furthermore, that I see the wars in question as political and therefore “disenchanted” is quite simply the opposite of my actual argument. I appeal to John Bossy’s depiction of the migration of the holy from the church to the state and argue that “The state was increasingly sacralized in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.”8 This conclusion follows my argument in the first two chapters of my book about the malleability of the term “religion”: “if it is true, as we have seen in chapters one and two, that nationalism exhibits many of the characteristics of ‘religion’—including, most importantly for our purposes, the ability to organize killing energies—then what we have in fact is not a separation of religion from politics but rather the substitution of the religion of the state for the religion of the church.”9 The entire burden of my argument is to show that the enchantment that produces violence is just as likely to appear in so-called “secular” form—such as the putatively secular nation-state—than it does in the so-called “religions,” such as Christianity.

Radner notices my constructivist reading of the term “religion,” and so puts forth a second characterization of my argument, one that contradicts the first, but is equally mistaken. In this second telling, I do not simply downplay religious factors in favor of political factors leading to violence but claim instead that “if there was, in early modernity, no such thing as ‘religion’ outside of a culturally integrated social existence in which faith is bound up but not capable of distillation, then there was no such thing as ‘religious violence’ from which the state could have somehow saved us.”10

This second way of characterizing my argument is again a misunderstanding that I explicitly disavow in the actual text. As I state in the introduction to chapter 2, “The point of this exercise is not to dissolve the problem of religion and violence by saying that religion is a fuzzy concept, so there is no such thing as religion and therefore no such problem of religion and violence.”11 Again, at the end of the chapter: “So, do we conclude that there is no such thing as religion, no coherent concept of religion, and therefore we need not bother with the question of religion and violence? No. The point is not that there is ‘no such thing’ as religion. The concepts that we use do not simply refer to things out there in a one-to-one correspondence of words with things. In certain cultures, religion does exist, but as a product of human construction.”12

If my goal is not simply to excuse religion of violence by dissolving the category of religion, what is my purpose in showing that the category is a modern Western construction and not simply embedded in the nature of things? With regard to the early modern period, the point is that to blame religion as opposed to politics is anachronistic, because there was not yet any such distinction. The point is not that Christianity was not involved; of course it was. The point is one cannot finger a transhistorical, transcultural human impulse “religion” that—as opposed to more “secular” and mundane pursuits—was the main cause of the conflicts. The European wars of the early modern period were fought by Christians, and Radner is right that this outburst of brutality marks a signal failure of the church to be an instantiation of Christ’s peace. This is beyond dispute. As I state again in the chapter on the “Wars of Religion,”:

The point of this again is not that these wars were really about politics and not about religion, or that the state is to blame and the church is innocent of the violence. If the transfer of power from church to state contributed to the upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that transfer generally took the form of the absorption of the church into the apparatus of the state. The church was of course deeply implicated in the violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The point is that the rise of the modern state was not the solution to the violence of “religion.”13

Radner thinks that eliminating religion as an independent cause of early modern war leaves me unable to account for the “motivating conceptual structures of meaning to legitimize it.”14 He cites renowned historian Brad Gregory’s work as arguing “against historians who would dampen the specifically religious meaning given to both the active murdering and passive victimization involved.”15 Gregory’s acclaimed book Salvation at Stake does indeed argue against those who would reduce the violence of early modern Europe to political or economic or social causes as opposed to religious ones.16 But in Gregory’s review of The Myth of Religious Violence, he calls the book a “tour de force” and writes “The book should become a classic.”17 I mention this not to merely brag but to show that Gregory understands, as Radner does not, that my argument and Gregory’s own do not contradict one another. Gregory writes that Cavanaugh “correctly notes the inseparability of religion from politics and society in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Hence, one cannot, for example, say that a Catholic Eucharistic procession was religious rather than political or social—unless one applies, anachronistically, a conception of religion that itself arose only as a rejection of the human realities it sought to refashion.”18 Radner seems to think I reject the analysis of early modern violence from a theological perspective,19 but I don’t at all deny there was a particular kind of violence bound up with, to stick with Gregory’s example, theological loci such as the Eucharist. What I deny is that such kinds of violence belong in a wholly different category—“religious violence”—than violence done in the name of the state, the nation, capitalism, and other supposedly “secular” causes. This is precisely because such causes are not “disenchanted” at all, but are rather prone to idolatry, the worship of false gods.

With regard not only to the early modern period but also the present day, Radner feels he “must respond pointedly,” against me, “that there is such a thing as religious violence: when people abuse, imprison, drive out, attack, maim, and kill others in the name of God.”20 Radner argues that my approach renders me unable to deal with the church’s complicity in violence in Rwanda. But I have never denied that people kill in the name of God or gods, nor am I so oblivious or mendacious to deny that “Christians act violently; many do so, claiming to do so as Christians, for the sake of their belief in God.”21 What I deny is that violence in the name of God or a god is of an essentially different and inherently more troublesome nature than violence in the name of supposedly more mundane realities, like kings or nations or flags or freedom or oil. I do not buy Radner’s contention that, “when Christians turn violent, their violence is of another order than the violence of the nations.”22 I make exhaustive arguments in the first two chapters of the book as to why attempts to claim that religious and secular violence are of fundamentally different orders fail, arguments Radner does not so much refute as ignore. He occasionally throws scare quotes around the word “religion,” but continues to use it as if it marks a self-evident category of which Christianity is a prime example, as if my extensively annotated genealogy of the concept has had no effect whatsoever.

With regard to the present day, the point of showing that the religious/secular divide is a constructed one, and not simply part of the way things are, is to put both “secular” and “religious” motivations for abusing, imprisoning, driving out, attacking, maiming, and killing others in the same analytical framework. As I write in the conclusion of the book, the point is “to level the playing field so that violence of all kinds is subject to the same scrutiny.”23 The myth of religious violence has drawn our attention to certain kinds of violence—labeled religious—and away from others—labeled secular. But the reality is that “People kill for all kinds of reasons. An adequate approach to the problem must begin with empirical investigations into the conditions under which beliefs and practices such as jihad, the invisible hand of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, and the role of the United States as worldwide liberator turn violent.”24

Radner thinks my attempt to redirect our attention is an attempt to ignore Christian complicity with violence. He writes, “What Cavanaugh and contemporary antiliberal revisionists do not address, then, is the fact that the notion of religious tolerance over and against religious violence was later overthrown by the ongoing and spectacular failures of Christians especially in the midst of and in the face of violence in which they participated.”25 But my attempt to draw attention to the violence of the nation-state—especially, in the fourth chapter of my book, the United States—is an attempt to draw attention to what Christians actually kill for. The nation-state is not them, it is us, us Christians. The 80 percent of Americans who self-identify as Christians is mirrored in the almost 80 percent of US military personnel who self-identify as Christians. Any critique of the violence of the American military would have to take this obvious fact into consideration. As I write in chapter 1, “For most American Christians, even public evangelization is considered to be in poor taste, and yet most would take for granted the necessity of being willing to kill for one’s country, should circumstances dictate.”26 I simply do not see how my argument can be construed as an attempt to ignore or excuse Christian complicity with violence. I am trying to call attention to what Christians today, here and now, actually kill for. It is telling that the examples of Christian violence to which Radner appeals—the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda—are remote in either time or space to the actual audience of his book and their context in North American liberal states. This is necessarily so because Christians in the North American context today don’t kill for anything but the liberal nation-state, with very few exceptions. It is of course reprehensible that Christians in early modern Europe or contemporary Rwanda should kill each other, and especially troublesome for the church when they should invoke theological reasons in so doing. But I am interested in what Christians are tempted to kill for here and now. Some Christians in the US use theological justifications for supporting war. More commonly, Christians support war for the same secularist reason that Americans as a whole support war: for “freedom,” a freedom that was born out of revulsion to the so-called “religious wars.” As I write in the introduction to my book, “In the West, revulsion to killing and dying in the name of one’s ‘religion’ is one of the principal means by which we become convinced that killing and dying in the name of the nation-state is laudable and proper.”27

This is where the real disagreement between Radner and me lay. We do not disagree about the complicity of Christians and Christianity in violence. We disagree on the extent to which Christians need to throw our grateful support behind the nation-states in which we find ourselves. For Radner, “it is appropriate to see the rise of the ‘state’ in a modern sense as but the particular definition of a more general peace-building political sovereignty whose origins and quite robust analogues are deeply rooted in Christian experience.”28 The “right answer” to “preventing or resisting violence,” according to Radner, is “that churches must reorient their practice more fully, not less so, to the needs of a stable and accountable liberal democracy.”29 Radner fears my “concerns over the liberal state’s attitudes to religion and Christianity in particular will join with an outright rejection of the liberal state’s intrinsic value.”30 Christians must face the hard task of full participation in pluralistic democracy, which is “the necessary means by which, as it were, churches will save their souls in the face of their own violent complicities. And any call away from the facing of this task is a dangerous distraction.”31

Here we are getting close to some real disagreements between Radner and me, but it must first be said that Radner overstates the case I make in The Myth of Religious Violence. The argument is certainly a call for Christians to take a more skeptical view of their own participation in, and support for, the military adventures of secular nation-states, especially the United States. The argument is not, however, a wholesale dismissal of liberalism or democracy. As I write at the end of chapter 3,

To say that the foundational myth of the wars of religion is false is not to say that liberal principles are therefore false; the separation of church and state is, to my mind, important to uphold for several reasons, some of them theological. It is to say, however, that the triumphalist narrative that sees the liberal state as the solution to the violence of religion needs to be abandoned. . . . The shift from church power to state power is not the victory of peaceable reason over irrational religious violence. The more we tell ourselves it is, the more we are capable of ignoring the violence we do in the name of reason and freedom.32

The negative task of loosening our lethal allegiance to the nation-state and its enormous military and security apparatus is the sole, direct aim of my book.

Were I to give a more positive and theological account of the church’s political engagement, as I have done elsewhere, I would begin by differentiating terms like “state,” “liberalism,” and “democracy,” terms that tend to be conflated in Radner’s critique. To be fair, I have not always differentiated them carefully in my own writings. What I have tried to articulate, however, is a type of political presence of the church that is, like Radner, grateful the church has been separated—often against its misguided will—from coercive power, but deeply dissatisfied with the power that now claims a God-like monopoly on violence. I have written in favor of pluralistic democracy,33 but the problem with the contemporary nation-state is that it is neither sufficiently democratic nor pluralistic. The mythos of the nation and the reach of the state have created a unitary and homogenized space that is not truly pluralistic, and democracy has been reduced to a caricature. In Sheldon Wolin’s words, “The citizen is shrunk to the voter: periodically courted, warned, and confused but otherwise kept at a distance from actual decision-making and allowed to emerge only ephemerally in a cameo appearance according to a script composed by the opinion takers/makers.”34 My vision of the church’s participation in politics would look more like Wolin’s “fugitive democracy” or Alasdair MacIntyre’s vision of small communities of discernment than the patriotic embrace of the nation-state with its bloated war machine, enhanced interrogation techniques, NSA surveillance, and the rest.

I suspect there is much here on which Ephraim Radner and I could have a serious conversation, agreeing and disagreeing on many different aspects of the church’s role as witness. Radner comments “Cavanaugh’s overriding worries are proving well founded, as the liberal state itself betrays its founding principles for the sake of a self-consciously ‘godless’ ideology that increasingly itself engages the rhetoric of violence.”35 For my part, I am deeply appreciative of Radner’s emphasis on the need for the church to repent. Indeed, I have drawn on Radner’s work elsewhere to argue that the basis of the church’s aversion to violence of all kinds is not a sense that we are pure, but rather that we are simply not good enough to use violence rightly.36

With regard to the notion that I encourage churches to face away from responsibility for violence, I think Radner has simply misread my argument. Our true disagreement, and the place for a more interesting dialogue, concerns the extent to which the church needs the liberal nation-state. I think I am willing to agree the marginalization of the church from public power is a potentially restorative punishment for the church’s unfaithfulness. I tend, however, to see the liberal nation-state I live in as just another form of empire that the church must endure and creatively engage, rather than a peace-building fruit of the gospel.


  1. In what follows I will also tediously quote myself, something I find necessary to do because Radner has not done so. In a discussion of my book that covers thirty-four pages, Radner quotes only two short phrases from my book, one on p. 28, the other in footnote 57. Quoting my actual argument could have rendered a more accurate reading.

  2. Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 22.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Radner acknowledges of my book that “He is not trying to write a ‘defense of religion against the charge of violence.’” This phrase is one of only two quotes from my book. Radner then goes on to write, “But I wonder. Christians are indeed ‘complicit’ in war, he [Cavanaugh] acknowledges, but he prefers to see such complicities as engaging the wars of ‘national armies,’ not the battles waged by Christians themselves. He treats the fact of religious people acting violently as almost a platitude that demands no empirical demonstration beyond its assertion. And well he might! But what Cavanaugh does not wish to address is that this single fact is a deeply religious problem that renders the ‘religious’ aspect of human behavior specific, if only in religious terms” (italics in the original). I have a hard time following this argument. I can’t imagine who would be fighting in national armies of Europe and North America besides Christians themselves. I also find Radner’s use of “religious” problematic, given my genealogy in chapter 2 of my book. I don’t know what it could mean to render the “religious” aspect of behavior specific in religious terms, and I don’t know why the first “religious” has scare quotes around it, but the second does not. As this passage continues, Radner seems to be using “religious” to mean “something to do with God”: “But a religious person will necessarily wonder if the violence in which he or she engages—or some other religious person engages—has not only transgressed the morally regulative but actually trespassed against that which is ‘of God’ in an essential way”; ibid., 28–29. Again, Radner seems content to ignore my analysis of the incoherence of substantivist attempts to restrict the definition of the term “religion” to things that are “of God.” If the point he is trying to make is Christians sometimes kill people for theological reasons, then I of course agree. But that objection does not touch my analysis of how and why some motivations get categorized as “religious” and some do not. Given my deconstruction of the term “religion,” however, I hardly see how I can be seen as either attacking or defending religion as such.

  5. Ibid., 23.

  6. William T. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 124.

  7. Ibid., 160.

  8. Ibid., 174, italics in the original.

  9. Ibid., 177.

  10. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 24.

  11. Cavanaugh,The Myth of Religious Violence, 59, italics in the original.

  12. Ibid., 119, italics in the original.

  13. Ibid., 166, italics in the original.

  14. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 41.

  15. Ibid., 42.

  16. Brad S. Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999).

  17. Brad S. Gregory, “Pacifying Violence,” First Things, May 2010.

  18. Ibid, italics in the original.

  19. For example, Radner, A Brutal Unity, 45: “If invoking the name of God in the physical ‘extirpation of heretics’ cannot be analyzed from a specifically theological perspective, both in terms of the object, we have simply imprisoned theological discourse itself”; italics in the original.

  20. Ibid., 22, italics in the original.

  21. Ibid., 48.

  22. Ibid., 29.

  23. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 230.

  24. Ibid., 56.

  25. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 55, italics in the original.

  26. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 56.

  27. Ibid., 4–5.

  28. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 54.

  29. Ibid., 55.

  30. Ibid., 22.

  31. Ibid., 56.

  32. Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence, 179.

  33. William T. Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), chapters 2 and 9.

  34. Sheldon Wolin, Politics and Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Political Thought, expanded edition (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004), 565.

  35. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 55.

  36. See Cavanaugh, Migrations of the Holy, 141–69. At the end of this chapter I appeal to Radner’s book The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).

Paul Hinlicky

Response

On the “Sacrifice of Conscience”

I RECEIVED THIS ASSIGNMENT in the Spring from Tim Furry at the same time Sarah Hinlicky Wilson (full disclosure: my daughter) was commissioned by the journal Pro Ecclesia to write a response for a forthcoming symposium on Ephraim Radner’s Brutal Unity. So she and I discussed the book together as we read it, coming to parallel appreciations and concerns. I was so taken by at least one way of reading the book (about to be put on display) that I chose to lift it up in my forthcoming systematic theology, Beloved Community: Critical Dogmatics after Christendom (Eerdmans, 2014) as an alternative to the ecclesiological proposal that I make there. Maybe “alternative” is the wrong word; I don’t mean I am opposed to Radner’s ecclesiology so much as I offer a different proposal about what to do about the mess Christianity is as Radner diagnoses it. That difference in stratagem may indicate a difference in ecclesiology, but it would be a subtle one. In any case, I find myself both intrigued and perplexed by Radner’s advocacy of a “sacrifice of conscience” as the way to Christian unity. I will come to this perplexity in due course. But I think it well to begin by sketching my understanding of his intriguing proposal, developing in this way a basis for the questions I want to pose in the end.

I can begin pertinently enough with a word of appreciation for Radner’s skewering of the cliché that “Luther especially inaugurated a modern turn to individual conscience over and against communal authority.”1 In Luther’s case, he writes, “conscience is bound to God’s own commands as given in Scripture. . . . Like any human ruler, the conscience can err and is rightly set aside when it does . . . instruction is necessary . . . as a reasoning faculty, an instructed conscience, to be sure, can read the Scriptures correctly, and, when joined thereby to consciences of others, agreement can be reached among disputing Christians.”2 Such interpretation of Christian conscience as captive to the Word of God, then, provides one justification that Radner gives for a “sacrifice of conscience” in the sense of a “certain abandonment, so that local loyalties, quite explicitly, and even convictions to forms of life, are necessarily exchanged for the sake of being able to place oneself literally ‘next to’ the ‘other’ in the solidarity of Christian love.”3 “Conscience, understood as the consciousness that forms a value-laden world, is thus not only penultimate and provisional; it is dispensable and must be for the sake of God’s own movement” in Christ, who first became a neighbor to us, “next to” us in the divine movement of love incarnate for sinners.4 So it is Christ who first sacrificed his conscience to befriend “real, not fictitious sinners,” as Luther would have put it, the Holy One who was made to be sin, as said the apostle Paul. In Radner’s words, “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves towards those who would take it from him.”5

Transitioning to our present Euro-American situation of the divided, if no longer warring churches under the hegemony of liberal democratic regimes that arose historically to put a stop to the warring religions, we find Radner’s profoundly contrite Christian affirmation of “standard forms and themes of procedural regulation and fallibilist consensualism” as necessary to halt the killing, though not themselves sufficient to exorcize the “political devil, who always finds a new way to corrupt the freedoms and self-protecting procedures of his liberal worldlings.”6 I take that acknowledgment to mean that political liberalism is to be received today by the divided churches as judgment on the brutal politics of Christian disunity.7 From this judgment, Radner further derives the church’s obligation to take responsibility within liberalism for the health of this political culture.8 In these matters, if I correctly understand Radner, we are in considerable agreement.

Our agreement boils down to this: the church qua church is sinful.9 That is not all the church is, but it is one pole of a dialectical truth to which I shall shortly attend. Yet it is the pertinent truth in any contemporary effort to diagnose Christian disunity in such fashion that moves all of us past self-justifying polemical positions and forward toward the unity petitioned in John 17. Radner contends that all self-privileging illusions about the ontic holiness of “the” church (that is, of our church) must be rigorously exposed in order to see this reality of the simul peccatrix. “There is no looking to Christ apart from the sinful Church.”10 Further in agreement: it is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church that is also sinful, the very same church that cannot fatally err, against which the gates of hell will not prevail, that can and must teach the conscience-binding truth regarding Christ, who first became a neighbor to us. As in Luther’s dictum that “the true people of God are they who continually bring to bear the judgment of the cross upon themselves,”11 this being of sinners in Christ is, in Radner’s words, “continually penitent and hence truly ‘holy’ from a human perspective just because the truly ‘righteous’ are those who are humbly contrite.”12

What is new and intriguing in Radner’s retrieval of this paradoxical or dialectic understanding of the church’s holiness as the presence of Christ making himself neighbor to sinners is that conscientious agreement on this thesis among disputing Christians today seems to preclude a standard way in the history of the church on how to respond to manifest sinfulness—namely, by separation from an identifiably false church. For Radner we cannot faithfully separate even from the separatists. It “is not possible to identify the one Church except as she is given over to those who would divide. Simul iusta et peccatrix properly describes the Church.”13 We cannot separate ourselves from the sinful separatism that would seduce and, de facto has seduced, all divided Christians; even less can we dualize in principle the sign that is this assembly of sinners around Jesus and the thing signified, the Temple of the Holy Spirit, in order to carve out a counter-cultural colony of the truly regenerate, howsoever we parse that allegedly authentic community. But the church “is born in time” and “exists in time” and exists precisely there as an “evangelical antinomy, the juxtaposition of contraries in the assertion of which lies the disclosure of God’s redemptive power.”14 The Spirit unifies the sign and the thing signified as somehow in, with and under the dark, brutal, opaque covering of sinfulness that is given as the community of sinners and tax-collectors united to Jesus.

If this is the truth about the being of the church in time, however, we must find a new way of accessing this powerful and redemptive unification by way of “evangelical antimony” that does not perpetuate the sickness of divided Christendom. “For if the Church is not to be simply the replication of the sins of the past, [i.e.,] a porous community ‘bound to violence’ . . . normative and directive claims need to be given.”15 Critical dogmatic claims, thus, come forward proffering new solutions to this—truth be told, desperate—need within the broken communities of the divided churches under the humiliating hegemony of liberalism. It is a salutary humiliation, let us recall, since “modern political efforts have rightly come to see as necessary means of ordering and perhaps controlling religious self-deception.”16 Yet at just this juncture when a call for critical dogmatics seems implied, Radner, in a bold and unsettling stroke, invokes Hobbes over Kant: it is not critical “truth discovery,” that is, “enlightenment,” that is needed but the political “peacekeeping” that liberalism serves and puts into effect with its social contract. “And I would suggest that Hobbes’ view is the more accurate one, in terms of both anthropological foundation and, when rightly oriented, Christian vocation and meaning. . . . From the start what is required will have been some form of ordering, deferral, and perhaps sacrifice of conscientious aspects of our minds and hearts.”17

So we come to the intriguing idea of a sacrifice of conscience and to the disturbing thought that it may be read, in one interpretation, as theological Hobbseanism. Radner in fact exposes a classical aporia of liberalism. Think of Henry David Thoreau’s retort to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had exclaimed, “Why are you in there?” to the jailed Thoreau after Thoreau had conscientiously refused to pay the war tax in support of Polk’s Mexican adventure; to which Thoreau replied, “Why are you out there?” That is my illustration, not Radner’s, of the aporia of private conscience against the rule of lawful procedure under liberalism. Radner writes,

the notion that only a ‘collective’ procedure can uphold cohesion and peace, but only ‘conscience’ itself—individual if need be—can maintain the moral accountability for collectivities and individuals alike, presents a classic conflict in decision making and a formidable challenge to the very notion of moral agreement in the standard understanding of the term. . . . What is involved in these kinds of conflicts is not simply, nor can it ever be, an encounter between ‘group’ and ‘individual,’ institutional demand and personal conscience, tradition and truth.

In other words, what divides Thoreau and Emerson is not Thoreau’s stand of conscience over against Emerson’s conformism, but Emerson’s conscientious commitment to lawful democratic procedure and Thoreau’s democratic commitment to regard Mexicans as bearers of rights. Both stands are conscientious. In this light, a “moral agreement,” Radner argues, is a matter of “deliberated subtraction, conscience retired from a host of often cacophonous conscientious demands working at once in collective and individual together. In Christian and Christian ecclesial terms, there is no agreement without sacrifice of conscience.”18

If I have succeeded in describing Radner’s notion of the sacrifice of conscience in the foregoing, we have now come to the point upon which the first of my perplexities arise. Presumably a “moral agreement” as achieved precisely by “deliberated subtraction, conscience retired” is not least a conscientious consensus. I have alluded several times to the christological reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan because the parable serves Radner’s exposition of the mimetic ethos of sacrifice that he finds given to Christians in Christ. It is not the reciprocity of just relations that we find exemplified in the Good Samaritan: “For in Jesus’ story we find nothing of reciprocity, only of a giving, indeed one across the boundaries of enmity, and one finally that demands no future even of the relationship beyond the moment of that giving. . . . It is only in accepting the basic asymmetry of relationship in solidarity that the underlying dynamic of conscience’s renunciation [i.e., of Samaritan group loyalty]—rather than its other-demanding maintenance—can be seen as life-giving.”19 Surely Radner has the parable right; but just as surely, he is speaking not of a sacrifice of conscience in general but a sacrifice of conscience bound to goods other than the Christ, whose particular goodness is a holiness that befriends the sinner as the Samaritan befriended the wounded Jew on the road. The “sacrifice of conscience,” then, is a conscientious sacrifice of idolatrous loves and partial loyalties and an equally conscientious sacrifice of one’s body, as per Romans 12:1–2, to the service of that particular Lord who first became a neighbor to us.

If this christological warrant of the sacrifice of conscience holds and so clarifies the content of Radner’s claim, it nevertheless leads to a second perplexity. For the kind of theological consensus to which Radner summons in recognition of the Christ who first became a neighbor to us sinners, is, as such, a “normative and directive claim;” it “needs to be given,” as we heard, if “the Church is not to be simply the replication of the sins of the past, [i.e.,] a porous community ‘bound to violence.’” I heartily agree. What is needed is a renewal of dogmatics. Why else would we theologians write books? But I note we do not therewith step out of the critical arena of disputable claims to truth and somehow acquire a perspective transcendent to the fray by the mere fact of offering normative and directive claims. Rather, from within the divided churches we are, without illusions about our own sinlessness, making a claim about the truth of the gospel within the fractious reality of those who self-identify as Christians under the assumption that this truth ought both to clear the air and to bind the consciences of these disputing Christians on the basis of that Word of God that first tells of Christ who became a neighbor to sinners, one and all of us.

Thus I have made a point along the way to highlight Radner’s ecclesiological proximity to Luther—a controversial name that surely betrays the fact that normative and directive claims that would fashion a moral consensus among disputing Christians may as readily divide as unite. In my own view, which I can hardly report without dismay, the retrieval of such normative and directive claims about Christ, as Radner has actually sketched, would work a division of the existing divisions rather than a visible unification of the divided churches.

In one admirable summation, Radner writes as though the sacrifice of conscience he commends is to be understood as a progressive growing into Christ.

Christian conscience is unceasingly relearned as the Christian him- or herself is restlessly reordered in and for the sake of “life together” . . . a reordering that brackets aspects of its apparent claims, dismisses others, and rearranges the rest. Let us call this process of learning the act of the conscience sacrificing itself in the ineluctable engagement of life with others. That at least captures some of the combination of intentionality and self-abandonment that a Christian will face in recognizing the limits of any stable consensus and the demand to go beyond it as means of apprehending the truth “with others.”

As this is the specifically Christian baptismal ethos of the Spirit’s refashioning of the existing self on the basis of specifically evangelical knowledge of the Christ who was “crucified for our sins but raised for our justification,” Radner comments sharply but aptly in passing that “it has been a source and result of sin that Christian conscience has been thought of in any other terms.”20

My agreement, then, with the manifest thrust of this account notwithstanding, is my perplexity here purely a matter of semantics? For we have just spoken of “Christian conscience” that may not without sin be understood otherwise than as a conscience bound to Christ who became a neighbor to sinners so that Christ-befriended sinners might befriend one another. My perplexity about this increases when I read that “this is a process, defined in terms of a love that subordinates knowledge to its own out-working (1 Cor. 13:8–13).” The apostle in 1 Corinthians, of course, is speaking about an alleged gnosis that leaves the less spiritual behind, not the knowledge of Christ crucified, the sole foundation of the new communities’ life together, as 1 Corinthians 2:2 makes clear. Sensing this, Radner immediately qualifies the claim of subordination. “If this is so, however, it is only so because the Christian self is not a self apart from such self-giving, and such self-giving manifests the character of the relationship that sustains Christian self-hood.”21 Granted. But that indicates that this self-giving, this offering of the self, as he continues, “is given only in the complete possession by Christ of the self. . . . The material and formal meet here, for it is Christ’s own abandonment to the will of the Father, in the Spirit, that is taken hold of or takes hold of the self in this sanctifying life. Our selves become like and one with his self, a oneness that finds its substantive unity in the giving away of self to God with Christ.”22 If the material and the formal meet here, the sacrifice of conscience is in fact a conscientious surrender. While Radner can say “love subordinates knowledge,” what can he mean other than that the knowledge of the love of Christ, the crucified friend of sinners, subordinates any other alleged claims to knowledge of God’s truth?

So in the context of a deep appreciation I have elaborated two questions. First, putting aside the highly useful rhetorical provocation in speaking of a “sacrifice of conscience,” might it be said the actual point is brought out by affirming that refusals of Radner’s Christian claim to truth can be conscientious, and that surrender to Radner’s Christian claim to truth, as exclusive as the First Commandant, is a conscientious subordination of all other loyalties to Christ in the soteriological sense of the christological reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan? Second, is not the soteriological sense of the christological reading of the parable of the Good Samaritan a disputable doctrinal claim that exposes conscientious divisions in the theologies of sinfully divided churches?


  1. Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012), 324.

  2. Ibid., 325.

  3. Thus when ecclesial unity is “rendered atemporal, undeveloping, bound the unchangeable selves of this or that commitment, it is only division that can be described historically, given contours and detail, and so granted an engaging personality. Discord, in such a view, can be judged (usually in the other); the Church itself, never.” Ibid., 396.

  4. Ibid.

  5. Ibid., 351.

  6. Ibid., 441.

  7. Ibid., 462.

  8. Ibid. I have come to the same conclusion in “Luther and Liberalism,” in A Report from the Front Lines: Conversations on Public Theology: A Festschrift in Honor of Robert Benne, ed. Michael Shahan (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009) 89–104.

  9. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 146–54.

  10. Ibid., 153.

  11. Martin Luther, Luther: Lecture on Romans, trans. Wilhelm Pauck (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961).

  12. Radner, A Brutal Unity, 154.

  13. Ibid., 154.

  14. Ibid., 157.

  15. Ibid., 165.

  16. Ibid., 165.

  17. Ibid., 361.

  18. Ibid., 315.

  19. Ibid., 412–13. The passage continues, “So, Christianity solidarity is closer to Levinas’ fundamental ethic for the Other than to any reciprocal engagement. This was part of Levinas’ argument with Buber. The encounter with and ‘call’ of the ‘Other’ upon the self is primordial and constitutive of consciousness itself—this is Levinas’ basis for claiming the priority of ‘ethics’ over ‘ontology.’ And as constitutive of consciousness, the Other’s demand upon my own response—responsibility—for it is ‘prior’ to everything else, even to some kind of ‘self-consciousness’ that would demand from me structures of self-distinction in knowledge and understanding. . . . [Citing Levinas:] ‘at the outset, I hardly care what the other is with respect to me, that is his own business; for me, he is above all the one I am responsible for.’”

  20. Ibid., 379.

  21. Ibid., p. 394.

  22. Ibid., 417.

Timothy Furry

Response

“As Was His Custom”

I FIRST WANT TO THANK the editors of Syndicate­ for their invitation to join in the conversation surrounding Ephraim Radner’s latest book, A Brutal Unity. I must confess, however, that my ploy to sit back and watch seasoned scholars do their work while I receive the overflow of wisdom and bask in their limelight, hoping onlookers might mistakenly count me as their peer, has now been foiled.

A couple preliminary points need to be mentioned immediately: 1) I already reviewed A Brutal Unity for the theology website, theologystudio.org, but that review took the shape of leading an online reading and discussion group—at least in purpose, though I have the impression that few were reading along at the time. Nonetheless, a previous summary and some critical comments (mostly in question form to promote discussion) on the book are available online. 2) In full disclosure, and as some may know, I count Ephraim Radner as a friend, and I believe that reckoning to be mutual. Decidedly, this does not mean he will get a free or even easy pass from me. In fact, our friendship began when I sent him an essay (now published in New Blackfriars) where I make critical and appreciative use of his too-often ignored book, The End of the Church.1 Radner has always been more than generous towards me with his time, mind, and even his own home in Toronto, and I thank him for how he has practiced what A Brutal Unity argues—the sacrificial giving of self—for over what is now nearly a decade.

In the Q&A session after the AAR panel, Radner mentioned that A Brutal Unity was mostly trying to describe what is happening in the world and church—a worthwhile and needed task indeed. In fact, I’m of the opinion that Radner’s work is great gift to the church on the merit of his figural descriptions. However, Hinlicky is right that Radner cannot simply describe without smuggling in doctrine, or what Hinlicky calls “critical dogmatics.” After all, what are Radner’s criteria for deciding what to include and what remains on the cutting room floor of ecclesial history and biblical figures?

Perhaps that last question was misleading. I do think Radner has criteria for his figural ecclesiology, and they are simply as they appear in his previously published Hope Among the Fragments (HAF) and A Brutal Unity (ABU).2 In speaking of the form of Scripture, Christ, and figures, Radner says:

That Christ has a form is stated by Scripture itself—the likeness and form of God and the literal likeness and form of a human slave obedient to death on a cross. And this form, in its complexity and with all of its temporal contours and details, is taken first by God, before all else and also given first by him. This form is what all truthful speech about God entails and to what the Scriptures first refer. It is also what therefore gives rise, in its own meaning, to the signs and forms of whatever would speak the truth and manifest it. Thus, the Scripture—and the Church—denote primarily the form of Christ; and just that form of Christ connotes the Scripture’s words and content and even the histories of the world and Church that seem so misleadingly, in our own day, to hold the fullness of their meaning only within themselves, like mute stones.3

And later,

What the Church calls a figure is nothing else than something that God makes for the sake of speaking about himself, even as that something ramifies its own references around itself, like a star in its illuminating and creative reach. Christ in his form—through whom and for whom all things are made—created all things in their own proliferated forms and relationships to speak of himself—they denote the Lord, while they themselves are connoted by his own formly love.4

Christ is the form and content of the Scriptures and their figures for Radner, and this leads to a fascinating theological stance worth quoting Radner at length again:

Yet if language—even and especially the language of Scripture—is itself the object of God’s creating hope in Christ, it is not first a referring tool, but itself a referent, something whose meaning is bound up primarily in Christ’s giving himself and showing himself through its forms. The divine Word refers to the Scripture and to the Church itself, not directly, but as a connoted meaning, something that comes with it, tied to its life somehow, as clothing, as resonance, as image and metaphor, as synecdoche, as the meaning in the world of the Word’s own voice. When Christ is uttered by the Father and utters in himself for himself, then the Scriptures and the Church, his body, are heard.5

For Radner, the form of God creating and giving himself over to the other in history is simply a temporal performance of what happens in the eternal, triune life—the one, unified life of God. God’s eristic oneness, as Radner describes it in ABU, is such that it knows no boundaries and is “fruitful.”6 More specifically, “Oneness is thus divinely asserted as the assumption by God of the creature’s most profound hostility, a hostility aimed at its very being as bound to God.”7 Radner also approvingly quotes Eberhard Jungel: “In giving himself away, he has himself. That is how he is. His self-having is the event, is the history of giving himself away and thus is the end of all mere self-having.”8 Radner even provocatively goes as far to say that such salvific giving “is God’s oneness, and in it the whole straining and eristic nature of divine love is given its form.”9 Such divine giving simply constitutes Radner’s eristic theological perspective: “the issue is to judge these [historical] realities according to, or better to describe them in, the primary language of Scripture, so that their referents and signification can be rendered more coherent for the Christian understanding of God.”10 And there is Radner’s critical dogmatics; there is Radner’s criteria for figurally reading the signs of the times. Radner claims that the triune life of self-giving, which begins in God’s act of creating, is constituted by God’s outpouring of self in the acts of redemption in history.11 However, this constitution is not one that leads to a simple identification of God’s being with historical becoming or Christ with the church.

Tucked in a footnote, Radner distinguishes his figural ecclesiology from Robert Jenson on the point of identifying Christ with the church.12 Where Jenson identifies Christ with the church, Radner affirms that Christ suffers with, assumes, and bears the sins of the church. The relation between Christ and the church is asymmetrical and not one of identity, contra Jenson.13 Thus, Christians and the church are always struggling (eristic ecclesiology) to catch up to and imitate the perfect divine life of self-giving unto the point of death.14 As a result of the gap between God’s giving of self and the church’s, Radner names the church as sinful.15 Radner then boldly embraces the consequences of this kind of theo-historical logic: “An ecclesiology of tears is at the heart of an ecclesiology of joy; without this order of truth and life, there is no Church at all (Ps 126), for God is the God of the Church’s pardon, because He is the God of Jerusalem’s joy (Isa 66:10).”16 This is the church as wayfarer, which is indebted to Augustine.

Radner further describes his version of ecclesial-figural reading of Scripture: “the ‘figures’ of figural exegesis depend on historical conformity to Christ through grace—they are primarily ‘mimetic’ through the power of God—and therefore refer to God’s impinging (relational) nature in terms of judgment and mercy in the form of bodies.”17 In other words, historical persons and bodies should aim at imitating the life of Christ in real places and moments among other real bodies. As a result, Radner says his approach is “more deliberately ‘ecclesial’ in its orientation than the wider ascetic interests of ‘spiritual’ exegesis [stemming from Origen].”18 I must confess puzzlement by this contrast between ascetic and ecclesial orientations. It’s not clear what exactly Radner means, though if I had to speculate, based on my knowledge of Radner’s work, I would say he’s denying that ascetics are worldly (or at least worldly enough in his estimation), which is precisely the nature of the church Radner is interested in. But are not ascetics and mystics also part of the church? Monks and ascetics see more clearly than anyone, I think, that Christ and the church are not to be completely identified. Some have ended up censored by the church, like some Jansenists! Ascetics understand and live in such a way that the church is necessary but their union with Christ exceeds ecclesiality—and by ecclesiality I mean the ordinary political and spiritual rhythms of ecclesial life (e.g., attending worship and participating in the sacraments). The Rule of St. Benedict, for example, is an ecclesial text, insofar as monks worship, pray, and commune regularly, and it is an ascetic text. The Rule is not binding on the entire church but only those of the cloister. The ascetics seek a greater union with God than those engaged in worldly affairs can receive. Ascetics also, in return, have more time for Scripture reading and prayer. One could even argue that ascetics and mystics are the heart of the church insofar as they forsake all, even the community itself (in a certain way), for the sake of Jesus who is more than his community.

Ultimately I’m pushing Radner in a similar fashion as Peter Ochs, who begins to push Radner, albeit from a different direction, when he says A Brutal Unity is a book of the weekday, not a Sabbath book. Ochs couldn’t be more right.

Ochs used a beautiful image to illustrate Radner’s church being like Jesus who walked around first-century Palestine with grimy feet: touching lepers, healing the lame and blind, hanging out with sinners, and teaching. Yet, as Ochs intimates, there’s something missing from this picture—even something from Jesus’ own life, I want to add. Where is the Jesus who withdrew frequently in ministry away from the crowds to lonely places? Luke 5:12–15 recounts exactly the picture Radner argues for: a worldly Jesus walking, touching, and healing a leper (v. 12–14). However, in the following two verses and in a rhythm of Sabbath rest after work, Luke says: “But now more than ever the word about Jesus spread abroad; many crowds would gather to hear him and to be cured of their diseases. But he would withdraw to deserted places and pray.”19 There are other passages like this in the gospels as well: Mark 1:35, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed”20; in Luke 22:39–46 Jesus withdraws “as was his custom” even from his disciples to pray and wrestle with God before his crucifixion.

The gospels also narrate other reasons for Jesus withdrawing from an area or group of people. See Matthew 12:14–15, 14:12–14; Luke 9:9–11; 11:53–54. Two primary reasons prompt Jesus to withdraw in these passages. First, people were plotting to capture and kill him, but the time for his death had not yet come. Second, Jesus withdraws when he hears of John the Baptist’s death. Jesus’ withdrawal here is ambiguous; it could be a flight from danger, a kind of mourning the death of his cousin, or a combination thereof. My point here is simply that Jesus was not always walking around first-century Palestine working. He would withdraw from people, even intentionally (!), in order to pray and as a way to carry on his earthly mission and ministry. In short, rest, contemplation, and Sabbath were part of Jesus’ earthly life. Radner cannot have a sweaty, working Jesus without the Jesus who, “as was his custom,” withdrew from the crowds to pray or to avoid being taken to his death too soon. Apparently, there was a right time to give all and not a right time to give all, a time to sacrifice everything and a time not to.

While Jesus is praying in the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples are too exhausted from grieving (according to Luke) and the preceding intense week to stay up and pray with Jesus. Jesus warns and rebukes them for not praying with him. “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray that you may not come into the time of trial” (Luke 22:46). Too much work inhibited the disciples from praying with Jesus in his time of greatest need and they are admonished for falling asleep.

John’s gospel narrates Jesus’ pre-crucifixion prayers differently. At the end of chapter 16 the disciples are conversing with Jesus about his relation to the Father and then Jesus moves seamlessly into prayer, at the beginning of chapter 17, before he goes to Gethsemane and is betrayed (John 18:1–3); the disciples see and hear Jesus pray his famous words for unity (John 17). I believe it’s theologically significant the form under which the call to unity occurs—prayer. Radner’s use of John 17 in ABU and HAF focuses on the content of Jesus’ prayer and Trinitarian concerns. Summarizing a discussion of unity and truth, which includes an immediately preceding use of John 17, Radner says, “On the matter of unity, then, we can conclude that if the church is one, its unity will involve a participation in the historical form of the Father’s sending of the Son in time, an act synonymous with the incarnation’s narrative.”21 ABU makes similar moves in its usage of John 17.22 To be sure, Radner clearly knows Jesus is praying for unity, but he does not appear to understand the form to contribute to the content of the prayer. In other words, I read John 17 not simply as Jesus asking something from the Father, but performing the unity between himself and the Father in and through the prayer. The disciples are witnessing Jesus pray in this passage, not sleeping. If they find themselves asking: “What does it mean to be one like the Father and Son are one?” (and the disciples were just talking with Jesus about his relation to the Father in John 16) they simply need to look at Jesus for their answer because they are witnessing the oneness of God in Jesus’ prayer to the Father.23 In other words, the prayerful form is the content. The fact that unity is addressed in the form of the prayer (and not, say, as formal teaching discourse like the Sermon on the Mount or Plain) of the Son to the Father cannot be underestimated. Yet, I think Radner does not address this point adequately. What difference does prayer/contemplation make in the life of a divided church? The gospels indicate that Jesus observed a rhythm between action, contemplation, and asceticism, and even that Jesus met the temptations to be the kind of Messiah who would not give all with prayer and Scriptural meditation (Matt. 4:1–11; 26:36–45 and parallels)—the very focus of ascetic life.

Of course, I’m not arguing the general (and ridiculous) notion that Radner thinks prayer is unimportant. However, prayer is not foregrounded enough in his theological account of the unity of the church given prayer/contemplation’s place in the very life of Jesus in direct relationship to his self-giving. In the most concise terms: Radner rightly recognizes that unity consists of the Father sending the Son and the Son giving himself to the Father, but the way the Son gives is not only in the historical giving himself on cross, as Radner seems to imply. Giving to the point of death is the extent of the giving, not its only content. Radner is absolutely brilliant in demanding Christians to deeply sacrifice for each other in our shared history, which is the sacrifice of conscience in Radner’s view. In emphasizing the extent of the giving, Radner loses some of the content of Jesus’ life leading up to his death, and that content empowers Jesus to walk the way of the cross (See again Matt. 4:1–11 and Luke 22:43). Since Radner claims Jesus is the form and content of Scripture and Christians must imitate Christ’s self-giving as a form of unity with their bodies in history (historical conformity to Christ), he must also account for Scripture’s own figure of the Jesus who withdraws and prays. Yet, this does not figure into his account.

In the end, Radner offers the church a beautiful gift in his figural ecclesiology: a theological account and rationale to sacrifice our consciences and very selves for the sake of a unified church, and in so doing we thereby imitate the eristic oneness of God by becoming a (brutally) unified people once again. Indeed, this is a more hopeful vision than his earlier work, I think. What I’ve been stressing here is less a disagreement about the current condition of western Christianity and even what we should do in the face of our sinful division, and more of a concern about how we could possibly fulfill Radner’s daring and biblical proposal. Yes, Christians should sacrifice all for the sake of unity, and, yes, Jesus is the model for such a sacrifice. However, Radner leaves out how Jesus, as our true human example, was able to give all. The call to sacrifice is necessary and profound, but we must be able to do so when the providential time arrives—even Jesus wanted the cup to pass from him. How much more do we need prayer, asceticism, and Scriptural meditation practiced together so that the Spirit can bring us to such a blessed and brutal unity?


  1. Ephraim Radner, The End of the Church: A Pneumatology of Christian Division in the West (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). For my essay see Timothy J. Furry, “Bind Us Together: Repentance, Ugandan Martyrs, and Christian Unity.” New Blackfriars 89 (January 2008) 39–59.

  2. Ephraim Radner, Hope Among the Fragments: The Broken Church and Its Engagement of Scripture (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2004).

  3. Ibid., 13.

  4. Ibid.

  5. See ibid., 12–14; quote from 14.

  6. Ephraim Radner, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2012) 12.

  7. Ibid., 13.

  8. Jungel, God as the Mystery of the World, quoted in ibid, 14. Emphasis in original.

  9. Ibid.

  10. See ibid., 2–17; quote from 17.

  11. See, again, ibid., 14.

  12. Ibid., 153–54, n. 48.

  13. Ibid.

  14. See ibid., 147.

  15. Ibid., 146–68.

  16. Ibid., 168.

  17. Ibid., 152, n. 43.

  18. Ibid. I should note that Radner’s primary focus in this section is on Mary’s relationship to the church and the church as sinful. However, he is making a broader theological claim regarding the nature of figures, figural reading, and history in relation to Christ; see e.g., ibid., 146–54, especially 151–54.

  19. All Bible quotations are from the NRSV.

  20. In the very next verse, Jesus does go out to meet and heal people, but it’s the presence of the rhythm between action and contemplation or work and Sabbath that I’m seeking to highlight.

  21. Radner, Hope Among the Fragments, 115.

  22. See Radner, A Brutal Unity, 14, 169, 427.

  23. I’m tempted to say that the disciples witnessing the prayer of Jesus is part of speaking plainly of the Father to which Jesus referred and the disciples recognize in John 16:25–33.

Peter Ochs

Response

The Way Sabbath Complements the Weekday

THE TEXT OF THIS BOOK HAS SANCTITY. For the rabbinic sages, words of Scripture as well as commentaries on them have degrees of sanctity. In the context of rabbinic law, the relative sanctity of two books might be symbolized, for example, by the order you would follow if, God forbid, you had to save the books from a fire, or the order of which one you would place on top of the other. I admit that A Brutal Unity would sit under any of the Jewish holy books I own; but it would sit on top of much of the rest of academic and world literature.

This is not because Radner’s book is doxological, or liturgical, or that it is of the stuff of Sabbath. It is a book of the workdays of the week, not of the seventh day of rest. But the days of the week are also creatures and therefore words of God. And they are not days only of work. They are days of worldly toil shot through and at the same time with the light of prayer, grace, love, charity, righteousness, mercy, and justice. (When I think of light shooting through, I am thinking of part of the vision of the great Kabbalist, Isaac Luria, who saw creation as also a suffering, in which the great light of God’s creating was shattered at creation, filling the darkness, not with the magnificent architecture of a perfect world, but with myriad sparks (nitsistot) of divine light scattered into the darkness of our world. Those are the lights of God’s word in the flesh, sparkling through the dimness of our days of work.)

The text of A Brutal Unity is a spark of this kind—a spark of the light of Sabbath anticipating the end of days.

The Sabbath and the Everydays

Radner’s book offers a lesson analogous to what Scripture teaches about the relationship between Sabbath and the workday. In the terms of the halakhah, or Jewish law, the Sabbath is yom tov, holy time, while the workday is chol, profane time. There is therefore a contrast here. But what kind of contrast makes all the difference. This is not the contrast of logical contradictories, where “A or B” and “If A then -B.” It is, instead, the contrast of logical contraries, where “A is -B,” but also “A is -C, -D . . .” so that -A does not imply -B but implies any of a host of alternatives. In concrete terms, Sabbath and workdays are different the way two persons are different. You can’t be both people at the same time, but the existence of one person does not replace that of the other the way, for example, light is the absence of darkness or darkness of light, and similarly with good and bad. Two persons not only may but, indeed will, necessarily share as well as not share many features. Sabbath and workday are both days, creatures of God’s hand, bearing in that sense whatever likeness of God attends to what God wills, touches, and shapes. These two types of day are also names for types of biblically and rabbinically prescribed forms of behavior. The Sabbath is a day of rest, in a technical sense meaning not engaging in the kind of work one would perform to build the temple. It is the day when sleep is good, but not only sleep, also feasting and studying, making love, chatting, walking, and of course praying and glorifying God. The weekday is a day during which one performs what is analogous to the work of building the temple: a day of cutting, dragging, carrying, engraving, of transforming elements of the material world from something they are now to something they will be because of the work of hands. Yes, this is the labor imposed on us when we were cast out of Eden. But it is also much more than that. It is the work of surviving in a forest of thorns and dangerous creatures. And, for the rabbinic sages, it is also a day of tikkun: repairing the wounds of this world and also preparing this world for the world to come. This is labor with an end in mind, preparing this world to be a place where the next world may be. The next world may be very long in coming: “though he tarries, nevertheless, I know that he will come.” At the same time, that day can be no more than six days away. For the sages, the Sabbath is m’eyn olom haba, “like the world to come,” or it is “as if” the world to come. As Abraham Heschel has phrased it so well, it is “eternity in time,” a sacred time one literally enters into as one would a palace, a sacred space: sunset comes Friday evening, and you walk and step over that timeline as one steps over the threshold of a house; then you dwell inside it for twenty-five hours before it leaves and you have to step into profane time again. So, these are different times, but like different people they also share many things. The weekday is also a day of rest and prayer and eating and study. And, within this world in the literal sense, the Sabbath day is also a day when people die and suffer, when Orthodox Jewish doctors have to drive to heal the sick or tend to the dying.

Well, having drawn the analogy more than enough, let me apply it.

I read Radner’s book as both enacting and thematizing a distinction analogous to the rabbinic distinction between Sabbath and workday. A Brutal Unity is a book of the workday: of academic analysis, digging into archives, deconstructing a whole history of ecclesial claims, and constructing guidelines for new ones. But it is labor offered for the sake of the end time and anticipating its coming. It is a book that demonstrates how academic writing can be infused with the spirit (of Scripture, prayer, of the One who gives himself) and yet no less academic. In this sense, it is a demonstration of how to transform the contrast pair, “academic work vs. confession” into a description, for example, of how academic writing may be complemented by the work of the spirit. I read A Brutal Unity, in fact, as a guidebook to the work of transforming artificially constructed contradictories into complementary differences, and here one may read “transforming” as a synonym for releasing something into a condition it enjoyed before the imposition of some artifice.

From Liberal/Anti-Liberal to Jesus Walking on the Soil of a Liberal State

Like Bill Cavanaugh, Radner recognizes the potential brutality of liberal society’s peaceful sounding vision of unity. This is the unity of concept building, of what Levinas dubs “the same” (le même), a humanly constructed vision of the universal peace that, while filled with good intentions, bears the unintended architecture of a potentially totalitarian law (totalité). Radner recognizes that, from the perspective of a conceptual totality, the world is divided into such contradictories as the universal and rational good vs. the tribal or particularistic and irrational bad. But Radner also seeks to distinguish himself from Cavanaugh by criticizing a conceptualist version of liberalism without recommending a kind of anti-liberalism in its place. Instead, Radner pursues his corrective in a way I haven’t seen fully before, although it is suggested by words of the late Daniel Hardy. Hardy offers a contrast between an image of the Anglican Church sitting in some seat in the British Isles offering generalities about some other place, such as an Anglican critique of Israel’s politics, and the redeeming, alternative image of Jesus walking across the holy land touching and talking to people one at a time; the latter is Hardy’s image of a church that moves off its seat and touches rather than pronounces.1 So too, Radner’s book ends with an image of Jesus, the one who walks rather than pronounces and the one whose spirit and words and touch and move outside himself, giving himself up. The image appears proleptically in quiet spaces throughout the book, and I read it for one as a logical claim: the Logos is not a conceptual universal but a word that moves from place to place by walking from person to person rather than by casting conceptual nets beyond the reach of the caster’s hand.

Radner neither castigates liberalism nor assimilates his words with the liberal option. Instead, he identifies this “liberal option” as the name of a civilizational context of life rather than as some ideology and conceptual framework. In this way, he removes what are otherwise anti-liberal debates from the realm of conceptual totalities. Re-embodied, these conceptual adversaries appear, on the one hand, as a liberal state and, on the other, the church, at times sitting in the state and at times walking through it. In these terms, it makes no sense for the church to spiritualize the state, since it is the actual material environment in or beside which the church lives. Instead, the church walks over it and, in that sense, both comes to terms with it and imposes its own weight on it.

One consequence of Radner’s approach is that liberalism loses its own tendencies to conceptual totality. Another consequence is that liberalism gains the weight of empirical actuality. It commands as much respect as any creature of God should command. Another consequence is that liberalism thereby participates in an asymmetrical relationship to the church, analogous to the relation of a weekday to the Sabbath day. Both weekday and Sabbath are of this world, and the rays of divine light pass through both of them. But no day shines with as much divine light as the Sabbath day. If I am reading Radner as he wants to be read, then the next claim is one of the weightiest in his book. It is that, like the Sabbath, the church is illumined with greater light than any other worldly institution, but it remains worldly nonetheless. This means that, from the perspective of our human capacity to know it, the church does not display perfect unity. In these terms, the “brutal unity” of the church is, ironically, the unity proclaimed in the name of the church by humans who believe they already see and know the church in its perfection, as if it were wholly independent of time. In the terms we have been developing, however, this would be the church viewed as a conceptual totality, and, however well intentioned, totalized conceptions of the church can share in the killing power of all conceptual totalities. But what does this mean?

Does it imply that, as an ecclesiologist, Radner must limit himself to empirical studies of the worldly churches? No, it means Radner has provided a way out of the interminable debates between apologists and critics of the timeless church.2 He has found a way to remove the conceptualism that renders these debates interminable, transforming these contradictory views of the church into a pair of complements: the body of Christ as God alone perceives her (and in God’s eyes this church has perfect unity), and the body of Christ as she is received by the flesh and blood congregants of each and all of the worldly churches. At least through the eyes of a Jew reading Radner, unity is brutal when it is conceived and pursued through the agency of human reason and imagination; unity is redemptive when it names the redeeming activity of God in our midst. In Jewish terms, the Sabbath is God’s gift but we live it within the limits of our created flesh. A Sabbath wholly without blemish is wholly of the world to come. This one lives in our midst as the gift given each Friday evening as well as each moment of weekday prayer and as that which comes to us now as our future guiding us toward the day that will be only Sabbath. But, in this world, the Sabbath itself can be brutal if and when it becomes the name of that perfection we humans believe we can capture within the terms of our understanding here in this world.

Hearth-to-Hearth Religious Peace Building

The only true difference, say American pragmatists, is the difference that makes a practical difference in this world. So, what illustrates the practical difference Radner’s ecclesiology makes for life in this world? I opened by reading Radner’s Christian ecclesiology in terms of a rabbinic distinction between Sabbath and weekday. I shall close by reading it through an Abrahamic account of peace building in contexts of interreligious violence. I believe the distinction Radner perceives between what I call the church of the worldly Sabbath and the church of the end of days is a distinction that could make a tremendous difference in how we understand and respond to interreligious violence.

I have worked for about twenty years with a gathering of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars and peace workers, a group we call “Society for Scriptural Reasoning.” Centered on the study of Scripture both within and across the borders of our different traditions, this gathering has taught us something truly surprising: even the most orthodox believers can, with God’s grace, share in spiritually intimate studies of their sacred texts, and this sharing can bring Muslim, Jewish, and Christian orthodox believers together for moments of utterly unexpected, shared spiritual warmth. We do not know what these moments look like in God’s eyes. In our eyes, we know these moments do not diminish participants’ sense of belonging to very different religious traditions, only one of which they believe is truly true. But, in our eyes, we also know maintaining these differences does not diminish these believers’ capacities for loving one another and for sharing this love in the face of, and perhaps because of, their attachments to different Scriptures. Some of us in the Society for Scriptural Reasoning are just beginning to apply these surprising lessons to more practical work in international peace building, with the hope that our work will work even in regions of violent interreligious conflict.

Will our work succeed? We cannot predict such things. But I ask the question here because Radner’s book gives us reasons to hope it will—at least someday. For the sake of illustration, here is just one of those reasons:

Liberalism, as a conceptual ideology offered on behalf of the modern liberal state, sets the condition that frames violence today among religious as well as nonreligious groups. Radner diagnoses the condition as conceptualism: framing the truth of any ideology through the vehicle of conceptual totalities. When both opponents and devotees of a religion perceive and define the religion within such conceptual frames, the religion itself will set a condition for violence. The religion will appear as some entity X, whose existence contradicts or at least threatens the identity of entity Y, defined as -X. In these terms the modern state may perceive any religion or religion itself as an entity whose existence competes with and therefore threatens the identity of the state. Within the framework offered by the modern state, a religion may perceive the state and any other religion in the same either/or terms. But as Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, these either/or frameworks frame all political and religious entities as in a virtual state of war one against the other.

Radner’s prescription is to re-describe all such entities as what, in rabbinic terms, we may label “creatures.” Liberalism thereby reappears as a name for the sociopolitical condition of living in the modern state. Among its many meanings, the church is a name for the body of Christ, which is a name for those who follow Jesus as he walks across the land of the modern state, touching each person as he goes. If we applied Radner’s practice to the work of Abrahamic scriptural reasoning, we would invite each participating religious group to name itself with the name of those who follow what God does in the way they claim he does it. We might then use the term “Scripture” to name each group’s privileged account of what God does, so humans may follow him. We might then say that, on its own, each group tends to gather around Scripture the way folks gather around the family hearth on the coldest morning: for warmth and for the life it sustains. We might then say that two hearths differ from each other the way two persons differ: not as two universalized concepts that differ according to the logic of contradiction but as two creatures of God. If these two fight it is not because the existence of one threatens the identity of the other, but because they compete for something of value in the world. If they choose to speak with each other rather than fight, what form of speech might they adopt? If they speak only in their own terms neither may understand the other. But how then to translate the language of one into the language of the other? It is not to translate both into a purportedly universal language for, as we have seen, that would be to reduce them to conceptual totalities. It is to offer a means of speaking through the one word we know they share, which is the word God speaks in creating them. I do not yet know how Radner would describe this process in worldly terms. If he reasons like a Christian postliberal, then he might be partial to what we do. In the case of Abrahamic scriptural groups, this is to invite them to speak to one another “hearth to hearth,” through the one word we know they each gather around in the cold of life’s mornings: through their Scripture. For us, this means studying each other’s Scriptures together and intimately around the table. There is no conceptual violence in this process. There may at worst be silence or mutual indifference. If there is dialogue, it will appear only through the way these scriptural sources speak to each other. In that case, the dialogue will be a sign and anticipation of whatever unity might appear among such groups in this world: the way everyday prayer is a sign and anticipation of the weekly Sabbath.

What Kind of Theologizing is This? What Kind of Reasoning?

I read Radner’s book as the most recent and among the very most powerful expressions of what I label American and British postliberal theology. (In the recent book Another Reformation,3 I suggest the American postliberals include George Lindbeck, Robert Jenson, Stanley Hauerwas, and the British postliberals includes David Ford and Daniel Hardy.) Alongside Hans Frei’s Eclipse of Biblical Narrative, Radner provides the most adequate historical grounding for these postliberal theologies. Radner’s book is postliberal because it recenters theological discourse in the Christology of the early church and because it provides, through the agency of a pneumatologically grounded ecclesiology, a hermeneutical doctrine that protects early church Christology from supersessionism. Radner’s non-supersessionism refers in its literal sense to the refusal to replace God’s promise to Israel with God’s promise to the church. But in postliberal fashion, Radner’s non-supersessionism displays its force more generally as a doctrine of scriptural hermeneutics: verses of the gospel must not be read as poetic ways of delivering clear and distinct propositions. They must be read, instead, as ways of rereading verses of the Old Testament and other verses of the gospel. This rereading, furthermore, should not be characterized as having taken place already, once and for all, for that is just another way of reading the gospel as a set of propositions. The rereading should be characterized, instead, as taking place a new and afresh each time gospel is read and studied as gospel. Non-supersessionism means, therefore, a refusal to imagine one verse of Scripture replaces another one. It means one verse rereads another one again and again as the everyday work through which the light of Scripture transforms the unexpected details of this day and moment into yet another sign of the coming of a day when all is light. This means that, until that final day, there is no verse whose meaning is already known to us before the dawn of this particular day, where “already known to us” means known by way of those “conceptual totalities” that enable us to know now what will be tomorrow.

The word comes to us, not through our a priori insights, but through the way it actually walks among us. It is fitting, therefore, that the final words of Radner’s book include these:

The Beatitudes . . . [are] about what God is doing in Christ to bring reconciliation about, insofar as they describe where Jesus has placed his body so that the world may be saved. . . . The Beatitudes describe Jesus . . . come into his flesh. For it is God himself entering “the world,” in the figure of his body: “you have prepared for me a body . . . lo I come.” . . . When we begin to grasp how it is “that god reconciles the world” in Christ . . . then we will begin to understand the shape, meaning, and passage of unity itself.


  1. See Daniel Hardy, with Deborah Ford, Peter Ochs, and David Ford, Wording a Radiance (London: SCM, 2011).

  2. Note how these debates mimic the interminable debates between modern rationalists and empiricists!

  3. Peter Ochs, Another Reformation: Postliberal Christianity and the Jews (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2012).

Ephraim Radner

Response

A Response to A Brutal Unity

I AM VERY HONORED and humbled to have had Tim Furry organize this symposium, as he has; and especially to have these four scholars who have who have taken the trouble to read and respond as seriously and substantively to my book as you have done, given the enormous regard and respect I have for your individual and collective intelligence and integrity. As I respond consecutively to the papers, I hope there will be some coherence in where I end up. I apologize in advance for the many things in what you have written that I should address but cannot. And I offer you my deep-felt thanks.

Before going further, I want to stress that my book is about the church and her unity, not something else. And anything else there is that is brought up—and I know it’s a lot!—is only ancillary to this topic: for example, discussions of violence, Judaism, the psychology of learning, or the rest. Some of it is meant to be a wake-up call; some is merely an exploration of what is at stake in the topic. But the topic is not any of these things, but something else.

So now let me begin with Bill Cavanaugh. It wasn’t so much that Tim Furry was sly in putting the two of us together, as he was remarkably brazen pr-wise in doing so. Hats off, Tim. So let me face the obvious: Bill reads my opening chapter in the book as an attack on his views, and an attack, furthermore, that is based on, shall we say, inexplicable misreading of his arguments in The Myth of Religious Violence. Let me try to deal with this quickly, and move on.

To some extent, he’s right. I wasn’t fair, and I apologize for that. For instance, he rightly chides me for asserting dismissal of Christian complicity in violence, or for his decoupling intrinsically Christian concerns—“God” concerns—from the violence of the sixteenth century and other periods. To this degree, I used his arguments, rather than engaged them.

But it wasn’t exactly inexplicable. I did the Flannery O’Connor thing: “When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling figures.” Except that the “startling figures” are not so freakish in this case. Bill says Rwanda is too “remote” to the realities we have to deal with here. No, it’s not. We all thought it was in 1994; but they needed us and we needed them, because we were, as Christians, part and parcel of what was going on there. As we still are. They needed a liberal democracy, not the church we had offered them; and they still do. So I shouted about that. And we all should. Not to Bill—who doesn’t need to hear this, I am sure—but to the many who have become so worried about the exact shape of our polities—both ecclesial and civil—that they have let our hearts flounder in the pit of discord.

So I yelled at the wrong people. But I am not going to withdraw all of my concerns, by any means. Let’s take the most symbolic: the concept of “religion.” I think it is an appropriate category to use, not just because it’s useful, but because it is a historically grounded category that is bound up with Christian claims, albeit ones that have been framed by shifting terms. Christians have construed the beliefs of non-Christians in terms of an overarching divine reality and set of resistances to that reality: idolatry (a word Bill uses), heresy, falsity, schism, and so on. Christians have used “religion” eristically—as a way of ordering relationships and mostly hostilities. To the degree “religion” became a concept applied supra-particularistically within a political framework by modern civil cultures, it was, like much else, built upon a Christian bequest: which had claimed, from the early church, then renewed in late Middle Ages, that everyone is religious somehow; it is just a question of true or false religion, and in many cases, a mixture of both. Church teaching, political order, and mission have all been founded on the deployment of this category, whatever its terminology, for centuries.

That non-Christian civil societies have applied this category back, as it were, onto Christianity, relativizing Christianity, and placing it within some larger sphere of human attitudes, is precisely what we Christians set ourselves up to have happen: to be measured by universal and absolute claims that we have failed to keep. The fact that Christians are accused of something called “religious violence” is but the consequence of the peculiar feature of specifically Christian violence; that is, such violence is not only “idolatry,” as Bill rightly says, but it is “blasphemy,” the squandering of an inheritance and the “recrucifying,” as Hebrews said, of the Son of God at the hands of those who were once “enlightened” (Heb. 6:4–6). And if this is so, we are not free to change the subject, but are inevitably fastened to it, is to a millstone.

The rapid rejection of the church, and embrace of sometimes anti-Christian and anti-religious measures in societies like Quebec, France, or Ireland, or what have you, have been founded on suspicions that derive from this blasphemy, as Paul says in Romans 2:24, “my name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” Suspicions are well founded. Why would one trust the churches, or Islam for that matter? The search for privatized spheres of life is not intrinsically irrational, however problematic it may be.

In our day we rightly ask: who is the real “troubler of Israel”? Is it Elijah, the religious leader who speaks against the King, or is it Ahab, the civil ruler who, in Elijah’s words, “has forsaken the commandments of the Lord” (1 Kings 18:17f.)? Bill is right: there was a time one could not pull these two roles apart easily—religion and politics. The problem isn’t just that we’ve pulled them apart in our day; it is that we have so clearly problematized the character of divine law itself altogether. It is our responsibility, as Christians, to engage that problematic: what has happened to the “divine law,” that it is no longer seen either as divine or as law? And precisely here Bill and I disagree, I think.

Why do Christians kill for the nation state? Because the state is a new self-invented religion? Or because the divine law—and as Christians, the “law of Christ”—itself has no purchase on our murderous souls? Murderers will indeed kill for the telephone company. And for all kinds of things. That’s what we do. And that no divine law has purchase on our souls in these formerly Christian countries, and on Christians who kill, is purely a Christian problem, for which the churches of Christians are solely responsible. And it is indeed here, I believe, in the dark hole of this responsibility, that the question of Christian division is lodged.

The “church and liberal state” question is lodged here too: “small communities of discernment,” as Bill suggests we should be ordering ourselves as Christians into being, over and against the rest of civil society, will never be enough in our present Christian condition, and hence the little residues of resident aliens and so on are far too little too late: because all these small communities areprecisely what the likes of Adam Smith wanted: thousands of little Christian groups who will compete against each other so much so that they will have nothing to say to the civil polity, and will leave it alone in peace. If there is a disagreement among us—and Bill is right to say it is probably far less than I permitted myself to imply—it is where we start. For me: by engaging in our liberal polities with the fullness of our powers as citizens, grateful for this opportunity, and, even more importantly, by tending to the integrity of our Christian lives that are so derided by our Christian failures.

So what does it mean, to engage in the life of Christian unity, such that (although not only so that) our life within a civil society has some kind of moral traction?

Paul Hinlicky properly focuses on the issue of conscience in my case. For that is why the category and reality of “religion” is important to me—it defines the deepest hold of conscience, the asserted hold of the divine upon us. Yet I am suggesting we leave conscience behind.

I am grateful he recognizes the valuable and key relationship of unity to sacrifice of conscience, understood in both its personal and sometimes collective sense. To get beyond the separative thrust of virtually all appeals to conscience, one must somehow get beyond the constantly demanded self-distinctions that conscience impels. But he raises two perplexities, as he puts it. First, isn’t such a claim inevitably and logically going to come to rest on some more fundamental tenet of conscience itself, that is, that this loosening of conscience’s hold upon us is in fact the way of Christ, that which Christ would have us do, or connect us with in him? Thus, is this not simply a more fundamental form of conscience, “conscientious sacrifice,” as it were? And secondly, just because of that, just because it is bound to Christ’s own being—he who is the sacrifice of self, of holiness to sin for the sake of the sinner—does this not demand some kind of normative formation and “direction” for Christians? Why else would I even be commending it in writing? Hence, I am staking out a position about the gospel—however useful in the eyes of some—that will, by definition, be contested by others, and so lead to yet more division. This is a kind of practical logic at play here, in Hinlicky’s view.

And more than logic. The very performance of such arguments on my part takes place within the privatized sphere of religious declaration that is now our fate in the divided church and liberal polity. It doesn’t matter what any of us say: it is all for contestation, and if we tire of it or it becomes too troubling—withdrawal. Back to our studies, our departments, our classrooms, and scribbling. I am aware of the irony of this kind of discussion: the debate over unity in our churches is fated to the very consequences of division’s consignment of debate to at best irrelevance.

But that is precisely where Christ will not let us go, so I would argue. Christ himself does not and will not go gentle into our private retirements. Or, at least, not only there. And for that reason, not “gently” at all. He will go to the side of our enemies, and the side of those from whom we flee. And we will go with him, willingly or unwillingly. So that, foundational or not, normative or not, directive or not, there is an end to where we are going. And my argument is not so much about what we should do—although there is that, and it is probably thin stuff, and in fact does raise all the perplexities and ironies Hinlinky has noted, and more! I am more interested, not in what we should do, but in what is actually happening, as Christ goes places and drags us along. To that extent, I am only trying to be descriptive.

And so the “process” side of things is something Hinlinky properly notes in what I am trying to say. It doesn’t matter whether we “get it right” in our heads and policies, except in terms of judgment (which obviously counts for something, but not for consequences). On the one hand, we do sacrifice our consciences—that’s part of my argument about the nature of learning, of marriage, of the rest of our natural lives, and we’re doing it all the time, whatever we think we are doing—and much of it not so much normative as inevitable. Understanding this, descriptively, is to perhaps better grasp the nature of procedural consensualism as a pragamatic approach to common life. It’s already happening in the liberal polity, as any conservative Christian like myself is reminded every day. And for the good probably. But furthermore, we will sacrifice our consciences—in the sense, not of us as agents, but of us as creatures before God. Christ will take our consciences—whether we like it or not; indeed, like Peter, we will be “taken where we do not want to go” (Jn. 21:18). All the stuff about “I have decided to follow Jesus” may be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far; and in the end, it is Jesus himself who takes us as far as we must go.

That is what is happening right now, to the church and churches. It is part of the story of the church and the liberal polity. It is part of the landscape through which we are being taken. In a strange way, we should celebrate it, even as we struggle with its forms. The directive side has to do with understanding the descriptive side—my approach, I guess, in The End of the Church: we are invited to take joy in what God does with us. Though, of course, we can resist, however futile it may be!

This leads me to Peter Ochs’ paper, which I found deeply challenging, but also encouraging.

Ochs frames his remarks with the rich image of weekday and Sabbath. The church is Sabbath reality that is somehow shot through with weekday reality, at least insofar as I have described her. I think that is right, at least up to a point. But there is a deep historical problem with Christian sabbatical thinking. Probably no other element in the Scriptures has been the cause of so much incoherence among us. We have a Decalogue from which we have, in concrete terms, excised one commandment. To be sure, Christians have dealt with this in different ways: Jesus is our Sabbath rest; Sunday is our Sabbath; no, it’s Saturday after all; no, every day in Christ is our Sabbath; no, Sabbath is a state of mind; and so on. In fact, Christians don’t know what to do with the Sabbath. We are weekday people. Not that we should be. We struggle with some kind of integration, but are usually at a loss. But the walk to Jerusalem is at the center of our lives—the “holiest week”—“holy week,” we say. And Sabbath itself, Saturday, is an empty, sorry day within that week.

I’m not sure what to make of all this, for we haven’t figured it out. But it is a rich field in which to be directed by Ochs. And ecclesiologically, it is important. Church-time—that’s the descriptive time I am talking about, in which unity is given in Christ’s sacrifice of himself, into which we are taken, and must be and will be taken—church time is probably not best expressed in terms of the divisions of militant (on earth), penitent (in Purgatory), and triumphant in heaven, as if time and place are somehow parcelled out for the church. There has to be some integrated way to deal with this. And perhaps a better sense of weekday and Sabbath is the right way to frame this.

If we are weekday people, thus, are we saying Christ himself is always “walking and touching” rather than “sitting and pronouncing,” in the phraseology Ochs has given us, mentioning Daniel Hardy. We have, after all, the image of sitting and pronouncing very clearly in the church’s tradition: the session of Jesus in heaven, and then his judgment, which comes at the end of time, so that, like the church, there is Christus nascens, Christus patiens, and Christus Iudex. Here, too, perhaps, we are challenged to speak of “Christ’s time” in a different way than we have often done. Jesus “the Sabbath rest” must color, or illuminate his Sabbath church, with the same kind of walking that is his divine and sabbatical walking, the doctor going out to the patient, on the holiest of days. The “sabbath made for man” (Mk. 2:27), because the Son of Man came to heal him on his own Sabbath, as it were, of which he is Lord (v. 28).

But I confess to being uneasy with the notion of a “perfect unity” as “God knows” or sees it, after which we yearn. Once having asserted this perfection, which is somehow bound to “the world to come,” in Ochs’ phrase, there is always the temptation to peer in at it, through some imagined or pried open window, and then to grasp at it and pull it into our conceptions, forming—as Ochs indicates—the new “totalizing conception” that plays into all the “interminable” disarray of vying totalities. But fallibalist pragmatism, such as might direct our engagement with all the “creatures” of the world, including our politics, is clearly not the mode of life and knowing that constitutes the “heavenly Jerusalem.” So, although uneasy, I cannot see how we can do without a notion of perfect unity. As a Christian, though, I would insist we have no windows into its form, other than it “looks like” Jesus Christ as we have in fact seen him in our Scriptures. His Sabbath is always on the move. Is that a dangerous “conceptual reality”? Ochs has encouraged us, from his own non-Christian perspective, to perhaps trust that it need not be so. That is a tremendous encouragement from a source I am grateful to listen to. For it at least indicates that this “looking to the form of Jesus” is not nonsensical within the context of reading a common Scripture; that it, at least in theory, is a plausible response to Scripture’s reality.

I am encouraged as well by Tim Furry’s digging into the Scriptural reality I have tried to explicate as being fundamental to our understanding of the church and her unity. He rightly understands that, in some way, this is really the center of my interest in the church and her politics. And to the degree I claim to frame this in terms of Scripture’s logical priority to the church and, indeed, to historical figure itself, to history, I suppose he and Paul are right: this is a kind of “dogmatic” claim. But it is a claim aimed, as I indicated earlier, at relieving the church from the templates of dogmatic construals of form and history, templates that have served over and over to justify her failures and obscure the character of her life as it is in fact found within the realm of historical phenomena. The church is as she seems to be—she is not hidden there behind the phenomena—insofar as what we see is given to us by God.

Tim Furry does me a service, actually, in clarifying the assumptions I work under in this book by drawing them into continuity with earlier things I have said about Scripture and figure in their fundamental definition of created reality in Christ. The place, however, that I would resist his reading is in his sense that we can project this figural reality into God’s own nature, for example, that God’s oneness is properly described as “eristic” because “the form of God creating and giving himself over to the other in history is simply a temporal performance of what happens in the eternal, triune life.” This would amount to a kind of Boehmian (i.e., from Jacob Boehme) vision of the deity, and would seek to attach historical life to the outworking of such a deity’s immanent dynamic. Not only would I not want to go in such a direction, I think it is a theologically dangerous direction to pursue. To call the oneness of Christ “eristic” is not to peer into the form of God’s own being, but rather simply to say this is the oneness God has given us because of his ad extra creative love, no more, no less.

It is this “givenness” I want to stress—all is given, that is; “there is nothing we have that we did not receive” (1 Cor. 4:7), and it is receipt that marks our relationship with God, not some more penetrating vision. This is why I am reluctant to see Christian unity primarily in terms of imitatio Christi, although there is nothing wrong in seeing it in these terms to a certain extent, and my language of mimesis may be confusing in this regard. But Origen’s ascetic figuralism is generally one of personal transformation—that is the nature of much of his reading of the Bible, which deals with the battle against the passions and the sins of individual life, granted, within the context of the church’s life. And yes, the Benedictine tradition is connected to this: one enters into the community for the salvation of one’s own soul, not another’s. Yet that salvation turns out to be communally figured precisely because within community our individual salvation is discovered as given in the lives of those with whom we are placed. Givenness, in a corporate form, transforms the individual quest. The church is the place of divine giving and givenness because of its inescapable collective embodiment. Ascesis is not ruled out, but it is transfigured into an impossibly knotted set of relationships, much like marriage ,which, while also ascetic in some of its personal effects, has meaning that transcends such personal changes— one flesh rather two purified fleshes.

This gets, finally, to the question of prayer that Tim rightly lifts up as something I left improperly unemphasized. He is absolutely correct to press its centrality within the enactment of Christian unity, and my appeal to people like Marmion is in fact an appeal to the insights not only of people who pray, but to the act of prayer in its form of receipt and self-giving. What I would want to add, though, is that Christian unity is also most properly seen, in an extended way, in prayer together, not prayer alone—prayer for others, to be sure, but aimed at prayer with others, across the “walls of separation,” not only geographically and physically, but in the spirit. That is one reason why the example of Christian de Chergé is so important for us; it was not only his martyrdom that was holy, but a martyrdom that sprang out of his willingness “to pray with others who pray.” In this light, the figure of the “lonely” Jesus is a complex one: though he seeks quiet he is constantly bothered by crowds, to whom he defers; and at Gethsemane, by contrast, while he yearns for a common prayer, as it were, with his disciples, he is “left” alone, and that itself is a kind of agony.

It is less the case that unity is found “in prayer,” it seems to me, than that it is found in a certain kind of prayer joined to the larger figure of Christ’s self-giving. Maria Sagghedu, whom I have referred to elsewhere, is viewed as an ecumenical witness in prayer largely because her prayer was one of vicarious self-giving, a kind of “martyrdom” in the physical sense. The issue is not prayer as a means but the ends of prayer’s action, its embodied form, that which God does to us in our prayer. The whole question of unity in Christ is one of an unveiling, of having revealed as a mystery, what God is in fact doing, and then receiving it in the many ways we can—prayerfully, actively, martyrially. When the church as she is, is seen as the gift she is, because she is the body of Christ that is fully gift no matter her form—for her form is all the forms of the Scripture’s ordering of time—then she is one in a way that is holy.

But both of us, Protestant and Catholic, will say, agree, and celebrate the fact she is loved, with everything being the case, she is loved miraculously and thus divinely. And we will both say “this is what God does”: the one who “loved the Church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25).

This “giving” by God is what has happened; it is happening; it will happen. That is one way to sum up what my book is simply trying to describe in political terms: we are being reframed into something we desire, because we desire wrongly, as James says. And I doubt it has much value beyond such simple description.

Shares