Review by Rowan Williams

Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life (Baylor University Press, 2016). 

This review appears in the May 7 issue of The Living Church.

Anything written by Ephraim Radner can be guaranteed to be serious, constructively difficult, spiritually challenging and original, and this book is no exception. It will be hard to classify, though; it is essentially an essay in theological anthropology, but is at the same time an exceptionally wide-ranging essay on our North Atlantic cultural crisis. In a nutshell, what he argues is that our Western society has lived through a “Great Transition” involving altered expectations of life and health, and reduced birth rates. We are less and less capable of seeing our lives as following a God-given trajectory in which birth, generation, and death constitute the way God gives us of being human and growing in our humanity to the point at which we resign our lives into God’s hands for a “Great Transfiguration.” Learning to inhabit this trajectory is the “Great Traversal,” the journey in which we enact and echo God’s traversing of human experience in Jesus Christ, the divine act that has established that the prosaic transitions of our routine experience are the stuff of which the new creation will be made — not by our effort or success, but by God’s mercy.

We have, in short, been encouraged in the modern, post-transition age to lose a sense of narrative in our humanity. And this is not only to do with our individual lives, if there are such speculative and abstract realities; it is about the process by which life is transmitted and new generations inducted into the human “traversal,” about the roles we provide for one another and especially for the younger members of our community and about the way in which we understand and live out the calling to “fill the earth” with new humans. If we lose our bearings with regard to death, we lose them with regard to sex, and vice versa. Post-transition failure to imagine the “arc of life” in its unfolding fullness is bound up with far-reaching confusions about sexuality and reproduction. Not the least of the strengths of this really remarkable book is the way in which Radner reframes the current debate about sexuality, avoiding the clichés of both left and right. He offers a sober and original case for being wary of same-sex marriage, a searching exploration of the calling to singleness, and a comprehensive theology of what he calls “filiation,” the embeddedness of human identity in the family

The argument is grounded in a sustained engagement with scriptural texts — not least from that unpopular book Leviticus (Radner has written about the history of its exegesis) — and has a strongly, if sometimes indirectly, christological theme. To have a human story of “traversal” is to accept that the incarnate Christ marks out the shape of creaturehood lived under grace, lived, that is, with a joyful and obedient awareness of limitation. Our temptation in the modern world is to treat every real or supposed limitation as a sort of insult to liberty, creativity, dignity, to prize the self-directed, self-constructed identity over against what is slowly and painstakingly woven in the interaction between what is received and what is decided or chosen. And this affirmation of the focal human good of interacting with the “given” but never refusing it as gift is rounded off with a wonderful chapter on “Working and Eating,” which sketches a model of how work in the widest sense (transformative engagement with the environment) is a primary aspect of our human nature and our human sociality; and how eating together is a central enactment of our mutual dependence, our shared labor to relate well to the world and our ultimate relatedness to the Giver of all things. Christ ate; he depended on the ordinary creaturely dispensation for life and well-being. And his eating, which we are summoned to share in his Supper, becomes the moment when the Great Transfiguration occurs for his body, the Church.

So we need to rediscover the discipline of “numbering our days” — reckoning our limits, facing and embracing our mortality as well as our “natality,” the sheer fact of our human origins in the lives and relations of others. The Church has very largely accepted with resignation the impoverished anthropology of Western modernity, and needs to be helped to reaffirm the unavoidability of time-keeping — seeing human life anew from the perspective of an unfolding narrative of changing responsibility and vocation (the old “ages of Man” trope in its Shakespearean form is explored with great imagination). And we must learn again the interdependent lessons of God’s two “books,” Scripture and nature, and beware of a “scripturalism” that draws us away from obedience and attention to God the creator who makes himself known in the ordering of a time-measured universe and a time-bound human story.

This summary gives little flavor of the density and beauty of Radner’s prose and the many incidental insights that beg for quotation and longer meditation. The book repays more than one reading. It offers what most would call conservative conclusions on some of the contested topics of the day, like same-sex blessings and assisted suicide, but with a freshness and perception that merit the most careful attention from those who might disagree. On same-sex relations, his main point is not that Scripture simply and arbitrarily writes off these unions as sinful, but that Scripture gives us no way of making strictly theological sense of non-generative sexual congress within the “arc of life.” If Leviticus is severe about these matters, it is because Leviticus works with a strong affirmation of what Radner calls the “skinful” character of human existence: we are who and what we are as beings living in our skins as the medium of limit and contact. And what breaches or wounds the skin so that bodily fluid is lost is automatically a challenge to the meaning of our humanity (hence regulations about “leprosy” are to be found in close proximity to those about relations between the sexes), unless it is within the context of the fertility God intends for these fluids: the shedding of blood and the “spilling” of semen belong in the same space of meaning for Leviticus.

This is — well, ingenious is the wrong word, as it can sound dismissive — certainly subtle, and not at all implausible as a reading of the semantics of Levitical observance. But given that Jesus touches lepers and hemorrhaging women, it seems as though Leviticus does not quite have the last word. We can hardly just repeat the Levitical principles of cleanliness in the light of the gospel; and to say this is not to adopt a facile Old/New Covenant opposition, which Radner is absolutely right to reject. The question I am left with is whether we are bound to say with Radner that every non-generative sexual act is pure “wastage” in the terms he implies. To question this is hardly, I would suggest, a total refusal of a general human trajectory of natality, generation, and mortality; there is a case for saying that bodies can “generate” in ways that are not simply about conception and birth. And — to revive a distinction I proposed many years ago — to see something (generative sexual congress) as an interpretative center for making sense of other relationships is not quite the same as claiming that this center is the literal norm for every act. But Radner makes a strong case for not assuming that we can make sense of same-sex relation by a simple extrapolation of what we say about heterosexual relation in its non-reproductive aspects. His plain declaration that the Church cannot know what sense to make here is honest, if tantalizing; because if same-sex attraction is somehow a given condition for some human psyches, it is frustrating not to be able to promise any meaning at all to it in the overall framework of creaturely temporality.

This is an area where I am not completely in accord with Radner. His discussion of euthanasia and assisted suicide, on the other hand, is one that I find almost completely persuasive. Yet here, as in the account of same-sex unions, I rather miss a recognition of the morally serious elements in the opposing case. It is indeed true, as Radner says, that the demand for physician-assisted suicide has a lot to do with the effects of a hubristic medical culture that insists on artificially prolonging life; but there is a case to answer when we are confronted with a sufferer from advanced motor-neurone disease, say, who is aware of each succeeding day as an expanse of impotent struggle, breath by breath. It may be wrong to allow our immediate empathic response to dictate; I think we do need to be wary of this. But the case of assisted dying is not a morally or even religiously trivial one here, and Radner’s compelling large picture would benefit from a closer attention to the hard cases.

That being said, the book has endless examples of fresh insight. There is a brilliant discussion of the odd redefinition of the word inclusion, abstracted from any language about obedience or transformation. Radner grants the point that theology needs a clear answer to those who see the Church’s disciplines as rejecting the beauty of diversity in creation, and he does a strikingly coherent job of shaping such an answer. There is a wealth of cultural allusion, historical and contemporary. There is some very creative engagement with Freud on sexuality and death (though I think he is a little hard on Ernest Becker, whose Denial of Death is less a theory about what the title implies and more a phenomenology of “pride” as the ascetic tradition thought of it). This establishes Radner as not only an unusually profound analyst of ecclesial and ecclesiological issues (his previous books have shown that in abundance), not only a theological essayist of near-genius, but a truly systematic theologian in the best sense, someone who can connect the great themes of dogmatic orthodoxy and scriptural figure to the challenges of our culture, which seems increasingly adrift from any idea of what common humanity — let alone common created identity — might amount to.

The Rt. Rev. and Rt. Hon. Lord Rowan Williams, Baron of Oystermouth, is master of Magdalene College at the University of Cambridge.

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Bought the book after reading Rowan Williams’ remarks, and I’ve just begun to read it–I think it will be a challenging and enriching stimulus to reflection and action, and as one previously unfamiliar with Ephraim Radner, I’m looking forward to a deeper acquaintance with his works.