Reading Radner: Part 3

Cæli enarrant

The seventh and eighth chapters of Ephraim Radner’s Brutal Unity press further into “the spiritual politics of the Christian Church” with special attention to conscience as a category and a problem. The Living Church published an excerpt from chapter seven, Radner’s account of Henri of Navarre’s “sacrifice of conscience” (Oct. 7, 2012), with further reflections on the theme by the Rev. Sam Keyes (Sept. 7, 2014). Society, including the society of the Church, depends upon the steady reconfiguration of the self as given to others, not as carefully cordoned off in would-be inviolability.

Chapter eight ranges across a broad political, social-scientific, and generally anthropological terrain under the heading “solidarity,” in order to turn up various treasures for theological valuation and application. Here, as elsewhere, Radner the Catholic bids secular learning come without fear of taint: Hobbes, second-language acquisition, marriage as reality construction. Grace perfects nature by pressing its truth into a more satisfying service; the queen will have pleasure in your beauty, therefore do her honor (cf. Ps. 45:12). In this case, the disparate truths are turned to the cause of Christian ecclesiality in order to engage, and begin to overcome, longstanding divisions.

Some interesting points from chapter eight, and then chapter nine:

1. Radner’s Christian theory of conscience takes St. Paul to emphasize “the individual’s moral opacity,” which relativizes conscience (so 1 Cor. 4:1-4, following Stendahl). Indeed, Paul urges a giving up of conscience for the goals of peace (Rom. 14:19). Understood in this way, conscience is not “a capacity, let alone a content or a demand,” but “the inescapable process of learning in the world, which reveals the self in relation to others.” That is, the process discloses “the reality of love,” and its historical form in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Intentionality and self-abandonment paradoxically combine (all from pp. 378-79).

2. Radner works this out in the instance of solidarity, a secular term of recent French origin that 20th-century Christian leaders appropriated “to express the most basic purpose and calling of the human race in relationship with God” (p. 382; cf. p. 388ff.). What is it? A virtuous response to the moral and social fact of interdependence; that is, as Pope John Paul II wrote in 1987, “a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good … because we are all really responsible for all” (p. 389). Ultimately, John Paul’s exemplary instances of solidarity were the “place-taking” martyrs Peter Claver and Maximilian Kolbe (p. 395; cf. p. 415). And this of course bears an ecclesial lesson, developed well by liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, notwithstanding what Radner calls his inadequate Marxism and “Protestant contingent ecclesiology.” In Radner’s important summary:

Christian unity is historically given through the actual practice of our self-giving to particular persons to whom we are called by God’s own redemptive purposes. Unity as solidarity, in other words, is bound to people, to whom God drives us, as it were, not for our security but for their well-being, whose guarantee is given by God’s own promises to them to which we attach ourselves, however “other” this may appear to all our expectations. And in the letting go of this self-security…, unity is given in a movement across boundaries, so that the reality of God’s own “strange” act can be made visible, apprehended, and finally somehow engaged. One learns to be “one” by learning to be other than oneself. The dividing realities of class or wealth, properly understood as whole worlds, are rightly seen as requiring abandonment, so that local loyalties… are necessarily exchanged for the sake of being able to place oneself literally “next to” another. (pp. 395-96; cf. p. 412)

And this example serves as a kind of proof of the thesis of the book: due to the “incapacity” of Christian agreement (chs. 1-3), the safety valve of proceduralist consensus” helped fend off violence (chs. 4-6), the successes and failures of which have led, and still lead, the world to stumble back into the gospel and paradoxically help the Church re-learn its own language (chs. 7-8) (p. 380). A duly chastened Church may take up solidarity as “an essential tool for the theological articulation of consensus and unity in terms of the sacrifice that knowledge and love entails” (p. 382).

3. Chapter nine serves as a review in part but also an illuminating advance, aimed at resolution. How, for instance, to think of “solidarity and consensus: are they the same?” (p. 405). Both have a role to play and they are intrinsically related, though the former digs deeper into the heart of the Christian mystery. With Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas, we can state the point in terms of justice: we need procedural rules; and, when they fail, we need to press on prophetically, determined to love “the enemy, the unjust neighbor, the victim.” In fact, all procedural commitment is “contested, peaceless, often restrictedly violent,” with a theatrical “unity.” At its core, though, is the hope for something more, which Christians identify with “the act of God in Christ.” Applied to the Church, her very “life depends upon the convergence of the two spheres,” in a perfect unity that is “given only in Christ” but may be integrated “in the form of Christian solidarity” through acts of creaturely self-giving (pp. 421-22). In this way, again, solidarity proves capable of capturing the sacrificial center of the gospel, which Radner describes as the “unilateral asymmetry of self-giving,” that is, the rightful claim of “the Other” upon us apart from any reciprocity (pp. 412-13, borrowing again from Levinas, here contra Martin Buber).

4. With this thesis in focus, Radner recurs again to politics, through which the sociality and order of the Church as a visible body are determined and lived. Individual sanctity, after all, must issue in love, affording no escape from conflict, as tempting as it is to retreat. And what of wider counsel and accountability? Here, for the first time in Brutal Unity, Radner tells something of the story of his experience of “the painful center of unity” as a young missionary priest in Burundi, set down at once amidst the extraordinary holiness of many Christians and at the same time “enormous political turmoil … filled with violence and deception of the deepest and cruelest and most imbedded kind,” in which all of the churches were “horribly complicit” (pp. 422-23). How to rehabilitate unity post-genocide, the more when young Christians, amid “an explosion of new churches, bypassing many of the older ones,” prefer to turn from the past to focus on a hoped-for, nonpolitical future? “Perhaps there are similarities here to feelings about Christian ecclesial life shared among young people in America,” muses Radner. “For what there is of the past is often bitter to the taste, and this includes ideals that were never achieved” (p. 426).

5. What if, in fact, division and unity are “in a sense the same thing, only lived in different ways?” Here Radner articulates, with startling originality, one of the chief gains of his study. Jesus himself states clearly that he came not to bring peace but rather division, even as he prays that all may be one, as if to say: “I would unify the very world I divide, that they may see the oneness I bring.” Is Christ divided, therefore? No! And … yes, in a way, “whose inescapability is itself murderous.” Christ falls to the ground in Gethsemane, like a grain of wheat (see John 12:24); and, as Simeon says, “this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34). In creating, God divides light and darkness, and in Leviticus love is separative, that is, “love is that which gives life to something outside itself.” What then is unity? It is not something, writes Radner, that can “cleanse itself of division.” But a unity that can defeat death is one, “and only one, that turns and faces its own genesis, as it were; it stoops and assumes its contours.” Hence the one new man of Ephesians 2 is wrought “in one body through the cross,” drawing even those who were far off near “in the blood of Christ” (2: 16, 13). These are ecclesiological statements, according to Scripture, which teaches that “the very shape and lineaments of division and unity are necessarily given in the body of Jesus and the shape of his body’s submission in life, death, and resurrection” (all from pp. 427-29). Christians following after their Lord walk this edge of unity that is “the persecuting blade that has always cut and sculpted the figure of Christian testimony …. We are called to be one, but our life depends upon the sharp edge of division. Give me peace, through your sword, O Lord!” (p. 432).

6. Such a passional ecclesiology would teach the divided churches to cherish first of all “the divine movement of God’s own incarnate solidarity,” within which protective feints at autonomy make little sense, save as rebellion. Rather than seeking to shore up an abstract “unity in diversity” among the churches, we might rather aim at unity in subjection — submission and abandonment — whereby our divisions may be “exposed and torn down, just as the Son of Man has exposed himself to the smiters, so bearing all things (Isa. 53; 1 Pet. 2:24; Matt. 8:17)” (pp. 433-35). The 1961 meeting of the World Council of Churches at New Delhi provides a certain precedent here in its vision of “a death and rebirth of many forms of church life as we have known them …. [N]othing less costly can finally suffice.”

7. To be sure, such a vocation presumes a steadfast “search for procedural regularity and justice,” both within and without the Church. As Radner says, we, who are so often godless Christian sinners, must follow our Lord who gave himself to the godless: “the divided to the divided” (pp. 436-37). In the Church, this means serving her order, and presupposing it. Our work will have less to do with “dialogue,” however, than with the solidarity of sacrificial love, which has an “essentially disruptive and nonconformist character” (pp. 438-39). Likewise, in secular contexts, we face an “inescapable demand” for “procedural regulation and fallibilist consensualism” (p. 441); and, as these strategies inevitably founder under pressure of opportunism, renewed resentment, and justification for future violence, something else and more is needed: a “witness, which passes out beyond the shadows and figures of political life into the fullness of solidarity … that can, from a practical point of view, save politics from its human demise. Natural solidarities engage processes, while Christian solidarity enacts its form beyond the claims of such processes while suffering their intransigence” (p. 441; cf. pp. 439-40).

8. What might this look like? Radner offers his own pointed questions:

When Jehovah’s Witnesses are arrested, where are the Catholic bishops? And vice versa. Who prays with whom? Who gives money to build whose church? What sacramental presence is provided by whom to the other and, in so doing, giving up what personal obligations? Upholding the claims of the smallest groups, violating political distinction, avoiding lawsuits, keeping bridges open to those who have accused and left the Church. The acquiescence to procedural engagement must give way, at least here at the center of the Church’s life of witness, to the self-offering of all a church constitutes to that which denies or to those who deny its value. (p. 442)

In this way, individual Christians, as well as churches, may help to construct “concrete Catholicity” rather than subverting it (p. 442).

9. There is more. Radner’s explication of the four marks of the Church makes for breathtaking spiritual reading; with Rowan Williams, he applies them to Jesus “truly” and to the Church “only as she lives in and through him” (p. 443). Brutal Unity delivers a lucid, 20-page conclusion, susceptible of ready comprehension, especially if one has worked through the preceding study. It almost might have been the introduction, but one can imagine that Radner wanted to incentivize the road ahead as a way of formation and transformation. Traveling upon it, pilgrims are sure to see something of “the shape, meaning, and passage of unity itself” (p. 468).

Christopher Wells

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