You are here

Radner's BFB, Part III

By TIm Furry

This is the third and final post reviewing Ephraim Radner's A Brutal Unity


Part III

Unity in Sacrifice

After defending the importance of procedure in decision making and the life of the church, albeit in chastened ways, Radner turns his attention to the language of conscience and what that means politically for ecclesial life. Radner first traces the etymology of the word itself, interrogating the Greek synteresis and the Latin conscientia before wrestling with the English legal tradition, especially Hobbes in chapter 8. Radner reads the understanding of conscience in the Middles Ages, including in Luther, as not supporting a kind of inviolability over against communal authority. Radner calls a reading that would argue for such a confrontation between public and private “historically inept” (344).

What Radner is attempting in this chapter is to show how conscience is practically oriented and rooted in particular social lives. That is, consciences are always already formed and being formed within the social structures in which they engage the world. Therefore, conscience is part and parcel of the means by which agreement can emerge (but not that agreement will necessarily emerge). In other words, Radner has pulled the historical and theological rug out from all attempts to claim the preservation of conscience as the end of discussion, conversation, or even controversy. One thinks here of the recent Lutheran debates within the ELCA and the invocation of conscience in just the way that Radner shows is historically and theologically wrong-headed.

While I did not give it as much attention as I probably should have, in previous chapters Radner argues that there’s a logic of sacrifice within the liberal state and its political procedures. This account fits well with Radner’s socially constituted view of conscience. Persons are required to negotiate their conscience within the socialities that constitute them and frequently give up certain personal beliefs for a larger good or perceived larger good. There will be more on this below. Because many Christians failed at such negotiation, that is reconciliation was not attained, in the wake of the Reformation, the liberal state emerges as a solution. However, given the Christian origins/causes on the liberal state, Radner sees the liberal states own inability to settle disagreement well as a reflection of the Church’s preceding failures.

As has become his habit, Radner makes Christ the figure of even the sacrifice of conscience. Jesus meets his accusers with silence. He makes no appeal to procedure or his conscience. Instead, he gives himself entirely to the will of the Father, despite his trepidation in the garden about undergoing the anguish of not only bodily pain but of rejection and injustice. “Jesus leaves behind his conscience as he moves toward those who would take it from him. So that his truth becomes a way into a life for others” (351).

Radner begins chapter 8 with one of the most intriguing sections of the book, at least in my mind, as he uses and defends Hobbes’ view of conscience. Instead of reading Hobbes as seeking to impose a political will on chaotic and always warring individual consciences, Radner interprets conscience in Hobbes to mean a kind of dynamic interplay arising out of common knowledge. Hobbes has a social view of the conscience and this is what animates his politics. It is the unresolved interplay between persons/consciences and their society that gives rise to the Leviathan. In other words, Leviathan is not extrinsically constructed to solve the disputes of individuals; it originates from inside those disagreements. Citizens sacrifice their own wills and decisions for the sake of overall peace and agreement, and, as a result, even the Leviathan remains in fluid motion as its citizens continually realign and reconsider their needs and conflicts. Radner finds sacrifice at the heart of human city-making, even in Hobbes, and lifts Hobbes up as better and more Christian than Kant and Kant’s understanding of conscience, and the public and private spheres.

I’m not entirely sold on this reading of Hobbes, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. But, on the other hand, I’m not sure that Radner even needs to have Hobbes right to make his case. Radner’s basic point in this chapter is to demonstrate how humans don’t possess a single conscience but multiple ones as a result of the social constitution of conscience. Radner, apparently not unfamiliar with any discipline of knowledge, proceeds to use research on second language learning and marriage as analogies for how humans possess multiple consciences and even learn different consciences.  Radner moves in and out of philosophical and scientific inquiry in this section with ease to make his case toward a kind of solidarity that would aid ecclesial division.

Christians need to learn other traditions’ language and practice, but as the research shows, second language acquisition is difficult and real questions arise about true fluency in a second language learned after childhood. Nonetheless, the nuptial relationship reveals that different languages or consciences can live with and next to each other with great success, if views are changed. Even more concretely, Radner discusses how ecclesially mixed marriages “flies in the face of much ecclesial separatism” making the current formal ecclesial divisions an enemy of potential unity. Radner’s point here is deeply personalist insofar as what makes “mixed marriages” work is that someone changes their mind; if that doesn’t happen, the marriage usually founders. However, such transformations occur because of the lived proximity with each other and shared loved. That is, lives are intertwined and sacrifice is part of the lived reality of such concrete relationships. And sacrifice is where unity is ultimately reached in a divided ecclesial setting for Radner but Christians must live with each other in such common ways for sacrifice to become possible.

Living with and close to people, especially people quite different from ourselves, is messy and frequently painful. This is why neo-tribalism runs rampant in a globalized world that demands integration in nearly every facet of life. Yet, this proximity to pain is necessary for sacrifice and unity in Radner’s vision. Christ’s body is given up for the unity of humanity with God and this constitutes God’s own life toward humanity. In fact, Radner heavily criticizes social Trinitarians for neglecting the abandonment of the Son on the cross in the name of communion. Radner never tires of pointing out that Scripture does not use the language of communion to describe the Godhead. Radner wants us to learn that since the self-giving takes place within God, in an almost difference annihilating fashion, Christians must model self-sacrifice “within procedural frameworks of adaptive disagreement” which orders the Church’s unity from within (435). If it can be analogously applied at all, according to Radner, this would be the only Trinitarian account of unity possible for a divided Church. The asymmetrical giving within God is what humans are called to imitate within the Church and toward the world. Suffering at the hands of each other, like Christ suffered, is indeed a brutal unity.

In the spirit of the Big, Fat Book series, I will conclude my review by summarily discussing what Radner has taught us (or at least argued) about ourselves along with my final reflections:

1. Western Christianity continues to be deeply plagued by ecclesial disunity, despite our attempts to ignore it, gloss over it, or even claim it to be enriching. Moreover, such disunity has been violent, and we can only name such violence “religious” (e.g. Post Reformation conflict, the Holocaust, and Genocide in Africa)

2. In fact, the pluralistic and liberal democracies most westerners inhabit are a result of Christian division and Christian violence. Put somewhat more provocatively than Radner says it, our inhabiting of a pluralistic, secular world is the result of Christian failures and Christian violence.

3. Thus, any Christian criticism of, or prophetic leverage to be claimed against, liberal democracy and its concomitant culture and societal malaises cannot stand without accounting for Christian division because such division is precisely why liberal democracy providentially arose, to both judge and assist the fractured body of Christ. In short, if we are to be truthful, Christians must blame ourselves for the problems we encounter in our political and culture situation.

4. The traditional Sunday school answer happens to be the answer to ecclesial division: Jesus. Only by imitating Christ’s self-sacrificial life and death within the divided Church in every area of our communal and political existence will we become one in any coherent theological sense. 

As I’ve tried to intimate, Radner’ argument has profound implications on various levels even beyond ecclesial division, but ecclesial division has taken center stage in understanding our current situation. Given how conspicuous Christian division is, one would think more theologians would take it seriously as a locus of reflection. Sadly, this has not been the case. Radner’s greatest achievement in this book is to make such an obvious reality central to our spiritual and theological existence as Christians. Radner’s argument seeks to show why we cannot make sense of ourselves as 21st century Christians, or even 21st century Americans, unless we come to name ourselves as violent dividers or as products of violent dividers.

Despite my own disagreements with him, which I have at times intentionally minimized here, Radner’s latest book deserves a wide readership and serious theological reflection. I hope this BFB review has helped promote A Brutal Unity towards the attention worthy of such a profound book.

Tim is an Instructor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain at Cranbrook Kingswood Upper School in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan

Copyright © 2012 Theology Studio. All Rights Reserved.