Unity and Disunity: Talking with Ephraim Radner

There is something intimidating about having to climb up on a step, steady oneself against a wall, and perform impressive feats of acrobatics to buzz into an office. It may be fitting when the buzzer marks the entrance to the offices of contemporary theological giants like Chris Seitz, Terry Donaldson, and Ephraim Radner but it is not particularly encouraging. Not that I am complaining – heaven forbid – I was given the incomparable opportunity of interviewing the Rev. Dr. Ephraim Radner for the Crux books blog about his most recent publication: A Brutal Unity. How lucky can a girl get?

eradner_thumbnailA Brutal Unity is a smart book that isn’t an overly difficult read. It connects theology with ground level practice making it worthwhile for anyone with any connection to any church, whether they have pretensions to Academia or not. The main thrust of A Brutal Unity is a reframing of the way we look at Christian Unity. It posits that Christian Unity should be viewed not as consensus but as something else:

… oneness of mind is received through having the “mind of Christ,” which is the one who gave up the form of God for that of a slave and emptied himself into death. Paul’s words do not constitute a denial of God, but point instead to a suffering of the contradiction between obedience in unity with the world that is filled with “tribulation” and seemingly mastered by one who is not God (cf. John 16:11,33). And it gives rise to the exalted life of God’s redemption. (P. 446)

His arguments are fleshed out by case studies that ground his assertions in the practical, historical life of the church as the body of Jesus Christ. For Radner unity is not about consensus but about the giving up of self. But, enough of my summaries! Let’s see what Professor Radner himself had to say:

I suspect that the best way to start is to outline a little bit about what the book says: would you mind briefly outlining your argument?

bunityThe book itself is about decision making and what it means to come to decisions in the church. Disagreement – disunity – have historically been literally murderous and resulted in incredible offenses. This book is about exploring why the concept of consensus as unity hasn’t worked out. Firstly, it is not what Christian Unity is in the scriptures and indeed consensus as a response is wholly inadequate to deal with the problems of the church. What therefore is adequate? The whole notion of self sacrifice as that upon which unity can be founded comes down to accepting some disagreement as part of unity. This forms the ground, bound up in failures of the Christian church, of a discussion on church unity. The liberal polity and its processes of decision making are necessary and important but utterly inadequate.

I read this book as hopeful, as a fresh way of looking at the church that has the potential to heal some of the violence and incongruities between what the church is called to be and how it plays out on earth, but I have heard some other opinions on the matter. Mainly, that it is a little negative – a little brutal – they say that the church cannot help but be a witness to Christ’s Gospel even in its fragmentation because that very brokenness displays God’s love for his broken people. How would you respond to this Hosea-esque argument?

You’re quite right that some people think [A Brutal Unity] is bleak and depressing and that it misses the mark of what the church is trying to do. One way I would respond to these arguments is that the proof is in the pudding. If it is such a witness to Christ’s love for his people then how come so much of the violence in the history of the church can be traced to disunity? That sort of thinking is problematic in terms of witness. Outside of the church, I have never heard someone articulate that disunity is something to be admired. No one has ever been converted by such a vision: it is always a “despite” rather than a “because of.” Disunity is deeply destructive. Some people think, “Hey – it is 2013 in Canada. We’re not killing anybody now. We are just a nice reflection of the liberal state with its multitude of members,” but that is just a political means of avoiding what the church is claiming. But that is wrong. Division has become benign. Many of the examples I use in A Brutal Unity are from the 21st Century like Burundi or Rwanda (which was virtually in the 21st Century). BUT CANADA we claim! Is our benign acceptance of division blinding us to what we are complicit in? I understand why people would find A Brutal Unity bleak – a lot of that may come down to tone – but I meant it as hopeful, like you said. I meant it as a realistic hope that is grounded in the gospel.

You are clearly engaged with this issue beyond an academic relationship – can you walk us through some of the cumulative experiences that went into, not only the content, but the decision to write this particular book?

I talk about some of them in the book. The African stuff is a clear example of not looking at a distance but being engaged. It was an eye opener for me when Rwanda was happening and Burundi came directly after. That was in 1994. I was in Connecticut. It was an interesting perspective to see these concerns vis a vis the church. I wrote to people: my own denominational leaders, the Vatican, etc. Everyone just kind of looked on. When the extent of the horrors of Rwanda dawned on people – not Burundi’s civil war, mind, but the Rwandan genocide – the world turned and all of a sudden it became the main issue on the world stage. Every one rushed in. It got all this political attention, which was good. Don’t get me wrong it was good it got attention. But, this was not a surprise. The world acted like it came out of nowhere but Burundi in ’72. Look at Rwanda in the ‘50s! it was obviously not to the same extent at that point but what happened in Rwanda was not a surprise. The churches – and this is my point – the churches have nothing to say about it. While it was happening, the Pope was meeting with African Bishops, it came up in passing in their meeting. They mentioned it and then just kind of moved on… So there’s that.
But you are asking me, personally? Within the Anglican Communion thing began to fall apart; the Episcopal church, the happenings in the late 90’s, Gene Robinson as Bishop, etc. all these things are happening and meanwhile they’re still fighting away in Burundi. All these things, all these divisions in the communion, were not separate things. They are not separate things. They are related… and not in a genetic way. The council meeting in 2007? It was a charade. All that happened there is consistent with other things that were happening. Anyway – it all fit.

In typical Radner fashion, he indicated that he had answered the question as fully as possible by throwing his hands up in a gesture of humble admission: “that is just the way it is.”

This book doesn’t stand on its own – there have been a lot of comparisons to your earlier book, The End of the Church – have your views changed between the two books?

My views have changed. Particularly around the theology of division and how we understand a good God, who is indeed good, in relation to Christ’s body, the church, as it is. It is about looking at reality and trying to understand what it means. You have to look at theology in history. Actually having to live a certain way through time. It is about what people do instead of why they do it. The first book was about the peculiar reality of the Reformation at least for the Western Church. I still think its key but the issues of unity are more deeply embedded than that. The current book – A Brutal Unity – deals with Jews, heresies, councils of the church, and things that are problematic to understanding unity and have always been so. They are temporally perduring [lasting through time – I had to ask what it meant] because unity is given not in a moment but in Christ’s self giving to the church in every moment witnessed to only in moments. Appearing to us in structured entities not because that is the way it has to be but because that is the way it is.

And finally, what comes next? Do you have a project you’re working on already?

I am working on some things. I’m working on a book about the character of scripture in terms of ontological character of its words. Another – a bigger thing – that I am working on is a book about what it means to be a creature created by God. The second one will engage the content of A Brutal Unity. There a lot of claims on what it means to be a created thing especially around learning – mainly implications from a Christian perspective and I want to explore that a little bit.

And I’m sure – if you are anything like me that you can’t wait to see where that exploration leads.


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