An Agonistic Ecclesiology – on Ephraim Radner’s “A Brutal Unity”

This first appeared as an editorial in Ecclesiology 11 in 2015.  We are grateful for permission to republish it here on Fulcrum.

I am devoting this Editorial to one of the most arresting studies of the Christian Church that I know of: Ephraim Radner’s A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church. 1 Waco: Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012. v + 482 pp. isbn 978-1-60258-629-1 (hbk). £49.99. Spiritually profound and ethically searching, it is also vastly learned and infused with passion. I have found it to be one of the most demanding of the hundreds of books that I have reviewed in various journals over many years. It is not an easy read and is probably best digested in small doses, but anyone engaged in ecclesiology, ecumenical theology or ecumenical dialogue ought to get to grips with it. Essentially it is a plea for rethinking ecclesiology in a way that takes the history of division in the Church – and the tragic and sometimes criminal consequences of division – with the utmost seriousness. Radner argues for a ‘realistic’ ecclesiology, rather than an idealistic one that does not reflect the state of the Church as it is. He has not provided such an ecclesiology – at least not in a systematic way – but he has given us a crucial methodological prolegomenon to it.

Before I come to the specifics of the argument, let me get the downside out of the way. I did not always find it easy to grasp Radner’s meaning. Some of his constructions are opaque. He makes little concession to readability, though his passionate message ensures our continued attention. His prose is not always literary. There is a good deal that is jagged, allusive or cryptic. He sometimes struggles to get his meaning across. The summary at the end does not help much. So it takes some dedication to work through 482 pages in that vein. But those who do so will probably never be able to think about the Church – to do ecclesiology – in the same way again.

Radner’s realism means looking at the Church without our customary rose-tinted spectacles. The Church that goes wrong, sins and commits crimes is not other than Christ’s Church. It is not merely the earthly shadow of the real heavenly Church, nor is it simply the visible tip of an invisible iceberg. Neither is it the ecclesial mirror-image of the social Trinity, as in some communio ecclesiology. The Church is not a politically uncontaminated mystical body, but is political through and through, inescapably involved with issues of power and justice or injustice. The sinful Church that we see is the Church. The only Church that there is is a sinful Church (p. 464). In Radner’s view, such ecclesiological realism does not eradicate the Church’s potential to be an instrument of the mission of God. The two aspects exist in juxtaposition. As Radner puts it, the fact that ‘disordered failure and redemptive capacity’ coincide in the Church’s life is ‘one of the most anguished centres’ of Christian experience. But disunity, leading to further failure and wrong-doing, constantly threatens to undermine the Church’s God-given raison d’être, because a disunited Church cannot point unequivocally – indeed can hardly point at all – to the unity of God, the most fundamental theological truth of all.

Christian disunity and division is not only an appalling evil in itself but it gives birth to even worse evils. Through an analysis of the late medieval and post-Reformation religious wars in Europe, the Church in Hitler’s Germany, massacres in Burundi (of which he has first hand knowledge) and genocide in Rwanda, Radner shows that the failure of the churches to stand together, to speak and act as one against a common foe, proved to be their undoing and led in some cases to direct involvement in killing, or at least complicity in it. He rejects the sort of recent Roman Catholic apologetic which protests that, while individual members have sinned grievously, ‘the Church as such’ or ‘the Church in itself ’ (John Paul II) remains immaculate. He also faults the Barthian, German Confessing Church model which, he argues, evacuated the institutional dimension from the Church (p. 145). Radner’s own approach is not anti- institutional; no body of humans can presuppose that it lacks form (p. 403). He disputes William Cavanaugh’s argument that religion is usually employed as a pretext for violent action by other powers. 2 William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). See also now Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (London: The Bodley Head, 2014). No, it is religion itself that is sometimes lethal. The unpalatable fact is that ‘religious violence has a horrendous character peculiar to itself ’ (p. 28). It finds opportunity when a distorted version of religious identity ‘empowers evil’ (p. 29). The religious wars in Europe have been characterised as ‘killing people for God’s sake’. 3 Norman Housley, Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400–1536 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). In the sixteenth century Montaigne commented, ‘There is no hostility that exceeds religious hostility.’ And Pascal’s pensée is well known: ‘No one does evil so fully and happily as when done for the sake of conscience.’ Even in modern times, Christians have prepared themselves to slaughter the innocent by prayer or even by receiving Holy Communion. Radner draws on Longman’s study of the Church and the Rwanda genocide to argue that there is a kind of Christianity, that is not at all uncommon, that lends itself to this kind of perversion. It stresses obedience to religious authority; plays up ethnic and religious differences, stereotyping and ultimately demonizing the other; revels in power play and political jockeying; and manipulates powerful indigenous sacral forces for its own purposes. That toxic cocktail makes forgiveness, reconciliation and sacrifice between separated Christians impossible (p. 74). Certain recognisable types of Christian mindset are congenitally receptive to being taken over for evil purposes. 4 Radner draws extensively on Timothy Paul Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010). Religious division and violence are not so much cause and effect as ‘consanguineous’ (p. 67).

The Church as a ‘killer’ is an almost unbearable thought, a prime cause of theological vertigo, but Radner is unsparing in driving home his point. In fact, he has simply picked up a few pebbles on a vast beach of examples. A wholesale catalogue of horrors would probably make the third article of the Creed, ‘I believe in … the holy catholic Church’, stick in our throats. There is, therefore, a profound challenge for theological work here: ‘the reality of Christian division ought to be the topic of a central theological discipline’ (p. 125). Ecumenical theology as we know it, Radner suggests, does not do this because it is focused on the healing of divisions. The ecumenical movement today is far too tolerant of division. The urgent imperative of unity has been replaced by a view of Christian division as ‘a collection of multiple benignities’ (p. 139). While eschatologically orientated ecclesiologies, that project unity into the future, are blind to the past, the Church only truly knows herself by looking backward to see what she has become over time (pp. 141, 160).

Unless there is passion, desire and radical intentionality there will never be unity. But that intention must be expressed in action, in a common life of activity. It is practice that shapes the Church. Unity is ‘a life that is shaped by a single desire’ (p. 171). To be of one mind, as the apostle exhorts, is not a mental attitude, but an act or series of acts in time (p. 399). Radner’s definition of unity is ‘charity lived in distinction’ (p. 88). Charity is self-giving, self-emptying (kenosis) – not a giving away of our identity, but of power and privilege.

The antidote to division is conciliarity, the practice of the Church coming together in a representative way to wait on God in prayer and Bible study. The subject of conciliar activity is always the Scriptures (p. 211). The Church in council seeks to indwell the Scriptures. To do that, individuals must perforce accept the Benedictine discipline of remaining together in one place, as on the Day of Pentecost (pp. 213–4). The metaphor of walking with Jesus as his disciples in the Gospels sheds light on synodality (‘together on the way’) (p. 218). The very process of conciliarity contains a drive towards convergence and agreement (pp. 248–9). Conciliarity is intrinsically personal and relational; person-to-person interaction – ‘extended and intimate engagement’ – is the key (p. 261). The mark of a true council is the outgoing charity that seeks to share the gospel more widely (p. 212).

Radner tackles the rarely-asked question, What does it mean to agree?, and draws on liberal political theory and on ecumenical theology to answer it. What have been hailed as milestone Christian agreements, such as Chalcedon, are – from another point of view – disagreements that exclude some Christians who have good faith (p. 225). So genuine agreement is only possible when it contains disagreement within it. Drawing on Nicholas Rescher, Radner proposes that ‘agreement’ is actually a process of minimising disagreement by mutual restraint. Therefore we should make ample space for dissent (p. 293). Conscience is unquestionably supreme, but its thrust is not individualistic, least of all anarchic, as some have argued. Conscience is concerned with relational issues in society and is therefore orientated to community (pp. 320, 327). Radner’s favoured concept is solidarity, which he applies to conciliarity as giving oneself over in a Christlike way to another across a gulf of difference, as Levinas has shown (pp. 382, 412). Differences should not be smoothed over. The search for Christian agreement must take seriously the conflictual, agonistic character of all human life, as demonstrated by such philosophers as Karl Popper (who insisted that one should look for disconfirming evidence in a case), Isaiah Berlin (who believed in the incommensurability of certain cultural values) and Stuart Hampshire (who pointed to the plural, diverse and fragmentary character of experience: p. 297). In conciliar, synodical life, Radner warns, the short cut of mere procedural mechanics is a perennial temptation, but lacks moral integrity. Procedure can provide the framework of agreement. It is its necessary but not sufficient condition (pp. 306, 347, 445). A true meeting of minds, such as St Paul speaks of, can only come about at a more profound spiritual level.

Never has disunity been exposed to such a damning indictment as in this book. Rarely has the conciliar path to convergence been portrayed with such insight. But what to do when warring Christians will neither meet nor talk, is a further – and seemingly intractable – question.

For further engagements with Radner's volume and a response from him see Syndicate Theology site.


1 Waco: Texas: Baylor University Press, 2012. v + 482 pp. isbn 978-1-60258-629-1 (hbk). £49.99.
2 William Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). See also now Karen Armstrong, Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (London: The Bodley Head, 2014).
3 Norman Housley, Religious Warfare in Europe, 1400–1536 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
4 Radner draws extensively on Timothy Paul Longman, Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

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