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A Brutal Unity
The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
By Ephraim Radner
Book Excerpt: Introduction
The point of this volume is simple enough: to live is to give up and give away parts of ourselves. This is not just a comment about the social character of our lives. Giving up parts of ourselves fuels our very being as persons: it is how we learn, it is how we think, it is how we grow, it is how we make decisions, it is how we love. In giving up, of course, we are also gaining something new, although that is not always obvious, just as it is not always clear what we are losing as we live, at least not until the very end of this or that process. To live is to give up parts of ourselves, and to live fully is to give ourselves away fully. This is the simple Christian corollary of the fundamental character of human living, and it is not a novel claim in the least: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-25). It is a "corollary," however, in terms of the antitype standing over and against the type, the latter acting as a shadow to the former, one set of gifts, as it were, gesturing and appealing to the other, more final set.
But the argument of this volume is that these elements of giving up and of fulfilling at once, each of which will be discussed in various ways, all pertain to the Christian Church; they describe who she is and thus finally they describe what it means, given who she is, to be "one" Church, the united Church that so eludes her members and whose lack so subverts her life and purpose. To be "one Church" is to be joined to the unity of the Son to the Father, who, in the Spirit, gives himself away (Heb 9:14), not in some general flourish of self-denial, but to and for the sake of his enemies, the "godless," for their life (Rom 4:5; 5:6; 5:10; 1 Cor 15:22; Eph 2:12). Not that the Church in fact does this. She does not, and hence she is not one, and finally therefore she is not who she is meant to be. But though she is faithless, yet "he remains faithful" (1 Tim 2:13). The woefulness of Christian witness in this world is measured by the distance between these two realities; so too is measured the mercy of God. In the world, life is formed and extended in this giving away of self; it is a practice whose shape has itself given rise to various forms of social and political life and, as I will argue, to a life most especially embodied in the liberal polities that developed in Western Europe and America in the eighteenth century. But this kind of life, which the Church has both encouraged and failed to engage over and over, is also one that cannot sustain the Church's own final calling. Her own oneness, as she receives it, marks the redemption of human political ordering. And so her division marks the entrenched failures of human political aspiration, the intransigence of disorder.
This coincidence in the Church's life of disordered failure and redemptive capacity has proven one of the most anguished centers of human experience in Christian history, a place where hope has found birth in places where hopelessness was presumed, only to be denied its voice. Many have expended themselves in the face of this anguish, and it remains one of the great Christian mysteries as to why such witness and, more importantly, its object have been so belittled for so long by so many. Volumes like the present one stand as a pittance in reparation.
Eristological Analysis of One Church
It is possible to interpret this character of divine oneness in a way that stands against all political context, and hence that would rob the Church of her essential political character. A "miracle," after all, can be viewed as so unique as to constitute utter dislocation with respect to the normal pattern dislocation that exists in a kind of complete historical incommensurability with common communal life. This, I take it, is the conclusion of the late Paul Fletcher's valuable reflections. But it is, I think, a mistaken conclusion, and one that, in embracing such dislocation, severs the Church from the actualities and hence moral responsibilities of her own decision making. These are responsibilities, after all, that are demanded just because God's "being in the midst" of the world stands as the contour of God's oneness and hence of the Church's too by analogy.
The oneness of the Church takes place in the world in which God's own oneness is given in Christ's sacrifice, and this sacrifice is determined by its recipients and by the rich, if often disconcerting, details of their existence in time. Such oneness is not given, however, only as the end point of a political process. The eristic character of ecclesiological oneness stands as a certain kind of dialectic, although one that has a term that is continually reposited, in the same way that the Jesus' death, "once and for all," is temporally reasserted in various ways.