Ephraim Radner, Professor of Historical Theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto, has long wrestled with the painful realities of Christian divisiveness and the ways it cooperates with, and often facilitates, social violence. His new book, A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church, explores these themes and their connection to the rise of liberal political theory. This is a book that faces the harsh realities of the Church's failures and calls for an honest reappraisal of the call to Christian unity. We welcomed a chance to explore the background to his book just a little further in this interview.
Were there any experiences or events that shaped your desire to write this book? If so, what were they?
My interest in Christian unity and its relationship to the welfare of the larger human community is longstanding. I lived and worked in Burundi (East Africa) in the early 1980s, and have been involved pastorally in other areas of the world and within the United States where the reality of human conflict has sowed enormous destruction. From my time in Burundi, the question of how Christian churches could be not only so ineffective in restraining this violence, but often deeply complicit within it has plagued me, as it has so many others.
Christian division is, I suppose, but a species or expression of some deeper set of failures within the heart of Christian believers, but it is one of the most egregious. My own reflection and study has also led me to conclude that such division is precisely one of the elements that is most directly responsible for Christian ineffectiveness and even complicity in social conflict and violence. It is appropriate and necessary to ask, over and over again, "what if?" in the face of the churches' failures before National Socialism or the Rwandan massacres, two episodes I explore in my book. "What if Christians had lived, learned, prayed, and acted together?"
I know you've struggled mightily with the ongoing distress of the Episcopal Church in America. In what ways does this work address some of that division? And how applicable are your comments to other denominational struggles?
The division of churches within Anglicanism—both inside of individual local churches as in the U.S. and Canada, or among churches of the Anglican Communion—has been the defining dynamic of ecclesial life for many of us over the past fifteen years. To some degree, it is the story of the larger church over the centuries, simply repeated in new ways. Instead of the pope, or bishops, or the Eucharist, or clergy abuse, or the two natures of Christ, or the Revolution (wherever!), it's marriage and sexuality. At every stage in the history of these kinds of divisions, important matters were at stake—deeply important ones. That is the case today.
But also at every stage, these important matters were finally submerged by the fracturing of Christian witness in the face of evil. The English Civil Wars of the 17th century are one example; Islamic conquest another; genocide in Europe or Africa or the Americas yet another. The evil to which the Episcopal Church's divisions are today giving way are not yet clear: cultural nihilism? A creeping religious intolerance and finally persecution? The degradation of human generativity? We shall see. We have already seen how the Anglican Communion's response to a range of evils—in Zimbabwe for instance, or Congo—has been deeply blunted and compromised by our divisions. But if "unity in Christ" is the giving over of self to our enemy "in Him," as I argue, then even divided churches can find unity. And in discovering this, they can also become the very embodiment of the witness against evil they have so often fled from.
You use the term "eristology" as a foundational idea in your book. Could you define this for us and explain to us its importance in your book?
"Division" is a word we can't do without when it comes to the church! But there is a certain innocuousness to it that can be misleading. We do "division" in arithmetic; we divide up the pie for dessert; there is an effective "division of labor"; more threateningly, I suppose, groups "divide up" according to points of view, although that's not so bad for most of us. In short, "division" has no moral connotation. But in the Church, that is not the case: division is bad, period. Traditionally, we have used the term "schism" to designate the bad divisions within the Body of Christ. But this, too, limits the meaning of ecclesial division to a kind of technical sphere, specific to church life. But in fact, church division is bound up with the worst forms of human sin that are common across historical existence: anger, hostility, aggression, hatred, stubbornness, pride, murderousness. That's why church division is so deadly: it comes out of the heart of human sin itself.