A Divided Church for the Common Good?
A Divided Church for the Common Good?

A Divided Church for the Common Good?

Many of those concerned about justice have little time for the institutional church, while ecclesiologists are often suspicious of "justice" talk. Ephraim Radner won't let these two groups keep ignoring each other.

A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Church
A Brutal Unity: The Spiritual Politics of the Christian Churchby Ephraim Radner. Baylor University Press, 2012. 482pp.

If you care about justice and the common good, you should care about the church.

That is just one of the counter-intuitive takeaways from Ephraim Radner's complex, erudite book—a remarkable book that deserves to be read and pondered from multiple angles.

I suggest this particular "takeaway" is counter-intuitive because it runs counter to at least a couple of trends. On the one hand, many of those who are concerned about justice and the common good have little time for the institutional church, and even less time for dense discussions of ecclesiology. On the other hand, many of those who are passionately concerned with ecclesiology—especially those who see the church as an "alternative polis"—are often suspicious of "justice" talk and associate the language of the common good with "statecraft" and "Constantinian" agendas.

Radner's argument and analysis cuts against both of these trends. It also touches closer to home in this respect. Those of us in the Reformational tradition of Kuyper inherit a common distinction between the church as "institute" and the church as "organism." The church as institute is what you might call, less technically, "churchy"-church: this is "Sunday"-church, the church gathered in worship, proclaiming the Word, administering the sacraments, exercising discipline (we could wish!), and so on. The church as organism, on the other hand, is the body of Christ sent to tend creation, make culture, pursue justice, and contribute to society. This is the sent-church, leavening society as the organic body of Christ "in" the world but not "of" it.

If we're honest, we Kuyperians (and evangelical inheritors of the Kuyperian project) have not always done a very good job of keeping these two linked. While Kuyper himself saw the two as essentially linked, sometimes our newfound passion for the church as organism actually trumps our concern with the church as institute: cultural engagement becomes our "church." The result is a very sophisticated way to be "spiritual but not religious."

But Radner won't let us get away with unhooking the institutional church from our concerns with justice and the common good. Nor will he let us fall for a model where "being" the church excuses us from investment in civil society and the social scaffolding of the state.

Exhibit A in his case is a very stark one: Rwanda. This case study emerges in the context of Radner's critique of William Cavanaugh's argument in The Myth of Religious Violence. Responding to Hitchens-like claims that religion causes violence, Cavanaugh argued that, in fact, it was the politics of statecraft that really generated the so-called "Wars of Religion" in Europe, for example. In that sense, contrary to liberal and secularist "myths" that blamed such violence on religious belief, Cavanaugh argued that the liberal state generated such violence. And it was just to the extent that Christianity assimilated itself to the liberal nation-state that it became embroiled in such violence. If the church retained its identity as "the church," Christianity wouldn't have been implicated in such violence. You can see a working hypothesis about the relationship between the church and state at work behind this argument—a model that we might describe as loosely "Hauerwasian." (While no parrot of Hauerwas, Cavanaugh was one of his students.)

Whatever explanatory power Cavanaugh's account might have for a European context, Radner says, the fact is there is just no way to excuse the church from violence in a context like Rwanda. (I suspect that Cavanaugh would largely agree with Radner's concerns here, but his apologetic project in Myth of Religious Violence had a different axe to grind.) While not a "sole" cause (contra the new atheist thesis), the fact is that the church contributed to violence in the Rwandan genocide. As Radner asks, "given that Christians did the killing and did so surrounded by their lived Christian symbols and spatial forms and led often by their Christian pastors, in some cases taking Mass quite self-consciously before going out to kill, how are we to understand the nature of their faith?"

Here's where Radner's argument intersects with my opening theme. The violence of Rwanda—which is surely contrary to "the common good"—was fostered and fuelled by the division of the Christian church. Division within the institutional church—her de facto denominational fragmentation, for instance—breeds "religious competition" that is wed to missionary zeal and susceptible to being co-opted by political factions, culminating in "religious demonization." A house divided against itself can't help society stand.

Catholicity and Common Witness

This raises important issues on two fronts. First, it means the church (as institute) has radical housekeeping to do, and needs to come up with a theological account of—and response to—her own division. This is the ultimate goal of Radner's book: "a realistic understanding of the Church's unity." However, I find his constructive proposal rather vague and slippery. But I hope to discuss this aspect of Radner's project elsewhere. For now, I want to consider what his argument might mean for those of us concerned about Christian contributions to cultural renewal and the common good. How might this be relevant, for example, to Cardus's mission of renewing North America's social architecture, drawing on 2000 years of Christian social thought?

Radner presses us to recognize that intra-church division has an impact on the church's ability to contribute to the common good more broadly. Intra-Christian competition fragments our social and political witness.

If, as various Christians claim, matters like abortion or marriage or climate change or patterns of material consumption are all deeply religious and moral issues of salvific status, the fact that Christians hold diverse views about these things and also that their very structures of decision making are so disparate and unconnected means that Christians probably have little leverage within the larger society for any kind of influence on issues that touch these matters.

Such observations should rightly give us pause, and our best response is to feel the discomfort rather than to quickly defend ourselves. Indeed, our first response should be confession of our sin, coupled with a hope that resists despair.

The lesson to be learned is that catholicity has implications for Christians' social and cultural witness. In a way, we live in a new moment in this regard: one can see all kinds of collaboration (rather than competition) between Roman Catholics and Protestants, for example, rooted in a deep sense of common catholic confession and a shared concern for the public good. Indeed, at Cardus we try to embody this as an organization, enfolding both Protestant and Roman Catholic voices in our work. This would seem to counter the religious competition that Radner notes, though he would also press us to be "realistic" and recognize that the realities of Protestant and Roman Catholic division (not to mention the institutional splintering of Protestantism) are liabilities for the public good. We need to hear this.

Liberal Democracy as Christian Penance?

This leads to a second line of consideration. A jarring case like Rwanda raises questions about just how the church should relate to the state. For those of us in North America (and many other places), this becomes a question of how the church should relate to the liberal nation-state. On this front, Radner wades into familiar waters, contesting the Hauerwasian or "neo-Anabaptist" line (as James Davison Hunter calls it) that tends to vilify the liberal nation-state. Radner says his goal is "to claim this political space of the Church anew and take it back, as it were, from those who would drive the Church from the sphere of social ordering—often referred to as 'the State'—in order (as they suppose) to save the Church." (In case you missed it, that was a clear allusion to Hauerwas who, oddly, is nowhere cited in the book.)

For Radner, the Western church has gotten exactly the nation-state it deserves. Indeed, "Christians invented the liberal state, and they did so out of the stones of their own ecclesiological and spiritual struggles and commitments—that is, I would argue, in part a necessary propitiatory sacrifice in the face of their own sins." Given the realities of fragmentation, "the politics of the Christian Church's division and unity must finally include, and not reject, the politics of the modern and now predominantly liberal state." In fact, the church has something to learn from the liberal state:

Christian ecclesiology should not fear looking at these secular 'civil' alternatives to the Church but also should positively learn from them as perhaps examples of things the Church has simply been unable to fulfill herself. . . . The lesson for the Church, at any rate, is this; let us look at our shadow in the secular world, and, as one who has forgotten her identity somehow and for some reason, gain a glimpse of our better self.

The lesson we are inclined to resist is probably the one we most need to learn. Radner's challenge here runs counter to certain trends of late, and for just that reason is jarring and suggestive. In the wake of MacIntyre, Hauerwas, and others, many have assumed that it was the liberal state that taught us to be something other than Christian. Assimilation of Christianity into the vague civil religion of the nation-state has been a significant problem in the United States (less so elsewhere). So Radner's proposal here might sound like part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

But he is aware of the dangers, too. The result is a complex ambivalence. In looking at a case like Rwanda, Radner concludes that "the Church herself had a moral responsibility to form individuals capable of ordering a liberal state. Had she done so, this would have not only served a corporate good but also saved the Church from the suicidal scandal of her sins." Thus he asks a question that is almost heretical in contemporary political theology today: "Dare the Christian church accept the role for itself as a 'servant' of the state in such a way?" He answers in the affirmative: for the sake of the common good, "churches must reorient their practice more fully, not less so, to the needs of a stable and accountable liberal democracy." At the same time, he recognizes the challenge: "Christians in the West are realizing how difficult this is, at least if they wish to keep the integrity of their gospel intact."

Pursuing the common good with Gospel integrity is exactly the challenge. Radner emphasizes the church's responsibility to foster the former (Christian concern for civil society) precisely because so much political theology today is fixated on the latter (maintaining the church's integrity). But Radner's provocative corrective could probably use some correction itself. He is right to call the Church to social responsibility, pressing us to recognize that our witness is relative to our unity in Christ. But does the Church's concern for the common good and civil society necessarily translate into being a servant of liberal democracy? Radner praises the modern state for reducing violence and fostering civility. But he doesn't spend much time considering how the modern liberal state has also privatized (and thus marginalized) religious faith. Nor does he adequately address the "autonomism" that seems inherent to liberalism—defining freedom in only negative terms, encouraging an atomistic individualism, thereby fragmenting the common good in its own (liberal) way.

Those are serious concerns. But before getting to them, Radner rightly presses us to recognize that pursuing the common good with Gospel integrity requires both a healthy state and an ecclesial anchor. For some of us, that will mean rethinking our tendency to vilify "the State" and its procedures. For others of us, it will mean revaluing the centrality of the Church as our political centre—a body politic whose worship includes the regular confession of her sins while at the same time labouring for kingdom come, concerned about our country while at the same time desiring a better one (Hebrews 11:16).

James K.A. Smith
James K.A. Smith

James K.A. Smith was the editor-in-chief of Comment from 2013-2018, and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. He is the new editor-in-chief of Image Journal


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