Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, September 1, 2017

Can anyone help me understand Ephraim Radner?

While I’m on the twofold subject of (a) reading outside my speciality and (b) asking for help, I want to say something about the theologian Ephraim Radner. Several people I know and admire very much have encouraged me to read Radner, whom they in turn admire very much, and for a good many years now I have tried, repeatedly. But there’s a problem. The problem is that I simply cannot understand what he is saying. I do not know that I’ve ever come across a writer — not even Jacques Lacan — who has defeated me as thoroughly as Radner has. And this genuinely worries me, because while most of these people will acknowledge that Radner is not the most elegant writer, none of them seem to have any trouble making sense of his writing, and seem befuddled by my befuddlement.

Let me take some illustrative examples from Radner’s recent book A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life. Here is what he describes as his “central argument”:

To have a body and deploy it is bound up with the fact that we are born and we die within a short span of years. And this being born and dying is itself — in all its biology of connection, memory, and hope — a mirror of and vehicle for the truth of God’s life as our creator.

The first sentence there seems clear enough: we know our bodies only as dying bodies. That doesn’t seem like a controversial point, but assuming I have read it correctly, I move on to the next sentence — and immediately run aground. “Being born and dying” has, or is accompanied by, a “biology of connection,” but I have absolutely no idea what might be meant by “biology of connection.” I am not even able to hazard a serious guess: maybe something like, we are biologically wired to be connected to … each other? Or maybe to the rest of the created order, in that we eat other living things? And all this confusion comes before we get to the idea of a biology of memory and hope, which I find even more inscrutable.

But then it gets even tougher. Because this being born and dying, with its accompanying biologies, is a “mirror” of … it would be difficult enough if the rest of the sentence were “God’s life as our creator,” but the phrase “the truth of” comes first, so I am once more wholly at sea. Let’s try to unpack this. God has a life “as our creator,” which I assume must mean something like the life God experiences in relation to Creation, as opposed to the internal life of the Trinitarian godhead. The “truth of” this life is distinguished, I suppose, from false ideas about it? It is, then, the character of that life truly perceived? So that if we perceive the life of God-as-creator truly we will then see that it is a mirror of our lives? — but if so, is it a mirror in the sense of being its opposite, its reversal? And then the brevity of our lives is the “vehicle” by which we perceive the eternal life of our God as creator? Probably not, because God is eternal in himself, not just as our creator … but I’m out of guesses. I cannot make any sense out of this passage, or indeed out of Radner’s writing as a whole.

One might say that all this becomes clearer if you read the whole book. But I have read the whole book — my eyes have passed over every word, I have scribbled thoughts and queries in the margins — and I am no better off.

At the end of the book Radner comments that “the argument of this book has been that thinking about who we are as created human beings comes down to numbering our days,” and while the phrases “numbering our days” and “day-numbering” occur frequently in the book, I’m afraid I don’t know what they mean either. It sometimes seems to me that the whole book does not say anything more or other than what a priest whispers to me each Ash Wednesday, as he inscribes an ashy cross on my forehead: Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return. But there must be more to this book than that. Can anyone help me understand?


  • Rowan Williams, as ever, offers a guide through the thicket, though perhaps not a guide to interpreting Radner's actual words: http://livingchurch.org/covenant/2017/04/27/understanding-our-embodiment/.

    I myself reviewed Radner's other new book last year, about Scripture, here: http://marginalia.lareviewofbooks.org/systematic-theology-biblical-criticism/. On this specific point I wrote, "It is a densely written monograph, elusive and elliptical, at times due to the complexity of its subject matter, but too often due to prose that is needlessly opaque, even indecipherable." Like other theologians, I respect and admire his thought; but I suspect many of us are hesitant to come out and say what you've articulated here, which is undeniably true. And I'm not sure there's a good answer to the actual exegetical question.

  • Thanks for this, Brad. I read Rowan's review a while back, and his praise for Radner is one of the things that makes me suspect that something's wrong with me — though I can't help wondering whether the lack of quotation in the review is telling, in the sense that Rowan is assuming that he knows what Radner means well enough to put it in clearer language. I cannot manage to make that assumption. So when you speak of admiring his thought, I can't do that because I don't know what his thought is.

  • That's fair! (To say the least.) I haven't read his other books, though I've read an essay or two; so I can't speak to those. Parts of the Scripture book were frustrating for that very reason: inability to get at the thought, the idea, which should be evident in the words. But at least in that book, there also *were* claims and arguments that were clear enough, and important enough, to track and to engage with.

  • alan: someone sent me your query. No one likes to be told their writing is so dense as to be incoherent, with the implication that "there is no there there". But you are not the first person to find my writing knotted to the point of incomprehension! I have to take that seriously. (You are, after all, a smart person with stylistic savvy and sensitivity.) Having said that, there are those (as you note) who disagree with your evaluation (that at least gives me some hope). My job, one way or the other, is to try to be clearer for everyone. I wish there were a key to help people "understand what I write". That's not possible. But let me take the example you give, which I don't think (personally) is that arcane. In the context of the book, a "biology of connection" is laid out as involving the fact that we are (biologically) born of a mother and a father, and thereby connected to a network of other persons, including those that support families; and we in turn give rise to such networks. "Memory" is formed out of these connections primarily, from infancy on. Change these connections, and the way we consider our lives changes with it. Change the possibility of such connections, and the way we consider our lives changes radically. "Hope" is also based on how these connections are formed and lived out. (So is despair, for that matter.) The Christian faith tells us that God created us in just this limited biologically connected way, with all of its consequences. The argument of the book, in part, is that this mortal existence, constituted by these kinds of connections and by what they engender, therefore tells us something true about who God is as a our creator. Exploring what this truth may be about God who creates our mortal existence in just this way, is what the theological endeavor of reflecting on human mortality is all about. It is what the book is mainly trying to do: what can we know about God (and God's relation to us) based on the fact that we are mortal creatures such as we are? You rightly suspect that speaking about the "truth of God" in this way implies that there are false ways of conceiving of God with respect to God's reality as our creator. A subtext of the book is that we are likely to have such false views if we somehow misunderstand what our mortal lives "really are" specifically in their biological connections. There'a lot of culture critique implied in this subtext, but the real issue nonetheless is one of growing in faith in accord with the basic convictions of the Christian Gospel as presented in the Scriptures. What I've just written may not be any clearer than what you've already identified as obscure. It is certainly longer! On the other hand, the two sentences you quoted do not appear in a vacuum; they are part of a larger argument, and the things they are talking about are not absent from that larger argument, and thus (I hope) provide some explanatory context. I certainly appreciate the fact that you have tried to read what I write! That's more than an author can usually expect.

  • Ephraim, it is very kind of you to write, and it speaks very well of you indeed that you respond so generously. Thank you.

    Without going into more (probably fruitless) detail, I can only say that your explanation, for me, creates more new questions than it resolves. I am not sure why this is the case. It may be that you are assuming (unconsciously I guess) certain conceptual and terminological frames that are intrinsic to your discipline, and that as an outsider to that discipline I am missing the cues.

    It is also possible, and I have been thinking about this a good deal lately, that the ways some minds work are simply incompatible with the ways that other minds work, such that genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable — at least in this vale of tears. That is a sobering thought for me, given that I have devoted my career to the interpretation of texts and to the charitable reading of them. But it may be the conclusion that I am forced to here.

    Every good wish to you for your future work and ministry, and may you continue to bless your less dense readers!

  • Thanks, Alan. Sorry I didn't clarify things, but only raised more questions. Sometimes that's okay too; the more questions the merrier.
    I agree that there are probably incompatible cognitive frameworks in play out there. In fact, it's likely that we are quite impenetrable to one another -- perhaps even to ourselves -- on many important levels. What passes as communication is often a set of practical adjustments made within the demands of social interaction. We move on with one another in certain ways because that's what we're expected to do and need to do in this or that context -- classrooms, books about texts, panel discussions. Even blogs!

    All the best.

  • Something about this post bothers me. Having twice slept on the urge to comment, I have decided to try to say what it is.

    The main issue for me is that the post reads as much as a statement as a question. This impression seems to be confirmed by the subsequent thread.

    The post’s title and final sentence pose a genuine question, but its framework is extremely general. In essence it is: “I don’t understand Radner. Can anyone help?” Note that the question isn’t addressed to “someone” (like one of the several theologians whom Jacobs knows who read Radner with profit, much less to Radner in a private email), but to “anyone.” That Radner himself responds in the comments only makes the oddity of this framing more obvious.

    What has happened here? At first glance I thought Jacobs’s point was akin to “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” as if he kept hearing that Wes Anderson was one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation, but that he himself couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. Radner put out two hefty books last year (Time and the Word as well as A Time to Keep), which are pretty obviously the culmination of other dense works. It does seem that Radner has been trending a bit, too, in whatever way theologians trend – and this despite his acknowledged capacity for opacity! On a more careful reading of the above, however, it becomes clear to me that Jacobs doesn’t speak as H. C. Andersen’s innocent child. Rather, he seems to be throwing up his hands.

    “I cannot make any sense out of this passage, or indeed out of Radner’s writing as a whole.” That enormous leap – from a pair of sentences to a life’s work – sounds like a condemnation to me, because I know Jacobs to be such a patient and experienced reader. (If Peter Travers opined that Wes Anderson films were unintelligible to him, I might feel compelled to reexamine my opinion of The Royal Tenenbaums.) Then again, while a short passage from Radner is explicated, the broad imputation to “Radner’s writing as a whole” is simply unsupported. Indeed, in the present format (a blog post) I think such a claim is unsupportable. This in turn makes me think that the question is real after all, if misdirected. “Can anyone help me understand?”

    But then the author turns up, and gamely tries to say what he means, and even this proves no help. For such an experienced reader to speak of feeling defeated by an author, more thoroughly even than by Lacan, makes a strong statement. For that same reader to insist that the author’s prompt and personal explanation of a few lines “creates more new questions than it resolves” – well, that only amplifies the original profession of befuddlement.

    In the end it looks as if Jacobs and Radner agree to find their minds mutually “incompatible,” and then stand down as amicably as they can. The modes of exit look a bit different, though. Jacobs decides that his own specific effort to read Radner is one of some (small?) number of cases where “genuine mutual understanding is just not achievable.” Radner in turn finds it “likely that we are quite impenetrable to one another -- perhaps even to ourselves -- on many important levels.” This latter point is more general and, at least to my mind, both kinder and more hopeful.

    Certainly I understand the desire not to continue the conversation at this time, or in this public way. In that case let the correspondence lapse. But if not even the author can help, what can the rest of us say here? And has not the original question finally given way to an even more thorough message of defeat? If so, the episode makes me a little sad.

  • The episode is, indeed, sad. But I don't believe Alan is making the preposterous leap you accuse him of making, from two sentences to the whole. In fact, I think it is just obvious that he is picking out two sentences to make the larger point--the right sort of scale for a blog post. Were these two sentences wildly uncharacteristic of Radner's writing that somehow got past the editor and befuddled Jacobs, well, then, sure: we have a different situation. But they aren't, and Jacobs can be read charitably enough as simply offering them as examples.

    The twentieth century, and now the twenty-first, is replete with theologians who prefer to assert rather than argue, to appeal to intuition rather than to evidence. Many of them trade in mystagogy rather than adopt the humbler stance of actually assembling data and marshalling it into chains of inference. I do not know Brother Radner and I certainly do not presume to judge his motivations. But Alan is rightly holding up his prose and saying, "What's really going on here?" In the case of many modern theologians (I do not say, "in the case of Ephraim Radner," because I have not read enough of him to judge), it is a worthy question to ask

  • For those with interest, a lucid article-length review of Time and the Word is in press in the journal Modern Theology. The reviewer, Joseph Mangina, puts the book in a broad context, reaching all the way back to Radner's doctoral work on Jansenism. As a précis on Radner's work more generally, and an indication of why he has become a major theologian, I recommend it highly.

Post a Comment

[Basic HTML tags can be used in this comment field.]