Review of "A Time to Keep" by Ephraim Radner
Ephraim Radner, A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life
(Waco: Baylor University Press, 2016), 304 pp.
reviewed by Sarah Hinlicky Wilson
More than a decade ago I spent a brief year serving on the ELCA’s sexuality task force. That awkward service came to an end when I accepted the editorship of LF, as I felt that it would be difficult for me both to head up an independent (and not infrequently critical) journal of American Lutheranism while participating in a highly controversial process that required discretion for the duration. I have no illusions that my staying on would have made any difference to the outcome.
The reason I mention it, though, is that, in that first year of exploring what exactly the task force was going to do and the shape of its eventual statement, I was asked to draw up a draft document that looked at sexuality through the human life span, with the particular gifts, challenges, and dangers at each stage of life. Not even at middle age myself at that point in time, I waxed more eloquent and at greater length on the first half of the life span than the second (though I did have the sense to invite the others on the task force to fill in the blanks with their hard-won wisdom). I concluded the trajectory not with death but resurrection: somehow our sexed bodies will carry into another life, even if not in the way we know them now.
I’ve lost track of the document since then, and I have no honest recollection as to whether it was good or bad. All I know is that everyone on the task force quickly concluded that, while the effort was interesting and valuable in its own right, it didn’t really have anything to do with our task at hand, which was sorting out the ELCA’s policy on homosexuality. I have to admit: I agreed. I didn’t really see what the one had to do with the other, either.
Well, tragically, events took their course, and probably would have even if Ephraim Radner had already written this powerful, beautiful book ten years ago. But what I do know now, having read it, is that the questions and controversies we struggle with in church and society have everything to do with the arc of the embodied, sexual human life through time. Our confusion stems, at least in part, from our inability to recognize that fact.
Radner’s book is not a set of conclusive arguments to establish church policy, even if he is clear and compelling in his own convictions on an array of issues. To fixate on one or the other, even if the urgent problem of the moment demands it, clouds our thinking and perception. What we need first, he would argue, is to dwell more deeply in the scriptural vision of what makes up a human life. Until we have reclaimed this territory, all of our claims are just flagpoles in the wilderness, meaningless and guiding us nowhere.
Thus to state what is obvious, and should be obvious, and yet today is anything but obvious: human life has a shape. It has a shape even if that shape is cut short or some aspect of it goes awry. Every single human being comes from parents, who came from parents, who came from parents. All of us are also on our way to death. In between, many if not all of us will give rise to new human beings who will continue on in the same way, and those who don’t will have to reckon with why, for whatever reason, they have not participated in the generational chain. And all this happens as time relentlessly marches onward and always in the same direction. On the one hand, this obvious fact is so embedded in human existence that it’s easy to overlook it as the essential datum of creation. On the other hand, because of the changes of the past several centuries, this datum has been actively repressed, rejected, or forgotten.
Radner speaks of this vast forgetfulness as a byproduct the Great Transition. While somehow correlating to “modernity” with its political and cultural overtones, this is a distinct description of our bodily reality. It includes changes of such magnitude as the huge leap in population and yet decreasing fertility rates in technologically advanced societies (even before the widespread availability of contraception and abortion); longer life spans, conquest of disease, and extended old age; changed roles for women and changed meanings and opportunities for work.
Radner is not romantic about a past where a third of women and infants died in childbirth and plagues could decimate populations without impediment. He argues that the Great Transition is a blessing. But just as so many other steps forward become victims of their own success, the Great Transition’s conquest of so much bodily misery has in the process obscured creatureliness. Humans have come to see themselves primarily as actors, agents, and masters, not as recipients, patients, and children. In not recognizing creatureliness, we have lost recognition of our limits, our awareness of death, and our bonds of filiation—the fact that we are always generational and familial. Radner’s quirky if richly biblical term for this is “skinfulness”: we are bounded by our skins, God clothed our sinful human parents in skins, and the integrity of skins is a recurring theme throughout the Bible’s story. Skins are our limits, and our blessings, and our point of contact with our people as well as with God.
It should be noted, for those who may be anxious about it, that Radner’s is not an argument for “natural theology” or “natural law” in the sense of some independently operating set of data from which we can extrapolate insights about the nature of God or the gospel. It is rather a very Christian, theological, deliberate recognition of this creation and no other, with its mothers and fathers and babies and eating and sleeping and dying, as what sets the stage and context where God reveals Himself in Jesus Christ and the Spirit in order to transfigure these lives of this creation into eternal fellowship with Himself. A well-founded fear of attempts to get at God “naturally” do not eviscerate the created of their meaning. If anything, Radner’s project might be called seizing back the “natural” in order to reclaim it as “created.”
Radner evokes the created reality of skinfulness as illuminated by Scripture in a variety of ways. He deals at length with suicide and human society’s concern over it as the liminal that points the way to the central. He talks about the AIDS crisis and its role in altering our view of homosexuality—a change, he argues, that was rich in love but weak in truth, obscuring the filiated quality of sexuality in its honorable efforts to care for the suffering. Following Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage” soliloquy in As You Like It, Radner works his way through the human life span and its varying callings and temptations. He turns to singleness in its relationship to marriage, and the calling of both to friendship in all its complexity. In the final chapter he explores working and eating (with insightful observations on Luther’s doctrine of vocation).
All along the way he deals with all kinds of huge and fascinating issues in passing, not to ignore them but to invite further theological reflection on them. I was particularly happy to see the integration of child development studies; I sometimes get the impression in looking at theological anthropologies that they imagine a full-grown adult sprung into being without having first been a babe in arms. Radner is refreshingly concrete, which is to say, his work does not suffer from the vague abstraction that characterizes so much academic discourse, theology included. His is a book about life, how to live it and what it’s made of and where it comes from and where it’s going.
If there’s any complaint, it’s only that the book is too short, because human life is so rich and so many things call for reexamination in the light of “skinfulness.” For example, Radner deals with the AIDS crisis as altering our view of family and sexuality, but I would like to hear more about intergenerational abuse and how it does the same. Radner would, I infer, argue in this case as in the other that the corruption of the creaturely shape of our lives does not invalidate that shape, and the point is valid; but indeed, how does the church respond lovingly and truthfully to those whose greatest pain is tied exactly to the experience of being filiated?
A related issue is adoption, which Radner does touch on at several points. It’s striking that the earliest and latest Gospels omit Jesus’ birth and genealogy altogether, while the middle two give very long (and non-identical) genealogies; and Paul uses adoption as the metaphor of salvation and life in the church. Yet—for Radner this is the key point—neither undoes the reality of birth and filiation; rather, they set it in a new context. This is why Paul won’t stand for the “proselytism” of forcing the nations to abandon their nationhood when they come into Christ’s salvation—for they are still the children of their people. In adoption into Christ’s body they are also Israel, but they are not no longer the nations. On the more personal level, this is why long-standing systems of closed adoption (where all records are sealed off and adoptees are prevented from identifying their birth parents) are so destructive, however true and genuine the love of the adoptive family is. Advocacy for open adoption, shorn of shame, is an urgent Christian task.
I could go on at length about all the fascinating questions raised by the book; instead I will commend it to your own reading. The upshot, though, is one that can never be heard or contemplated enough: all is grace, all is gift. Saying it is one thing, living into it is another—and the shape of our “skinful” human lives is the place and time in which we learn to achieve patiency and thankfulness as the recipients of all that God gives.
At the end, Radner invites us to “number our days,” not as an exercise in morbidity but precisely to live fully into each day given to us. This is the day, the life, the skins, the family, the death, and the resurrection that the Lord has made: let us rejoice and be glad in them.