Mortal Goods: A Review

Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty by Ephraim Radner. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2024. Paperback. 280pp. $36.99.

“You’re gonna hate it.” This is how Dr. Ephraim Radner introduced me to the new book on politics he was writing when we last saw each other at my convocation. That book became Mortal Goods: Reimagining Christian Political Duty, and was published a few months ago with Baker Academic.

As Radner is a dear friend and mentor, and one of the contemporary thinkers whom I most revere, I knew I had to read it. Was Radner right? Did I hate it? Yes and no. But, to be honest, this is basically true for every book by my esteemed professor. And this is partly what makes reading Radner so refreshing.

Upon my initial skim after receiving a copy, I tweeted out: “One of my favorite things about a new Radner book is that, even though I know him fairly well, I usually have no idea what he is going to say.” This is increasingly rare as a large percentage of authors generally fall into ideological tribes whose party lines they studiously avoid transgressing, or they perpetually rework a small set of basic arguments they have developed in previous writings. Radner is that rare author who is almost entirely unpredictable, not because he is incoherent or uninformed, but because he is so informed. One of his intellectual virtues is a stubborn refusal to embrace simple answers to intractable problems. Regularly in his courses students would chime in with such proposals, only to be met with a string of penetrating questions that reveal things are not so simple. Such stubbornness is the product of study, not lack thereof. This studiousness (the virtue that is contrasted with the vice of curiosity) makes Radner’s writings all the more interesting because he does not parrot the prepackaged positions of the day. But, again, I do not believe he is driven by a prideful ambition to be unique; rather, I think his eccentricity is an expression of humility. And humility marks his new work on politics.

Mortal Goods is, in a fundamental respect, a plea for modesty when it comes to Christian approaches to politics (see the quote on p. 16 about politics’ “modest if essential goal” and the discussion of Jesus’ “political fortunes” in Ch. 13). Radner explicitly contrasts his position to progressive approaches at “better[ing]” the world (22ff). And at points he seems also to have in mind Christians of a more rightwing persuasion who invest significant rhetorical and emotional energy in the prospect of taking back the culture and the levers of political power to make the nation and its public institutions “Christian.” He seems to think even these efforts fall under the category of modern “betterment” politics, which are ultimately naive and futile because we have very little control, with any “successes” insecure and outcomes various and unpredictable (these arguments are the core of part two). But, furthermore, such ambitions distract us, Radner suggests, from the properly mundane nature of politics and what constitutes a good life. To more fully attend to the activities that correspond to a good life, Radner, inspired by French Protestant theologian and social critic Jacques Ellul, promotes a form of “political indifference”, which he posits characterized the posture toward political arrangements of most persons throughout world history (xiv-xix).

This cooling of political zeal will rub many the wrong way, and I am not entirely convinced of every facet of his argument (as I will discuss below); however, it is not immediately obvious that Radner runs afoul of Scripture here. In the “Introduction,” he mentions that his reflections are most directly inspired by the “most political book of the Bible” which was “written by the most politically experienced human author of the Bible”: Ecclesiastes (xxvii). His most Solomonic summary of the book comes on page 44:

Ours is a world in which nothing really develops in a fundamental way because nothing lasts long and everything is quickly and unpredictably taken away. Ours is a world in which obedience to divine commands is the only door to permanence and in which human beings are born and live variously for a short time, engaging the goods they are offered for such a moment and place.

According to Radner, inspired by Ecclesiastes (alongside other Scriptures), you cannot fundamentally improve the world; but you can live a good life.

What is that “good life” that Radner has in mind? Let me first introduce some of the more provocative arguments he makes related to this theme. Radner critiques eudaemonistic approaches that make the good life center on the pursuit of the common or highest good, especially in beatitude (25ff). And he even argues at one point that a good life is not primarily about a good soul (76). Rather, Radner’s conception is more concrete: a good life is about the “service of God” (avodat Hashem—a theme given extended attention in Chapter 4) with the “mortal goods” He has given us in this life. These “mortal goods” are things primarily tied to our earthbound bodies: their sexuality and procreative character, our families, our health, and even our deaths (xiii; cf. 29). Christian politics is simply one instrument to secure these mortal goods and provide space for us to offer them back to God (xix, xxiii, 16, 29, 46f, 61). Politics is “about earth, not heaven” (xii); it “can only be about ‘the earth’” (28) and it has little, if anything, to do with our souls (xxii-xxiii).

Radner was correct that I would have some qualms, or at least questions. In places his remarks leave the reader a bit confused or desiring further clarification. For example: his discussions of “managerialism.” At one point Radner explains that in Scripture instances of managerialism are presented as tyrannical and oppressive (152f), but then a few pages later he seems to suggest that some form of managerialism is inevitable in modern, complex societies (170f). Maybe the implication here is that our societies are not merely complex, but oppressive by virtue of their complexity. I don’t think this is Radner’s view, but the reader would benefit from further clarification regarding how these two lines of commentary on this point relate to one another.

The reader would also benefit from some elaboration on the criteria for determining when a society has entered an “abnormal” situation in which the rules of “normal” politics no longer apply (Ch. 12). Radner mentions early on that such a situation arises when mortal goods are under acute threat (xx)—would this apply to a nation that has permitted and publicly funded over 60 million abortions and uses public institutions to promote gender confusion and bodily mutilation on minors, or medically assisted suicide on the poor and mentally ill? These are the types of questions many Christians in North America face, and many think we might be numb to our abnormality. This numbness seems also to bear more of a burden in a modern democracy when we have forms of political agency denied to most in previous eras. Such available agency and its attendant demands would, one imagines, come into some conflict with the posture of “political indifferentism” that was simply thrust upon the masses in other arrangements. Yes, most people did not have to think much about politics because they could do little in politics; but we have more opportunities to act politically; so, do we have more political responsibilities, as a result? I’m not necessarily arguing that we do, but it is a question that merits attention if one were to embrace the vision articulated in Mortal Goods.

The previous paragraphs merely offer some suggestions for further explanation; but I do have one primary line of criticism, or simply a fundamental disagreement. I think this vision offers too little by way of ordering society to offer up these goods. Can public bodies tend mortal goods, or is this simply left up to private individuals? Radner argues that “politics is aimed at permitting and preserving our offering of life’s matter to its Maker” (61); but what about promoting such offering? Do civil authorities, as classical Protestant political theory has argued, have a duty to honor God? Do public institutions have any role in directing citizens and subjects to offer up their mortal goods to God? Classical Protestant political theory would affirm that civil authorities have a direct duty to God and an indirect concern for spiritual matters; this seems lost in Mortal Goods. What we are left with is a catechetical function—i.e., teaching persons to tend/offer up their mortal goods—that is exclusively (at least in terms of what is explicated in this work) the domain of the church (191f, 220-224) and the family (197). But classical Protestant political theory would also involve other public institutions, including the law itself, in such catechesis. The law is a teacher, after all.

While I disagree with Radner on those points, I do believe his vision offers something invaluable that often is missing in much of our political discourse. This comes from the material in Chapters 5 and 6 which recognizes the dignity of mundane offerings. If Ecclesiastes is the key Scriptural text inspiring the vision of Mortal Goods, then the key Scriptural figure is Mary in her anointing of Jesus at Bethany (Matt. 26:1-13; John 12:1-8). This small act, which is castigated by the more politically minded as “wasteful,” is deemed “beautiful” by Jesus (Matt. 26:10). Radner mentions that many frameworks for politics, or even general conceptions of “dignity” or “the good life,” remain fundamentally elitist and do not envisage how the vast majority of people in the world can have a meaningful life (86f). “By ignoring the rooted, mortal character of what is beautiful,” argues Radner, “much of our ‘productive’ culture denies to most people’s lives their sacrificial capacity” (87). Anyone can offer up to God the goods entrusted to them, and thus live a “beautiful” life; and such a beautiful life is possible in any situation (88; cf. 71).

Here I largely agree with Radner’s critiques of Augustine, whose Platonic leanings can “thin out the realm of mortal goods” (64ff; cf 25-30). Radner’s proposals offer helpful guardrails against any such denigrations of created, transitory, mutable goods in the desire to possess the permanent and immutable. These are temptations for much of classical Christian thought. However, while I agree with Radner on this point about Augustine, I still believe Radner aligns too closely with Augustine elsewhere, particularly in their over-reliance on the “pilgrim” motif (see Ch. 3). One of my ongoing musings about Augustinian political theology is how it is plagued by privileging the theme of pilgrimage to the neglect of other important biblical motifs. For instance, what about Christ’s lordship? Radner, inspired by Augustinian pilgrim theology, argues that the Church’s primary political vocation is to endure and to help others to endure (192; cf. 97, 116ff, 136). But what about the vocation to proclaim and represent Christ’s rule? Are we simply called to “last” (191), or is Christ lord? The images of strangers and pilgrims do not negate that of ambassadors—of Christ’s present and coming rule. Christ is king and this is our Father’s world. This world as it is currently constituted, to be certain, is not our home. But this world, redeemed by Christ and to be renewed upon His return, is.

Radner’s Ecclesiastes-like vision offers a hearty serving of humble pie to would-be world-transformers, whether progressive or rightwing. And this is likely a corrective that we always need with us—to keep us from false, presumptuous hopes that usually culminate in despair. At the same time, his modest vision is also ennobling, for it reminds us that all of us, in any situation, can offer our goods to the Giver and thus live a good, even a “beautiful,” life. I worry that this corrective with respect to individuals rules out too much for institutions, but it is in many ways refreshing and liberating. Bettering the world is not our burden; fundamentally and finally fixing the world is in God’s hands. Ours offer up to Him what He has given us in the space of our sojourning. That duty is worth our attention, and I am grateful for Radner’s offering.

James R. Wood is Assistant Professor of Religion and Theology at Redeemer University in Ancaster, ON. He is also a Commonwealth Fellow at Ad Fontes, a teaching elder in the PCA and former associate editor at First Things.


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