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Mortal Goods:
Reimagining Christian Political Duty

by ephraim radner
baker academic, 280 pages, $36.99 

Midway through Mortal Goods, Ephraim Radner briefly recounts his time as a young Anglican priest in Burundi during the early 1980s, shortly after the Tutsi genocide of Hutus had subsided. Filled with zeal to fix things, he was appalled that the Africans just got on with life, farming, trading, marrying and being given in marriage. Radner wrote an essay for the Christian Century condemning the African “will to silence” and challenging Church leaders who “support or acquiesce to the myth of peaceful order that is used as a cover for injustice and spiritual illness.” He was deported for his troubles. “I was raised to ‘make a difference,’” Radner reflects, “the prospect of change for the better, with the self in the center of its confecting, was also exhilarating and was bred in my bones.” Radner wrote Mortal Goods to provide background for a letter to his children, but the book is also a mature epistle to his idealistic younger self.

When I read the passage about Burundi, I was reminded of Ecclesiastes. Solomon devotes himself to grand construction projects, but knows they’re all “vapor,” dispersed by the gentlest breeze. He has no guarantees for the future, because he feels the shadow of death and cannot control what will happen when he’s gone. Trying to manage creation is trying to “shepherd the wind” or sculpt castles out of mist. Mortal Goods is an Ecclesiastes-esque meditation on Christian politics.

One of the most Solomonic threads of Mortal Goods is a polemic against the historically-recent notion of “betterment,” the conviction that the purpose of life is to “leave the world better than you found it” and the confidence that we have the wisdom and strength of will to improve it. It’s not that Radner opposes improvement. Longer life spans, peace, justice, health are all goods. Rather, Radner’s sobering point is that all our efforts at betterment do little more than nudge the needle. In the grand scheme of things, we haven’t achieved all that much by doubling the average life span. We haven’t altered mortality; life still begins and ends. It’s delusional to think (as some tech-worshippers do) that we’ll ever transcend that limit.

The ideology of betterment ignores the unintended costs of every human improvement. Life spans have increased, but one effect has been to obscure the inevitability of death. In a passage that almost suggests nostalgia for shorter life spans, Radner writes, “the occlusion of mortality’s driving power in human existence has done far more to destroy the perceived possibility of a life of service to God than the advent of ‘the market.’” Secularism is less a product of our abundance and our pursuit of material goods, than it is our forgetfulness of death.

Betterment is delusional, finally, because of the unimaginable complexity of the world. Demography is the key driver of historical change in the modern period. Between 1600 and 2000, the population of the U.K. increased from 4 to 50 million; the United States grew from 2.5 million in 1776 to today’s 330+ million. At that scale, liberal democracy becomes a fantasy: “a single city of Lagos and its country of Nigeria . . . dwarf all the individual and regional players involved in liberalism’s invention and rise.” Bureaucratic and technological governance is what happens when the drive for betterment meets irreducible complexity. Christians haven’t grappled with this problem, and instead tend to think that, in the political realm, God’s providential care is only “vaguely trustworthy,” such that social and political complexity “is and ought to be a manageable obstacle to be overcome by calculations and pragmatic strategies.” 

Radner’s positive vision is also very Ecclesiastes. Because living a good life doesn’t depend on bettering the world, the normal Christian stance is one of “political indifference.” We carry out the political responsibilities given to us by the polity in which we live, but we don’t concern ourselves much with who’s on the throne or whose hands are on the levers of power. Christian politics is a vocation of “tending mortal goods,” caring for and delighting in birth, growth, marriage, family, friends, suffering, aging, decline, death. The good life is one in which these mortal goods are shaped into an offering of thanks to the God who gives us everything we have. That offering beautifies our mortal life. 

We have the freedom to be politically indifferent because we can tend those goods and make that offering regardless of our circumstances. Christians can lead beautiful lives in prison camps as well as in leafy suburbs. Radner knows there are limits to indifference. There are times for “abnormal politics,” even for revolution, when our ability to tend mortal goods is mortally threatened. But the goal of every large-scale Christian political effort is a return to normalcy, with each man joyful under his own vine and fig tree. In a world of death and vapor, Radner, like Solomon, invites us to find joy at the table in the mist.

I have reservations about Radner’s approach. He’s grateful for modern comforts, but his worry about betterment can make him sound ungrateful. More fundamentally, Radner says little about the political import of the Kingship of Jesus. He doesn’t explore how the presence and activity of the Spirit of the risen Christ affects our mortal lives and hopes for the world. Radner’s is a politics of the first Adam, very much of the earth; but we’re united to the heavenly Man. What difference might that make? Mortal Goods doesn’t make it clear what this-worldly promises God has given to his Church. Radner says the Church’s purpose is to tend the “embers” of the faith so they don’t die out. I would have thought the Church’s mission is to disciple nations. Without denying the force of Radner’s critique, I think there’s more to be said in defense of betterment.

Still, Mortal Goods is an indispensable book. Radner calls our attention to essential truths that are almost never spoken in our over-heated political climate. He offers the chastened wisdom of Solomon.

Peter J. Leithart is president of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Dan Sloan licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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