A Time to Keep: Theology, Mortality, and the Shape of a Human Life

Written by Ephraim Radner Reviewed By Stephen Jenks

In recent days, topics such as sexuality and gender have been placed front and center of the culture’s agenda and therefore also the church’s attention. There is little agreement about the terms of the debate, with many of the claims and even uses of Scripture seeming fairly arbitrary. In particular, these realities—gender, sexuality, marriage, procreation, etc.—seem to become discrete concepts disembedded from any greater context or broader frame of reference. In A Time To Keep, Ephraim Radner suggests that these topics, and much theological reasoning more broadly, have been decontextualized from their place within the broad shape and reality of human life, to our detriment. He invites us to examine how the unavoidable reality of human mortality “unveils to us the mystery of God.” What he offers is a thoughtful and thought-provoking examination of human life in conversation with Scripture, culture, and tradition.

The Great Transition. Radner begins by diagnosing the problem as a loss of our understanding of our creatureliness. Without this understanding, we cannot read Scripture aright, nor rightly relate to God. He further identifies what he calls the Great Transition as ingredient in this loss of creatureliness. By the Great Transition he means the dramatic increase in life expectancy and decrease in infant mortality that much of the world has experienced in the last century and a half. This happened rapidly enough that he suggests that we have not even begun to reckon with how dramatically it has reshaped our understanding of virtually every area human life. Indeed, rather than recognizing this as the divine gift that it is, we have come to regard it as inevitable and expected. Radner contrasts this way of human life with the picture of Adam and Eve sent into a hostile world in the graciously provided skins. “Skinfulness,” fragile, mortal, yet graciously maintained humanity, he maintains, characterizes human existence in its biblical presentation.

From that diagnosis of our loss of creatureliness, Radner turns to examine our “skinful” existence from a variety of angles. He begins by examining the implications of suicide for our understanding of the ultimate givenness of life. What he underscores is that even when suicide represents an extreme form of taking control of one’s life, it can never ultimately undo the divine gift; one can never un-be. Even in its denial of life, suicide affirms life’s givenness. If there is a recurring theme in the book it is precisely this: life is fundamentally given, a divine gift.

In discussing suicide, Radner points to the embeddedness of lives in families and communities, places where a residue of the person remains even after suicide. He expands on this key reality of our humanity—our relationality (or in Radner’s term “filiation”) in the following chapter. In particular, he argues that our experience of creaturehood is defined by generational relations and procreative tendency. Here he offers a sweeping reading of the theme of sexuality and procreation in Scripture which covers both expected (Genesis) and unexpected (Leviticus) territory. The biblical storyline of which human sexuality is a part, he concludes, is one of distinction maintained and difference joined for fruitfulness. “Created mortality is characterized by filiative fruitfulness; the two cannot be separated” (110). This chapter contains some of the richest material in the book and is particularly valuable for those looking for different terms and deeper biblical reflection to bring to bear upon the aforementioned cultural conversations.

Radner spends a chapter considering the theological lessons to be learned from pondering the stages of life. Again he indicates the ways that the Great Transition has stretched and distorted traditional structuring of the phases of life: birth, infancy, childhood, adolescence, etc. Here he employs the biblical category of wisdom to suggest that maturity requires attention to and careful passage through these stages. He closes the chapter using the soliloquy from Shakespeare’s As You Like It as a structuring device to talk through the phases of life and what they each have to offer our theological reflection as well as ways in which the current context distorts them.

In two related chapters, Radner considers the light shone on human existence by the distinction between married and single life. In particular, he finds examination of singleness—a concrete way of existence—a fruitful way to probe notions of diversity and particularity, more abstract concepts. In considering what lessons singleness unfolds to us about human existence, he points to two areas in particular: friendship and work. He closes the chapter with reflection on the idea of friendship, its distortion in our eroticized culture, and alternative visions of it.

Singles extend the value of friendship into the world in two realms in particular, the workplace and the table, and Radner considers these in turn. Reflecting on Adam and Eve’s life outside the garden, Radner maintains that work, even toil, is a gift from God because it offers a way of life in the face of death. He also returns to the theme of wisdom to discuss how one’s work life provides a place to grow in wisdom with and for others. In discussing the table, he offers some curious reflections on God’s very own ingestion of his created goods in the person of Jesus Christ. In some of these passages, readers may be forgiven for failing to keep up with all of the moves and connections that Radner makes.

Radner closes the book with a helpful summary and a call to the church to engage the task of numbering our days. To number our days is to take seriously our mortality and the shape of our lives as framework for our engagement with God and Scripture and as a source of Christian wisdom. Nature, that is our human existence, is coherent with Scripture which depicts human life in all its mortality, not least in the person of Christ.

Ephraim Radner has written a thought-provoking book which is a substantial contribution to theological anthropology. It offers challenging critique, thoughtful reflection, and bracing biblical engagement throughout. In truth, any one chapter could be the subject of a book, and at times the compression of topics was noticeable. There are several points where his biblical interpretation or conceptual linking between two major points would benefit from expansion. This compression is at times further complicated by Radner’s arcane prose.

In many ways, the author is doing something new here, blazing a new trail on several of these topics and should be forgiven if the path is not always straight or easy to follow. The task is a legitimate one. In the face of a culture that demands we discuss core aspects of humanity, Radner invites the church to call the culture’s bluff and respond by contextualizing those aspects of human life within the more fundamental narrative of the numbered says of human existence—its createdness, its mortality, and most especially its givenness—and these as testified to in Scripture and in the humanity of Jesus Christ.

Stephen Jenks

Stephen Jenks
Union Christian Church
Tegucigalpa, Honduras

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