Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Church as the Soul of Society

"What the soul is to the body, Christians are in the world." So the Epistle to Diognetus in the late second century. Reformulated for modern community, it has been altered to say: "What the soul is to the body, the church is to society [or the nation]."

But such a conception of the church is disastrous on any number of accounts. Schooled by Paul and by Jesus, we would be better to say: "The church is not a soul within the body of society or the nation, much less the soul of any one society or nation. Rather, the church is one particular and irreducible body politic within another."

9 comments:

  1. The theologian in me, aware of the distinctiveness of the Kingdom and our propensity toward unfaithfulness, prefers your version Brad.

    The poet and the pastor in me, appreciative of the inherent intimacy required between church and society and cognizant of my own soul's quiet work of reminding me my true identity, prefers the original.

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  2. I know less about you and Yoder than I do about Paul and Jesus, but I wonder whether you (and Yoder) would find less to object to in the reformulation, "What the soul is to the body, Christians qua citizens are to society?"

    Not that that undermines the ecclesiological point you are making, but it might nuance it a bit - and allow us to stand in continuity with the old epistolist. Or you might disagree, and the epistolist be damned?

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  3. David: Nice point.

    Ross: I'll have to think about that some more. On the one hand, Paul and Jesus aren't too interested in Christians as citizens. On the other hand, understanding what Christians are as citizens is an important question. I guess it would just have to do with how we understand "soul" and "body," right? The reason I dislike that language for these issues is that it seems inherently spiritualizing, so that what Christians are doing "out there" in the "real world" of "politics," is adding the less real "spiritual" matters that slightly soften up all of the unavoidable realism already happening. I would be interested to know what a robust constructive view of citizens-as-soul-of-society would entail.

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  4. The original quote makes me want to supplement it with Foucault: "the soul is the prison of the body." That being said, my first reaction is to prefer the first quote to your counter-statement: even if the first is problematically hierarchical, there is still a necessary relation between the two. However, I'm one of those who worries--and thinks that Scripture shares this worry--about our own articulations of our "peculiarity," "distinctness," or "irreducible particularity."

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  5. I wish there as something like a "mood" button you could hit: the above comment would have said something like "curious" or "reflective" not "combative."

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  6. I think you're restatement is attractive because of the "escaptist" view now prevelant, in relation to how we understand the relationship between the body and soul. Many see the soul as being what's "salvaged" when this earth comes to an end, meaning that ultimately what happens to the body and the world it lives in is of little concern. You are right in that if we listen to Paul's view of resurrection, we discover that the marriage between soul and body is a permanant one. It is true that our bodies will be marvelously and mysteriously remade, but that's the very point. When we understand there is a permanent connection, we are far less likely to "spiritualize" the role the church plays in the world. It causes us as the church to invest more fully in the brokenness around us, hoping to share the very tangible power of the resurrection as it relates not only to souls, but to bodies as well.
    Negative points for writing a comment almost as long as the post, haha.

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  7. Tim: That would be a great feature of blogs -- it would certain eliminate a lot of misunderstandings and defensiveness.

    Justin: I think that's more what I'm concerned about: the dualism and spiritualism associated with soul/body language. Particularly given eschatological understandings of the "soul" as the "real part" of our "truest selves" that will one day "fly away" to "live in heaven" forever. What does the Epistle's line about church as soul of society mean when those are the connotations that come to Americans' minds?

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  8. I actually much prefer the first formulation to both subsequent ones. Inasmuch as "Christians" does not necessarily equal "church," and "world" does not equal "society," it is quite a profound statement.

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  9. I thought Brad was going to get a PhD so he can re-tool American conceptions of the soul, the church, and other mundane matters...

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