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Church as/and/against/? Polis

Peter Leithart's recent tantalizing post, "Church and City" has set of a flurry of online discussion, as such a post from the author of Against Christianity might be expected to. In suggesting that there might "be a better way to say it" than that the Church is an alternative polis, Leithart seems to be retreating from at least a literalistic reading of the argument of Against Christianity. This makes sense, because, as we discussed last March, the Church as polis would seem to suggest that all (or a great many) of the features of the earthly polis simply get reincarnated within the Church--does this then mean an ecclesiastical postal service, an ecclesiastical road maintenance service, etc.? There are ways to avoid this conclusion, perhaps, but perhaps the simplest is to clarify the initial claim. The alternative, though--that the church is simply the new cultus at the center of the earthly polis--seems unsatisfactory as well. So why not say that the church is the cultus of the heavenly polis yet to come, which currently sits somewhat uncomfortably in the midst of the earthly polis? This certainly seems to reflect Biblical language pretty well.

However, I'm not sure where Leithart's clarification here leaves us. In saying, "The political order to which the church belongs is the eschatological political order of the heavenly city. The church isn’t defined over-against the earthly city, but as the sacrament and “cult” of the city that is to come," it seems that Leithart leaves unsolved the question of the relationship of the Church's social space to that of the surrounding world.

We could take a very amillenialist Augustinian route, and say that the earthly city still serves the useful function of providing a modicum of peace for the Church while she awaits the advent of the City to come. In this case, the antagonism between Church and earthly city is limited, but so, it seems, is the extent to which the Church ever achieves a social incarnation in this age. Alternatively, we could say that the Church, while itself only a cultus of the City to come, nevertheless seeks to live out, here and now, the political life of the City to come and hence achieves a kind of social incarnation as a shadow of the City to come. If this is so, however, it is hard to see how we have changed much from the "Church-as-polis" view, with its strong antagonism between Church and world (although we have re-emphasized the pilgrim character of the Church in this world). Or, thirdly, we could say that the Church's task, as the cultus of the heavenly polis, is to seek to the earthly city to transform its political forms, inasmuch as is possible in this life, into forms which mirror those of the City to come. If this is how we take it, we are back at a fairly Constantinian convergence of the aims of Church and world. So I, at least, find myself no closer to deciding amongst these three options than before Leithart's intriguing post.

If I've missed something and should be closer, please illuminate me.

2 comments:

That's actually why I liked it. Something rings true to both sides, and this seems to have the potential for some sort of already, but not yet approach that encompasses both.
Not that I know what I'm talking about, though, so to make the comment worthwhile, here, funny link: http://xkcd.com/651/

October 19, 2009 at 3:45 PM  

Brad,

Great comments. The issue is expansive enough that we really should discuss all this over a few quarts of coffee this January.

One thought I had, however, was that the prophetic office of the church seems to be central to this question. Leaving aside the matter of eschatology for the moment (which is hard to do), it does seem to me that we could all agree on the prophetic role of the ekklesia. As such, while the prophetic call requires historically-viable courses of action, the essence of the call remains the same: 1) to stand blameless before God and the people; 2) to intercede on behalf of the nation; and, 3) to assure the nation of the certainty of God's eschatological judgment on their works. By this, we see the Church as a sort of first-fruits, or forerunner, of the coming Kingdom. This prophetic call requires the Church to occupy a place of eschatological tension (which in the neo-traditionalist view seems somewhat diminished), and as such, it must be both in the saeculum and yet not of the saeculum.

October 21, 2009 at 4:39 PM  

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