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.