The Individual and the Church

In Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism, Larry Siedentop argues that Christianity birthed both individualism and equality and hence modern liberalism. In doing so, Siedentop argues, Christianity exploded the ancient world’s tightly knit organic unities of family, polis (“city-state”), and ethnos (“tribe” or “nation”). George Weigel recently echoed Siedentop’s argument, contrasting the moral equality of individuals before God in Christianity with the natural inequality at the heart of pre-Christian organic institutions. Even more important is the central concept of the imago Dei in Christian and Jewish Scriptures, that is, that humans are each created in the image of God. This concept paved a long, if winding, road to the recognition that basic human dignity inheres in each person.

Yet Siedentop misses the equally, if not even more, fundamental other half of the Christian story in his argument that the Christian faith dissolved ancient social unities for individualism. While Jesus Christ destroyed the ancient family, polis, and ethnos, he destroyed them only to resurrect them centered around himself in his corporate body, the Church. The depth and significance of this reformulation is often lost in the modern church that too often does little more than reflect and mimic the individualism of the modern age.

The unique recreation of real organic unity in the Body of Christ gets lost in narratives like Siedentop’s and Weigel’s. It is also lost by the modern Christian who too often conceives of the Church as little more than a club of religiously like-minded individuals. That the Church is the Body of Christ—a corporate organism—is treated as mere metaphor, even by many Christians themselves. Yet what is a metaphor for other human institutions is a unique reality for the Church. And that reality matters. As French philosopher Jean-Louis Chretien explains (as translated by John Milbank),

Amongst collective bodies, only the body of Christ is truly personal and one under one head. So only here does the analogy to an individual body really work. Other collective bodies turn tyrannical because their bodiliness is incomplete and to a degree a lie.

Contrary to Siedentop, the Church is not merely a collection of individuals. The Church has a fundamentally corporate identity as a real body. And contrary to other human institutions, because the Church’s corporate identity is not mere metaphor, it therefore offers human solidarity without the oppression that results in non-ecclesial institutions when the metaphor of “body” is treated as real.

As Kenneth Shepsle underscores (in a different context), ordinary collective institutions are a “they” and not an “it.” That is, collective institutions are just that: collections of individuals. This includes society, the polity, as well as smaller groups and institutions such as legislatures, the Supreme Court, and other collective bodies. There is no real supra-institutional “body” or supra-institutional consciousness.

As a result, conceiving and analyzing these collections of individuals as though they were a single actor, a real “body,” is to misconceive and misanalyze the true nature of these corporate institutions. “Methodological individualism” does not mean that individuals act together in the same way as they act separately. But it does mean that aggregate behavior is always and only the aggregation of the actions and desires of the individuals comprising a corporate institution.

The twentieth century is littered with the tragedy of political movements that mistook metaphor for reality and so sought organic unity in nation or class. Less dramatically, much of the populism of the early 21st-century politics derives from the same itch. While not as pathological as the more extreme twentieth-century forms, even today commentators confuse metaphor for reality in proffering the political body of the nation as true fulfillment for the human desire for solidarity.

In contrast to these other human institutions, whether ancient or modern, the Church is the exception. Uniquely in the Body of Christ, organic corporate unity is real rather than metaphorical. And that makes a difference.

The Social Uniqueness of the Church

But how is the Church different from other corporate institutions like family, government, and society in general?

Chretien argues that conceiving of worldly institutions such as civil government and families as organic unities invites tyranny because “their bodiliness is incomplete.” In contrast, the Church uniquely avoids that problem because the bodily identity of the Church is real and complete.

First, while “body” is no more than a metaphor for worldly corporate institutions, for the Church “body” is an ontological reality. No matter the pretensions of worldly corporate institutions, they are only a “they” and not an “it.” They are associations of individuals that, at most, only glimpse or hint at full human solidarity. These institutions are not organisms with a separate, corporate consciousness.

In contrast, the Scriptures teach that Jesus is a live person in and with whom Christians are united body and soul (Romans 6.5-6, 1 Corinthians 6.17, 10.16-17, etc.). Jesus is “the head of the church.” He is a true consciousness leading a true corporate social body.

And contrary to Siedentop’s individualistic characterization of Christianity, this organic union of the Body of Christ is at the very center of the faith. The point of the sacraments of baptism and the supper are union with Christ and union with one another (1 Co 10.17, 12.13). Even Christians who do not believe that the Spirit really works through the sacraments nonetheless believe that what the sacraments portray corresponds to divine reality. The critical point of agreement between Christians is the fact of union among believers and between believers and Christ, not the mode by which union is accomplished.

To be sure, non-believers will reject this conceptualization of the church as untrue. That need not deter the Christian. The point is that the Christian posits a unique candidate for the realization of human solidarity in pointing to ontological attributes for the Church that no other earthy institution shares.

A second difference that sets the Church apart from other collective institutions, both ancient and modern, is that, in his Body, Jesus inverts the world’s power relationships. Jesus taught his disciples,

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 20. 25-28).

To be sure, we need not be Pollyannaish about relationships in the Church. There are those who seek power and riches through exercising authority, and abusing authority, in the Church as in other institutions. Yet the example and teaching of Jesus also provide the enduring norm and self-corrective. Those who seek worldly power and riches by manipulating the faith are deviants from, rather than exemplars of, Christian practice. As Jesus laid down his life for his bride, the church, so, too, are his followers to lay down their lives for one another rather than exploit one another (Ephesians 5.25, 29, 1 John 4.20).

It is important to underscore that this inversion of world power does not exist in the Church because the Church is an insipid “voluntary organization.” The Church is a government, a kingdom. In fact, the Church is a government and kingdom more powerful than any earthly government or kingdom. But the Church is a kingdom in which worldly institutional forms are inverted so as to promote human flourishing, both individually and as a corporate body. This is why it is in the Church, and only in the Church, that an organic social body realizes a stable, non-despotic expression.

What stands in need of recovery is the Church’s identity as the one true family, the one true polis, and the one true ethnos.

Ecclesiocentrism as the Solution to the Social Problem of the One and the Many

The itch among humans for social and political unity derives from two aspects of human nature. On the one hand, humans desire to have solidarity with others; an intimacy of real organic union. On the other hand, we also fear losing our individual selves—we fear being utterly absorbed by the one—in that same organic unity.

Only Christianity solves this tension. It does so in two related steps. The first step is found in the recognition that humans are created in the image of a triune God. That is, in the one God are three persons. The problem of the social one and the many is resolved without tension or fear in the doctrine and reality of the Trinity. The Athanasian Creed explains that there is

One God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.

In the Trinity, a single unity is fundamental and real, and in the Trinity a plurality is equally fundamental and real. So, too, humans created in the image of God. Humans are fundamentally in solidarity with one another as a corporate “one” and are also fundamentally individualized in our plural “many.”

The second step is that this image—an image effaced at the Fall—is re-created in humans in their ontological union as and with the body of Jesus Christ.

It is the fundamental corporate identity of Christianity that Siedentop, along with many modern Christians, miss with their wholly individualized understanding of the Faith.

The Corporate Reality of the Body of Christ

The ancient world, according to Siedentop, was organized in turns and at different points around family, polis, and ethnos. In these institutions, corporate identity predominated over individual identities. Siedentop presents these ancient corporate identities as uniformly oppressive. It is the oppression of these organic identities from which Christian individualism liberated the ancient world. Yet while Christianity did in fact liberate the world from oppressive corporate identities, it was not Christian individualism that did so. Rather, it was because Christianity transfigured ancient oppressive social identities into dramatically new forms in Christ’s Body.

In the ancient world, the family originated as “the basic unit of social reality,” according to Siedentop. The ancient family formed around household religions that included family members (including ancestors) but excluded all others. Property belonged to the whole family through time, not merely to the current individual head of the family. Upon marriage and entry into the household, brides assumed entirely new identities, switching not only allegiances to a new spouse, but switching to new gods and a new household identity.

More attenuated family relationships formed the basis for clans and tribes—ethnos—and in the city or polis. The polis developed its own “corporate, sacramental character.” Aristotle famously argued in his Politics that the polis is an organic body and, as such, is necessarily prior to its individual members.

The polis is also prior in nature to the household and to each of us individually, since the whole is necessarily prior to the part. For if the whole body is dead, there will no longer be a foot or a hand . . . Hence, that the polis is natural and prior in nature to the individual is clear.

Christianity, which Siedentop incorrectly reduces to St. Paul (“it is hardly too much to say that Paul invented Christianity as a religion”), is, for Siedentop, “the discovery of human freedom—of moral agency potentially available . . . to individuals.” One’s “primary role,” according to Siedentop, becomes one’s role as an individual. Social roles, while not ostensibly “dissolved,” nonetheless “become secondary in relation to that primary role.”

In his enthusiasm to read Western individualism and liberalism into the Scriptures, however, Siedentop selectively reads St. Paul and the rest of the Scriptures.

While there is a remarkable equality of status taught in the Christian Scriptures (including the Hebrew Scriptures or the Christian Old Testament), the Christians’ corporate identity as members of the “body of Christ” is not a secondary role or identity for them. Jesus did not dismiss and destroy the organic institutions of the ancient world. Rather, he re-formed them around himself.

Consider St. Paul’s extended discussion of the church as the Body of Christ in his epistle to the Romans (12.3-13) and in his first epistle to the church at Corinth (12.12-27). Whether or not he had ever encountered Aristotle’s ideas, Paul comes to the same conclusion as the philosopher: the corporate body is prior to the individual members. Jesus did not merely dismiss and destroy the organic institutions of the ancient world. He destroyed them and then formed them again around himself.

Paul argues that the members of Christ’s body share a real ontological union: “we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another” (Romans 12.5, emphasis added). It is this union that serves as the basis for the mutual responsibilities to which the church aspires. Writing to the church at Ephesus, Paul admonishes the Christians there to “speak truth each one with his neighbor, for we are members of one another” (Ephesians 4.25, emphasis added).

While Siedentop repeats modern Christianity’s wrongly atomized understanding of faith as “the salvation of individual souls,” he ignores (along with many of today’s faithful) the bracing corporate images in the Scriptures in which redemption—full redemption—is as a polis, a bride, a family, a temple, a new ethnos. Just as the Scriptures present the fall of humanity in the first Adam as a corporate fall, so, too, humanity is corporately resurrected in the “last Adam” when united with Jesus Christ. The “new man”—the new anthropos—is not simply the redeemed individual in Christ, but is a new corporate identity as well.

The church as family, the church as polis, and the church as ethnos was a bracing teaching in the ancient world as it exploded the ancient forms of those institutions. Likewise, it continues to be a bracing teaching 2,000 years later as it challenges the deeply set individualism of many modern Christians.

For example, often included among the ostensibly “hard sayings” of Jesus is his redrawing of the family around himself. When told that his mother and brothers were outside wanting to speak with him, Jesus answered and said, “‘Who is my mother and who are my brothers?’ And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Behold my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my father who is in heaven, he is my brother and sister and mother’” (Matthew 12.48-50).

This is also in evidence as Christians call each other “brother” and “sister.” In the Church, it is water that is thicker than blood—the baptismal family over the natural family —not the other way around. As Jesus said, “He who loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and he who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.”

So, too, the Scriptures identify the church as polis (Hebrews 11.10, 12.22, Revelation 21.2, 21.9-10). The Church is the City of God in this age, to be sure, yet only fully realized in the Age to Come. And the Church also is ethnos (1 Peter 2.9, etc.). We see this in the rolling back of Babel on the day of Pentecost, the first day of the Church, and the grafting in of Samaritans and then Gentiles. So thorough-going is this re-creation that Paul invokes the Genesis story, but in application to Jesus Christ as a second Adam, the creation of a “new humanity”—a new “anthropos” in the Greek—remade “according to the image of the One who created him—a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman” (Colossians 3.10-11).

Without rejecting earthly identities entirely, nonetheless the Christian’s first national identity is the Church. The Christian’s first family identity is the Church. And the Christian’s first polis is the Church.

Siedentop gets right the criticisms of the ancient institutional forms, but he misses the second half of the story. Christianity did explode the ancient social forms, but then resurrected them again in the Church’s identity as the corporate Body of Christ.

The Worldly Institutions and the Kingdom of God

The human desires for both solidarity and individual distinction are deeply rooted. They are often in tension with each other in a fallen humanity. The Trinity, in whose image humans are made, provides the model of unity amidst plurality—individuality amidst solidarity—without tension or confusion. While this divine image was effaced at the Fall, it was restored by Jesus Christ through his Body. This is a unique attribute of Christ’s church, meaning that other earthly institutions do not share it, and cannot share it. At least not fully.

Recognizing this ecclesiocentric social reality helps complete our political theories as well. “Religion” is not necessary to free government merely because it has the salutary benefit of incentivizing the pursuit of necessary public virtues among those who would otherwise not seek them. Free societies, indeed, humanity more generally, find true human solidarity only in the Church. In recognizing that nation-states are only a “they” and not an “it”—in recognizing the danger of seeking ontological unity in a politics that can only provide a counterfeit of what the Church offers—we do not therefore have to forfeit the human need and desire for deep solidarity with others. That solidarity, however, is not found in the nation-state. Or when it is located there in any fundamental way, it is only a deviant form of solidarity.

The deviance can run the other way as well. In conceiving of the church as an institution similar to other earthly institutions, an ideology of ontological individualism can be imported from the civil domain, where it is appropriate, into the ecclesial domain where it is not. In doing so it erodes the church’s unique identity as the only source for true solidarity that the human heart craves. If anything, it is not individualism in the church that needs to be strengthened, or recognition of the church’s contribution to creating modern individualism. What stands in desperate need of recovery is the Church’s identity as the one true family, the one true polis, and the one true ethnos.