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The church is a collective subject

Halden Doerge spun out a provocative series of posts last week on the image of the church as the body of Christ. His main contention throughout was that “what the metaphor indicates is not a monopersonal identity that fuses Christ and the church.” From what I can tell, Halden’s objection to speaking of the church as “one body” with Christ stems from two related concerns: (1) to maintain Jesus’ position as mediator as unique to his historical person, and (2) to avoid rendering the church as a static, coherent “subject” such as could stand in as mediator. The latter seems especially problematic to him in that it divinizes the church understood as a static collective, leaving it in some sense immune to criticism. This is how “the body of Christ” can become an ideological concept.

This is a pretty perceptive analysis, in my opinion—but I think Halden locates the hinge in the wrong place. It’s not the concept of subjective unity that twists the image in an ideological direction, but the portrayal of the subject as static. Notice that in his most direct argument that the church is not a collective subject, the points of criticism tend toward the conclusion that there can be no such thing as a collective subject at all. Collectives are always constituted by a “nexus of relationships.” Because the church always takes the form of of mutual self-giving in love, it’s an “event” rather than a subject. But what does that assume about subjects? Can’t an individual subject, too, be described as a kind of nexus of inner relationships that require dynamic ordering if she is to stay sane, to act as one?

The problem isn’t with the idea of collective subjectivity itself. We live constantly as members of collective subjects, subjects that are more or less fractured, and more or less authoritarian. The problem is with a particular idea of what it means to be a unified subject: denying the “event” character of subjectivity itself, and portraying the subject as self-contained. (This kind of subject, whether individual or collective, is inevitably tyrannical.) Do away with a static, self-contained concept of subjectivity with respect to Christ, too, and Christ’s sole mediation need not preclude a participation in his unique personal identity—it could even be said that the specific form of Christ’s mediation is our inclusion in him as a collective subject. The uniqueness of Christ is precisely that he, unlike other historical figures, is an individual and collective subject at the same time.

This is all very schematic and impressionistic, I know. Bear with me.

  1. andrewlp
    February 14, 2010 at 9:46 pm

    I really like the idea of locating the problem with “static,” rather than “collective,” notions of subjectivity. To the extent that embodiment implies subjectivity, which I think it does–and to the extent that we believe that the church is the body of Christ in some meaningful sense–it seems we’ve got to make room for some sense of collective subjectivity in our ecclesiology, or else lose sight of the radical unity to which Christians are called. In short, I agree!

  2. February 15, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I think you’re right on: the idea of collective subjectivity is behind Bonhoeffer’s understanding of ‘church’, that what ‘church’ is is just this collective subjectivity, corporately confronted by God.

  3. February 15, 2010 at 3:14 pm

    I think Myles rightly brings up Bonhoeffer in this regard, but it should be pointed out that, for Bonhoeffer, the church as the ‘collective personality’ of Jesus Christ is always an eschatological reality. The church is in need of being continually actualized by the Spirit, for the communion of saints remains the community of sinners. Although humanity-in-Adam has been overcome and transformed by Christ in “reality,” humanity-in-Adam is still present in “actuality.” Indeed, the sanctorum communio remains the peccatorum communio—the other is still experienced as a stranger, threat, and as one who demands—yet in the church we experience an “eschatological prolepsis” where “the You reveals itself to the I as another I, as heart, as love, as Christ” (SC 213).

    • Cass
      February 16, 2010 at 10:40 am

      Quick question: Can anyone tell me where that phrase “peccatorum communio” or “community of sinners” originates? I hear it about a lot.
      The fact that it is usually intended to indicate, the fact that the consequences of the Fall are still — for us — in effect and ‘to be overcome’ as an inescapable ongoing imperative, I do not dispute. But the phrase itself I take to be entirely oxymoronic. Sin is precisely that which causes rupture, that which disintegrates. Community and communion are terms referring to an actual (both historical and ahistorical) transcending of the disruption consequent to sin, which constitutes the establishment of a new and final unity.
      There can be no such thing as a community of sinners in the same way that there is, observably, no such thing as (rooted, reliable, fundamental) honor among theives.

      • Cass
        February 16, 2010 at 4:24 pm

        Okay…so Bonhoeffer, in SC, would be the originator of “peccatorum communio”?
        And that would be, not “community of sinners” as is often mistranslated, but rather, “community of sin”…meaning something along the lines that all human sin, seen from the angle of those redeemed in Christ, is of a piece, that we are each of us responsible for all of it, that we each of us suffer the total consequences of all of it (and that this is proper to both the Justice and Mercy of God)?
        That, I think I can swallow. It’s this den of thieves business that certain remiss preachers want to turn it into that I choke on.
        Corrections to the above?

    • February 16, 2010 at 1:56 pm

      Good point, Ry—especially in response to Halden’s criticisms, it’s important to keep clear on the fact that this unity is normative and eschatological, not accomplished.

      Also, I really need to read Sanctorum Communio.

  4. Cass
    February 16, 2010 at 1:20 pm

    Brian, I am with you (mostly) until the last sentence–about the uniqueness of Christ. It seems that you argued earlier that in some sense every person is a kind of collective subject–“a nexus of inner relationships” dynamically ordered. If so, how is Christ’s individuality cum collectivity historically unique?

    I agree with Doerge that the body of Christ image is generally distorted these days by our looking through a lens of ‘physicality’. Nineteenth-century-style naive scientific materialism is so reflexive for most of us on some level of our thinking that, when we hear the term body, we think physical object having mass. Moreover, we think, object defined by its being divisible into parts.

    I’ll wager that is not what underlies Paul’s image of the Corpus Christi. I’ll wager he was thinking something more along the lines of what Aristotle and Saint Thomas go to lengths to describe and define (and which I personally don’t quite have my mind around yet). Something along the lines of a substance with a single unifying principle of life or being (and again, Doerne approaches this by his talk of our being one in the Spirit), except importantly colored and modified by the understanding of collective subjectivity that permeates the Old Testament: Adam==Man==Mankind; Israel==Nation. The Christian image is one step more complicated in that it involves two kinds of collective subjectivity: the collective subjectivity of children to one Father (Christ) [Adam==Man and Christ is the Final Adam] and the collective subjectivity of Man (Christ) and Spouse (Church).

    Again, I don’t quite have my head around the image (or images) yet. But I see enough (I think) to recognize it as critical to any real understanding of the mystery of the Church. And I believe that it is really important to resist the impulse to simply ditch the “one body” imagery, on the grounds that it is subject to misinterpretation. It is subject to misinterpretation, because teaching has fallen off of late, because clarity of understanding of the real meaning of the image is scarce. But the fix for that is not to ditch the image, but to work harder to recover clarity of understanding.

    In other words, you go, guy! Keep on keeping on.

    • February 16, 2010 at 4:25 pm

      Helpful thoughts on other, more immediately biblical ways of construing the image; thanks, Cass.

      With respect to the uniqueness of Christ, the difference is a matter of (absolute) degree. While I do think it’s true that every individual subject can be construed as a kind of dynamic collectivity (of passions, needs, desires, etc.), that’s obviously true only in a limited way. I can’t include you in my “collective” subjectivity. (Or, if there is a way of speaking in which I can, it will have to be heavily qualified.) With Christ, on the other hand, individual and collective subjectivity absolutely coincide: even as an individual personal subject, there is “room” in him for other subjects—i.e., others can abide in him, be grafted into him, become one body with him.

  5. Cass
    February 17, 2010 at 10:08 am

    in case it is not too late…
    @Ry and/or @Bonhoeffer, A good deal depends on whether one says, “in the church we experience an “eschatological prolepsis”” or, instead, “eschatological prolepsis, experienced within and by a community of believers, is what constitutes the Church”.
    Insofaras I am the new man Paul speaks of, I belong to the Church and am of the Church, I belong to Christ and am a member of his body. Insofaras I reject or oppose or find myself in conflict with the new man, I am as yet unconverted–when and where I sin, I set myself anew OUTSIDE the Church.
    I think, that this is the true, historical, orthodox RC understanding, that underlies confession for example, and that informs and guides a proper conception of the immanent Kingdom of God. I am too little erudite to make a very good case in this company though. I only ask that you consider whether it might be true.
    The sense in which there is such a thing as community is sin or sins–and maybe this what B. intends (I haven’t read his book–yet)–is in the sense of “He who did not know sin became Sin for our sake”–in Christ, Sin (of itself a sort of disintegration) is unified, it is unified precisely in his suffering its effects and overcoming them–his death is the one single effect of all sin. He somehow suffers disintegration in such a way as to integrate it.
    Okay. Probably way too sketchy. But there is something behind that matters and is relevant.
    @Brian, This needs more time and thought than this venue affords. But each of us is, in some way, incomplete. Who I am, essentially, is one belonging to, depending on, and deriving from, others. I am daughter, sister, mother, wife, customer at the grocery store, driver on the highway, US citizen, et cetera. To lose one’s life so that it may be found and to love one’s neighbor as oneself are not simple acts of discrete individuals (only), these are transformative acts, acts that reciprocally act upon the subject, making the subject something intrinsically and essentially linked to the others whom he loves and for whose sake he surrenders his selfhood.
    Makes no sense the way that I have put it.
    But the image of Christ as one who has ‘room’ inside for you and me is little different from the image of Adam or of Israel, who have such room, or of England or France, when their used to be kings. Or, take marriage. Properly understood, a wife is ‘grafted’ on to the vine of husband and the children are little tendrils and branches. In the old Israel, a house or household, complete with servants, was one body, identified with its head, the man whose house it was. That is all so wildly un-PC and different from how we are used to looking at things that it might sound simply crazy. But, it isn’t. And examination of it bears on understanding of the image of the body of Christ.
    Which is all offered as though I have authority and I know, while I really don’t know but am just guessing. Simply have no time to say it a better way.
    I don’t know, but I have one whopper of a strong hunch.
    Blessed Ash Wednesday.

    • February 17, 2010 at 11:44 am

      Cass, I am not sure if I understand you correctly, but are you saying that there can be no “community of sinners” because the consequence of sin is precisely the disintegration of community? Perhaps I’ve misunderstood you here? If so, I think Bonhoeffer would agree with you on this, but he would still want to talk about sinners as in some sense “in the church,” I think. Also, I am not at all sure that traditional Roman Catholic teaching would say that sin puts us “outside the church” as you say–though I suppose I’m not entirely certain on this.

      Brian, I think you might find SC to be helpful on these issues, but I should say that SC is really saturated with Hegel. What makes SC so fascinating to me is how thoroughly Hegelian it all is, even when it seems to me Bonhoeffer is critical of Hegel at points. Of course, this all makes the work more difficult. But as soon as I hear discussions like this about “collectivity subjectivity” I think of the early Hegelian inspired Bonhoeffer. And I say “early” because I do think that by the time of Discipleship and certainly by the time of Ethics he has left much of Hegel behind.

      • Cass
        February 17, 2010 at 12:46 pm

        Yes, that is exactly what I meant.
        I think that I want to talk about sinners as being ‘in some sense’ “in the church”, too, with a heavy emphasis on ‘in some sense’. There is a saying, “hate the sin but love the sinner.” The sinner is the substance, the soul, the person who is infected by sin, slave to sin, but not himself created for sin; not essentially sin-oriented, only accidentally or circumstantially sin-oriented. So, the sinner is “in the Church” insofaras his sin is always before him and he repents of it. Insofaras he chooses sin, wills it, he is outcast and exile, utterly alone, cut off from God and man in the abyss of evil.
        The thing is, that sifting of wheat is not yet accomplished, so, the chaff is still stuck to us: you don’t see any wheat clean of chaff. And yet, all the wheat you see–amongst the baptised–is “in the Church”. So, sinners are in the Church only in the sense that they are–eschatologically–not sinners but saints.
        What I don’t know, yet, is whether Bonhoeffer rejects that last or agrees with it.

      • February 17, 2010 at 1:16 pm

        That’s really interesting—I didn’t realize there was this trajectory away from Hegel over the course of Bonhoeffer’s life. That makes me even more interested in SC, actually. I’m absolutely fascinated by theological uses of Hegel these days.

        There’s another student here at Notre Dame, Mike Mawson, who’s writing his dissertation on Bonhoeffer and Hegel. And another still who would have, if Mike hadn’t already snagged it. So if you ever decide to trek out here for a visit, there would be a quorum for beer and conversation.

  6. Cass
    February 17, 2010 at 10:42 am

    @Brian, or think of it this way: The man Jesus was Son of Adam, Child of Abraham, Israelite, Son of David, and “a priest forever of the line of Melchizedek”. Somehow, there was ‘room’ inside Adam, Abraham, Jacob, David and Melchizedek for the person Jesus to in some way subsist or reside.
    Which (at least) suggests that to be self-contained container of other selves is part of the very nature of the human being.
    Now, I will try to back off. I don’t, always, talk so much. Really. And I really like yr site, so much to learn here.

    • February 17, 2010 at 11:13 am

      Right, so there are common instances of what can be called collective subjectivity throughout the Bible and certainly in political history, and those have often been symbolized by identity with a particular, historical subject—the king, the husband, the patriarch, etc. The latter fact, I think, illumines the ideological side of this whole way of speaking that Halden was concerned with—i.e., the way in which collective subjectivity becomes a way of justifying a specific arrangement of power. It’s not “simply crazy,” I agree, but I do think those power arrangements were unjust, and I would only be interested in the language of collective subjectivity so long as it can be construed in an anti-authoritarian way.

      With respect to the distinctiveness of Christ—those forms of collective subjectivity identified with a particular historical subject are still always metaphorical, where I would want to say that the coincidence of individual and collective subjectivity is actual in Christ.

      • Cass
        February 18, 2010 at 6:06 am

        Christ is one person possesssing two natures. The fully human nature of Christ appears to me to qualify him as “a particular historical subject” on a par with any of the patriarchs with respect to whether/what extent collective subjectivity can be actual as opposed to metaphorical.

        So, that leaves the divine nature. Is that where “the coincidence of individual and collective subjectivity is actual in Christ”?

        But doesn’t that open up all sorts of difficulties? After all, Christ is *one person* possessing two natures. The divine Christ pours himself into the man and becomes that particular, finite, essentially limited being.

        How could a collective subject pour itself into a vessel that can only “actually” hold an individual subject? If you try to make that fly, isn’t it more than the ‘nature’ of Christ that comes into play, doesn’t it demand a kind of metamorphosis, an unbecoming and rebecoming, of the subject himself/itself/themselves, the very person?

        Leaving aside the question of how a plurality of created men could be conceived to constitute the nature of the uncreated Son of God who has been ‘ever since ever’ with God and in God and true God.

      • Cass
        February 18, 2010 at 7:05 am

        But the real problem is with the body. The metaphors, if that is what they are, all hinge upon or relate to the corporality of Christ. Under aspect of the divine nature, Christ has no body. The body he does have–from which the mystical body takes its meaning–is a human body, partaking of, limited to and defined by, human nature.

        Of course, all of the above, is inherently essentialist. But then, so is the language and the conceptual architecture of the dogmas and the creeds on which it is based.

        Yours in Christ.

      • February 18, 2010 at 7:32 am

        I’ve not really thought this through in the language of the creeds; I’m not sure how it would work. I’ve been reading a lot of Bonaventure lately, who also just seems to run wild with the paradoxes in Christ—maybe I’m doing so too, and too hastily.

      • Cass
        February 18, 2010 at 11:38 am

        Well, you are way ahead of me in that you are at least reading Bonaventure. I shall endeavor somehow/someday to follow your good example.
        So many good things to read, and time so starkly limited.

  7. Cass
    February 17, 2010 at 12:31 pm

    The following is intended as explication of a position/point of view, not intended as hostile.
    I don’t believe that anything can be properly construed in an anti-authoritarian way. I consider attempts at anti-authoritarian construction to be steps on the slippery slope toward deconstruction and fatal deconstructionism.
    I hold to a (sort of Augustinian, to the extent that it is at all educated or informed) view that God is Author of Creation, and that authority (in the sense of law and hierarchy, in a hesitant/qualified, but somewhat Thomistic sense) and authorship (in the sense of creativity, poetry, art, more in line with the minds of Dante and Eliot and Tolkien and more Romantic in spirit) are built into the fabric of both the individual human soul and the entire human community, as aspects of what it is to be in the image of God.
    So…probably our politics (and perhaps our aesthetics) are–at this point–a bit at odds.
    I think, basically, you cannot have a “body” without a “head”, and I think that this is everywhere to be found as part and parcel of the true and constant teaching of the Church, on innumerable questions. The more one tries to avoid it or pretend it isn’t there, the more self-defeating one’s efforts in that respect are bound to prove.
    But, my thinking that don’t make it so. I’ve been wrong before, and I might be wrong now.

  8. February 17, 2010 at 2:00 pm

    Great! More work certainly needs to be done on Bonhoeffer’s relationship to Hegel. Charles Marsh has probably done more than anyone else on this subject. I should say I’m sure your friend Mike would be more qualified than I am to speak to some of these issues. Certainly SC is the text in which Bonhoeffer most explicitly draws on Hegel as a resource to think through the kind of social body the church is. In fact, key to SC is the Hegelian inspired notion that the church is “Christ existing as community.” It would be interesting to explore Bonhoeffer’s eschatological distinction (re my first comment) with Hegel’s distinction between “appearance” and “reality.”

    In my thesis I argue that Bonhoeffer does not end up collapsing Christ into the church in SC but I’m wondering now if he manages to avoid this via Hegel. After SC and AB Bonhoeffer rarely employs Hegel so explicitly and I would argue that this is intentional. By the time of Ethics and LPP Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the church becomes much more focused on mission than on maintaining an ontological unity of sorts between Christ and the church.

  9. February 19, 2010 at 10:00 am

    Good call, Ry. But even in Ethics and LPP, he makes the assumption that the ethical stances he articulates are predicated on a Christological-ontological priority, similar to what you find in the early stuff.

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