Each year our school runs its own “Faith in Humanities” conference in which students and faculty members present and discuss topics related to the integration of faith and various academic disciplines. Recently I was asked if I would consider sharing something that I’m currently working on or thinking about, and after reflection I have decided I will. It will be just a short 10-minute talk, with time for one or two questions afterwards.
I’m still pondering the mechanics of it all, but am planning on sharing some thoughts I’ve been having in my new course “The Church in Contemporary Society.” Recently a question came up about how we might anchor our discussion of the Christian’s role in our society. In response my mind went (not surprisingly) to the history of Christianity. Specifically, a 2nd or 3rd century text called The Epistle to Diognetus.
Written at a time when Christianity was a minority faith in a pagan Roman world, the document contains some passages that helpfully frame the issue. In some ways this is best represented by the following quotation:
What the soul is in the body, that Christians are in the world. The soul is dispersed through all the members of the body, and Christians are scattered through all the cities of the world. The soul dwells in the body, but does not belong to the body, and Christians dwell in the world, but do not belong to the world.
I’ve tried this quotation out in two different forums. Some feedback has been positive, while others have been a little concerned that the model as laid out draws too sharp a distinction been soul and body. Dualism and the utter denigration of the flesh has, after all, often been a temptation in Christianity.
While I accept this criticism and have been thinking a bit about the implications, I also know that I like the picture being painted by this ancient text. Plus, I think that what I mean has more to do with the fact that just like the soul belongs in the body and has a vital function it, so to the Church’s role in society is meant to be a positive and constitutive one. I like thinking about the role of Christians in the world not as one of domination or control, but rather witness and conscience. All of this, of course, not of ourselves but from God.
As Christians we live in and throughout the world and yet look elsewhere for our final home. We have a different horizon, even while looking from the same vantage point. Our operating principles are different. We are called to speak to truth, love, and justice despite what prevailing wisdom may say. And, as Jesus tells us in Matthew, we exist as light and seasoning in a world that needs it. Even when it doesn’t want it.
If we can, as the Epistle suggests, consider our interactions with civil society in these ways and stop selling ourselves short by wholesale alignment with political projects (liberal and conservative) not of our own design, I think we can then speak with more authority and authenticity. I think it is then we can begin to be the “soul” we are called to be.