Does a gathering of individual Christians make a collective
Part of the problem in the debate between communitarians and individualists is that it remains solely on the sociological plane. The missing piece to the puzzle is the very center of church life itself: Jesus Christ. The debate will go on in perpetuity as long as it remains a struggle between two foci. But when a third point is added, a triangle is formed and a more rich discussion can follow.
So then, how do the Church, the Christian and Christ relate?
The classic way to formulate the basic options was put forth by Schleiermacher (19th Cen). He put it in terms of a contrast between the Protestant and Catholic ecclesiological principles (Christian Faith 103-108):
The Protestant principle is that the relationship between the Christian and the Church depends on the Christian's relationship to Christ.
The Catholic principle is that the relationship between the Christian and Christ depends on the Christian's relationship to Church.
Of course, this leads us into a whole other web of problems. Which principle gives pride of place to Christ? Which principle avoids the perils of the extremes? Are these principles adequate descriptions of the Protestant/Catholic difference? How do we acknowledge both the freedom of Christ and the indispensability of the Church? Is there a way to synthesize the principles? Is there a third option? But at least they are properly theological problems and therefore we might be able to get somewhere. In other words, a good ecclesiology must deal in Christological currency.
Although I enjoy being provocative, it seems appropriate to at least sketch the beginnings of my own solution to this basis ecclesiological problem. I would recommend that we navigate Schleiermacher’s triangle by means of the concept of mission. My inspiration here is von Balthasar, who outlines a missional concept of theological personhood in his Theo-Drama vol. III. Balthasar’s advance is that our personhood is grounded neither in our individual Christianity nor our participation in the community of the Church as such, but rather in the fulfillment of our mission. We are sent by God. This is who we are, both as individual Christians and as a communal Church. Balthasar gives the example of Paul, who as an individual missionary was on the periphery of the church and yet served the church precisely in his peripheral mission. He notes rightly that individualism and communitarianism coincide for Paul, especially when he reflects on his suffering for the church (e.g., Colossians 2).
Here’s how one might render Balthasar’s insight in terms of Schleiermacher’s triangle:
The Missional principle is that the Christian's relationship to both Christ and the Church depends on her participation in the mission to which Christ sends the Church.My hope is that this way of putting things will keep the Christian and the Church in proper balance as they subsist in the one mission of Christ. This certainly doesn’t solve all the problems, but it may help to reframe it in a fruitful way.
Any communitarians or individualists out there who want to take me to task?
Any objections to Schleiermacher’s way of Christologizing the problem?
Any suggestions toward a missional solution to these problems?