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God and the City:
An Essay in Political Metaphysics

by d. c. schindler
st. augustine's press, 215 pages, $20

D. C. Schindler’s recent God and the City is a dense, brilliant essay on “political metaphysics.” In fewer than two hundred small pages organized into three chapters, Schindler covers an astonishing range of topics. His title captures the focus of the book. Schindler is interested in God and the city. God is present and active in all human activity, especially political activity. Politics cannot but be spiritual and religious because, as Aristotle said, politics is the “architectonic practical science . . . essentially concerned with the highest good to the highest degree.” By using “city,” Schindler locates his reflections in the tradition of classical, patristic, and medieval political thought. “City” has both a literal and metaphorical sense. Literally, “a city is a compact, regulated gathering of human beings for the purpose of living together in a beneficial way,” a particular “realization of civilization.” More broadly and symbolically, “city” refers to “a way of life or a collective disposition toward reality in general.”

I’ll focus on one thread in Schindler’s third chapter, provocatively entitled, “The Glory of God is the City Fully Alive,” a political riff on Irenaeus’s “the glory of God is man fully alive.” There Schindler explores the analogy between the relation of the soul to the body and the relation of church to city. This pairing isn’t merely convenient or epistemological but ontological, so “organic” that a distortion of one relation will inevitably “tend to disorder the rest.”

Schindler’s analysis of Aquinas’s understanding of the soul and body is subtle and complex. For Thomas, the soul isn’t an extrinsic form of the body; rather, the soul gives itself to the body, and this self-gift is the foundation of the body’s very existence. The soul isn’t a spark that jolts an already-shaped body to life. Without a forming, animating soul, the body is not a body at all, neither alive nor a unified thing, but a mere pile of organs and limbs. While it doesn’t create the body (God does), the soul gives the body its bodiliness. Because God is the life of the soul, the soul mediates God to the body. Thus, the soul is not, as we typically believe, nested within the body. The reality is the opposite: The soul contains the body and pervades it, energizing all the body’s functions, even the most visceral. Digestion isn’t “a purely physical movement of matter,” but a transfiguring of material food “into the higher-level form of the human being.” Digestion is “a spiritual activity,” even while being physical. 

Yet—and this is crucial—this doesn’t nullify or diminish the body, or turn it into a mere organ or extension of the soul. Precisely because the soul constitutes the body as a body, the soul constitutes the body’s difference from the soul. In giving itself to the body, the soul gives the body to itself, as a distinct reality with its own integrity. Consider how the Father gives himself to the Son and so gives Sonship to the Son, as a Person distinct from the Father; or how the Son gives himself to humanity and so gives his humanity its very existence; or how the Creator gives himself to creation and so gives creation its own autonomy.

Transpose this into the political sphere, with the soul standing for the church and the body for the city. To think the church adds a “spiritual” dimension to an existing polity that is purely earthly and natural is to assume a modern, Cartesian understanding of the soul-body relation. Rather, as the body exists only by the soul’s self-gift, so the city “can exist as a city, as a reality in the world, only insofar as it is gathered around the unity of a comprehensive common good [that is] fundamentally spiritual.” Ancient cities were religious organizations, and in Christian thought, the church provides that comprehensive civic good. The church pervades and contains the city, and by giving herself to the city, the church constitutes the city as a city. The body’s functions are bodily, but they occur only because the body is alive by virtue of the soul. So too, the city is spiritual even in its most mundane civic activities, like garbage removal. When the city denies its spiritual reality, it suffers a fundamental derangement. A city cannot be rightly ordered without the church any more than a body can function without the soul. Indeed, echoing Augustine’s shocking claim that Rome was never fully a Republic, Schindler insists a city isn’t a city at all without the church.

Any effort to privatize, marginalize, or de-center the church is thus a fundamental assault on the city’s own health and existence. By displacing the church from her role as civic “soul,” modernity suicidally un-cities the city. As God is the life of the soul and the life the soul mediates to the body, so “God is the life of the life of the city.” When God is excluded, the city becomes soulless, and will search desperately for an ersatz soul to order and enliven it, often settling for lifeless bureaucratic or technological substitutes. In the end, a city without the church is “diabolical,” riven by fissures. A churchless city is vampiric, sucking life from its zombie citizens.

This doesn’t entail “theocracy” or “integralism.” Integralism treats soul and body, church and city, as extrinsic to one another, locked in competition for supremacy. In this picture, the church strives to triumph over the city, rather than granting the city its distinctive civic reality. Though the church doesn’t govern the city directly, “the city can rule itself . . . only in the light of the spiritual dimensions introduced, as it were, by the church.” Because the church mediates God’s presence to the city, it draws the city into its own liturgical life and gives the city its “own, distinctive relation to God.” Through the church, the city reaches its full glory, because “The glory of God is the city fully alive.”

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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Image by Diego Delso licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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