One of my areas of learning over the summer has been permaculture, particularly as people are applying it to communities. One of the most interesting conversations going on in that space is the problem of scalability: how to get the micro and macro to functioning together based on the same values and principles. A common image for this is the fractal.
A fractal is a pattern that continuously repeats itself, so it looks the same whether you’re zoomed in or zoomed out. Common examples are the branching patterns of rivers or the growth patterns of ferns or broccoli. This discussion gets into complicated math really quickly, so I’ll leave it at that. But I’ve been thinking about it lately with respect to how the New Testament talks about matters of salvation and holiness.
When reading the New Testament, I often have to stop myself and ask if the writer is talking about Christians as persons or collectively as the Church. More often than not, even if I can tease out an answer in a particular text, the more general answer is simply ‘yes’. The New Testament uses exactly the same images for us at the micro as it does for the Church at the macro.
And so, in the posts I wrote the other week about us as temples of the Holy Spirit (“The City of our God” and “My Body is a Temple”), I discussed 1 Corinthians 3.16, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?,” in which Paul urges the faithful to remember that the Spirit of God lives within each of them personally; but there is also 1 Peter 2.4-5, which calls the faithful be “living stones,” which together are built into the Temple of God. Just as we are as persons the place where God dwells, so too is the community of faith the place where God dwells. This truth is beautifully enacted in the Orthodox Church, where new church buildings are anointed with chrism in the same way that a person is after their baptism: as with the person, so with the Church. And, as it happens, so too with Jesus himself, in whose name (and, if you accept the metaphysics, “in whom”) all this happens: Christ means, “anointed one,” or “The One Marked by Chrism.” And so the fractal pattern continues.
The same pattern works with the image of the body. We are to honour God with our bodies (see, for example, 1 Corinthians 6), but those bodies are members (i.e., body parts) of Christ’s body, which is the Church (1 Corinthians 12).
This pattern, where what is true for us as persons is also true as the Church (and vice versa), is important to remember. For much of its history, Christian theology has focused almost entirely on the Church, to the exclusion of the human person. This is an issue because communities have totalitarian impulses and all too often people in the Church are treated as means to an end rather than as beautiful men and women created in the image and likeness of God. At the same time, our society in North America is on the opposite extreme, thinking of the spiritual life entirely in terms of individual expression. The idea of being part of a community — of belonging, of having responsibilities to a group — is almost anathema.
A fractal understanding of salvation in the New Testament offers a challenge to both perspectives. Whether we are more prone to think of our faith in terms of personal spirituality or communal life, the two are authentically one and the same. Exactly the same impulses, themes, and phenomena should be playing out at both levels. We are saved as persons, but we are also saved together. We are bodies but we are parts of a body. We are temples of God but stones of God’s temple. The Kingdom of God is both within us and among us (Luke 17.21).
Understanding our salvation in this way also provides us with a beautiful way of understanding the Church’s vocation in the world: as in us, so in the Church; as in the Church, so in the world. For the New Testament includes a vision not just for a renewed humanity, but a renewed, restored, and resanctified creation, a New Heaven and a New Earth. And we are called to be a part of it.