Archive Authors Civic Polity E.J. Hutchinson Early Church Fathers Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism

The Diognetus Option

Christians Are the Soul of the World

“[W]hat the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world.”

That may sound presumptuous, to say that Christians are the soul of the world–but, then again, I didn’t say it.

“Mathetes” did, in his 2nd-c. letter to Diognetus. So consider this an exercise in post-Apostolic ressourcement: I wonder if it might provide some helpful orientation for all of the recent talk surrounding the “Benedict Option” (sogenannt). (We of course leave to one side the question of whether Benedict fled to a monastery to avoid, ahem, the “culture” or generally maleficent social forces; a consideration of this question might prove instructive for au courant purveyors of Benedictinism, but it is not our task here.)

For, unlike Benedict of Nursia, “Mathetes” really did live in a pagan world that not only did not understand the Christian faith, but in large measure despised it. What does he recommend? Retreat? Coenobitism? A hermitage? No, he would have none of it. He did not believe that the vocation of Christians was to become Woodland Elves.

“In,” but not “Of”

Why? “Mathetes” takes seriously the Gospel’s “in the world, but not of it.” More precisely, he takes seriously both prepositions, the in and the of. Christians are made by God; they are not of the world. But God has placed them there, in the world. And though the world of “Mathetes” hates the Christians, the Christians are nevertheless to love those who hate them–a task that they cannot accomplish by leaving the world to itself. If they were to do so, they would perhaps be greeted by their own Rutilius Namatianus, who, in his De reditu suo, found himself so bewildered by the anti-civic eremitic impulse.

Let us, then, hear what “Mathetes”–who, again, knew firsthand what it was really like to live in a hostile cultural and social environment–has to say:

To sum up all in one word— what the soul is in the body, 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, yet is not of the body; and Christians dwell in the world, yet are not of the world. The invisible soul is guarded by the visible body, and Christians are known indeed to be in the world, but their godliness remains invisible. The flesh hates the soul, and wars against it, 1 Peter 2:11 though itself suffering no injury, because it is prevented from enjoying pleasures; the world also hates the Christians, though in nowise injured, because they abjure pleasures. The soul loves the flesh that hates it, and [loves also] the members; Christians likewise love those that hate them. The soul is imprisoned in the body, yet preserves that very body; and Christians are confined in the world as in a prison, and yet they are the preservers of the world. The immortal soul dwells in a mortal tabernacle; and Christians dwell as sojourners in corruptible [bodies], looking for an incorruptible dwelling in the heavens. The soul, when but ill-provided with food and drink, becomes better; in like manner, the Christians, though subjected day by day to punishment, increase the more in number. God has assigned them this illustrious position, which it were unlawful for them to forsake. (Epistle to Diognetus 6)

Indeed, the duality of in and of forms a sort of retroactive foundation for what “Mathetes” had said in the previous paragraph:

For the Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs which they observe. For they neither inhabit cities of their own, nor employ a peculiar form of speech, nor lead a life which is marked out by any singularity. The course of conduct which they follow has not been devised by any speculation or deliberation of inquisitive men; nor do they, like some, proclaim themselves the advocates of any merely human doctrines. But, inhabiting Greek as well as barbarian cities, according as the lot of each of them has determined, and following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct, they display to us their wonderful and confessedly striking method of life. They dwell in their own countries, but simply as sojourners. As citizens, they share in all things with others, and yet endure all things as if foreigners. Every foreign land is to them as their native country, and every land of their birth as a land of strangers. They marry, as do all [others]; they beget children; but they do not destroy their offspring. They have a common table, but not a common bed. They are in the flesh, but they do not live after the flesh. 2 Corinthians 10:3They pass their days on earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Philippians 3:20 They obey the prescribed laws, and at the same time surpass the laws by their lives. They love all men, and are persecuted by all. They are unknown and condemned; they are put to death, and restored to life. 2 Corinthians 6:9 They are poor, yet make many rich; 2 Corinthians 6:10 they are in lack of all things, and yet abound in all; they are dishonoured, and yet in their very dishonour are glorified. They are evil spoken of, and yet are justified; they are reviled, and bless; 2 Corinthians 4:12 they are insulted, and repay the insult with honour; they do good, yet are punished as evil-doers. When punished, they rejoice as if quickened into life; they are assailed by the Jews as foreigners, and are persecuted by the Greeks; yet those who hate them are unable to assign anyreason for their hatred. (Epistle to Diognetus 5)

In the paragraph just cited, “Mathetes” discusses the simulataneous invisibility and visibility of the faithful. They are invisible in so far as they have no private language, no private customs, no private cities, no private communes, no private “culture” in the broad sense of the term. Instead, they differ from those who surround them morally, by their lifestyle, as it were–and thus they do have a different “culture” in the narrow sense. And that lifestyle–that “culture”– is in turn founded upon God’s action upon them: they have been made citizens of heaven and, just as they are not of the world, their telos is not the world as fallen and as fleshly. It is rather the heavenly city.

They do, it is true, have a community, and it is visible; but that community is simply the church, marked out here by the reference to the Christians’ “common table”–again, immediately distuinguished morally from its surroundings, for they do not have a “common bed.”

And in fact their sexual ethic is one item that sets the Christians visibly apart from their fellows, not just in their refusal of promiscuity and libertinism, but also in their treatment of children: “[t]hey marry…but they do not destroy their offspring.” Their godliness may be “invisible” as to its source, just as the soul itself is invisible. But it manifests itself in the body, through moral action consonant with the created order and with the Gospel, the Gospel that restores and vindicates that same fallen created order.

“Ye Are the Salt of the Earth”

All of this–the Christians’ peculilar beliefs and behaviors–ought to have the effect of bearing witness to outsiders of the truth and righteousness of the Gospel while also maintaining the common humanity of all men in mutual civic life, and in some measure reforming and guiding it. This is an effect difficult to produce in a desert.

And so, when “Mathetes” says that “what the soul is in the body, Christians are in the world,” he is not simply stating a fact: he is stating a responsibility.

Consider this, then, my contribution to the smorgasbord of lifestyle choices on offer, one that tries to think about lifestyle as Holy Scripture and the early church thought of it. How long will it take to reach critical mass for the implementation of the “Diognetus Option”? I don’t know. I report; you decide.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

3 replies on “The Diognetus Option”

1) Excellent article, I’ve got reservations about the Benedict Option too–which isn’t to say it’s without value, of course.
2) When I saw the title of the article, I misread it and was momentarily excited to think I was about to read a Christian defense of using the approach of Diogenes of Sinope in the modern world. Alas….

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