Fractals, Bodies, and Temples

A friend of mine from a more congregational Christian tradition sent me an email asking me about one of the many narratives found in Scripture to describe God's salvific plan, centered on Christ, as it unrolls across the Scriptures. His email centered on our Christian identity as both "bricks" which build the temple of God in Christ, and as "temples of the Holy Spirit". Furthermore, he was asking how this tied into the narrative of God's creation, especially the so-called "8th day" in which God is re-creating humanity through Christ.

Here is how I replied:

I think you are heading toward some general principles that the trajectory of Scripture aims us toward, namely this (hold on tight, I will connect it all together in a few paragraphs):

1. Jesus is both the fulfillment that the Hebrew Scriptures point toward, and the Font/Source/Epicenter/Head/Arche that the economy of salvation flows from.

2. As such, Jesus recapitulates and epitomizes the history of God's people in the Hebrew Scriptures. This is particularly easy to see in writings such as Matthew and Hebrews, in which early Jewish disciples draw direct correlations between the life of Jesus and Hebrew figures such as Moses, Elijah, the Temple, the Temple cult, etc.

3. Jesus is the microcosm of what his body of followers is the macrocosm: He sets the pattern that we repeat by virtue of being organically linked to him through faith and sacrament. Thus we are members of him (as a body) or bricks that build the temple of which he is the chief cornerstone.

4. Individual disciples/followers/Christians then become microcosms of Jesus himself. In the words of CS Lewis, we are "little christs" (for, that is what "Christ-ian" means in Greek: A little christ, or a part of Christ, or a party-member of Christ in a political sense). I think Johannine literature is helpful here: Jesus speaking of vine/branches (ch. 15), or that we will do even greater works that Christ (14.12), etc.

5. With all of this microcosm/macrocosm talk, and Jesus as "epicenter", "fulfillment", and "incarnation" of God in human form, we can begin to talk of material entities and activities that point as signs to the reality that is in Jesus. This is fairly straightforward with the Jewish cult. Hebrews and Colossians makes it clear that Jewish rituals, buildings, and people are "types" or "signs" that point us to Christ. However, we can draw from this trajectory that all created material things, when rightly used, point us beyond themselves to fulfillment in YHWH, who is ultimately made known in Jesus.

6. The flip-side of this "sacramental" or "semiotic" view of the material world is that, if signs can be used rightly, they can also be used wrongly. The same things that are created to point us to God can be distorted or idolized or counterfeited in such a way that they point us away from God.

If I were to envision this, it would be almost as if the Incarnate Jesus, God in human flesh, is the apex where two funnels join together. On one side, being funneled into him, is the entire economy of salvation, with all it's laws, rituals, types, and signs. On the other side, flowing forth from him, is the reality of grace and the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

Or to use a mathematical analogy: Fractals generate a shape that is repeated infinitely on macro- and micro- levels. If you zoom in infinitely close, you will see the same shape repeated over and over again in countless, slightly different iterations. And if you zoom out infinitely, you will see the same repeating typology. If we take this as an analogy, Jesus is the Logos- the mathematical logic/constant that makes the fractal what it is. Those who are connected to Jesus by faith and sacrament are macro- and micro- repetitions of the pattern of Jesus. We are logoi to his Logos, christian to his Christ.

So, when you hit on Scriptural ideas such as bricks/building, or members/body, I think you are hitting on manifestations of these principles. And just as each of these principles finds a fulfillment in Christ, they also find a mis-use outside of Christ.

Just as we are members of Christ's Body (cf. 1Co 12; Rom 12), and thus we are to offer the members of our own bodies as tools to be used in Christ's Body (cf. Rom 6), so also our bodies can be mis-used as "flesh" to serve the counterfeit "body of sin".

Just as we are bricks building up the holy temple of which Christ is the cornerstone, and thus we ourselves are individually temples of the Spirit living in us (cf. 1Co 6), so also the Temple of Jerusalem which was made to point us toward Christ, becomes a counterfeit of fruitless legalism, and all of its individual stones are cast down in 70 CE even as the stones of the body of Christ are being built together.

Or to take the Politics of 1st century CE. Both Jesus and Augustus Caesar are proclaimed as "Son of God", "Lord of All", and "Savior of the World". Caesar's Navy is so strong he is said to be able to walk on water across the decks of his ships, while bringing peace to the whole world around the Mediterranean Sea. Jesus is said to have actually calmed the waters with his command and walked on them with his own feet. Caesar brings peace to the known world by the threat of death at the hands of his armies. Jesus brings peace to the world by the promise of life through the resurrection of the dead.

The rhetoric of the New Testament, when read subversively, clearly uses Imperial Roman claims about Caesar as a kind of "inverse sign" pointing us to real fulfillment in Jesus. Caesar possesses an outwardly successful, powerful kingdom that ultimately brings about death for all based on its driving logic of violence. Jesus possesses an outwardly disastrous, powerless kingdom that ultimately brings about life based on its driving logic of non-violent love.

All of this leads me to the insight that even when things are used in a way that destroys the purposes of God (in this case, Caesar's mis-use of the God-given gift of power and authority), we can still use these things as an "inverse sign" that points us to Jesus. Thus, Judaism, even when corrupted, has semiotic value as a sign pointing us to Christ. I would go even further and say that almost any cultural artifact - whether political, religious, familial, etc. - possesses some semiotic value, when used rightly, to point us to Christ.

So, even when culture uses the gifts of God in ways that are counter to God's purposes, they still in counter-intuitive ways point us to Christ.

And no single set of signs is rich enough to convey the richness of who and what Christ is. Thus, we are not forced to choose one set of signs over and against another set of signs.

We do not have to choose EITHER "bricks/temple" OR "members/body" OR "citizen/polis" OR "children/family" to describe the micro/macro relation between Christ and his community of followers. All are signs, pointing in a way proper to them, to this reality. As signs, all have strengths and weaknesses that are offset by other sets of signs.

Likewise, it is proper to describe the relation of Jesus to the Father in terms such as "Son-->Father" or "Messiah-->God the King" or "Logos-->God". All bring light to the Trinitarian relations of God in ways that the other signs do not.

All of this brings me to the following evaluations of the ideas you presented:

First, I think you have come across some fruitful paths in your Scriptural research. None strikes me as a basic error. In fact, when doing ministry with the homeless, I think it could be very fruitful to focus on signs that point toward our true "home" being found in Christ, and that we together "build" this home with the "bricks" that are our own lives. Furthermore, images of shelter from the storm, and God being our "foundation", "rock" and "stronghold", I think are very powerful signs for someone without earthly stability.

Second, even while the ideas you advocate are valid in a kind of "broad view" across Scripture, I think you should be careful with piecing together such disparate parts of Scripture. This critique also goes for what I am saying too. The problem with such "wide angle" work that tries to take in the whole of Scripture is that we run the risk of manipulating the meaning of individual portions of Scripture to make it fit in with our overall picture. So, when we draw Mark and Ezekiel and Bar Timeus and NT Wright and David and Solomon into the same picture, we need to make sure we are accurately reporting what they mean, and not artificially lumping them together.

Third, I would not elevate this to the controlling metaphor over and above other metaphors for our relation to Christ. Our "brickness" or "templeness" in Christ does not offset our "memberness" or our "childness". All exist together as complimentary signs pointing us to the kind of solidarity we have with Jesus.

I say this because I often see people take one set of metaphors and run with them in such a way that it does damage to other parts of our relationship with Jesus. For instance, some folks use the "personal" dimension of our relation to Jesus as a way to run rough-shod over the "communal" dimension. Some take God's call to "purity" and "righteousness" in such a way that it excludes love and compassion. Some say that Christianity is "spiritual", so it does not have a political/social justice dimension. And some say that God's call to political action and justice does away with the need for individual spirituality and holiness.

Across such dichotomies, I would advocate wholeness.

I would point us to what Jesus did on the Mount Tabor at his Transfiguration (cf. Matthew 17). Alongside him appeared Moses and Elijah, and he was the union between them. For me, Moses represents everything "institutional" in the Hebrew heritage: Laws, Bureaucracy, Buildings, Temples, Taxes, Tithes, Hierarchy, Continuity, being "inside" the establishment, etc. Conversely, Elijah represents everything "radical" in the Hebrew heritage: Charism, Spontaneity, Homelessness, Prophetic critique, Egalitarianism, Crisis, being "outside" the establishment, etc.

Jesus was the point of unification between the two, like the Epicenter that two funnels pour into. He is the unification, synthesis, and embodiment of both the "institutional" and the "radical" strains of Judaism. And, in a cosmic sense, I would even argue that He is the fulfillment of all that is good, true, and beautiful in any culture (cf. Colossians 1.15-20).

So, there is my long and meandering response to you. I can't say I addressed your email "head on", but I hope there some things here that can help in a less direct way.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.