The Collective

From "Membership," an address to the Society
of Saint Alban and Saint Sergius by C. S. Lewis

The very word "membership" is of Christian origin, but it has been taken over by the world and emptied of all meaning. In any book on logic, you may see the expression “members of a class”. It must be most emphatically stated that the items or particulars included in a homogeneous class are almost the reverse of what Saint Paul meant by "members." He meant what we should call organs, things essentially different from, and complementary to, one another: things differing not only in structure and function but also in dignity. Thus, in a club, the committee as a whole and the servants as a whole may both properly be regarded as “members”; what we should call the members of the club are merely units. A row of identically dressed and identically trained soldiers set side by side, or a number of citizens listed as voters in a constituency, are not members of anything in the Pauline sense. I am afraid that when we describe a man as “a member of the Church” we usually mean nothing Pauline: we mean only that he is a unit, that he is one more specimen of the same kind of thing as X and Y and Z. How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense) precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter, she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children, he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member you have not simply reduced the family in number, you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

A dim perception of the richness inherent in this kind of unity is one reason why we enjoy a book like "The Wind in the Willows." A trio such as Rat, Mole and Badger symbolises the extreme differentiation of persons in a harmonious union which we know intuitively to be our true refuge both from solitude and from the collective.

The society into which the Christian is called at baptism is not a collective but a Body. It is, in fact, that Body of which the family is an image on the natural level. If anyone came to it with the misconception that membership of the Church was membership in a debased modern sense (a massing together of persons as if they were pennies or counters) he would be corrected at the threshold by the discovery that the head of this body is so unlike the inferior members that they share no predicate with him save by analogy. We are summoned from the outset to combine as creatures with our creator, as mortals with immortal, as redeemed sinners with sinless redeemer. His presence, the interaction between him and us, must always be the overwhelmingly dominant factor in the life we are to lead within the body; and any conception of Christian fellowship which does not mean primarily fellowship with him is out of court.

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