Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The volcano and the crater…

A volcano is simply a mountain with a dynamic crater in it. If it lacked its crater, it would simply be a mountain. Thus, the dynamic emptiness––or, insubstantial fullness––of the crater allows the mountain to be more than it is: to be a force of nature, to be a living mountain rather than a static landmark. This is the conceit behind this tiny essay.

It is often argued that religion unfairly benefits from social organization without having to pay taxes. The "Church", thus, is seen as a freeloader on the state. If the Church were a viable, valid dimension of the State, it is argued, it would be subject to taxation just like every other branch on the social tree.

But it dawned on me that the State itself is never taxed. Only the discrete elements of the State are taxed by the State; the State itself, as a whole functioning social organism, is exempt from taxation, as is the Church.

The reason the Church cannot be subsumed under the state––even apart from certain key objections to secular autonomy inherent in Christianity––because it is, like the State, its own kind of whole organism. The Church, and particularly the Catholic Church, is like a society within society, not a mere branch on the tree. Relations between the Church and the State, then, are more like relations between two geographically conjoined nation-states. Any legislation the Church submits to, including taxation, is up to the Church, until the State forcibly imposes its own order on the Church. This is very much how a colonial power tolerates a measure of local autonomy while imposing its own hegemony.

The reason the Church is not subject to the State is similar to the reason the crater is not subject to the shape of the mountain. The crater is not a void in the otherwise whole structure of the mountain, but is the very thing that makes the mountain more, by making it less. The Church is quite literally "not there" for the State to grasp, just as the crater of a volcano is "not there" for mountain engineers to reshape or build upon. The Church is the scandalous gaping wound in society that indicates not only the fundamental contingency and incompleteness of the human order, but also the eruptive heart that energizes and opens that order to a power and atmosphere greater and higher than it. The crater, the hole, is actually the essence, the whole. Likewise, the Church embodies, in its scandalous remove from the facile grasp of fallen man, the dynamic gaping heart of human life as it is opened upwards, Godwards.

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