Zombie Church

No, it’s not a new form of emergent church; It’s a talk I gave this morning at University Lutheran in Cambridge, MA.

Zombie Church: What Biological Life Can Tell Us about Church Life

Souls do not simply exist; they transpire.

They happen not only in space, but also in time.

They involve actions and interactions with the environment.

Just like organisms, they lose something vital if you cut them up

into little slices to look at under a microscope.

Last time I was here, I spoke about the meaning of the word “life.”

My research deals with the history of the concept,

particularly as it relates to Christian concepts of life and of the soul.

I spoke of vegetable souls – that’s Aristotle’s term for them –

the activity of living things that eat and grow and reproduce.

I spoke of animal souls,

the activity of sensing the world and moving in it.

I spoke of rational souls,

the activity of humans contemplating the world,

reasoning and solving problems.

This time, I would like to go one step farther and talk about

the soul of the church,

or really the Spirit moving in the church,

and what that can tell us about who we are

as individual rational souls

and yet also part of something bigger,

as we are part of one body in Christ,

and as we are all moved by the same Spirit.

It’s a bit of a jump to this fourth soul,

perhaps the soul of Christ,

and yet, I think it is warranted,

at least in part.

So I ask you to explore with me

what the metaphor is,

where it works

and where it does not.

I’d like to think it’s a new idea, though the more I read scripture and theology,

the more I realize it’s a very old idea,

but one which I am coming to for the first time.

GK Chesterton put it well:

“I am the man who with utmost daring

discovered what had been discovered before…

I did try to found a heresy of my own;

and when I had put the last touches to it,

I discovered it was orthodoxy.”

That said, I am coming to it for the first time,

so ask your help in seeing how well it fits.

I also want to talk about souls going wrong.

At first the idea may sound unfamiliar,

but I guarantee you’ve heard it before.

Popular culture still shares ideas of zombies and vampires,

whom we refer to as undead or soulless.

They have some of the activities of life, but not all of them,

so we think of them as inhabited, possessed even,

of a spirit other than the spirit of life.

We think of them as “animated” but not “ensouled.”

It is that idea of life gone wrong

that has been most helpful to me

as I think about the life of the Church.

I would like to begin with my idea of

the activity that gives meaning to the category – alive.

If you want theological or philosophical language,

think of entelecheia and energeia,

actualities and potentialities.

If you are like most people,

just think of those things living things do.

Life is a happening.

Life activities are interestingly circular.

Life comes from life, organisms from organisms.

We don’t know how that process got started,

but it appears to be continuous.

Once it stops, it doesn’t get started again.

For convenience, I will refer to the most basic aspect of life,

as “vegetable life.”

I’m really talking about all living things from humans to bacteria

and possibly viruses.

We think of eating as something that happens periodically.

We only eat three times a day, usually;

the biological process of nutrition is, however, continuous.

The metabolic processes by which we run,

run throughout the day.

We take in oxygen breath by breath,

passing it into our lungs, our bloodstream, and our cells.

The sugars we consume at meals,

pass into our intestines and they to our blood and cells.

In each cell, in each moment of the day, sugars are broken down,

using the oxygen.

The energy released powers us, and the molecules built up

from the byproducts become our flesh and bones.

Cells start to die in under a minute without this process.

Similarly, we think of reproduction generation to generation,

but it also takes place second to second.

Some cells, like neurons, last a lifetime,

others, like epidermal cells (the outer layer of skin),

get replaced every few weeks.

At a smaller scale, we constantly review and repair our DNA,

which is subject to breaks and mutations.

I am equating vegetable life with these processes of

maintenance, growth, and reproduction.

I say that the vegetable soul transpires

because you could not take a picture and capture the process;

you need a video.

To update Aristotle, we might ask:

why is it that when I eat a hamburger,

the hamburger becomes me and not the other way around.

Just looking at a picture you couldn’t tell which way the process was going.

We’re going to skip over animal souls today

and jump straight to human souls.

What activities give meaning to the category “human life”?

That’s a difficult question, but, since we are talking biology,

let me give you some biological answers.

Humans are multicellular organisms.

Our cells coordinate and cooperate to bring about the larger activities.

We take nutrition as a whole, eating and breathing.

We reproduce as a whole, only passing on one of our cells to each child.

We regulate the processes of cells,

replacing them when they die, even killing them off on occasion,

for the good of the whole.

So one aspect of human life is just vegetable life,

one level up.

Humans use cells in nutrition and reproduction as cells use molecules.

So cells have vegetable life and humans have vegetable life.

And human life depends on cellular life,

but also trumps it on occasion,

as the activities of the whole overcome the activities of the parts.

Another aspect of human life comes from activities

that emerge from complex interactions among the cells,

or, as most Christians believe,

they arise from something extra,

which God puts into the bodies.

We have conscience, reason, and will.

We think and feel, believe, act, and reflect.

For the sake of todays talk, it doesn’t matter whether you take the first position –

conscience, reason and will emerge

from physical interactions (that is, physicalism) –

or the second –

conscience, reason, and will reflect something extra

(that is, dualism).

What matters is a recognition that humans have these special activities

and that our identity is wrapped up in them transpiring

in the flesh.

For today we focus on activities.

Moving on to zombies.

What’s a zombie?


For me, a zombie happens when a soul,

in our sense of activities transpiring,

is absent or messed up.

Usually, in the movies, we see human souls without vegetable souls.

That is, something that can move and coordinate as a whole,

but fails in the nutrition department.

Individual cells, individual tissues and organs,

rot and decay, while the body goes shambling on.

On the other hand, we also see zombies with vegetable and animal souls,

but no human soul.

They can see and hear, move and eat brains,

but have no conscience, reason, or will.

They are arguably, animals in human bodies.

In both cases, a soul has been replaced with something else.

In World War Z and 28 Days Later,

it was a virus that replaced human will with

viral reproduction.

For these, and other modern takes,

a purely biological explanation is given.

The older Haitian tradition,

has more to do with the will of one person,

being replaced with the will of another.

In voodoo, a dead body is brought back without a soul of it’s own.

Even older traditions use other names,

but a surprising number of monsters

seem to involve the loss of all or part of the soul.

Golems have a force driving them,

but it is a piece of paper and not a living soul.

Vampires seem to have everything but a conscience.

The ultimate individualists,

their will extends to nothing but feeding

and making copies of themselves.

Angsty teenage versions aside,

these monsters provide some very useful reflections

on what it means to be alive,

what it means to be only partly alive,

and what it means to be fully alive.

Why is it that Jesus (and Lazarus) are not considered zombies?

They both came back from the grave.

The difference arises (as they do) in the souls that rise with them.

They came back whole, with all the activities

we associate with human bodies.s

I’m pretty comfortable with all of that.

Now, I hope you’ll come with me as I explore how this relates to the church.

These are new ideas for me,

so I’d really like your feedback on where they work for you

and where they don’t.

The life metaphor occurs again and again in scripture.

The JPS Bible (Jewish Publication Society),

the best translation of the Hebrew, in my opinion,

renders Genesis 2:7 thus:

“The LORD God formed man from the dust of the earth.

He blew into his nostrils the breath of life,

and man became a living being.”

“Living being” – nephesh – usually translated soul in English.

God inspired the dust,

and the process of life transpired.

Humanity happened.

This form of life does not seem to be enough, however.

“I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” John 10:10 (NRSV)

Again and again we hear that there is higher life, fuller life, greater life

to be found in Jesus

and that it has something to do with dying.

One way to make sense of this is to say that we sacrifice our individual identity

in joining the body of the church,

just as a cell is less independent when part of a multicellular organism.

In Romans 14 (7-8) Paul says:

“We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.

If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord;

so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

To be a Christian is to live into something greater.

The Church as Body of Christ, I am suggesting,

is meant to be a very strong metaphor.

As Christians our life and death are regulated by the head, which is Christ.

And, I Corinthians 12 (12-13):

“For just as the body is one and has many members,

and all the members of the body, though many, are one body,

so it is with Christ.

For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…

and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.”

And, so far, the physicalist metaphor really does all the work.

Any group of people may be compared to an organism.

Indeed, this metaphor appears throughout history

from Plato’s Republic to Hobbes’ Leviathan

            without any claim that the body be good, whole, or healthy.

We need some form of inspiration to get that.

We need to say that something was breathed into the collected people,

not only to bind them together as any animal, or golem, or zombie is bound,

but as the human is bound together,

with the activities of a human.

Christians say that the Holy Spirit descended upon the Church at Pentecost.

And we recognize that indwelling by two new activities:

speaking in tongues – that is communication between the members – and

conversion – coming to a common purpose in the body of Christ.

The body grew.

This idea of the church as body requires something extra.

It requires the movement of God within the group.

It requires not only simple humans,

but the presence of Christ among us.

And it means being “animated” by the right Spirit.

What I want to suggest is that there is a healthy Church (capital C),

one driven by the Holy Spirit,

and that there are also zombie churches (lower case c),

whose Spirit, or soul if you will,

has been replaced with something else.

What are the proper activities of the church?


First, there are the ones that correspond to the physicalist metaphor.

These are properties I associate with any healthy organization,

be it Christian or not.

All it takes is a few unhealthy cells to make a human sick.

So all it takes is a few unhealthy humans to make a community sick.

It really matters where they are in the community.

The community needs to have a concern for its members.

There is no human life without vegetable life.

There is no church life without human life, even human thriving.

Though the needs of the many might outweigh the needs of the few,

on multiple occasions,

the norm is health for all.

A community that shambles along,

intent on it’s purpose,

while parts of it’s body are in decay,

is a zombie community.

We need to ask whether the community activities

support individual activities,

whether community life, supports individual life.

Do nutrients travel throughout the body.

Are there ways to communicate needs from the limbs to the head?

We tend to focus on positive communication,

signals sent,

but bodies use negative communication as well.

They recognize when signals aren’t sent.

Those signals have to do with the health of individual cells

and not just with the purposes of the soul.

Communities need immune systems,

that recognize when individuals are sick or absent

and when foreign bodies have moved in.

And, just like human bodies, an overactive immune system,

one that starts harming the cells,

can cause just as much trouble as an infection.

Communities also require constant maintenance.

They need coordination to survive and grow,

to carry out common goals.

Think back to my comments on nutrition and reproduction

in organisms.

We need to constantly work to see that individuals are fed,

to review and repair the code we live by.

In the military, they refer to mission creep –

when common purpose mutates.

In the Church, we keep our eyes on the prize

(“the goal of the heavenly kingdom”).

We know that cells and organisms and communities

will fight to survive and replicate themselves.

The question is whether that survival and replication

is worth it.

Are we better off in communities or alone?

That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.

It’s not just about nutrition and replication.

Just as we humans has higher functions –

memory, reason, and skill –

that differentiate us from other animals and plants,

so, too, the Church has higher functions

that differentiate it from other communities.

And we know these activities, because they are spelled out in scripture.

Galatians 5 (22-23a): “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness,

generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

I Corinthians 13 (4-7): Love is patient; love is kind;

love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.

It does not insist on its own way;

it is not irritable or resentful;

it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.

It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

Communities with these activities, communities of love, can be called churches.

It’s less complicated than you might think,

but ever so much harder.

Because we have built into us a tendency to compete,

to form communities for the sake of our own nutrition

at the expense of others.

A different kind of zombie church arises when a community

keeps this common purpose without conscience or will.

It becomes an eating machine,

consuming resources, solely to stay alive.

But that isn’t really living is it?

It’s only feeding.

Finally, there is a type of zombie church

that has no will of it’s own.

It simply follows the will of another.

This can happen when a state, such as China,

takes over the church,

and attempts to use it for it’s own ends.

It has a spirit of Maoism or Nazism or empire,

instead of the Spirit of Christ.

Alternatively, a parasite can take over a host,

as is the case with some fungi and wasps that

hijack ants and use them for their own purposes.

Occasionally, a leader will arise and hijack a community.

The insight for me came from realizing that souls are always

happenings and circular processes.

Yes God can make humans out of rocks and raise up a church from nothing,

but usually it doesn’t work that way.

God made this church from one very particular rock,

and it survives through constant vigilance.

A healthy community cannot spring from a well meaning individual,

or even a group of individuals.

A healthy community is birthed.

It arises from the Spirit that abides in another community.

In some ways, they are one,

and in other ways they are separate

(just like lineages of organisms, incidentally).

They have the same activities and the same identity,

though they are in different bodies,

or different parts of the same body.

As a liberal Protestant, as an Episcopalian in particular,

I have always been slightly wary of evangelism,

and even more wary of proselytization (the making of new members).

Now I think I understand.

You cannot innovate love, you have to participate.

Hope and forgiveness are counterintuitive and do not arise spontaneously;

we can only develop them by first experiencing them.

This is why zombie churches distress me so much.

To see a living body, inspired by the Spirit,

reduced to a shambling wreck is a thing of horror.

The vital activities of faith, hope, and love are absent,

but the body persists – usually only for the sake of eating.

This may be our greatest temptation,

in an age of shrinking institutions:

to become zombies.

We are tempted to focus only on maintenance,

and not on the action of the Holy Spirit moving in us.

We are tempted to sacrifice conscience for stability,

but we must recognize this for what it is,

a kind of living death.

To be truly our own, we must be truly Christ’s.

We must sacrifice individual interests,

not to a foreign body,

but to that which is the highest aspect of ourselves,

the individual in collaboration,

the dust swept up by the Breath of God,

the soul that is more than our soul.

We cannot do it alone, because it is,

in it’s very being,

corporate – both in common and embodied.

We need not start from scratch.

The power is already there.

The activity in motion.

The world is being forgiven, through Christ, through us.

The Church is neither an object nor an event; it transpires.

God respires, God breathes, in the Church.

But we must be ever Vigilant.

We must attend to communication and maintenance.

We must keep our eyes on the prize,

even be willing to sacrifice ourselves and our individuality,

for the sake of the whole.

I think Martin Luther knew this all too well.

There is no point in preserving the body,

if it has started rotting,

but that is not a problem with the rotten flesh,

it is a problem of circulation.

It happens when the breath and the blood

cannot move freely to all the cells.

I challenge you this week to identify the vital processes in you

as an individual,

as a local church,

and as the Body of Christ.

What are they?

Where did you get them from?

And who can you share them with?


One thought on “Zombie Church

  1. Pingback: The Games We Play | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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