Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Eucharist as Transcendent Experience

Taking a swipe at a core tenet of Catholicism, Bill Keller of the New York Times writes, “Every faith has its baggage, and every faith holds beliefs that will seem bizarre to outsiders. I grew up believing that a priest could turn a bread wafer into the actual flesh of Christ.” I contend that the editor’s characterization of consecration represents a misunderstanding of the Eucharist. Such misunderstandings have been worse; in the early years of the Church, some pagans were under the impression that the Christians were meeting on Sundays to eat babies. Indeed, phrases such as “eat my body” may in fact be inherently prone to being misunderstood.

Generally speaking, religion may have a tendency to flirt with the literal, or empirical, even at the expense of that which is distinctly religious in nature. Hence Keller’s point that every institutional religion has baggage may be correct even if his interpretation of the Eucharist is erroneous. It should be of no surprise that religion is hardly immune to the vaunted pretentions of the human mind even to that which is beyond the limits of its cognition and perception. Under the circumstances, we would be well-advised to be relatively circumspect in how firmly we impose our religious beliefs as if they were established knowledge.

Regarding the Eucharist, Keller’s use of “actual flesh” is misleading, for both actual and flesh point to an empirical basis or connotation. When we moderns typically say actual, we mean that something actually exists, which is to say that it is the case empirically in the world in which we live (i.e., based in the human domain). Keller’s use of flesh confirms his usage of actual, for flesh is indeed found descriptively in the world, as in, The wolf ate the lamb’s flesh. In German, the word for meat is Fleisch. To be blunt, a priest does not turn a wafer into meat. I’m not sure whether changing something from one food group to another would constitute a miracle anyway. This allusion to food groups is apt, for my approach stresses the utility of delimiting categories. I assume that the various realms, such empirical, metaphysical, and theological, are qualitatively different and distinct.

I contend that the Eucharist involves the application of a theological concept through social contract as pertaining to an empirical object. This is not to say that the empirical realm is that of theology.  Van Rad makes this point in his text, History of Israel. A faith narrative, such as the covenantal relationship between Jehovah and the Hebrews is not comprised of bare historical facts, even if Biblical allusions to history are used for theological purposes and given a theological meaning. The meaning gleaned from the faith narrative does not establish or confirm historical facts. Nor are theological meanings scientific concepts; the two domains are distinct, and thus have their own respective criteria. Whereas history and science are confined within the empirical domain, which is in principle within the limits of human cognition and perception, theological meaning is transcendent in nature, meaning that our ideas and sensual impressions fail inherently to go the distance with respect to religion.

Neither is theology essentially metaphysics, for otherwise, religion would be none other than philosophy. Put another way, meaning is not reality itself. People who characterize the Trinity as real are making a metaphysical rather than a religious claim. The latter has to do with the unfathomable mystery behind the notion of a triune god, rather than any metaphysical claim that the three persons exist in reality itself. Put another way, if God is the condition or source of existence, then God cannot be existence itself—much less some empirical object existing. Neither does God as conceived theologically reduce to Kant’s “things in themselves.” God is not “the Real.” Yet neither is the transcendent limited to Kant’s phenomenal realm of appearances. Religious meaning is of its own, distinct, realm—yet how elusive it must truly be, for all the rush to cover it over with leaves from other fields. If I am indeed on to something here, we would hardly recognize the distinctly religious terrain for all we have interlarded on top of it. Put another way, our theological gardens tend to end up looking a lot like ourselves.

In terms of the Eucharist, Catholics maintain that the body and blood of Christ are really present theologically under the empirical “species” of bread and wine. In Catholicism, the real presence is a theological concept called transubstantiation. That it is applied to empirical objects—bread and wine—does not mean that the religious meaning is empirical in nature. The religious term refers to another theological concept—that of resurrected body—rather than to the empirical concept of “actual flesh.”

In a nutshell, Bill Keller has Jesus’ earthly body rather than his resurrected body in mind. To think of a resurrected body on the basis of a physical body is to reduce theology to physiology or biology. The resurrected Jesus walking through a door and asking for something to eat anticipates the tendency to liken what we don’t understand to things that are familiar. Theological meaning is distinct, rather than reducing to any of the empirical sciences, yet for centuries Christians insisted on being buried so their physical bones would be available to be resurrected.

Augustine writes that the relation between the Father and the Son should not be thought of in terms of the relationship between dads and sons. By implication, the Son as a theological concept is qualitatively different—meaning not just in degree—from what we know of what it means to be a son from our observations of sons in our midst. Christians forget Jesus’s reminder, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Mt 11:27). It is all too natural to reduce begotten to made by clothing the transcendent in familiar clothes.

Resurrected body does not apply empirically; rather, it is a theological meaning that is situated in a faith narrative rather than a historical account. This is the point that Keller so vitally misses in his essay. The real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not actual flesh. Nor is the real presence metaphysical in nature. The empirical species of bread and wine as like posts around which the Catholic believer can swing around, as it were, in the transition from the empirical realm of the everyday to a distinctly transcendental experience that transcends even the posts themselves. A major pitfall to watch out for is slighting the experience in favor of holding onto the posts. There is even a risk that some of the unsatisfied religious meaning gets transferred onto the empirical signs themselves, thus making them into idols without realizing it. The mistaken assumption is then that a sustained, intense focus on the empirical objects enhances rather than takes away from religious experience. In actuality, the religious domain, which is inherently transcendental, has been confiscated with more familiar experience within the limits of human cognition and perception. All the while, the Kingdom of God is within, as though smiling at these artificial edifices we create to edify and bemuse ourselves.

I contend that the bottom line on the real presence is the theologically-felt experience of transformation or sanctification that can be induced by applying the theological concept to the bread and wine via ritual. The religious experience is not exhausted by the symbols on the surface; religionists merely use them, and the associated ritual, as prep. Crassly put, they put people in the mood. Sustained, concentrated transcending as an experience that is really present (though not reality!) does not just happen after a person steps into a church from a busy day, hence the rites and posts to follow along the way. The point is the experience, felt as really present (and thus eternal rather than of time and space)—the artifices along the way are just so, rather than religious objects to be held as though they were ends in themselves, which is to say, idols.


Bill Keller, “Asking Candidates Tougher Questions About Faith,” New York Times, August 25, 2011.