Saturday, July 23, 2005

Transubstantiation with Debt to Catherine Pickstock

Part of my interest as a theologian is in the recovery of religious teachings and texts as resources for dealing with contemporary problems. These teachings for me are to secularism what three dimensions are to two. I wrote this under the conscious influence of one of my favorite theologians, Catherine Pickstock.

Following the thought that Christianity and all of biblical religion was acutely conscious of the kinds of problems posed by secularism (for them, paganism) and sought to address and surpass them (meaning that Christianity is far more intellectually advanced than secularism), the whole transubstantiation debate in the 11th century can be seen as a response to the 11th century version of empiricism. What makes the elements become the body and blood of christ? Transubstantiation exposes two things about empiricism: 1) its dogmatism and 2) its idealism. Empiricism asks us to believe in either of two ideal worlds, one, the world of pure sense perception (light waves striking our nerve endings) or two, the world of foundational particles (if something could be broken down far enough, that would be its ultimate reality.) In either case it argues that the world which we actually live in is not really real, it’s only an illusion. Because of this, philosophy and scientific knowledge (verifiable truth) will always be idealistic, never really about how people actually experience the world. We will always have to go through life with a dual consciousness, knowing that for all intents and purposes we have to live a lie in order to go on living. This is what David Hume meant when he said that sometimes we have to withdraw from philosophy and play billiards. No one has ever lived in the world that Hume said was the only true reality. What transubstantiation does then is to say that this is really bread. And it is really bread because reality – the created world – is a gift from God. It doesn’t depend on an effort of our will to pretend or imagine that this is the case. We can trust that our perception of reality is real (albeit incomplete, imperfect, only one perspective) because God gives it as the substance of human relations. God is fully present in the most common, the most simple, and the most unifying experience of human life: an ordinary meal. That's a symbol that goes a long, long ways. It encompasses labor and politics and economics and friendship and nourishment and sensory and sensual experience. It is the essence of civilization. So at the Last Supper one might take Jesus to be saying this is just another meal between old friends, all the more blessed because of it.

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