Monday, November 19, 2018

Eating God

Alexander Pruss recently gave a talk at the Thomistic Institute defending transubstantiation:

Pruss is probably the most brilliant Catholic philosopher of his generation, so this is the best defense of the real presence that you're likely to encounter. It's always good to evaluate the strongest case for something. In fairness, only the slides are available, so some of his supporting arguments may be missing, but I can only comment on what's available. 

He likes to discuss transubstantiation because it's philosophically challenging, which appeals to his ambidextrous mind. There is, though, the danger of misplaced ingenuity. 

Real Presence: Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans and some other Christians agree Jesus is really, substantially present in the Eucharist.

i) "Substantially" does the heavy-lifting. That's a term of art. I assume Pruss is using it in a Thomistic sense. Which also depends on how he interprets Aquinas on that point.

ii) Strictly speaking, Catholics don't believe Jesus is in the Eucharist but is the Eucharist. 

Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Mt 26:26–28; see also Mk 14:22–24, Lk 22:19–20, 1 Cor 11:23–25)

Taken literally implies Real Presence.

True, but were we meant take it literally? The Eucharist has its background in the Passover. The Passover is a memorial, commemorating the Exodus. The Exodus is an unrepeatable event, but memorials are indefinitely repeatable. A reenactment is a representation of the original event. Participants are recapitulating the actions of the original participants. The language of identity is substitutionary, where participants assume the same roles, by acting in the place of the original participants. Like different actors who all play the part of Hamlet. 

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed, and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him....” ..
After this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him. Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life ....” (Jn 6:52–56,66–68)

The slides don't explain why Pruss thinks that foreshadows the Eucharist rather than the Crucifixion. 

Maybe the Eucharist is only symbolic of us eating Christ’s body? Biblical symbolism:

Crossing of Red Sea  Baptism 
Washing with baptismal water  Cleansing from sin 
Form of a dove  Holy Spirit 
Feeding of 5000  Eucharist 
Eucharist  eating Christ’s body?
Reality A symbolizing reality B. 
If washing with baptismal water is a reality, then cleansing from sin is a reality. 
So, if the Eucharist is a reality, then eating Christ’s body is a reality. 
But where else do we really eat Christ’s body except in the Eucharist? 
So symbolism theory also leads to Real Presence!

i) The historicity of the Exodus is no longer a given in Catholic theology.

ii) Pruss is using his Catholic interpretation of baptism to prop up his Catholic interpretation of communion, but evangelicals don't subscribe to baptismal justification/regeneration, 

iii) Appealing to 1 Cor 10:1-4 is counterproductive to his argument. Paul draws a parallel between baptism/communion and OT counterparts, yet apart from Joshua and Caleb, the original Exodus generation was cursed to die in the wilderness. They never made it to the Promised Land. By analogy, reception of baptism and communion not only fails to guarantee salvation, but even fails to create a presumption of salvation. 

iv) I don't think the feeding of the 5000 prefigures or stands for the Eucharist. 

v) Then there's the general flaw in his argument. Although both relata of the relation are real, that doesn't imply the specific kind of reality Pruss is angling for. The Red Sea Crossing was a real event and baptism is a real event. That doesn't imply that baptism confers the remission of sin. 

The manna/water from the rock were real events and the Eucharist is real event. Which doesn't imply that the communicant is eating the physical body of Jesus. 

Pruss is attempting to infer the real presence from the fact that the Eucharist is a real event. But how in the world does that follow? No one denies that celebrating the Eucharist is a real event. But that's independent of what the rite signifies. 

The Passover was a real event. They ate real lamb and real bread. But they didn't consume something over and above the lamb or the bread. 

Appearances of bread and wine  Jesus’s body and blood 
The crossing of the Red Sea is a case where a real miracle symbolizes a deeper reality. Similarly:
Jesus giving us his body and blood  Jesus dying for us on the cross 
Jesus coming to be in our body  Indwelling of the Spirit from Jesus 
Eating Jesus’s body and blood  Spiritual nourishment 
And much more

i) The Red Sea crossing symbolizes a deeper reality in the sense that Christ delivers his people from the bondage of sin. But that's not the kind of "reality" Pruss needs to make his case.

ii) I don't think the Holy Spirit literally indwells human bodies. Scripture uses spacial metaphors. Take "being filled with joy". But that doesn't mean joy fills a body, as if joy shows up on an MRI. 

iii) Jesus doesn't give us his body and blood on the cross, if that's what Pruss means. Rather, the sacrificial death of Christ is a propitiatory offering to God to atone for sin. It involves a body because death requires a body. It involves blood because it stands for violent death or bloodshed. The point, however, is not the body or blood in itself, but the sacrificial death.  

iv) It's not about internalizing the body and blood, but a forensic action. Christ's redemptive death on the cross doesn't change us, but changes our standing before God. 

I have no taste for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire his blood, which is love incorruptible. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, ca. AD 110)

For not as common bread nor common drink do we receive these; but since Jesus Christ our Savior was made incarnate by the word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so too, as we have been taught, the food which has been made into the Eucharist by the Eucharistic prayer set down by him, and by the change of which our blood and flesh is nurtured, is both the flesh and the blood of that incarnated Jesus. (St. Justin Martyr, ca. AD 151)

This is why the Romans accused the early Christians of cannibalism.

Ignatius and Justin Martyr were admirable Christians, but gentile Christianity rapidly lost its roots in Jewish hermeneutics. It turns the Eucharist into a magical incantation that transforms bread and wine into magic potion. 

But consider [the gnostics who deny that Christ came in the body], how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty. They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, flesh which suffered for our sins and which that Father, in his goodness, raised up again. (St. Ignatius of Antioch, ca. AD 110)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. ... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.... (Jn 1:1,14)

The gnostic heretics thought bodies were evil, and so Christ at most looked human. 
Compare: Friends of the Singularity who long to be uploaded to a computer.
We are not souls running bodies like some kind of a drone. 
We are beings of soul and body. 
Both aspects will be glorified in the resurrection of the body.
I am with you always, to the close of the age. (Mt. 28:20)
In the Eucharist, Jesus is still with us in soul and body. 
No Eucharist in the Singularity!

i) The guilt-by-association with Gnosticism is ironic since Pruss thinks the communion elements merely appear to be bread and wine. The Catholic position is "Gnostic" by driving a wedge between appearance and reality vis-a-vis the Eucharist.

ii) His argument apparently depends on hylomorphism. But I'm a Cartesian dualist, not a Thomistic dualist, so I don't object to our souls running bodies like some kind of drone. To my knowledge, the Thomistic notion of the soul as the form of the body is essentially physicalism. I demure. 

iii) Pruss needs to provide an exegetical argument that Mt 28:20 has reference to the Eucharist. I take it to mean by that virtue of his immortality and sovereign authority, Jesus will be directing the course of Christian missions behind-the-scenes. That also allows for the occasional Christophany.  

For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is a profound one, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church .... (Eph. 5:31-32)

In the Old and New Testament, the relationship between God/Christ and the Church is compared to marriage. 
Christ came to be with his beloved Church. 
But Jesus says:
[In marriage] they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder. (Mt. 19:6)
So, Christ is still with the Church in body. 
By bodily Eucharistic union, we are united to one another. 
Modern gnostics deny importance of body in marriage.

That's vitiated by equivocation. Marriage involves a union between two literally embodied agents. By contrast, the "body" is a metaphor for the church. Christians symbolize different body parts. 

The Eucharist is a deep source of grace for the individual and the Church.

If that's the case, why are so many Catholics so morally abysmal? 

But isn’t this cannibalism and morally repugnant?
Fortunately, we receive Christ’s body and blood under the appearance of bread (leavened or unleavened) and wine.
In cannibalism, the victim’s body is destroyed.
But when we receive Christ into our bodies, Christ is also in heaven, unchanged by this.

i) Kinda like if somebody cooked your mother and served her for dinner, you wouldn't find it repugnant so long as they didn't tell you that you were eating your mother.

ii) Ingenious explanation for how the Eucharist isn't cannibalism. However, the victim's body needn't be destroyed in cannibalism. The cannibal can keep the victim alive and eat parts of the victim that don't perform vital functions. 

What is present looks like bread (or a wafer) or wine. 
Of course the Church Fathers all knew that.
God who made all things maintains the full appearance of bread and wine, all the way down to the minutest microscopic level.
It is only by God’s word that we know that this is Christ’s body and blood.

It's true that God could create an indetectable illusion. How very "Gnostic"! 

God is present everywhere at once. 
God’s presence is real but not physical. 
So it is possible to have a real presence in multiple places at once. 
Lesson: There is more than one way of being present in a location.
Speculation: There could be a sacramental presence that is compatible with having multiple locations.

i) I don't think God is actually present everywhere–or anywhere. God doesn't occupy the universe. God is "present" in the world in the pervasive but mediate sense that a novelist is present in his novel or a video game designer is present in the game. 

ii) God can be present in the human mind the way dream characters can be present to the dreamer. But that's illocal, since dreams don't occupy actual space. 

iii) God can produce audiovisual phenomena (theophanies) that simulate his presence. 

iv) I don't know what Pruss means by a presence that's "real" but not "physical". How is location real but not physical? 

Suppose in ten years you invent a time machine and go back in time to shake hands with yourself.
Then you will be in two places at once.
There is no contradiction in such time travel.
So no contradiction in being in more than one place at once, even physically.
This is obviously not how God does it in the case of the Eucharist, but it may show that the contradiction argument fails.

Something can be impossible without being contradictory. Logical contradictions are different from natural impossibilities. Is backwards time-travel a natural possibility? If not, where does that leave his comparison? 

Places in space are real things.
To be in a place is to stand in a certain “location relation” to that place.
We cannot say much more about what that relation is besides that. 
You can have the friend-of relation to multiple people. 
So why can’t you have the location relation to multiple places?

i) To be in a place is to stand in relation to other things with varying degrees of proximity. To be "here" is not to be "there". 

ii) How is a friend-of relation analogous to multiple places? Friendship is psychological, although it may have physical expressions. 

Einstein’s Theory of Relativity: Space-time is curved.
God could make space-time curve back on itself so that a place in heaven and one or more places on earth are literally the same place.
Not contradictory. 
Nothing is difficult for an all-powerful being!

i) To what extent is space-time curvature a metaphor? Is this really like folding a piece of paper? Cosmic Origami?  

ii) There's a sense in which some things are too difficult even for an all-powerful being. If God is operating by the laws of physics, then that limits his field of action to what's consistent with the laws of physics. 

iii) Notice Pruss isn't saying that according to space-time curvature, the sun and the earth are literally the same place. Conditions on the surface of the earth are hardly equivalent to conditions on the surface of the sun. So by itself, space-time curvature doesn't entail that all places in the universe are literally the same place.

Rather, he seems to be saying that God can manipulate the laws of physics to make what are otherwise two different places the same place. But does that really have anything to do with the laws of physics? Or is that a case of God bending or circumventing the laws of physics to create a situation that's unnatural? Seems like Pruss is trying to have it both ways.

iv) Pruss doesn't think that Jesus is automatically on earth. Rather, that only happens at Mass. So does he think Jesus makes an intergalactic trip every time a Mass is celebrated? If so, doesn't that require superluminal speed? Doesn't superluminal speed involve backwards time-travel? How is any of this really consistent with the laws of physics?  

v) Then there's the question of where heaven is. Perhaps the unspoken assumption is that since Jesus has a physical body, but he must be somewhere. Fair assumption. But where? On a planet somewhere else in the far-flung universe? On a counterpart to earth in a parallel universe? If a parallel universe, then you can't cause a place in one universe and another place in a parallel universe literally the same place by making space-time curve back on itself, for each universe is separate. Each universe is a closed system relative to another universe. Or so it seems to me. 

St. Thomas Aquinas thinks that objects have a location by having in them a certain kind of locational “accidental property” (a property a thing can exist without).
While the bread and wine cease to exist, their accidental properties remain. (Shape, color, etc.)
The locational accident of bread and wine remains.
Christ’s body comes to be located both by means of its own locational accident (in heaven) and by means of the remaining locational accidents of bread and wine (on earth).

i) What extra work does a "locational accidental property" do over and above having a location? In what sense is location an internal rather than external property or relation? 

ii) How are the empirical properties of the communion elements a means by which Christ is really presence in the Eucharist?

But the Eucharist is much smaller than a man! 
Speculation: We can adapt the above models to make larger places in heaven line up with smaller ones on earth, or to make individual parts (particles?) of Jesus be located in differently shaped places.

i) Is heaven larger than earth? If, in context, heaven is a physical place, then in what respect is heaven larger than earth? Most of the saints are currently disembodied, so they don't need a place.

ii) Making individual particles of Jesus multiply-located isn't the same thing as making his body multiply-located. 


  1. I should mention that in the Passover seder there is a line of note:

    This is the bread of affliction that our fathers ate in the land of Egypt. Let all who are hungry come and eat! Let all who are needy come and celebrate Passover! Now we are here, but next year may we be in the land of Israel. Now we are slaves, but next year may we be free.

    No one thinks the Passover matzot changes into the bread those of Moses's time ate, even though the language has the same structure as what we see in the gospels.

    1. To expand on Geoff's point:

      "That the bread 'is' his body means that it 'represents' it; we should interpret his words here no more literally than the disciples would have taken the normal words of the Passover liturgy, related to Deuteronomy 16:3 (cf. Stauffer 1960:117): ‘This is the bread of affliction which our ancestors ate when they came from the land of Egypt.’ (By no stretch of the imagination did anyone suppose that they were re-eating the very bread the Israelites had eaten in the wilderness.) Those who ate of this bread participated by commemoration in Jesus’ affliction in the same manner that those who ate the Passover commemorated in the deliverance of their ancestors....M. Pesah. 10:6 uses the Passover wine as a metaphor for the blood of the covenant in Ex. 24:8" (Craig Keener, A Commentary On The Gospel Of Matthew [Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999], 631, n. 27 on 631)

  2. I wonder how much of Ignatius' letters Pruss has read. If he would interpret the remainder of Ignatius' letters the same way he's interpreted the passages he cites on the eucharist, he'd get some absurd results. See the discussion here for an example. There's no reason to think Ignatius believed in a physical presence of Christ in the eucharist, much less that he believed in transubstantiation in particular. The thread linked above discusses some other patristic sources as well (including in the comments section). For more about patristic views of the eucharist, see here and here. People like Pruss cite the charge of cannibalism against the early Christians, but there's a tendency to ignore the response of the early Christians to that charge. That response is often inconsistent with a physical presence in the eucharist. See the second two posts linked above for some examples.

  3. "Perhaps the unspoken assumption is that since Jesus has a physical body, but he must be somewhere. Fair assumption. But where?"

    How do you answer that question?

    1. Perhaps an earth-like planet in our universe (if there is such a planet), or else a counterpart to earth in a parallel universe.

  4. Alexander Pruss

    "In cannibalism, the victim's body is destroyed. But when we receive Christ into our bodies, Christ is also in heaven, unchanged by this."

    Suppose I could biologically engineer and reproduce a human arm that is identical in every way to one of my arms. Suppose another human eats this reproduced arm. Of course, I myself would remain perfectly intact, i.e., I still have both my arms. Why wouldn't this person eating my reproduced arm not be engaging in cannibalism even though I'm still intact and "unchanged"?

  5. Steve wrote something that jumped out at me: "I don't think God is actually present everywhere–or anywhere. God doesn't occupy the universe. God is "present" in the world in the pervasive but mediate sense that a novelist is present in his novel or a video game designer is present in the game."

    Could someone unpack that for me? I've not considered that line of reasoning before.

    1. A novelist isn't directly present in his novel, although it's possible for a novelist to make himself a character in his own novel. However, everything that happens in a novel is due to the novelist. The plot, setting, characters. He's behind everything that happens. Like the hidden hand of providence. Everything that happens in the novel is a reflection of the novelist. A novel is a window into the novelist. It reveals the novelist. Same thing with a video game, to use a more up-to-date example.