Sunday, March 16, 2014

On Transubstantiation

Elizabeth Anscombe wrote a pamphlet expounding and defending transubstantiation. This is instructive because she was both a devout Catholic and a topnotch philosopher. This is the best case for transubstantiation. If it fails, that exposes the fundamental weakness of the dogma. 
Such a child can be taught then by whispering to it such things as: "Look! Look what the priest is doing ... He is saying Jesus' words that change the bread into Jesus' body. Now he's lifting it up. Look! Now bow your head and say 'My Lord and my God'," and then "Look, now he's taken hold of the cup. He's saying the words that change the wine into Jesus' blood. Look up at the cup. Now bow your head and say 'We believe, we adore your precious blood, O Christ of God'." [The cry of the Ethiopians at the consecration of the chalice.] 
A basic problem with her interpretation is that the none of the NT accounts indicates that the "words of consecration" are an incantation to transform the communion elements into something else. 
One might not even think of mentioning our Lord's resurrection explicitly in this connection. But it is there implicitly for it is no part of the Catholic consciousness, no part of our way of speaking of or to our Lord, to think he only comes to be, as it were intermittently, upon our altars. No, we speak of the risen man as always a living man in heaven and say that the bread and wine are changed into him. And because he is alive and not dead, his flesh is not separated from his blood, and anyone who receives any of either, receives the whole of him. So, in learning this, children learn afresh that he is alive.
Except that the Last Supper anticipates his death, not his resurrection. It's his mortal body which will be slain, not his glorified body. 
I have spoken of teaching little children, both because it is important in itself and because it is the clearest way of bringing out what "transubstantiation" means. That word was devised (first in Greek and then in Latin by translation) to insist precisely upon this: that there is a change of what is there, totally into something else. A conversion of one physical reality into another which already exists. So it is not a coming to be of a new substance out of the stuff of an old one, as when we have a chemical change of the matter in a retort from being one kind of substance into another. Nor is it like digestion in which what you eat turns into you. For these are both changes of matter, which can assume a variety of forms. When one says "transubstantiation" one is saying exactly what one teaches the child, in teaching it that Christ's words, by the divine power given to the priest who uses them in his place, have changed the bread so that it isn't there any more (nor the stuff of which it was made) but instead there is the body of Christ. 
That's a useful clarification of what transubstantiation means. 
The little child can grasp this and it is implicit in the act of worship that follows the teaching. I knew a child, close upon three years old and only then beginning to talk, but taught as I have described, who was in the free space at the back of the church when the mother went to communion. "Is he in you?" the child asked when the mother came back. "Yes," she said, and to her amazement the child prostrated itself before her.
Given her operating premise, that's a valid deduction. The church of Rome practices the reservation and adoration of the host. Leftover consecrated communion wafers are stored in a "tabernacle" (or monstrance, for  public processionals). You are supposed to genuflect when you walk past it, because you are in the presence of Christ. 
But logically, this means every Catholic who just got out of Mass is a walking tabernacle. They should genuflect to each other.
"But the thing is impossible, contradictory: it cannot be believed! It has to be only a figure of speech!" Well, indeed it cannot be really understood how it is possible. But if it is claimed it is impossible, then a definite contradiction must be pointed to, and if you believe in it, you will believe that each claim to disprove it as contradictory can be answered. For example, someone says: how can a man who is, say, six foot tall be wholly in this small space? Well, indeed not by the coincidence of his dimensions with the hole in space defined by the dimensions of the remaining appearance of bread: let us call this the "dimensive" way of being in a place. "But that is the only way for a body to be in a place! "How do you know? We believe that something is true of That which is there, which contradicts its being there dimensively. And certainly the division and separation from one another of all these places where That is, does not mean a division and separation of It from itself. So, considered dimensively, a thousand such diverse places can be compared to a thousand pieces of mirror each of which reflects one whole body, itself much bigger than any of them and itself not dimensively displaced. But when we consider That which the bread has become, the place where we are looking has become (though not dimensively) the place where it is: a place in heaven.
i) This assumes that at the Last Supper, Jesus was referring to his body in some illocal sense. But what evidence is there that he was speaking in such idiosyncratic terms? 
ii) The mirror metaphor is aesthetically pleasing, but a reflection is not the same thing as what it reflects. 
It would be wrong to think, however, that the thing can be understood, sorted out, expounded as a possibility with nothing mysterious about it. That is, that it can be understood in such a way as is perhaps demanded by those who attack it on the ground of the obvious difficulties. It was perhaps a fault of the old exposition in terms of a distinction between the substance of a thing (supposed to be unascertainable) and its accidents, that this exposition was sometimes offered as if it were supposed to make everything intelligible. Greater learning would indeed remove that impression. For in the philosophy of scholastic Aristotelianism in which those distinctions were drawn, transubstantiation is as difficult, as "impossible", as it seems to any ordinary reflection. And it is right that it should be so. When we call something a mystery, we mean that we cannot iron out the difficulties about understanding it and demonstrate once for all that it is perfectly possible. Nevertheless we do not believe that contradictions and absurdities can be true, or that anything logically demonstrable from things known can be false. And so we believe that there are answers to supposed proofs of absurdity, whether or not we are clever enough to find them.
i) This is useful, because she debunks a popular rationalization of transubstantiation. Thomistic metaphysics rephrases rather than resolves the contradiction. 
ii) Her appeal to mystery would be legitimate if this was, in fact, revealed truth. But the only thing keeping it afloat is the raw authority of her denomination. Since transubstantiation is not a revealed truth or deliverance of reason, the appeal to mystery is illicit. The argument from authority would be legitimate if we had good reason to countenance the claims of Rome. But her monograph takes that for granted, which is not a given for Protestants. 
Why do we do this – why do we celebrate the Eucharist? Because the Lord told us to. That is reason enough. But we can reflect that it is his way of being present with us in his physical* reality until the end of this age; until he comes again to be dimensively and visibly present on earth. We can also reflect on the mysterious fact that he wanted to nourish us with himself.
This assumes that the purpose of the Eucharist is to "nourish" the communicant. Sanctifying grace. But what if the Eucharist is a symbol of forensic grace? 
This to my mind is the greatest mystery of all about the Eucharistic sacrifice, a greater mystery than transubstantiation itself, though it must be an essential part of the significance of transubstantiation. To try to get some understanding of this, let us first ask ourselves what our Lord was doing at the Last Supper. If you ask an orthodox Jew to say grace at your table, he will take a piece of bread in his hands, will pray and break the bread and distribute a piece to each person present. So our Lord was then saying grace and on a special occasion. He was celebrating the Passover; this supper was the first, highly ceremonial meal of the days during which Jews celebrate the passage of the angel of the Lord over Egypt when they were about to escape from their Egyptian slavery. Then they had to sacrifice a lamb, in groups large enough to eat it up, they were to smear their doorposts with its blood; the angel of the Lord passed over their houses, destroying the first-born children of all other houses. The Jews ate their sacrifice, being commanded on this occasion to eat all up and leave nothing behind; they stood ready to go on their journey, ready to leave Egypt. This meal in preparation for the journey out of bondage has ever since been memorialized in the supper – the Seder as present-day Jews call it – which was celebrated by our Lord with his disciples. But to the grace our Lord adds the words "This is my body" and after the rest of the celebration, he takes the cup of wine and says it is "my blood which will be shed for you". We have seen how this showed that his coming death was a sacrifice of which he was the priest. (For his death was voluntary; no one could take his life from him if he would not give it up.) His actions showed that for us he himself replaced the Passover lamb, which was originally both a sacrifice and the meal in preparation for the journey of escape from slavery, and also provided the sign of difference between the escaping Jews and those who would have detained them.
There are two sorts of sacrifice, the holocaust, or "wholeburning" in which the whole of the sacrificed victim is destroyed in the sacrifice, and the kind in which the people eat what is sacrificed.
So his flesh and blood are given us for food, and this is surely a great mystery. It is clearly a symbol: we are not physically nourished by Christ's flesh and blood as the Jews were by the paschal lamb.
This exposition is largely correct, but it suffers from a fatal equivocation. Her conclusion is inconsistent with her supporting material. In the Passover rite, the blood is separated from the sacrificial lamb. The celebrants didn't consume its blood. So it doesn't represent inner grace or presence. Rather, it was painted on the doorframe to ward off the angel of death. By parity of argument, the Eucharist is not about Christ nourishing us or making himself physically present within us. 
Certainly this eating and drinking are themselves symbolic. I mean that, whether this is itself a literal or is a purely symbolical eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, that is in turn symbolical of something else. So if we only symbolically (and not really) eat his flesh, our action is the symbol of a symbol. If we literally eat his flesh our action is a direct symbol. The reason why the action is in any case strange and arcane is this: it is not a natural or easily intelligible symbol. How, and what, it symbolizes – that is deeply mysterious.
In modern times some theologians have tried to explain transubstantiation as trans-signification. The "substance" of some things is the meaning they have in human life. This is certainly true of some things, like money, and they have wished to say it is true of bread and wine: these aren't chemical substances, but mean human food and drink. Well, as to the first point (that they aren't single substances) that's true enough; but the bread and wine that are fit to use at the Eucharist are defined by the natural kinds they are made from, by wheat and grape. For the rest, what is said may be very true - but the odd thing, which apparently is not noticed, is that what gets trans-signified in the Eucharist is not the bread and wine, but the body and blood of the Lord, which are trans-signified into food and drink. And that is the mystery.
Once again, she debunks a popular rationalization of transubstantiation. 
When Jesus said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven", his words were a metaphor for the same thing, The metaphor is that of saying "I myself will be the nourishment of the life of which I speak." The saying is dark, like his saying "I am the way", "I am the truth" and "I am the life" or again "I am the door". Not "My way is the way" or "I show you the truth", but "I am the way and the truth". Similarly not "I have nourishment for you" but "I am the bread". The commanded action of eating his flesh creates the very same metaphor as the words – whether we take the description of the action literally or symbolically. For, even if the words "I am the bread (i.e. the food) that came down from heaven" are to be taken literally, still that which they say, and which on that understanding is literally so, symbolizes something else.
This is interesting, because she admits that on any reckoning, you have to interpret Jn 6 figuratively. It's just a choice between a direct metaphor and an indirect metaphor. Keep that in mind the next time a pop Catholic apologist impugns you for rejecting the literal interpretation.

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