Last week I posted the first part of my conversation with Sam Norton’s book Let us be Human . Today I want to take a look at the two chapters which begin the second part of the book. In chapters 5 The New Covenant and 6 Hocus Pocus, Sam outlines his argument that the church needs to rediscover how to be truly eucharistic.
There are some key planks he lays down in chapter 5 for the church to stand on. Worship has to be central to how the church orientates itself, and truly Christian worship discloses the nature of reality, and is the sine qua non of actually forming disciples by replacing the idolatries we are exposed to all around us by the worship of the one true God. The Eucharist – fulfilling the Passover and Temple rituals of the first covenant – displays Christianity as a praxis, of living by the self-giving of God in Jesus, of being the body of Christ, reconciled to God, liberated by God, and now trying to live lives which put reconciliation and liberation into practice all around us.
It is the Eucharist that empowers the prophetic witness of a church community; it is the Eucharist that empowers the Church to stand out against the world; it is the Eucharist that empowers the Church to be in the world but not of the world. (p 69)
For Sam, one of the important things is that the Eucharist eludes full understanding or complete rational explication. As for the followers who turned away in St John’s bread of life discourse because the teaching was too hard for them, so a (excuse the phrase) full-blooded belief in the Eucharist remains a scandal today. The Eucharist demands that the affective and relational are equal partners with the rational in doing theology, and a eucharistic Church will never give the academy control of theology, but insist its home is in the worshipping community. This is where the church learns how to confront the world’s “poisonous asophism” (p 74).
He then proceeds to diagnose where in his view the church’s eucharistic understanding has gone wrong. I presume that in placing the blame on Duns Scotus and William of Ockham he is at least influenced by the Radical Orthodoxy movement, but the catastrophe for him has two significant aspects. The first is that theology begins its long journey out of the cloister and into the academy, until we reach what he sees as today’s parlous state that,
the way in which clergy are trained in the Church of England (and also in many other denominations) is through the academic study of texts. This is why faith and spirituality in the Church of England has withered, and why the Church is dying (p77 – his italics).
For him the feast of Corpus Christi (and its accompanying “notorious doctrine of transubstantiation” – p80) represents all that went wrong with the patristic tradition of eucharistic celebration in the high Middle Ages. It swaps round) the mystical body (Eucharistic action) and the true body (the church) of Christ, so that the Church becomes a static mystical body, the host becomes the true body and the eucharistic action becomes a spectator sport. It turns the Eucharist from a communal celebration into a magical action.
“Now there is a profound continuity in the intellectual expression of magic and the intellectual expression of science. Both are rooted in a desire for intellectual dominance over the creation, and the spiritual roots of both involve not surrendering to the Creator.” (p81)
Here (in a statement many will have serious issues with) the separation of church and academy, the rise of a rationalist science divorced from human emotional life, and the alteration of the Eucharist from the energy of a living community to a vehicle for priestly control are all interlinked as a fall from patristic grace to today’s multiple divorce of that which God, patristic theology and monastic community had joined together.
I hope that represents a fair summary of the main thrust of his argument. And I have to say that I would also want to argue like him for a church whose eucharistic practice is central, definitive and holistic. Similarly I agree wholeheartedly with his vision for unifying the affective, the rational and the relational in what is (I think we would both say) essentially a renewed Christian humanism. And I have found it fascinating to follow the paths he goes down in exploring these key goals.
At the same time, it was in these two chapters that I most found myself missing even a light academic apparatus. I wanted to know sometimes if my argument was with Sam or his sources. For example, although I’ve a fairly limited acquaintance with the discipline of systematics, I’m fairly sure de Lubac, who as far as I could see didn’t even get a name check, is the originator of the key saying Sam quotes repeatedly that “The Eucharist makes the Church.” I think it is his summary of patristic theology, and not actually a quote from any of the fathers. Likewise, it is de Lubac, I believe, who originated the analysis that for the Fathers the Church was the true body of Christ, and the Eucharist his mystical body, whereas in the Middle Ages these were swapped over. Of course, as a fairly traditional Catholic, de Lubac is hardly likely to agree with Sam that this analysis shows how awful a doctrine transubstantiation is!
I will largely pass over the continuing influence (as I think) of Margaret Barker, but it seems to me that just because images of Passover, the Day of Atonement, and possibly the mercy seat, can be found as metaphors in the NT for the event of Calvary, that does not mean they have agglutinated into a single sacrificial blend which can be read into an early Jewish Christian understanding of the Eucharist.
However, I must point out against the argument on p68, that there are several uses of the word anamnesis in the Bible: apart from the Pauline usage (1 Cor 11:24) echoing or being echoed by the Jesus tradition as given in Luke 22:19, it is used rather differently in the NT in Hebrews 10:3. In the Greek Bible it is used in Lev 24:7, Num 10:10, the title lines of Psalms 37 and 69, and in Wisdom 16:6. That usage does not on its own justify including the idea of “re-enactment” within the core meaning of the word.
I don’t know if I am right to detect the influence of Radical Orthodoxy on Sam’s analysis of where it all started to go wrong with Duns Scotus, compared to Aquinas “creative and faithful” thinking (p76). But an unwary reader could go away not realising that not only did the big bad feast of Corpus Christi antedate Duns Scotus’ theology, but Aquinas made some significant contributions to the liturgy of Corpus Christi, including the great hymns Pange Lingua and Verbum Supernum.
It’s not just that I doubt Sam’s analysis of the feast: if I remember rightly (I don’t have a copy to hand) John Bossy’s admittedly Catholic revisionist history Christianity in the West 1400-1700 makes a convincing case for both the Eucharist and the Corpus Christi “carnival” procession being a communal celebration of the social body as constituted by Christ. More to the point, one of my real arguments with Radical Orthodoxy is the idea that there is a moment of “intellectual fall” which all the ills of theological flesh are heir to. I think it smacks of romantic “golden age” utopianism, and prevents a more sober analysis which incorporates gains as well as losses and is ready to live with the imperfectability of life this side of the eschaton.
It’s in that vein that I want to enter a plea for a greater overt recognition of the achievements of the Western intellectual tradition alongside its faults. Indeed, Sam’s book is situated in this tradition of analysis, and one of the strengths of this tradition is that it so often forms people who can generate some powerful self-aware critiques of what has shaped them. Indeed, the debt this book owes to the modernist paradigm is nowhere more ironically self-evident than in a statement near the end of the sixth chapter:
The church has a much better sense of history now. In particular, it has a much better sense of what scripture teaches than at any time since the Apostles. We have a much better understanding of the texts and what the New Testament is teaching than the Reformers did, for example. … we can go right back, ad fontes, to the source and spring (p86)
It is rather astonishing to find such an example of high modernist confidence towards the close of a passionate argument against the imperialism of reason at the expense of lived out and affective faith, and against the dominance of the academy over theology at the expense of its roots in ecclesial practice.
I agree with Sam entirely that theology finds both its fount and ultimate horizon in the blend of prayer and practice which spring together from eucharistic community. But it seems to me that last quotation illustrates precisely how much more we need to integrate the Western tradition of intellectual reason within it as an ally and not an enemy. After all, as Sam argues, in the Eucharistic body we practice reconciliation.