Archive for February, 2010

Ascension, Eucharist, and the Body of Christ

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on 13 February 2010 by Brendan

Halden’s extended discussion of the body of Christ has prompted me to pen some much-delayed reflection on profitable intersections in my own reading regarding the Incarnation, Eucharist, and Church. I have been bothered for some time by an odd question: “After the ascension, where is Jesus’ body?” Within an Aristotelian cosmology, it made sense that Jesus would have ascended bodily to the heaven above the highest heaven, above the realm of the stars – but in Copernican space, we can say with some certainty that no such physical realm exists. Most Christians are content to spiritualize heaven, then, and to imagine Jesus as inhabiting no place, or perhaps a reality tailor-made for his waiting. This is probably a trivial question, but the answers to it suggested in their various ways by Robert Jenson and Graham Ward have some fascinating implications for how we understand the Eucharist and the Church. 

At the end of his Systematic Theology, Vol. I, Jenson includes a discussion of the resurrection and ascension, while Graham Ward’s Cities of God revolves around a lengthy discussion of “the manner in which the physical body, situated in the space opened by the continual displacement of Christ’s own body, maps on to other bodies and so constitutes the ecclesial and sacramental body of Christ” (205). I should note that Ward’s book was generally disappointing, for its determined obscurantism, its gleeful avoidance of practically any substantive discussion of cities, and its entirely unconvincing defense of homosexuality (which to my mind principally consisted in gnomic broadsides aimed at “the biopolitics of heterosexism” and the like). Nonetheless, Ward’s discussion of bodies and the Eucharist was quite helpful (it might be worthwhile to read just the middle section of the book). 

To begin where Jenson begins, then, we must ask not simply where Jesus is now, but even where he was in the days after the resurrection, when his glorified body was doing all the strange things it seems it could do (vanish, pass through walls, become unrecognizable, etc.).  Jenson writes that we should not properly understand him as present spatially on the earth: “If we ask where Jesus was—so to speak—resident during the days of the appearances, the immediately available answer is that he was in the heaven of the apocalypses, that is, in God’s final future, from which he showed himself—or the Spirit showed him—to the chosen” (197). Jenson is not suggesting that these appearances were somehow therefore “virtual,” in the sense of disembodied apparitions. Rather, Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances are eschatological, bodily in-breakings of God’s future into the sinful present. Jesus’ body is a bit of redeemed creation swirling in the wastes of fallen time.

After the ascension, however, this resurrected body becomes conceptually even more problematic: “A body requires its place, and we find it hard to think of any place for this one” (202). This is no matter of theological indifference: “The Incarnation given, what we call the humanity of Christ and the deity of Christ are only actual as one sole person, so that where the deity of the Son is, there must be Jesus’ humanity, unabridged as soul and body” (202). Otherwise, what do we mean when we say, “I know my Redeemer lives”? Do we mean simply that he lives somehow as the Logos asarkos, the fleshless or un-incarnate Word? Do we mean, in a surprising relapse into pure Platonism, that he lives simply as spirit or “soul”? If so, what was the point of the bodily Resurrection to begin with, if its product could be set aside so simply? 

Jenson, however, is not content with this befuddlement: “It is time for theology … to let what Paul meant by ‘body’ teach us also what to mean by ‘body’ … We must learn to say: the entity rightly called the body of Christ is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects; by the promise of Christ, this object is the bread and cup and the gathering of the church around them. There is where creatures can locate him, to respond to his word to them” (205). 

In essence, Jenson argues that Jesus is still embodied, but only as the Church gathered around the Eucharist. This requires quite a radical revision of our notion of “body,” and Jenson unfortunately does not provide enough exploration on this theme. For that discussion, we must turn to Ward, who in explicating Gregory of Nyssa, argues, “Since the essence of things cannot be known, the displacement of their identity is endless. The poiotes become signs to be read by the intellect and yet their meaning is endlessly not deferred but protracted, extended out of the material order of this world and into what Gregory termed the aion” (90). The material order of finitude moves in God’s infinity; a thing’s “poiotes” (outworking, or outward form) is a continual act of extension and displacement, a stretching out into eternity: as Nyssa himself wrote in On the Soul and the Resurrection, “Every man is a nation,” a collection of ever-shifting personalities, beliefs, dispositions (and, we might add, of atoms).

This logic—by which the “spiritual,” or, as Jenson might put it, eschatological import of a physical sign imparts its significance—creates the conceptual space within which to make sense of Jesus’, “This is my body.” Ward argues, “These words perform the transposition … They set up a logic of radical reidentification. What had throughout the gospel story been an unstable body is now to be understood as an extendible body. For it is not that Jesus, at this point, stops being a physical presence. It is more as if this physical presence can expand itself to incorporate other bodies, like bread, and make them extensions of his own” (101). 

So far so good—but what does the “displaced body of Christ,” as Ward puts it, have to do with the Church? Since Paul, the Church has referred to herself as the “body of Christ,” (most obviously in 1 Cor. 12:13-ff., though also in 1 Cor. 3:16-17, where the subject of address is the Church as a whole). The web of significance here is draw quite tightly: Jesus’ body is the new Temple (Jn. 2:18-22), the tabernacle of God’s glory (Jn. 1:14), because the Spirit of God rest upon him (Jn. 1:32); so too, the Church is the temple of the Lord, and so in turn Jesus’ very body, because the Spirit of glory dwells in her: “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s spirit dwells in you?” 

What enables that changing reference? Ward’s language of displacement, and Jenson’s language of eschatological in-breaking help to make sense of this conceptual shift, which is implicit even in John’s Gospel: in the Olivet Discourse, Jesus says, “If I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you; But if I go, I will send him to you” (16:7). Nevertheless, that does not stop Jesus just moments later from praying, “The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me” (17:22-23). In effect, it is the displacement of Jesus’ physical presence that allows the Church to be constituted as his body, as the spatial and temporal continuum by which he makes himself known to the world.

This reading makes sense of Ward’s reticence about the late medieval and counter-reformation enthusiasm for “real presence” as a theological rubric for interpreting the Eucharist. Indeed, he emphasizes that though the Latin “praesentia” is a crucial term both for the magisterial Reformation and for the Council of Trent, it nowhere appears in Aquinas’s discussion of the Eucharist (Ward 158), which rather centers on the bread and wine as “verum corpus Christi,” the “very body of Christ” (158). For Ward, to speak too eagerly of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine implies almost a magical reading of the Eucharist, as though the point were simply God’s miraculous overriding of nature to present himself as a spectacle to the gathered crowd.

By contrast, the biblical import of the Lord’s table seems to be first ecclesiological, and then, in second order, sacramental: we might speak of the elements as being transubstantiated because it is in its table fellowship that the Church is continually reconstituted as the presence of Christ in the world. Incidentally, that reasoning is only circular—in a chicken-and-egg sense of the Church’s constituting the elements that constitute it—if we dismiss the possibility of its being created ex nihilo by the gracious intervention of God in history. 

Thus, the most important referential question that we can ask about the Eucharist is not concerning place (“Where is the body of Christ?”), but concerning time: “When the risen Christ is made corporeally present by his Spirit in his Church at Table, has a foretaste of our redeemed future been made present to the world in fallen time?” Ward suggests,

The eucharist participates in a temporal plenitude that gathers up and rehearses the past, while drawing upon the futural expectations and significations of the act in the present. In the same way as the Last Supper is both an enactment of the Passover Meal and rehearsal for the sacrifice on Calvary; so the eucharist is both an enactment of the Last Supper (and therefore a figuring of the Passover), a participation in the atoning sacrifice of Calvary and a foretaste of the heavenly banquet at the eschatological wedding (171).

In our dramatically re-enacting the life of Christ and anticipating the life of the Kingdom, we become the life we rehearse; we are what we eat.

 So, if I—or Jenson, or Ward—am at all correct in my analysis, the question of Christ’s continuing bodily existence is not a matter of barren scholastic speculation (if there ever was such a thing outside the snobbery of modernist rationalism), but rather of the very nature of salvation itself: the absence of Jesus’ body makes space for us to be included within his person by the Spirit, and so to be (eschatologically, which is to say, by faith) transfigured signs for the continuing transfiguration of the world. If this is to happen at all, Scripture suggests, it must happen fundamentally at the Eucharist.

EDIT: I probably should clarify that when I say I was unpersuaded by Ward’s defense of homosexuality, I meant incontinent homosexuality, or gay marriage. For those who appreciate the difference and might have been offended, I apologize for the mistake.


Therapeutic philosophy.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

On page 175 of Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Rorty expresses pretty clearly the difference between his idea of what philosophy should do and the idea that many philosophers have about what they are doing:

… Can we treat the study of “the nature of human knowledge” just as the study of certain ways in which human beings interact, or does it require an ontological foundation (involving some specifically philosophical way of describing human beings)? Shall we take “S knows that p” (or “S knows noninferentially that p,” or “S believes incorrigibly that p,” or “S’s knowledge that p is certain”) as a remark about the status of S’s reports among his peers, or shall we take it as a remark about the relation between subject and object, between nature and its mirror? The first alternative leads to a pragmatic view of truth and a therapeutic approach to ontology (in which philosophy can straighten out pointless quarrels between common sense and science, but not contribute any arguments of its own for the existence or inexistence of something).

Though I know I’m being utterly unfaithful to the spirit in which Rorty writes, I can’t help speculating about how therapeutic philosophy, with its smoothing-over function, has to relate to theology. Such a philosophy doesn’t claim for itself the authority to evaluate the “rationality” of religious claims. Does that authority pass to science? Or does revelation become unassailable — and unspeakable? What would happen when therapeutic philosophy tried to mediate between science, common sense, and claims from revelation? My first thought is that our religious philosophers would all be William Jameses, though I really haven’t read enough of WJ’s work to back this up.

More on this as I think about it.

A small and pointless failure.

Posted in Books, Second Paradise projects with tags , , , on 10 February 2010 by William Brafford

I think I am going to give up on trying to take detailed notes on Rorty. Here’s the problem: Richard Rorty wants to convince us that the philosophical emphasis on “the mind” is unnecessary — that we can just let the whole problem slip away. Some people have spent large amounts of time studying Descartes or Kant or Russell or Husserl, and for them Rorty’s arguments require careful attention. I myself have just a passing acquaintance with the thought of those figures, and so when Rorty says we can slide past the philosophical problems they posed, I’m inclined to smile and nod rather than to scribble furiously in an effort to unveil bad premises or improper interpretations of other figures.

So yesterday I decided to just forget about taking notes on Chapter III and to move right on to IV. What do you know? It’s fascinating, and it makes me want to read four or five other books in quick succession. This is what I’m after.

Have any of you read Roger Scruton’s Modern Philosophy? I browsed through a bit of it in the library the other day, and I am thinking about giving it a shot after I finish PMN and Bleak House

The Binding of Isaac

Posted in Miscellaneous with tags , , on 3 February 2010 by Brendan

The BoCP lectionary prescribes Gen. 22:1-8 for today’s Old Testament lesson. So far as I know, no commentator has fully managed to unravel the knots of this passage. My own thoughts on it are still shaped at a visceral level by the bitter complaint of my psychologist mother, who saw in this text a cruel and heinous account of child abuse, and (so far as I know) still refuses to countenance its inspiration. Kierkegaard and Derrida have each put it to the question; the former uses it to found his theory of “the teleological suspension of the ethical”: faith in God, Kierkegaard argues, calls Abraham to a radical trust that leads beyond the bounds of rational morals in the quest for spiritual encounter.

 The simplest objection, of course, to this juxtaposition of religious teleology and ethics is that it founds itself upon a Kantian notion of the ethical as those precepts which bind all men in all times: Kierkegaard does not seem to consider—as the tradition from Plato to Augustine to Aquinas took for granted—that ethics itself might be teleological (in the case of Christianity, even eschatological), that the cultivation and practice of faith, hope, and love might be internal to a peculiar, parochial way of life sustained through time.

 For Kierkegaard, the binding of Isaac requires Abraham to set aside his moral convictions, trusting in the righteousness of God’s mysterious ends: this is the “leap of faith” which he locates at the beginning of religious experience. By contrast, might we not see Abraham’s fidelity to God’s command as the very core of ethics, as man’s chief calling in the world? To follow where God leads—to follow as pilgrims, exiles, strangers bound for a longed-after homeland—is a fair summary of the burdens of covenant in both the Old and New Testaments.

 But does this reading help us make any better sense of Abraham’s trial? Objectionable though I find Kierkegaard’s reading in general, I have no simple solution to the problem posed by Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac. The text is oblique: was Isaac thirteen or thirty? What passed through Abraham’s mind? Was he merely lying to Isaac when he said, “God will provide”? The author of Hebrews sees in Abraham’s determination faith in the resurrection: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead” (Heb. 11:19). God himself seems to evaluate the act simply as a test of faith before irrational horror: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (22:12).

 Perhaps, however, this fidelity to God against all odds—terrible though it must have been for father and son—is the essence of faith, which, as the author of Hebrews would have it, is “the conviction of things not seen” (11:1). As best I can tell, the fundamental lesson of the Akedah of Isaac is—as Eve Tushnet has put it so often—“the sacrifice God wants isn’t always the sacrifice you wanted to make.” Bonhoeffer’s embellishment of Jesus’ call to take up the cross in Mark 8 springs to mind: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” God calls us to lay down our best held dreams and desires, to accept failure and ignominy and wretchedness, that we might become blessed in him. Apart from that terrible call, we could scarcely imagine men such as Gregory VII, Francis of Assisi, Henri Nouwen, or Theresa of Calcutta.

 I hope I’m not being too hard on Kierkegaard, who is after all always good for laughter or provocation or both. It seems to me that while Kierkegaard saw the nature of faith as luring us from the bright perspicacity of reason out into the unlit wastes of “religion,” the true lesson of Genesis 22 is that faithfulness to God first means abandoning the idols of one’s heart, which are always at bottom distorted projections of narcissism. The looming danger in this passage is not a Kantian categorical imperative, but a (Augustinian) disordered love. In that light, Abraham’s fidelity here is paradoxically a “reasonable service” (logiken latreian, to borrow Paul’s phrase from Romans 12).

 To return, as a final note, to the subject of the effect of all this upon Isaac: while I have a hard time imagining a manner of narrating this episode that does not issue in serious long-term trauma inflicted upon Isaac, I am comforted by the text’s moderate ambitions. There is no psychological speculation here; this is not a Camus novel. The overriding theme worked in the binding of Isaac is that, against all odds, God provides to those who trust him. The lesson carried forward by later Jewish readers (including the author of Hebrews) does not concern a capricious or malicious God who tortures children, but rather a gracious and beneficent God who shelters those in need. There is still a mystery at work here, but (sad to end with such crude phrasing!) God seems to be on the right side of it.

Brendan’s thesis

Posted in Uncategorized on 2 February 2010 by Brendan

For any and all who might take an interest, my thesis, titled “Freedom, Tradition, and Property in Early Modern England,” is available online.

Meditation on Baptism

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on 2 February 2010 by Brendan

(I wrote this a couple of months ago, and just found it on my hard drive.)

Poor Peter Leithart is defending himself once again from his suspicious PCA presbytery, and nowhere with more vigor than regarding baptism. In conversation with a friend, the subject came up, and it sparked a thought.

Leithart suggests that even much contemporary paedo-baptist theology presumes something like a “believer’s baptist” perspective, in that the “subject” of baptism “remains the adult convert”: though the sacrament is applied to infants, it is applied in anticipation of that child’s future salvation through personal profession. This raises the perfectly legitimate question of just what function the baptism is then thought to serve: if the sacrament does in fact simply emblematize an existential event, why not place the marker a bit closer to the event itself?

Leithart’s critique points to a further possibility: rather than revising our baptismal theology in terms of an individualist soteriology, perhaps a more radical sacramental theology could be allowed to tutor our soteriology. That is, perhaps we could conceive baptism as a first important step in a journey of salvation, in which grace is mediated to us on the basis of no personal merit. Most fundamentally for baptism, this grace takes the form of the blessings of family and church community, by whose fostering a child acquires the disciplines and habits of worship. In a sense, baptism remains a symbol, but it can equally be construed as the actual channel through which grace passes, as it is the public declaration of church and family that forms the bond—enforceable by shame and rebuke—by which the child will later be catechized.

Of course, as Leithart acknowledges, such a bond is by no means a guarantee of salvation, any more than is participation in the Eucharist. Taken together, the sacraments as a whole are sufficient, but not necessary, conditions for salvation: they form the stage upon which the drama of salvation might be enacted. The sacraments—particularly as the crown of a rich liturgical setting—form a public space conducive to the discipline and habits of faith whose perfection is salvation. Such disciplines are broader than the sacraments themselves, and indeed may be construed as animating them: without fellowship, charity for neighbor and stranger, and a rich devotional life, baptism, table, confession, confirmation, etc, are empty parodies of the Church’s life. Nevertheless, if daily faithfulness puts flesh on the sacraments, the latter provide an eschatological context that renders the former intelligible: the Eucharist is what makes Christian charity different in kind from Buddhist charity, etc.

The more one’s soteriology comes to locate salvation in an existential transaction within the individual, the more infant baptism—nay, even baptism at all, and even notion of a “sacrament”—will become unintelligible, will come to be seen as simply an empty signifier of an interior reality. However, if we understand salvation as the disciplined habituation to life in the Kingdom, and grace as providing the necessary conditions—emotional, mental, or social—for that discipline, then the sacraments can be understood as a real vehicle of divine grace, which opens up the possibility of a transformed life within a redeemed community.