Sunday, August 16, 2015

In The Act Bread and Wine Are More Than Mere Objects

The other day an online atheist thought they would torment me by quoting Richard Dawkins to the effect that all Catholics who believed they were "literally" eating the body and blood of Jesus were obviously insane and should be certified as such.  With my name they always figure that I must be what they conceive of as an easily offended Catholic.  The habits of Brit thinking, perhaps.  I strongly suspect it was one of my old Brit-atheist adversaries using one of her many comment thread names, she's got almost as many as the one I usually address here.

I put the word "literally" in quotes because on that word and its meaning hinges the difference between the ultra-simplified world of atheist thinking and the far more complex thinking of most other people.  Obviously even the theologians, bishops, Popes who hold that there is a "literal" presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion aren't and never were under the impression that they were consuming flesh and blood and, in both coming up with the meaning of what they believed and its explanation never meant anything like that.  And, I will point out, their and similar explanations of what was meant by that was not "literal" in the way that Dawkins and atheists use the word, it was "literal" in terms of the letters that the scriptures were written in, not in terms of biology*or a dinner menu.

I have a somewhat heretical view of what Jesus meant when he said,  "Take this and eat it, for this is my body.... this is my blood...."  I think that he was actually using food sacramentally, during the course of a meal, the central meal in the Jewish year, he was making a profound statement about the relationship of us and God, of us as agents of continuing creation, of us as the agents to do what God did in sustaining life and as a part of that life.  Even when hoarded and eaten selfishly food and drink become life, or the sustenance of life.  It becomes "living".  Perhaps that is where the atheist imagination stops.  But in what Jesus said, things go much, much farther than that.  We are to share food and drink, physical nourishment with other people, as equals, not from on as high, that sharing the means of sustaining life is the body and blood of Christ - God made flesh in the person of Jesus - by doing that we are doing the same thing that Jesus saw as his purpose.   In doing that we do the will of God, in doing that we fulfill the creation of God, continually, we live in the image of God.  That links the act to the entire narrative that starts in Genesis and ends the last time we did that.  Which is kind of mind blowing.

Throw in foot washing, from John, and, for me at least, the meaning is far more powerful than any literal interpretation of the bread and wine as the real body of Jesus.   The act, to "do this in memory" is what makes it a sacramental act, the "memory" of the entire career of Jesus, his intention, but specifically in sharing food and drink, the entire act is the total substance of him.  If that includes a "literal" presence of Jesus, I don't know, I don't really know what that means even though I have actually read explanations of what theologians and bishops say they mean by that, so for me it can't be an experience.  It makes today's reading in Catholic and some other churches far more meaningful, including that the radical language and act mean something and makes a demand of me.  Before I give it I'll point out that, it being John, the remark about "the Jews" is troubling, ignoring the fact that Jesus was a Jew as were all of his chosen apostles.  It also masks the essential truth that the teachings of Jesus are an interpretation of The Law, that is the Jewish law which contains the seed of what Jesus taught.

His language must have been chosen to get attention by shaking people up, it wasn't, "literal" in the sense that they took it, it had a deeper meaning that the nouns only pointed to.  I think Jesus did that a lot more often than we, with our habits of reading things for literal meaning of words are likely to miss.  Apparently that was something Jesus used to communicate knowing that in order to do that the first thing you have to do is get the attention of the crowd you're talking to.

"Literally", as an object, bread is the farthest thing from what he was talking about.  He didn't say he was bread made from dead wheat, ground up into a paste and cooked, or grapes crushed and the juice let to ferment, he said he was the "living bread that came down from heaven".  Our bread comes up from the Earth.  That, alone, shows that he wasn't using words in an everyday, "literal" manner when he was talking about that aspect of his teaching, not then, not at the Pesach supper right before he was killed.

Jesus said to the crowds:
“I am the living bread that came down from heaven;
whoever eats this bread will live forever;
and the bread that I will give
is my flesh for the life of the world.”

The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying,
“How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” 
Jesus said to them,
“Amen, amen, I say to you,
unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood,
you do not have life within you. 
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
has eternal life,
and I will raise him on the last day. 
For my flesh is true food,
and my blood is true drink. 
Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood
remains in me and I in him. 
Just as the living Father sent me
and I have life because of the Father,
so also the one who feeds on me
will have life because of me. 
This is the bread that came down from heaven. 
Unlike your ancestors who ate and still died,
whoever eats this bread will live forever.”

It is only by the loving act of sustaining life in other people, doing that in a humble manner that fully demonstrates and acknowledges our mutual dependence and equality, that we have life within us. Otherwise, we are just self-motivated robots of the kind that Richard Dawkins sees us as being. Which vision of reality and human life do you think is more likely to sustain a liberal society and government?

*  Consider the rather incredible freedom with which Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, other evolutionary psychologists have made flesh from their mere words, pretending their ideological program of doing that constitutes science.  Flesh in the form of molecules and proteins and the biological structures made of them, none of which have any other form than their assertions, some of those entirely illogical, mathematically absurd and even a contradiction of the very Darwinian dogma that they use to construct their imagined flesh.


  1. I've read of the folk belief (i.e., superstition), that if one bit the host it would bleed, so it had to be dissolved, not chewed.

    But as you say, Dawkins & Co. (I've seen the same arguments repeated at Salon recently) betray their ignorance and parade it as a badge of honor. They know "something" about Catholic doctrine on transubstantiation and that's all they need to know because "fairies": EOD.

    You do a better job of tackling it than I would have; I just discard them as idiots in a sandbox. My favorite now is the long arguments at Salon (in comments) about the existence of God, a discussion even atheist philosophers like Richard Rorty stopped engaging (because it's a non-starter) long ago. It's a non-point: existence can be neither disproven nor proven. Thanks to phenomenology, we even understand how difficult a concept it is, so discussion of it is hardly an "either/or."

    Except to the know-nothings who think their ignorance makes them more reasonable than everyone else on the planet.

  2. Or maybe I should answer you the way one commenter at Salon did: by shouting "BS!" louder and louder and louder.

    1. Lightly tossed with a dictionary vinaigrette, please.