Scattered thoughts on transubstantiation

Lately, for reasons that are unclear to me, my thoughts have turned to the doctrine of transubstantiation, and those thoughts have reached a form that is probably blog post-worthy — hence I share them with you now.

One very basic point we learn from Lindbeck is that when we are confronted with a doctrine, we should look to its consequences for behavior rather than focusing solely on the thoughts it prompts in someone’s head. With trinitarian doctrine, for instance, Lindbeck thinks we are dealing not with positive truth claims but with a kind of grammar that guides the way we concretely talk about God in trinitarian terms — i.e., the doctrine is not primarily about what we believe but what we say.

In the case of transubstantiation, the practical payoff is obvious in liturgical terms. If the bread really and irreversibly “becomes” Christ, then we need to take the utmost care of it, be very selective about who gets to participate in it, and carefully preserve any leftovers. In the last resort, it even becomes possible to envision the direct worship of the reserved Eucharistic host.

What is less clear is what we should do with the apparent consequences of the doctrine for the world outside the liturgical space. One implication, for instance, is that if a consecrated host is taken from the church setting and lost, then the real Body of Christ is just kind of sitting around, decomposing, being eaten by rats, etc. The immediate practical response to that implication is, once again, to carefully keep the host inside the liturgical context where it can be properly cared for.

Yet what do we do with the claim that the host still is Christ in the unfortunate event that it falls outside the liturgical circle? In some settings, people have drawn the conclusion that the power of Christ is available for abuse by those outside the church — witches or Jews, for instance. The seemingly narrow claim about the status of a particular wafer of unleavened bread then takes on much broader consequences for the relationship between the church and the world, which is envisioned as one of antagonism. We need to carefully contain the transubstantiated host within the liturgical context because it represents a power that outsiders want to seize for themselves.

Even without that explicitly polemical bent, however, the claim that the host really is Christ even outside the liturgical context represents a broad claim for the liturgy over against the world — it claims that the liturgy is more real than everyday reality. There’s already the seed of that assertion of superiority in the very demand that we recognize the little bit of bread, in defiance of all common sense, as the Real Presence of Christ. The claim that the liturgical act has irreversible consequences that hold in some sense outside the liturgical context then draws out the quasi-totalitarian assertion of liturgical superiority — which helps make sense of a world in which, for example, the Pope was claiming the right to choose kings and divvy up a previously unknown continent between rival powers.

I leave the consequences of this observation for the later Protestant responses to transubstantiation as an exercise for the reader.

2 thoughts on “Scattered thoughts on transubstantiation

  1. Following this, couldn’t transubstatiation go the other way, empowering lay people to know and be able to game the ‘system’. Hence, Charles Taylor described how the Sacraments and sacramentals of the Medieval church were a form of white magic. Lay people, not necessarily witches or heretics, tried to get hold of the elements for themselves, keeping them for charms or wards.

    And then this depends upon an idea of God’s presence, favor, etc. that is passive, and handled. Using Agamben’s scheme of the non-active activity in the mass, the process only fully functions if it is closed. If it gets opened up, where the elements can leave the liturgical setting in some way, it becomes incredibly dangerous. So, maybe while there is a “totalitarian” element to the liturgy-world relation, it is only because the liturgy is so fragile when placed outside in the world. The hierarchy collapses and the sustained void is quickly filled.

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