Sunday, April 2, 2017

Degenerate language; degenerating faith

In my earlier post on the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord I alluded to the mystery of the uniting of the divine and human natures in the one person of Jesus Christ, noting that the dogmatic definition of this mystery is denoted as the "hypostatic union." The Church's dogmatic definition of this mystery was promulgated at the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, which set forth the following concerning Jesus Christ:
acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us
Reading section 7c of Heidegger's Being and Time, I was struck by a passage that seems quite relevant to the domain of Christian dogma. This passage was well-summarized by Pope St. John XXIII in his speech to open the Second Vatican Council:
What is needed is that this certain and immutable doctrine, to which the faithful owe obedience, be studied afresh and reformulated in contemporary terms. For this deposit of faith, or truths which are contained in our time-honored teaching is one thing; the manner in which these truths are set forth (with their meaning preserved intact) is something else (emboldening and italicizing emphasis added)
In section 7c, in which he seeks to describe and define phenomenology, Heidegger, in discussing how phenomena, which he understands as the objects of philosophical inquiry, can be covered up, concealed, "buried over," or distorted observes- "It is possible for every phenomenological concept and proposition drawn from genuine origins to degenerate when communicated as a statement." This happens when truthful, or authentic, propositions start to be "circulated in a vacuous fashion," thus becoming "free-floating" theses. In other words, the historic, time-conditioned, contextualized nature of the proposition is lost and, along with it, an adequate understanding of its meaning.

In the realm of dogma, it usually becomes the answer to the question nobody is asking, or repeating incomprehensible formulae in response to genuine questions. In the first edition of her translation of Being and Time, Joan Stambaugh, translating the sentence I just cited, uses the word "autochthony" to describe what happens when a proposition that adequately conveyed a phenomenological concept degenerates. "Autochthony" means both that it originates where it is found and it is native to the system in which it is produced. De-contextualized, de-historicized, de-temporalized, I think, gets at the matter quite well.

As with the hypostatic union, a concept must first be grasped to some extent before it can degenerate. Just as most Christians, to paraphrase Karl Rahner, remain mere monotheists rather than full-blown Trinitarians, so most Christians merely pay lip service to Christ's humanity, his consubstantiality with the Blessed Virgin and so with us. While revering him as divine, many Christians, implicitly adhere to a sort of Docetism (from the Greek verb "to seem," meaning he only seemed to be human) with regard to his humanity.

In my view, a dogmatic concept that seems to have degenerated in the manner described is that of transubstantiation. To be clear up-front-I do NOT deny and fully accept the dogmatic definition concerning transubstantiation, which seeks to explain how the bread and wine become, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, in order to accept it, I have to grasp in its historical context- the counter-Reformation, a time when Christ's "real" presence was beginning to be denied by Protestant reform groups and rethought by others; Thomas Cranmer's own views on Christ's "real" presence in the Eucharist, which he never denied, for example, evolved over time to a quite subjective understanding. The Council of Trent sought to teach very clearly that Christ is truly present in the consecrated elements in what might be described as more or less "objective" manner. Nonetheless, this explanation, rooted as it is exclusively in the Aristotelian metaphysics of substance, as all dogmatic explanations are bound to be, does not take us to the core of the mystery.

No statement, dogmatic or otherwise, could ever fully explain how Christ comes to be present to us through the sacramentum caritatis, the sacrament of love, any more than a dogmatic definition can fully convey to us the mystery described as the hypostatic. Perhaps the best such a statement can do is enable us to rationally grasp that it can happen by giving a plausible explanation as to how, according to Greek metaphysics, it can be so. While we understand Christ's presence in the consecrated species to be "real," an action of God's, as it were, we cannot discount that sacraments depend, at least to some extent, on the faith of recipients. In other words, our insistence on objectivity (just as there is no pure subjectivity, there is no pure objectivity- it is a self-refuting claim because only a subject can posit the concept "pure objectivity") can turn sacraments into something akin magic tricks, which is why a strictly ex opere operato understanding of sacraments is a degeneration of their original meaning, rendering sacraments static.

At least in my view, sacraments need to be grasped phenomenologically, as philosopher Fr. Robert Sokolowski's work suggests (as an example see his article "Steps into the Eucharist: The Phenomenology of the Mass"), not in some manner that plays the subject off against the object, which playing off suggests a fundamental incongruity between subjects and objects, which metaphysical mismatch phenomenology helps us to overcome. This is exactly why we must do what Good Pope John urged in conveying our understanding of what God has revealed in ways that make sense to intelligent people living today.

As Anglican theologian John Macquarrie (among others) suggested in his book Pathways in Spirituality (a book I just finished), perhaps the best attempt to describe how Christ comes to be present to us in the Eucharist since the Council, transignification, is not incompatible with transubstantiation. In other words, entertaining such explanations as transignification does not require rejection of transubstantiation, even in an implicit way. Our understanding of a mystery as deep and unfathomable as the Eucharist, resting as it does, as all the sacrament do, on that Mystery of mysteries, the Incarnation, can certainly benefit from a variety of explanations.

I believe it was theologian Nicholas Lash who wrote something along the lines - A theologian is a person who watches her/his language in the presence of God.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting way of looking at this. Could this be a way to unite transubstantiation with the Lutheran consubstantiation? If the former is based on the Greek philosophical concepts of an ontological substance (nature) and phenomenological accidents (appearance), could not the latter be acknowledged to be not based on the same foundation as the former, but rather on a different set of definitions, such as a phenomenological nature (bread) that co-exists with the ontological nature (Body and Blood of Christ)? I.e. two ways of describing the same thing, such that, if both sides are understood properly by each other, they are not contradictory, but just differently explained?

    That assumes that there is indeed no difference; there may well be, and my ideas above therefore wrong.