The Philosophical Background to Eucharistic Theology

A Chapter from Thinking about the Eucharist, London, 1972

If a stranger were to attend a celebration of the eucharist he would say that the people involved were doing something. They were saying things, sometimes to one another, sometimes together. Something was being eaten and something drunk. In some rites he might say further that something was being given, and something given back. And, if he were sensitive to atmosphere, he might add that the proceedings meant something very significant to all concerned.

These bare descriptions - doing, doing together, saying, eating, drinking, giving, being given back, meaning - are the strands which our Lord, and at his bidding the church, have woven together in instituting the eucharist. We cannot expound it as being merely a performance, a corporate activity, a seminar, a common meal, an offertory, a reception, or a symbolic rite, for it is more than all these. Nevertheless it is these. These were features of the Last Supper, as they had been of the Passover in ancient Israel, which enabled it to be what our Lord intended it to be, and it is these features that have enabled the Lord's Supper, the eucharist, the mass, the holy communion, and the early service to be the focus of the church's corporate life on earth and the main way whereby the individual Christian can enter into a relationship with God. They underlie, although they do not exhaust, all our thinking about the eucharist.

In celebrating the eucharist we do something. The logic of action is very different from the logic of things. Actions are not exclusive in the way that things are. We say that Solomon built the Temple, but do not thereby deny that many artificers and craftsmen built it too. Or to take a more modern example, when we say that Baden-Powell created the Boy Scout movement, we do not in the least belittle the dedicated work of many others who equally well could be said to have brought it into being. And so too the action of twentieth century men in celebrating the eucharist neither excludes, nor is excluded by, its being also the action of our Lord Jesus Christ who on the night that he was betrayed said, `Do this . . .'.

Not only can different people do the same actions, but any action can be described in many different ways. I turn my finger, I twiddle the dial, I ring up my agent, I hatch a plot, I let the side down, I forward my own ambitions - all these may be apt descriptions of the same bodily behaviour. Which descriptions are right is often a matter of great controversy and cannot be settled by reference to overt behaviour alone. Actions are instinct with reasons. What we do depends on why we are doing it. And therefore how we describe an action will depend in part on what reasons we ascribe to the agent. There are often various different reasons for which we undertake some particular action, and so different descriptions may be given, all equally correct. It may be correct to describe the eucharist as a commemoration of Christ's death: but it does not follow that it is not also a fellowship meal at which he himself is present.

The same bodily behaviour can be correctly described as different actions. It is also part of the logic of action that different patterns of bodily behaviour can be accounted the same action. I can buy a car by going into a shop, handing over money, and driving away; or by writing a letter; or by nodding at an auction. My bodily movements are far from being the same, but are in each case appropriate in their context to bring about the result I desire; and if the situation had been different, my movements would have been different, too if the auctioneer had not been looking straight at me, I would have waved my arm or shouted something. Actions are what cyberneticians call homoeostatic processes - the actual bodily behaviour depends on the situation in such a way as to bring about the desired state of affairs in spite of variation of the circumstances. And therefore when we describe a particular pattern of bodily behaviour as an action, we not only are describing what actually happened but are saying that if the conditions had been slightly different, an appropriately different pattern of bodily behaviour would have been manifested. That is to say, as soon as we talk of actions we are talking not only in the indicative mood, of what actually was or will be seen, but in the subjunctive mood too. Actions have a logical depth that things and events lack, and concern not only what appears on the surface and what can be recorded by the camera, but what might have been done or would have been done, had things been different.

The paradigm actions are those of an individual - what I do, what you do or what he does. But we also talk in the plural, of what we do and what they do, and it is a profound fact of the human condition that men are vitally concerned with the first person plural as much as with the first person singular. I identify. It matters to me what my children, my colleagues, my compatriots, do. I have views about what we ought to do, am proud of our achievements when we have done well, and am ashamed of our failures and mistakes and everything that we have done badly. I would not be myself if I were not, besides being an individual, also a member of many different communities and associations, whose well-being is part and parcel of my own individual well-being. How this is so, is a matter of philosophical dispute: but that it is so can scarcely be denied. And it is one of the tenets of Christianity that we are all members one of another, and that in the eucharist we join in an activity which is essentially corporate. A corporate activity is not simply a number of individuals acting individually. If I go into a snack-bar and eat a meal, and you go into a snack-bar and eat a meal, it does not follow that we have had a meal together. It is not enough that we each do the same thing: what is essential is that each does whatever he does in the light, and on account, of the other's doings. It may be that we are all doing the same thing - as when we sing in unison together: or it may be that we are doing different things - as when we sing in harmony, or play football, or conduct research: but in either case I take the actions of others as my cue, and make my own contribution harmonize with what other people are doing. Their actions are the context in which I act, and we share the same purpose, even if our individual contributions to its realization need to be different. The essential condition is not that we all do the same individual actions, but that we all share the same concern, and are aware of one another acting from that concern. Since our knowledge of other people is never complete, we can achieve our corporate activity only by assuming certain roles. A team can be effective only if everyone can rely on one man being near the goal and another acting as centre- forward. In small groups the amount of role-playing may be fairly small, but in large groups it becomes paramount. Only the Queen can dissolve Parliament, only a jury can find a man guilty of murder, only a judge impose a penalty, only a university award a degree. From this flows a certain impersonality. Britain would still have been Britain and would still have won the war if I had never been born. The University of Oxford would have continued to exist and would have given substantially the same degrees if I had never been one of its examiners. It is part of the meaning of the word `community' that no one of us is logically indispensable: societies are in this sense, as the French call them, `soci‚t‚s anonymes'. The original meaning of the word `parson' was that of `role-player'; and the church has often found it necessary to distinguish between his representative and his individual character. We can join in the eucharistic liturgy only because it is a ritual which assigns to us particular responses at particular times: and in joining in it, we act not only as individuals but as members of Christ's body dispersed over the face of the earth and down the ages.

The most sophisticated ritual we have is language. The celebration of the Lord's Supper has always been conjoined with the communication of the Good News, and would in itself be entirely unintelligible apart from the events recounted in the canon, the intuitions expressed, and the petitions made. Nevertheless, much of the ritual is more primitive, and perhaps more fundamental, than that of language, and it is helpful to leave consideration of the language used until later, and to view the eucharist first as a corporate meal. For this it was, and is. For reasons given by St Paul, it early became a stylized meal in which the eating and drinking were attenuated to the very minimum, and in some parts of Christendom the cup was denied the laity. But always the bread has been broken and shared and eaten. And this in itself means a lot.

The sharing of a meal is the most fundamental sort of sharing for human beings because the need for food and drink is the one need we all share and are continually being made aware of. Many other values may be cherished by many men in common - a love of England, or of mediaeval architecture, or of mathematical logic: but not everyone loves England or mediaeval architecture or mathematical logic, and any corporate activity centred on these as their focus of common concern would necessarily be selective and exclusive. But we all know that we need food and drink and therefore all value food and drink, and regard them as good. To offer a man a morsel or to give him a drink is a gesture that cannot but be taken as a token of good will; and to join in eating and drinking is to engage in a common activity which each, however individualistic his standpoint, must regard as desirable and good. And although it is possible to satisfy one's bodily hunger in isolation, it is in another sense very unsatisfactory to so do, and the solitary eater, like the solitary drinker, is an object of pity and compassion. Wherever possible we eat and drink in company, and only in company is either really satisfying.

Ancient Israel, like the modern West, placed great emphasis on the nuclear family, father and mother and the young children like olive branches round the table. The Passover had something of the same significance that Christmas dinner has. The Last Supper, however, was eaten by a group of friends, and the Christian eucharist generally has had the air more of a celebration of a peer-group than of a family. It is a more easily inclusive form of organization - a stranger invited to a Christmas dinner still feels awkward and something of an interloper, whereas there is no blood barrier to feeling at home in a college hall or at a regimental dinner. Since the gospel was universal, and any man might become a son of God by adoption of the Spirit, it was important not to emphasize too much the natural ties of blood relationships. Again, families are small, whereas the churches soon waxed large; large groups are much less closely knit than small ones; and in large- congregations, the holy communion is not so much a corporate activity as an individual one - and an individual one in which most individuals play a relatively passive part. Only if every householder were a priest could the eucharist be entirely a family affair. And again, in the ancient world, as now, there were many people who had no family life but were not to be excluded from communion with God - slaves crept out in the early morning to celebrate the eucharist while their masters were still asleep. The eucharist was more a reunion dinner than a family one in the strict sense. It took up a long tradition in the Greek world. The Spartans had always eaten together, and occasional fellowship meals were common elsewhere. Epicurus left money in his will for memorial meals, much as many colleges now have feasts in commemoration of founders and benefactors. Even when we are drawn together by a shared sorrow, we still find it appropriate to express our fellow feeling by also eating and drinking together. The Last Supper was the funeral bakemeats for our Lord's death, and the weekly eucharist parallels in part the `year's mind', when we remember the departed, and in our sadness also rejoice. On such occasions it is natural and correct to ascribe the activity of those present to the influence of the deceased, and even to say that he brought about the things that they do. Keble College owes its existence to John Keble, and would not have existed but for him, and has, to some extent, been the embodiment of his spirit. We may also go further and say, more metaphorically, that the dead man still lives in the memory and activity of his friends, or the teacher in the minds of his pupils, or the composer in his symphonies, or the founder in his foundation. This is not to claim immortality. Rather, it is to view human beings as, primarily, agents, and therefore to say that they are what they do, and, hence also, what they achieve through the agency of other men's actions. The spirit of Epicurus lives in the intellectual friendships and philosophical discussions of his disciples, especially when they are all gathered together in his name, and doing the things he wanted them to do and had in his own time done himself. And so too the Christians, when they express their corporate solidarity by eating and drinking together, may also remember their master, and feel that he still lives in their common life.

But it is a very thin life. Jeremy Bentham, like Epicurus, hoped that the young men of University College, London, would continue to be convivial after his death and spare a kindly thought for him, but added the further provision that his corpse, which was to be embalmed and kept in University College, should attend these parties, so that he might be present in the- flesh. It is a macabre idea, but expresses the sense of inadequacy of being there merely in spirit. If the Lord's Supper were merely a fellowship meal in which Christians looked back to the Passion and remembered Jesus Christ, it would be similarly inadequate: but the Lord's Supper is also the Lord's because, in the light of the resurrection, he is present, and we are supping with him, as we look as much forward to the future as back to the past. It is the Lord Mayor's banquet, with the Lord Mayor present, and everyone celebrating his accession to power.

The future is very different from the past. We can keep on commemorating the same event, but we cannot keep on inaugurating the same era. I can only once come of age, a wedding can only once be celebrated, and the Second Coming, when it comes, will come only once. It follows that the celebration of the eucharist which we, in accordance with our Lord's command, repeat day by day or week by week, cannot be exactly the inaugural banquet of Christ's accession. We can, in part, see in the eucharist a foretaste of a greater banquet yet to come: we can liken it to the Queen's Accession service, a thanksgiving for Christ's triumph, which is still, and will continue to be, effective in our lives; but in order to get the full force of the immediate forward-looking aspect of the eucharist we have to make a slightly sophisticated change of reference. Rather than think of it as the Lord Mayor's banquet, given by a particular Lord Mayor, we need to compare it with a more generalized celebration of inauguration. In our culture we should compare it with New Year parties. These can be repeated, and yet are indisputably oriented towards the future. As we see the New Year in, we do not suppose that 1972 will be an entirely new sort of existence in contrast to 1971 : our celebration is not tied to the particularity of the year, but to the generality of the newness. And in the eucharist we celebrate the fact that we are granted newness of life, not merely as a matter of secular fact, but in the life of the Spirit. Thanks to Christ's death and resurrection, we can go forward in confidence and look to the future in hope. A new possibility having been opened for us by Christ, we are realizing it for ourselves every time we share the Lord's Supper with the brethren, and ta men opiso epilanthanomenoi tois de emprosthen epekteinometha (cf. Phil. 3.13b), forgetting what is behind, reach out to that which lies ahead. The eucharist is not merely a memorial of things long past, but is the expression of a doctrine of epektasis, and an effective implementation of it in our lives, a weekly New Day's party to celebrate the fact that by virtue of the resurrection we shall always be finding new things to do, new things worth doing, new ways of making each his own contribution, new treasures still of countless price, new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven.

Although the Last Supper was a supper, and some of the earliest celebrations of the eucharist may have been suppers too, there was from New Testament times onwards a tendency to whittle down the meal to a purely symbolic form. Some of the reasons were practical. In addition to those of decorum given by St Paul, a real meal is relatively costly, and the early church did not have the odd two hundred denarii available to ensure that all should be filled. Banquets, although real, tend to be expensive and exclusive. If the poor are to be able to be filled with the good things from the Lord's table, only nominal amounts of bread and wine can be handed out, which must act as tokens of what is being given us. But this attenuation of the supper to the eucharist both requires and automatically heightens a symbolic interpretation. just because we are not getting very much to eat and drink, we are impelled to understand what we are doing as not being merely eating and drinking. One, not very satisfactory, explanation is the vitamin-pill model of lgnatius. It makes sense to describe the elements as pharmakon athanasias, `immortality pill', if taken in very small quantities, whereas it would be difficult to make out that an English Christmas dinner was `medicine'. We all feel the force of the homoeopathic argument that the tablets and the mixture are shown to be potent by reason of the fact that they have to be taken in very, very small doses. And once the eucharist ceases to be a real meal, it is dangerously easy to apply a similar argument there.

There is a tension between different requirements. Unless the Lord's Supper is celebrated by our really eating food and really imbibing drink, we lose the basic principle that it is a good thing for every one who joins in: but unless we are prepared to sit loose to the satisfaction of our bodily hunger and thirst, we may lose sight of the principle that it is something more than merely physical satisfaction. Although we can emphasize some symbolic effect by acting counter to natural expectations, there is a perpetual danger that in so doing we may destroy the basis on which the whole symbolism rests. For this reason the current antithesis between the agape and the eucharist is unfortunate. They are not so much opposed as having had different aspects emphasized. In a wedding reception a man with a weak digestion might eat only a morsel of wedding cake and drink only a sip of champagne for the toast; and if the bride's father was very poor, or there was great need for secrecy or speed, everyone would be content to do only this. Normally, however, we like to set the cutting of the cake and the drinking of the toast in a wider context of Jollification, and feel that there are better ways of expressing the overtones of the event than by having only very exiguous supplies of cats and drinks. We criticize the man who indulge . ties in them too freely, as St Paul did, as also the women who continue to chatter during the bridegroom's speech. The wedding reception is not merely a free meal. It is meant to mean something, and this is expressed by certain things being said and done at a certain time, and everyone should then attend and join in, and if need be, everything else could be stripped away, and we should be content with a bare cutting and distribution of cake and drinking of the toast. But this is the exceptional case, and draws its significance from the general context which most wedding receptions provide. Similarly in the Lord's Supper, the eating and drinking may be attenuated to a purely symbolic eating and drinking, without thereby losing its significance, but it does not have to be thus attenuated in order to secure its significance. A eucharist does not have to be an agape, but an agape does not have to be not a eucharist. There may be occasions when an agape is specially designed not to be a eucharist e.g. to avoid difficulties about intercommunion - just as there might be a gathering after a wedding intended not to be a wedding reception - e.g. if one of the parties were a divorc‚ - and in either case this would be signalled by leaving out the traditional actions - no wedding-cake, no wine, no speeches, only tea and biscuits. But so great is the power of the underlying symbolism of eating and drinking in common that it is a precarious distinction that is being drawn, and very soon the tea-fight takes on the characteristics of a reception, and the agape becomes a eucharist.

The eucharist is not only a matter of eating and drinking, but of giving and of being given in return. We give bread and wine to God - particularly in the congregational liturgies of England and America - and in our turn we are given a morsel of bread to cat and a sip of wine to drink. It is easy to view the giving in each direction as symbolic: the people of God offer up the fruits of their labours, their work, and God gives us not merely the means of physical sustenance, but himself, his Spirit, to enliven and fortify us as we go forth into the world. This interpretation is natural and meaningful in the twentieth century, and valid so far as it goes. But Christ need not have died on the cross to institute a service of communal dedication and re-invigoration. Even in the fourth century it was felt to be inadequate. Who are we to presume to offer God gifts? To give and be given in return either suggests a mechanical or commercial transaction or else presumes a personal relationship already established which it is the point of the communion in part to secure for us. It is only because we have first been invited to share with Christ in God's banquet that we are on a footing to offer any contribution of our own. Giving, if it does not degenerate into trading, is in danger of becoming Pelagianism. The only really relevant self-giving in the eucharist is that of Christ. But Christ gave himself for us and our salvation in a number of different ways: in coming down from heaven and becoming a man; in his life of ministry on earth; in founding a church; in dying on the cross; in his continual fellowship with men after the resurrection until the ascension; in sending the Holy Spirit; in his continuing fellowship with men in the Holy Spirit from Pentecost until now; and in his coming again at the Last Day to judge both the quick and the dead. And in as much as Christ had different reasons for doing any one of these, still further differences of description may be apt. The same difficulties about time and tense that occurred in the characterization of the fellowship meal will beset any description of the eucharist as the self-giving of Christ. In the most obvious sense - in dying on the cross - Christ gave himself in the aorist tense, once, only once, and once for all. We may legitimately extend this to the perfect tense, in as much as the past event still has present effects, but cannot use the present tense to suggest that this self-giving could either be repeated or regarded as still occurring. In other, admittedly less obvious or less central, senses of self-giving, Christ can be said still to give or be giving himself, and the eucharist can be intelligibly described in such terms. But there is still the difficulty, not present in the characterization of most actions, that self-giving is a reflexive concept, and that therefore, although we may imitate Christ's selfgiving by offering up our own work and lives, we cannot associate ourselves with Christ's self-giving as we can in carrying out his will in other ways. The eucharist, regarded as the fulfilment of our Lord's command, can be both his action and ours: but we cannot offer up Christ to the Father as an act of self-giving in the primary sense. Only he could do that.

There are still senses in which we can describe the eucharist in terms of self-giving. Quite apart from specifically Christian doctrines, any personal relationship involves each party giving himself in some degree to the other: and therefore it is built into any rite of holy communion that in it God gives himself to those who come to meet him. More specifically, Christians believe that they can be at one with God, only because Christ gave himself for us on the cross. For these reasons, various understandings of the eucharist, although less natural than that in terms of a shared meal, are nonetheless valid. Their validity depends not on natural congruity, but on the fact that our Lord intended it, both because the Last Supper was (If we accept the synoptic chronology) a celebration of the Passover, and because it took place on the eve, and under the shadow, of the crucifixion, and, further, because of His teaching and example in his earthly ministry. The ways in which the modern eucharist can properly be understood in terms of self-giving should be based, not on a priori argument, but on what we believe our Lord intended. It is a matter not of philosophy, but of New Testament scholarship.

The eucharist is significant. It is meant to mean something. In it we approach God as a person, not only in word - by addressing prayers to him and listening to the Bible - but in all our actions and attitudes, which are intended to show forth our adoration for him and his love for us. But our words are inadequate and our actions may be misunderstood. Although Christians believe that God is personal, and that through Christ we can enter into some sort of personal relationship with him, we find it very difficult to give an account of this personal relationship - indeed, the word `personal' is itself open to criticism - and often we fall back on the terminology of legal or logical or causal relationships. Such metaphors are natural, and to many people helpful: but they can mislead, and when we come to talk about the eucharist we often are tempted to press the wrong questions or to describe it in terms inappropriate to a living God who loves us and wants us to know him even as we are known. Equally with our actions, when we come to explain their significance we often describe them as symbolic, and obscurely feel that if they are symbolic, there must be a difference between what they are and what they mean. Symbols, we feel, are mere representations of something else for which they stand, in the same way as a picture symbolizes a scene it resembles while being essentially different from it. But this is a mistake. Although when I give a ring in marriage or hand over the keys to a new incumbent, I am not merely moving a piece of gold or iron but pledging my own future actions and authorizing another's, yet we cannot really contrast the bodily behaviour with an inner significance it resembles but also differs from. In these cases the symbolism is, indeed, a natural one, but in most others it is purely conventional - as when I sign a cheque or nod my head in an auction. Significance, therefore, should not be seen as being necessarily contrasted with reality, since it does not require natural resemblance or congruence, but can rest on any convention provided it is sufficiently widely understood. For this reason, once the doctrine of the eucharist was established, the natural symbolism of eating and drinking could be supplemented - or even supplanted - by the traditional understanding of what the church was doing when it celebrated the eucharist; and the intense Paschal associations introduced nuances of meaning and modes of interpretation far beyond the natural symbolism of a shared meal. The description of what he did is given in terms of what his action meant, and we cannot contrast what he `really' did with what it signified any more than I can contrast my signing a contract with some mysterious meaning of what I am doing. In actions, although not in things, the intention and the deed are inextricably bound up together, and from this it follows that we cannot talk of a bare deed apart from its intention, meaning or significance, and if those doing something intend it to mean something, then for them in that context it does. This is why many different understandings of the eucharist ' are possible, and perhaps valid, and why many different eucharistic practices have grown up. If one church believes the point of celebrating the eucharist to be the commemoration of our Lord's death, then that is what they are doing when they celebrate the eucharist, and if another believes it to be the vicarious offering by Christ's church of his passion to the Father, then that is what they are doing. Nevertheless, in spite of the great plasticity of meaning, not every interpretation is equally valid, nor every practice properly to be accounted eucharistic. The church rejects, transubstantiation because it makes a thing of God. The chemical or pharmacological model is bad, because it depersonalizes the holy communion. Chemical substances can be manipulated and misused. It is quite reasonable to take uranium 235 to the field of battle, and expose one's enemies to its power. It does not matter for the efficiency of the penicillin I am taking that I have a wholehearted acceptance of God's will for me. But God cannot be captured and localized in the host, and carted off to battle, and whosoever consumes the elements insincerely is not securing his own immortality but blaspheming. In a very different way, those who make of the eucharist a mere memorial of a past event are implicitly denying the continuing power of the cross for the present, and the fact of the resurrection. Some interpretations and practices are to be rejected because they say too much and would support conclusions repugnant to the Spirit of Christ: others because they say too little and leave unsecured saving truths of the Christian life: and others yet again because what they say is inconsistent either with itself or with other truths we have more reason to be confident of.

Nevertheless, although not all understandings of the eucharist are equally valid and some are to be rejected as altogether inadequate, we should be cautious in denying what we may regard as the erroneous opinions of others. The church has held differing opinions about New Testament scholarship, and what was in our Lord's mind when he instituted the eucharist. We cannot simply take over accounts of the eucharist based on what we regard as a misconception: but we should not automatically discard them as altogether mistaken. Christianity is a historical religion, and should treat with respect the various understandings of the eucharist that have been reached by different parts of the church in the course of its history. Although they are not all of equal value, few are without any value at all. And where they go wrong is usually in being pushed too far to the exclusion of other insights. Rather than reject them altogether, we should be disposed to accept them for what they are worth, but see the limits within which they can be usefully applied, recognizing that we shall always need a number of different accounts of what we are doing when we celebrate the eucharist, if we are to be faithful to the many different ways of understanding it which our Lord himself taught us.

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