(I haven’t been posting much lately. Forgive my perpetual laziness)
We celebrated the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ last Sunday. Meanwhile, Richard Dawkins is taking Catholics to task for their belief (among other things) in the Real Presence:
Dawkins opined both in Australia and previously at the Reason Rally in Washington, D.C. that people should be encouraged to confront Roman Catholics about transubstantiation. Do they really hold the “utterly nutty belief that a wafer turns into the body of a first-century Jew just because a priest blessed it?” Such a view is “barking mad.”
He told Cardinal Pell that he could be charitable and accept that the Cardinal might believe that the host came to symbolize the body of Christ, but to think that it became really the body of Christ was absurd. The wafer does not become the body of anyone, he said, given “normal English usage” of the word “body.”
Except that, when you actually think it through, the Eucharist is one of those things which makes less sense when you try to take it purely into the symbolic. Or to put it in a more paradoxical way, making it symbolic makes it less symbolic, similar to how taking out the symbols in a story and putting in a long thematic speech or dialogue is less symbolic. As Elizabeth Anscombe noted in her essay, “On Transubstantiation”, taking the Eucharist as only a symbol makes it an extremely peculiar symbol:
We Christians are so much accustomed to the idea of holy communion that we tend not to notice how mysterious an idea it is. There is the now old dispute between Catholics and Protestants whether we eat what only symbolizes, or really is, the flesh of the saviour when we eat the bread consecrated in the Eucharist; drink his blood only symbolically or really. Because of this dispute, it appeared as if only the Catholic belief were extravagant – the Protestants having the perfectly reasonable procedure of symbolically eating Christ’s flesh and drinking his blood! The staggering strangeness of doing such a thing even only symbolically slipped out of notice in the disputes about transubstantiation. But let us realize it now.
For why should anyone want to eat someone’s flesh or drink his blood? “I will drink your blood” might be a vow made against an enemy. Indeed in Old Testament language eating a man’s flesh and drinking his blood is an idea expressive of just such deadly enmity. Or savage peoples have wanted to eat the flesh of a brave enemy to acquire his virtue. Someone puzzled at the Christian Eucharist, whether celebrated under Catholic or Protestant conceptions, might wonder if that was the idea; but he would be far off the mark. Are Christians then like savage tribes, which on special occasions may eat the animals that are taboo at other times? No, that is not it.
(Full text here)
One of the principle notions behind Christianity is that in the life of Christ, the symbol and the signified have become one historically. “Et Verbum caro factum est et habitavit in nobis.” “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us”. Hence I found that if I was able to accept that God became a man, it easily followed that symbolical items could become the things signified. The Sacraments perpetuate the embodied presence of Christ through time – the bread and the wine, in symbolizing the body and blood of Christ, become the things they symbolize (and the event of their separation, which is being memorialized, is made present); the spiritual cleansing symbolized by the water in baptism actually happens when the water flows down the convert’s head.
My point isn’t to offer some sort of proof of all this, but merely to point out that a “symbolic” Christianity, where the miracles of Christ and the Sacraments remain mere symbols of abstract notions, is not really Christianity at all, and is less respectable than Christianity.