Category Archives: Theology

In what sense do Christians ‘eat the body and drink the blood’ of the Christ?

““Unless you gnaw on the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.” We hear that “many of Jesus’ disciples …said, ‘This saying is hard; who can accept it.’” Knowing their murmuring, Jesus says, “Does this shock you?” Now, if his words were meant in a symbolic sense, they wouldn’t have had this explosive, shocking effect on his listeners. Given every opportunity to clarify his meaning along symbolic lines, Jesus does nothing of the kind.” Robert Barron (2017)

Yet, if it isn’t symbolic, in what sense is it meant? It was these sorts of passages which led to the belief in the Roman Empire that Christians engaged in cannibalism.

It cannot be meant in a literal sense – that is, the straightforward way we would typically mean such language. Christians don’t believe they are eating Jesus burgers at Mass.

So, it might not have been intended in a symbolic sense, but the concept of ‘body’, ‘blood’, and ‘eat’ must all have been significantly different than what it usually means.

The standard Catholic explanation is that the Holy Spirit transforms the substance of the bread and wine into Jesus’ body and blood. Yet, this seems no clearer than the original passage Barron quotes. What does it mean to transform the substance of the bread into Jesus’ body?

I think the Catholic, theology-heavy approach is exactly the wrong approach to take. It is demanding theological exactitude where none is available.

Rather, we can speak only suggestively. Perhaps Jesus is proposing something like allowing God into oneself, as eating allows something into oneself, which is beyond a mere metaphor (it is at certain points the same as literally eating and drinking something), and is tied up in the ritual of the bread and wine – a process that gives sustenance, as food does.

We can inform this with an understanding of the original Passover, the role of lambs in Passover in 1st century Judaism, the daily manna that sustained the ancient Jews in their travel to the promised land, the bread and wine of priest and king Melchizedek, and so on.

Trying to go beyond this sort of understanding, I think, is likely to lead to mistakes.

Which problems to solve?

An overriding concern used to be too little food, now it is too much food (obesity, diabetes, and so on). It used to be too little access to information, now it’s too much (distraction, manipulation). It used to be too little light available at night, now it’s too much (sleep disruptions, difficult to see stars). And so on.

Christianity is about solving problems, and it’s therefore relevant for Christians to figure out where the new problems are.

The virgin birth

One aspect of Christianity that is prominent is belief in a virgin birth – Mary conceived of Jesus ‘directly’ from God. If we take the story literally (it resonates with various other myths, many of which would have been known in the Mediterranean at the time, so it is not clear to me what the reader is supposed to take from the claim), then an argument against it goes as

a) The claim is that Jesus was conceived from God by a virgin, but we now know that virgin births do not occur naturally among humans. Therefore, Jesus was not conceived by a virgin.

I think many secularists actually follow this line of thinking when denying the virgin birth. Yet, a moment’s reflection shows it is not a good argument.

The problem here is that ancients also knew that virgin births among humans do not occur naturally. The whole point of the virgin birth is that it is an unusual (perhaps unique) event. Saying we don’t see it happening today or that it doesn’t occur in nature (which would condition our sense of what can or can’t happen) is true but not to the point.

Rather, there is a premise required for the argument a) above, which is

There is no such thing as miracles.

If there are no miracles, and if virgin births don’t occur naturally, then the conclusion is much stronger.

However, now the argument has to rely upon a much more sweeping argument, namely, the argument to show there is no such thing as miracles.

My guess is that most debates about supposed miracles between secularists and theists aren’t primarily about the evidence for the miracle in question, but a more general claim. As in many beliefs, there is a cyclical component to this (if you don’t believe miracles can occur, you are less likely to think a specific instance of a supposed miracle actually occurred, which in turn helps support your more general belief).

What is the purpose in Christianity?

The purpose is not pleasure, nor is it even happiness. Rather, the purpose is to do important things.

This is specifically Christian because it is to do important things that God calls one to do. One figures out what God is calling one to do through the practice of discernment.

Why do important things that God calls one to do? Because God is able to see what’s really important.

The Christian conception of God and the start of science

It was only because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe that they pursued the secrets of creation. In the words of Johannes Kepler [(one of the most distinguished astronomers in the history of science)], “The chief aim of all investigations of the external world should be to discover the rational order and harmony imposed on it by God and which he revealed to us in the language of mathematics.” […] Perhaps the most remarkable aspect to the rise of science is that the early scientists not only searched for natural laws, confident that they existed, but they found them! It thus could be said that the proposition that the universe had an Intelligent Designer is the most fundamental of all scientific theories and that it has been successfully put to empirical tests again and again.” – Rodney Stark, Bearing False Witness (2016), p. 162

My guess is that Stark is probably correct, and that the standard story that Christianity stood in the way of the rise of science is just about the opposite of what actually happened.

Simulation theory is a new theism

This article titled ‘Is our world a simulation? Why some scientists say it’s more likely than not’ describes an intellectual movement, including Elon Musk, which holds that we live in a computer simulation.

I’ll leave to the side the arguments for such a position (including arguments about the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness), and focus on what the position is. They are positing that the universe was created by an intelligence (or intelligences). It’s a kind of theism (my impression is that many advocates seem unaware of this – it is irrelevant that the creator is a ‘posthuman civilization’ or what have you), and generates similar problems to ones Judaism or Christianity attempt to answer (do we get an insight into the creator’s mind or purposes in seeing the universe? how does the creator effect the universe? can we interact with the creator? is the creator something like omniscient in this universe? omnipotent? and so on).

It is not surprising that a powerful aspect of technology (computer simulations) would be applied to create a new form of theism. It is similar to the historical movement to think of the universe as a precisely tuned machine (such as a clock), when machines like that became common several hundred years ago (often, this form of theism emphasized something like a form of deism – the machine maker set up the universe and then let it work away).

So, developments in technology cause developments in theology.

What is the Kingdom?

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in earth as it is in Heaven. (Matthew 6:10, King James Bible)

And when he was demanded of the Pharisees, when the kingdom of God should come, he answered them and said, The kingdom of God cometh not with observation: Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you. (Luke 17:21-22, King James Bible)

What is the ‘Kingdom’? In contemporary terms, it is a grass-roots, metapolitical movement, which comes out of the theosis (spiritual development) of individuals and then the actions they take.

 

Antifragility and Heaven

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:23)

An often erroneous conclusion is that, therefore, it is easy for poor people to enter Heaven. Yet, this is an error, as the answer Jesus gives to the follow-up question ‘Who, then, can enter Heaven’ isn’t ‘Poor people’ but rather

With God, all things are possible.

What is often missed in discussions of these passages is the concept of ‘Heaven’ (‘kingdom of God’). Quite often, people think of Heaven as a ‘place’ you are ‘transported to’ after bodily death.

If, however, Heaven is understood along the lines of Benedict XVI’s definition – wherever God’s will is being done (see his discussion of ‘Our Father who art in Heaven’ from Jesus of Nazareth) – then the significance of the passage changes.

If this is our understanding, then the passage becomes ‘… than for a rich man to actively align himself with God’s will.’ This comports nicely with Jesus’ teaching that a man cannot ‘serve two masters, God and Mammon’ (Mammon being a personification of material possessions). To serve is to carry out the will of, i.e., we are talking about something active.

Why can’t a man serve material possessions and God at the same time? I think Nassim Taleb’s discussion of Seneca – a Stoic – and antifragility is relevant here (Antifragile, p. 151). Seneca is a very wealthy man, one of the most wealthy in the Roman Empire. Yet he recognizes that material possessions tend to possess their owner, rather than the other way around (this is a great theme in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where the ring of power comes to control its owner).

Yet, Seneca also recognizes that wealth can be a good (otherwise, as Taleb points out, why wouldn’t he have gotten rid of it?). Therefore, he cultivates practices which reduce the ‘fragility’ of owning a large number of material things. In particular, he writes them off in his mind. Therefore, the thought of losing them no longer bothers him, and so they lose part of their grip on him, while still retaining the good they can do for him, his family, and so on.

To connect this with the passage from the Gospel of Matthew, men who have great material wealth tend to be owned by their possessions instead of owning them, and this leads to an inability to follow God’s will. Therefore, these men can’t really ‘enter Heaven’, i.e., be part of the communion of Saints who are aligned with God’s will. Heaven is not a place you are passively transported to (a popular and erroneous conception), but a place you actively ‘go’ to, and which begins in this life (‘thy will be done’ – when? now. by whom? you.).

When Jesus tells a wealthy man to give away all he owns, and come, follow me, the man refuses, demonstrating he is, in fact, owned by his possessions instead of owning them. The proper response would be to cheerily cast off one’s possessions at that moment!

It is only if a man can do so, and is willing to do so if the right circumstances arise, that he can truly make use of material wealth for the Good – i.e., align those material resources with the will of God, which is to say that he can ‘enter into Heaven’.

Heuristic questions

Two useful questions to ask habitually are

“What can I learn from this?”

and

“How can I use this?”

To use Nassim Taleb’s neologism, these are ‘antifragile’ heuristics.

Christianity lends itself naturally to these questions, because it views the universe as essentially purposive. God has a plan for the universe -> that plan can (if we so choose) involve us -> therefore, events that occur (can) fit into this plan.

Therefore, it’s a natural question for a Christian to ask

“What purpose can God have for this?”

which leads fairly naturally to the two above questions.

If you think of God as a creative, on-going God, then you also can think of God as consistently asking himself the two above questions, and then coordinating people and things (to the extent they are willing – see process theology) in creative solutions.

The ‘Our Father’ as scriptural core of Christianity

Our Father

Who art in Heaven

Hallowed be thy name.

Thy Kingdom come,

Thy will be done,

In earth as it is in Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread,

and forgive us our trespasses,

as we forgive those who trespass against us,

and lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. Amen.

My sense is that many repeat this prayer without thinking about what it means.

This prayer is probably the most important in Christianity.

‘Our Father

The whole prayer can be reduced to this line. The key word here is ‘Father’, which is the key metaphor Jesus uses to understand God. God is like a loving, wise Father. This leads to the central part of Christianity – a trusting relationship with God. Without this conception, much of the rest of the prayer doesn’t make sense.

‘who art in Heaven

Taken at its most basic, this is a disambiguator. We are talking of a spiritual Father, not a biological one.

Hallowed be thy name’

This doesn’t just mean that the name of God is holy, but that it shall be made so. This applies at both the individual and societal level. Hallowed means holy (which is to say, harmoniously good), and in this context means ‘recognized as such’. Recognition enables action, ultimately on an individual level (the concept is an anchor, which enables us to act).

‘Thy Kingdom come’

Key here is the nature of the Kingdom. The Kingdom will not appear in signs with ‘lo, there it is’, but rather it is ‘in the midst of you’. Which is to say, this is a Kingdom which develops out of people’s mental habits and actions. The Kingdom is the development of a good (harmonious, loving, just) society. Which leads to the next section.

‘Thy will be done’

One of the most basic practices in Christianity is ‘discernment’, i.e., figuring out what God’s will is in a particular situation. This is the way that the Kingdom comes about (us doing God’s will, where God = the Good).

In earth as it is in Heaven’

The point here is that we ought to do good things to make earth more like Heaven, i.e., to bring earth (the universe) into goodness. The point is not to wait around until one dies to ‘go to’ Heaven, but to do things here and now so as to make earth more like Heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread’

This has connections to ‘Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened unto you’. The point is that we ask. The term ‘bread’ can be misleading, as it is a richly adorned concept in the Gospels. It does not mean ‘bread’, or even ‘food’, but rather that which nourishes us (body and spirit). Nourishment is tied to growth or learning, and in particular theosis, or growing to be more like God. Daily nourishment has as its main objective spiritual growth, which in turn is one of the main objectives of Christian practice.

‘and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us’

The story of the prodigal son is apt here. God will forgive you your trespasses (alternatively translated as ‘debts’). This relates to the concept of ‘sin’, which in its essence means things which separate us from God (the good). The prodigal son becomes separated from his father (literally), but as soon as he chooses to return home his father ‘runs out to meet him’, celebrates, and forgives him.

In turn, we ought to forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness – in particular, letting go of negative emotions towards other – helps us. Not letting go of negative emotions gets in the way of us connecting to God. Holding on to negative emotions first and foremost negatively affects the one holding on to the emotions, as they stew in negative emotions.

‘and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’

Evil = sin = that which obstructs our connection to God (= the good). A connection to God isn’t theoretical, it is a lived connection. Almost routinely, there are ‘temptations’, typically in the form of short-term thinking combined with wishful thinking, harsh words for loved ones, and so on. We ought to be on the look-out, in a sense, for these, and use our connection to the good to call their bluff, so to speak.

It is important to remember this isn’t so much a set of doctrines as a practice (‘How am I to pray?’) – a mnemonic for remembering and then focusing on key aspects of how one is living day-to-day and thinking it through, so as to change one’s habitual actions.