September 23, 2004
Your own impersonal Jesus

Interesting post at The Grace Pages about whitewashing Jesus:

Even liberals seem to me, for all the fuss about being rigorously historical in their assessment of Jesus, still to want to protect Jesus' reputation at all costs. I suppose otherwise it would be difficult to claim him as so exclusively their own. Is it just me or can you see what I'm getting at here?

For example, I think it's anachronistic to portray the historical Jesus as a great champion of equality in the modern sense. While Jesus' actions certainly turned many of the cultural values of his day on their head, I think it's either disingenuous or naive to claim Jesus as some sort of proto-feminist, and to jump glibly from, say, Jesus breaking with social convention to talk to the woman at the well to so modern and assumption-laden a statement as "Jesus supported equal rights" or "Jesus was an advocate of female leadership".

Or let me deal with a more controversial example. I've often heard people say, "Jesus didn't say anything about homosexuality," and then proceed from there to argue that Jesus didn't have an opinion on it or, more strongly, that he was "not against" homosexuality. What disturbs me is that, with no evidence other than the absence of an explicit statement about homosexuality, it strikes me as historically and culturally unrealistic simply to assume that Jesus was pro-gay. And I say this as one who firmly believes that gays and lesbians are created in God's image and can have committed, loving sexual relationships that are blessed by God.

This brought me back to high-school semantics class. (Yes, my high school had a semantics class; it was the pet subject of one of the English teachers.) Some semanticists group words by different levels of abstraction. A low-level abstraction would be a word like "table." It's an abstraction because it describes a category of thing rather than a specific thing, but I think most speakers of English can agree on what's a table and what isn't a table. When you get to high-level abstractions however, such as "justice", "peace", "righteousness" and so on, it's much more subject to interpretation.

What Dave is talking about, I think, is how much we are willing to abstract Jesus. In order to connect his sayings and doings to our lives at all we have to discern the abstract principles behind them, but that's where disagreements begin. For instance, you can say that Jesus defended the outcast and the marginalized. Who are the marginalized now? Some will say gays and lesbians are, so incorporating them into church life is faithful to his teachings. Others see acceptance of homosexuality as part of the general sexual depravity that is taking over our culture, and therefore not marginal at all. Meanwhile, we can also say that Jesus defended the sanctity of marriage, because of his sayings on adultery and divorce. But does that exclude gay marriage? Well ... refer to the first problem.

And let's not even get started on "Love God and love your neighbor." I think the only word in that sentence with an unambiguous meaning is "and."

So I think Dave is correct that over-abstraction allows people to see in Jesus whatever they want to see. And that may or may not be true to how Jesus actually was. But over-particularizing also has obvious problems. As the Church of Christ discovered, trying to re-create the church of the New Testament in every particular can drive you to madness. And I also have to wonder about that story about that gluten-intolerant Catholic girl who was forbidden to take communion with a rice cake. The Pontificator defended the action at the time by quoting Robert Jensen:

If the church had begun in a northern climate, doubtless its sacramental drink, if it had one, would be beer. But just this contingency binds us. The gospel is a message about alleged historical events. The contingency of the historical is therefore affirmed by faith, which in this differs greatly from most other religion. God might not have chosen Israel from the nations, or Jesus from among the Israelites, or washing instead of incensing, or bread instead of potato chips. But for Christian faith, “might not have been” does not at all decrease the authority of what in fact is.

This is following Jesus at its lowest level of abstraction. He ate wheat bread so we eat wheat bread, even if there is no abstract principle behind favoring wheat bread. I guess I can see that for believers in the Real Presence you'd want to stick to the literal, sort of the way Muslims believe you should read the Quran in Arabic because that is the language with which God spoke to Muhammad. But on Pontifications it doesn't seem to stop there, which is exactly why the blog depresses me. It sounds like Jesus' mission on earth was to replace the detailed, inflexible, culturally specific rules for Jews with detailed, inflexible, culturally specific rules for everybody. Thanks a lot, J.C.!

But in fact, one interesting thing that Jesus does is bring Jewish law to a higher level of abstraction. Love God, love your neighbor -- the spirit of the law takes precedence over the letter. In some sense that liberates Christians from the rules, but it also makes determining the right way a lot harder.

In the New Testament, this seems to be a sign of spiritual adulthood. Paul plays the disciplinarian with the Corinthians, whom he calls "children," but advises the Galatians to get over their rigidity. And this makes sense: when we were children we had to follow rules without understanding why, but as we grew up we came to understand and absorb the principles behind the rules, so we can make more of our own decisions. I gather that one reason (among many) that the Reformation happened is that only certain people were allowed to be "adults" in medieval Catholicism, and they weren't even acting much like it. Concepts like the priesthood of all believers and consulting your own conscience about the Bible assert the essential adulthood of all Christians.

Of course, Protestants haven't always done such a great job of acting like grownups, which is perhaps why Catholics still outnumber them. Is it inevitable that most people will be as children instructed by a select few adults? And if so, how do we really know who they are?

Posted by Camassia at September 23, 2004 03:59 PM | TrackBack

Dear Camassia,

I'd like to look a little closer at the Eucharist and the possible need for perhaps just a few "detailed, inflexible, culturally specific rules for everybody." I'd like to begin with a long quote from Denys Turner that gets, I think, at the heart of the matter:

"Zwingli is of course right and in agreement with Thomas Aquinas on this single point of convergence, when he says that Christ cannot be present in the Eucharist in the way in which the sign itself is present in its material reality. And Thomas and Zwingli agree on this notwithstanding the difference that for Thomas the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ which they signify, whereas for Zwingli they only signify the body and blood of Christ. For both, however, the material sign - the bread and wine - are present in a time and place. And if Christ is anywhere locally, it is not, as Thomas agrees, where the bread and wine are. For Christ has risen and is ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father. In fact, Christ is absent in the Eucharist along two dimensions of time: he is absent in respect of his historical existence pre-mortem and he is absent as he will be for us in the beatific vision in heaven. If, therefore, the Eucharist makes Christ present by signifying, it does so only on a double condition of the absence of what is signified: the Eucharist is time past and time future insofar as they can be present in the present, as it were in a kind of 'nostalgia for the future.'"

So we can say that the "real presence" in the Eucharist is a sort of particularly intense memory (anamnesis) of Christ's one sacrifice centuries ago. As an ecumenical document between Anglicans and Roman Catholics nicely put it (sorry, another long quote):

"The eucharistic memorial is no mere calling to mind of a past event or of its significance, but the church's effectual proclamation of God's mighty acts. Christ instituted the eucharist as a memorial (anamnesis) of the totality of God's reconciling action in him. In the eucharistic prayer the church continues to make a perpetual memorial of Christ's death, and his members, united with God and one another, give thanks for all his mercies, entreat the benefits of his passion on behalf of the whole church, participate in these benefits and enter into the movement of his self-offering."

Because the Eucharist, then, is an intensified form of memory - a "commemorative representation," to borrow an older phrase - it might make sense that we keep a few historical details constant. Otherwise, the Eucharist could tend to lose its character as a "nostalgia for the future," and then become solely about the sufficiency of a manipulated presence in the here and now. Basically, this is what Protestants, not without reason, have accused Catholics of doing - multiplying Christ's sacrifice, thus diluting the significance of the Cross and rendering the need for a second coming superfluous. Remaining at a low level of abstraction, I think, makes that rather unfortunate prospect much less likely. The contingencies very concretely bind us to the past we try to escape ("ye do shew the Lord's death ...") and the future we tend to avert ("until he comes").

Thank you for your wonderful thoughts.


Posted by: Neil on September 23, 2004 06:47 PM

Hi Neil. Well, I can understand how the Eucharist is the most literal of sacraments, and actually I'm not hugely crazy about the rice-cake solution (though I'm not totally sure what is the right solution). I think that, actually, I was reacting as much to the general tone of the discussion over at Pontifications, where many seemed to view the role of the laity rather like Coriolanus saw the plebeians: "... things created to buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads in congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder, when one but of my ordinance stood up to speak of peace or war." I understand the importance of obedience, but I hope Jesus doesn't actually look at us like that.

It reminds me of something that story made me wonder, though, that you'd probably know. Isn't it true that you don't necessarily have to swallow the Eucharist in order to receive it? I seem to remember that people who are too ill to eat, or even unconscious, are given communion by touching the host to the lips. Also, an Episcopal priest told me that centuries ago priests used to take communion on behalf of the congregations, rather than feeding it to everybody. My knowledge of this is obviously very murky but I was wondering why they insisted upon the girl actually swallowing the host when it does not appear to be absolutely essential across the board.

Posted by: Camassia on September 23, 2004 09:53 PM

Thanks for this response, Camassia. I've printed it out so I can have a proper read, and then I'll respond either here at the Grace Pages. :)

Posted by: Dave on September 24, 2004 01:54 AM

I don't care what anybody says: to insist that the communion wafer must be of a certain chemical composition, or limited range of chemical compositions, is to turn the Eucharist into the practice of alchemy, or magic, depending on how you want to label it. It seems certain to me that what is important is what is in the heart of the communicant, not what is in, or not in, the dough.
The composition of the bread used by Jesus is based on a set of assumptions, not on facts, in any case.

Posted by: Rob on September 24, 2004 06:47 AM

To be fair, I don't think any serious Catholic theologian would claim that you can put certain ingredients together and mix up a batch of Jesus. But there is an element of magic to the Eucharist I suppose, in that it is so mysterious. There's no transparent principle or mechanism behind it, it just is. I guess that's why taking it is an act of faith.

I think that the problem a lot of people had with this woman was what was in her heart: namely disobedience and thinking she knew better than her bishop. I can understand that, I suppose, although I can also understand why accepting a bishop as your spiritual instructor isn't the same as accepting him as a medical expert.

Posted by: Camassia on September 24, 2004 07:55 AM

I've never heard of "receiving" the Eucharist without swallowing it, not that I necessarily would. The Catholic Church does teach the idea of a "spiritual communion," though, and even indulgences the act. (One formula: "My Jesus, I believe that you are in the Blessed Sacrament. I love you above all things, and I long for you in my soul. Since I cannot now receive you sacramentally, come at least spiritually into my heart. As though you have already come, I embrace you and unite myself entirely to you; never permit me to be separated from you.")

Rob's focus on what is in the heart of the communicant does profound violence to the very concept of a sacrament. Which is fine, of course, as long as you don't believe that the Eucharist is a sign that effects what it signifies.

On abstracting Jesus, a few days ago someone on an email list who describes herself as a "flaming liberal" expressed her belief that, if He were living as a man in the world today, Jesus would be concerned with social justice and the environment. In other words, a flaming liberal! What are the odds? (Of course I, not a flaming liberal, am confident Jesus wouldn't be one, either.)

It is ironic, though, that Christians talk so much about what Jesus would or wouldn't do instead of what He is or isn't doing.

Posted by: Tom on September 24, 2004 08:00 AM

In the discussion on Tom's blog of this particular issue, most of the commenters insisted that for various reasons, all based on assumption, it was of paramount importance for the communion wafer to be made of wheat. Thus, rice flour could not be substituted. As for what was in the woman's heart, it was (apparently) love for her daughter, who was being denied communion with her God through no fault of her own, due to a physical afflication. Also, apparently in her heart was faith in Christ. Disobedience to authority was in her heart too, but I was of the opinion that the first two considerations were more important than the latter. Most Catholics disagreed with me, of course. But, then again, many of them also consider the Prostestant communion service to be inferior, if not completely invalid, claiming that Catholics have a monopoly on the Real Presence, without which the whole ceremony is merely play-acting, or a kind of monkey-see, monkey-do imitation of the Real Thing. This is what insistance upon a specific "chemical formula" leads to: Pharisaic, inflexible, adherence to the arbitrary letter, rather than to the loving spirit of the ceremony. At least that's how it looked to me, peering in from the Outer Darkness.

Posted by: Rob on September 24, 2004 08:28 AM

Dave asks an interesting question, to what extent did Jesus assimilate his own cultural worldview?

For example, Dave asks Luke 14:26 is "cultic and dangerous" and also refers to the story of Jesus calling Gentiles dogs, saying Jesus reflects his culture's racism. These are hard sayings, but I think Dave kind of misses the point when he says:

"I can't bring myself to whitewash Jesus when he seems to me merely to be reflecting values and notions that were taken for granted by the society of his day that are (quite rightly, according to my conscience) offensive to me today."

I read this as, well Jesus was so limited by his culture but now we're so enlightened that we realize of course calling her a dog was racist. How do we know this? Our consciences (formed by the modernist Enlightenment liberalism or postmodernist worldview, whatever, take your pick) tell us.

I do appreciate what he says about whitewashing Jesus and living "with the difficult task of trying to work out what Jesus is saying to us today than attempt to wriggle my way round the complicated clash of cultures that occurs every time this modern westerner opens his ancient eastern Bible."

I don't have an answer to the cultural influence question, but when we ask it we need to remember our own cultural influence too. And the answer Jesus didn't know any better doesn't satisfy me.

Posted by: Jennifer on September 24, 2004 08:57 AM

Dear Camassia,

Thanks for your response. As for the general tone of discussion that frequently develops on religious blogs, I'm reminded of something that Rowan Williams recently said at a question and answer session about the "rawness" and "dismissiveness" that he has encountered in arguments in the church - "Somebody some day ought to write a thesis on the spirituality of e-mail because that has something to do with all this." Perhaps somebody should write something about the "spirituality of blogs," as well. There is something in the medium that tends to escalate harshness, so perhaps at times we simply need to sigh and look past the general tone of discussion on the internet. Or maybe I'm too optimistic.

Regarding your questions, I don't think that the act of a priest taking communion on behalf of the congregation was ever supposed to replace the duty of "everybody who has attained the age of reason" to "receive the Eucharist at least at Easter" (Fourth Lateran Council, Canon XXI; Trent, Canon on the Sacrament of the Eucharist IX). So the action of the priest was not a swallowing by proxy, so to speak. As far as I know, "communion by touching the host to the lips" cannot replace consumption, because that would tend to ruin the character of the Eucharist as a meal.

Tom is right, of course, about "spiritual communion," but since part of the prayer he cites includes, "since I cannot now receive you sacramentally," "spiritual communion" is generally, I think, the realization of a state of "imperfect" (though neither fictitious nor insignificant) communion.

Thank you.


Posted by: Neil on September 24, 2004 09:12 AM

"Rob's focus on what is in the heart of the communicant does profound violence to the very concept of a sacrament."


"Know ye not that the kingdom of heaven is within you?"

Posted by: Rob on September 24, 2004 09:23 AM

Rob: I'm not disagreeing that Catholics insist that the wafer must be made of wheat. If they didn't, we wouldn't be having this discussion! What I meant was, it is not like if you mix together certain ingredients and bake them for a certain period of time you will get chocolate-chip cookies. That is a strictly mechanical process, and what's going on is transparent. What's going on in the Eucharist is mysterious, but that does not make it entirely immaterial.

Probably the best illustration of the difference is the discussion between the apostles and Simon Magus in Acts 8. Both parties are performing "magic" in the sense that they're both tranforming matter (in this case, the matter of the people they're healing). But Simon sees this ability as something to be manipulated and used for one's immediate purposes, while the apostles see it as laden with moral and spiritual import, a sign of the coming kingdom. To modern eyes this doesn't look like much of a distinction because it all seems like hocus-pocus, but if you accept the idea of physical miracles at all, it's a distinction worth making.

Also, as a factual matter, the girl wasn't denied communion, she was offered it in a manner that the mother considered unacceptable. Apparently some people with this condition are willing to take a tiny amount of gluten for communion, which the bishops endorsed, but the mother had a different opinion. And, finally, you of all people know that following Christ is supposed to take precedence over love for family. I realize you don't believe that obeying bishops entails following Christ, and I have my doubts about it myself obviously, but I understand the principle.

Jennifer: I had the same reaction to the "now we're in a more enlightened age" aspect of the post. As Martin Kelley remarked on my other post, belief in the forward progress of history is kind of an axiom of liberal religion. If only it were that simple!

Neil: Thanks for clearing that up. I guess the question here was, is the girl really too incapacitated to actually eat the stuff. Even experts on the condition seemed to disagree. What a mess!

Posted by: Camassia on September 24, 2004 09:43 AM


"Know ye not that the kingdom of heaven is within you?"

Um, yeah, but we're talking about what (or Who) is on the altar.

I think you're reinforcing my point that you do not understand the Eucharist as a sacrament. Your complaints about magic and phariseeism are secondary to your rejection of the sacramental nature of the Eucharist.

If the Catholic Church is right about the nature of the Eucharist, that it is a sign that effects what it signifies, then it is not true that all that matters is "what is in the heart of the communicant," non sequiturial Scriptural verses notwithstanding.

Posted by: Tom on September 24, 2004 09:54 AM

Yes, my problem is with the concept that a sign effects what it signifies. If so, it is not a "sign"; rather, it is allegedly "the sign-as-the-thing-itself", and all sophistry on the subject aside, I fail to see how this is different from an idol.
Christ does not need to be "on the altar" when he is already present where two or three come together in his name. To suggest that any one group has an exclusive and specific ritual which will conjure the Real Presence whenever it is performed seems superfluous, or just wrong, for being impossible.

Posted by: Rob on September 24, 2004 11:14 AM

Wow, Camassia, another great post! I agree that we liberals "white-wash" Jesus as much as any other part of the Christian church. I've certainly done it!

This reminds me of a comment made by a Friend in an email "conversation" put on by the American Friends Service Committee, to encourage discourse "across the divide" around the issue of same-sex marraige. The Friend (from the evangelical wing) stated that the notion that Jesus said nothing about homosexuality did not necessarily connote approval. Jesus tended to support the moral rules of his time, and in fact, "raised the bar" regarding adultury. He even hinted that celibacy was a great thing (leading the Church to assert that celibacy was the ideal and not marraige during the Middle Ages). When the idea of "Jesus" gets too abstract we wind up "white-washing" him.

My favorite point that you wrote: interesting thing that Jesus does is bring Jewish law to a higher level of abstraction. Love God, love your neighbor -- the spirit of the law takes precedence over the letter. In some sense that liberates Christians from the rules, but it also makes determining the right way a lot harder.

If I have the time (I'm getting together a miny grant proposal last minute due next week), then I'd love to post on this issue myself. Thanks!

Posted by: Joe G. on September 24, 2004 12:01 PM

I am married to a woman with celiac disease; we go to a UCC church where rice crackers are offered in communion. Just so we all know what celiac disease is, just a small bit of gluten, licking a postage stamp, say, results in cramps and diarreah, and if consumed on a regular basis, say weekly, would render the colon incapabable of properly digesting things such as meat or dairy products. My wife suffered a great deal for ten years before she was diagnosed. To insist on a wheat communion is to essentailly say to celiacs, God did not design your body in such a way as to take communion. For some mysterious reason, this sacrement is unavailable to you, unless you are willing to suffer a shorter life of significant distress. What about "do unto others"? Did not the Anglican church at one time deny women pain relief medication during labor and delivery based on the curse in Genesis, in pain you shall bring forth children? My understanding is that this proscription was dropped based on the higher law of the Golden Rule.

Posted by: Toby Gray on September 29, 2004 06:05 AM
Post a comment
Hi! I'd love to know your thoughts, but please read the rules of commenting:
- You must enter a valid email address
- No sock puppets
- No name-calling or obscene language


Email Address:



Remember info?