Saturday, October 27, 2007

The Eucharist

Sarah Coakley, recently appointed as the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity, University of Cambridge, gave the annual John Albert Hall lectures at the University of Victoria October 10-16. I have had a few weeks to mull over her finely reasoned theses. Since she is going to publish four volumes on her systematic theology of which these lectures will be a part of the first volume, I can hardly summarize them in a post. But the theses suggest ways of considering the role of the priest and the meaning of the Eucharist that may be helpful.

Here is her introduction: These lectures set out to cast current debates on ritual bodies in a new light: that demanded by a thoroughgoing analysis of the category of 'desire', and of its implications for the equally-contested topic of 'gender'. At the heart of the lectures lies a defense of the view (puzzling to many Protestant Christians) that issues of erotic meaning lie - rightly - with the 'nuptial' metaphor of the giving of Christ's body in the eucharist; but very different conclusions are drawn from those proposed by the Roman magisterium. At a time when both the Roman Catholic and the Anglican church are politically torn asunder by debates over sex and gender, these lectures seek to recast theological thinking on the eucharist to bring it explicitly into line with reflection on sexual ethics and on the baleful political and economic effects of the contemporary mismanagement of the 'economy of desire'.

I have had a chance to discuss reactions with others also, one a female priest another a layperson like myself, and my wife who attended 3 of the 4 lectures with me. To put it bluntly, I don't think Dr. Coakley was well understood. A few of us will have learned something about ancient and modern writing on these subjects and a few will have followed her reasoning, but most will find themselves unable to express the aspects of desire that were a part of it.

The overall title of the lecture series was: Flesh and Blood: The Eucharist, Desire and Gender. The four lectures - each a review of Eucharistic doctrine from Augustine to the modern period - have the following titles:

  1. 'In Persona Christi' Who, or where is Christ?
  2. Sacrifice Revisited: Blood and Gender
  3. Gift Retold: Spirals of Grace
  4. Real Presence, Real Absence: The Body Broken
These will be highly suggestive to anyone familiar with the history of thought on the Eucharist. But what did I learn? (I really can answer only that question.)

Lecture 1 - 'In Persona Christi' Who, or where is Christ?

The official abstract: After an introduction which proposes the idea of the eucharist as an ascetical training of 'desire', this first lecture takes as a starting point Thomas Aquinas's account of the priest acting in the eucharist 'in Persona Christi'. Dr. Coakley showed how this theme has been newly woven into the official Roman rejection of the ordination of women as 'gender disordered', given that - purportedly - only a man can represent Christ in the nuptial act of the eucharist. The lecturer argued for a position considered by neither conservatives nor liberals in the Catholic debate: in representing both laity (as 'Marian') and Christ, the priest moves symbolically back and forth across the threshold of the divine and the human, summoning, and de-stabilizing, the world's gender binary and submitting it to the judgment of the flow of divine desire.
My Response: I learned from this lecture that Aquinas's use of Aristotelian arguments on the inferiority of women is now regarded as insufficient support for restricting the ordination of women. I don't think I was surprised at this or at the Scriptural arguments usually put forward to support the exclusion of women - or the exclusion of anyone else for that matter. What Dr. Coakley did suggest to me is that the priest, in representing during the liturgy both Christ and the Church, is actually playing both male and female roles, combining as does the image of God, both male and female. Dr. Coakley was not gentle with the current Roman Catholic thinking - my note says: 'she tears it apart' - and she indicated that there are errors in their inferential moves to shore up the missing Aristotelian justification of a male only priesthood that deny the very thing they want to prove.

Lecture 2 - Sacrifice Revisited: Blood and Gender

This lecture briefly revisits the classic Reformation and counter-Reformation debate on sacrifice (Luther [mass as gift or testament] vs. Trent [mass as sacrifice]) in order to highlight anew a latent gender/power theme in 'sacrifice' that modern anthropological, psychoanalytic and feminist accounts have made the more explicit: it is traditionally men who sacrifice, and so establish a patriarchal order of authority that rivals - and trumps - the female power of childbirth. If so, the conservative Catholic and feminist critics agree that women should dissociate themselves from 'sacrifice'. Following on from the insights of the first lecture, however, it is argued that 'sacrifice' must not only be rescued as indispensable for a theology of the eucharist, but thought through precisely as 'representable' by a woman priest. The symbolic dislocations of such a move again signal a judgment on the 'world's' ordering, and so rightly 'represent' Christ as bringing the order of repeated blood sacrifice to an end.
My Response: Dr. Coakley began by refuting the violence in the Girardian use of scapegoat as the model for all sacrifice. I noted in my random association mind as she spoke that Zippora as Mohel had to save Moses, thus undermining the usual male-to-male birthing of the covenant of circumcision. I also noted the instruction: read Chilton. She ranged widely, my notes include Eucharist as replacement for animal sacrifice, Acts focusing on breaking of the bread, Paul's theology of the body and its integrity, fruits of the earth, Mary and Sarah vs Christ and Isaac, Jesus as the fruit of the earth. (I think this last comes from my recent drafting of harvest related psalms.)

Lecture 3 - Gift Retold: Spirals of Grace

The third lecture notes how the current debates about divine 'gift' (when seen as a disjunct alternative to 'sacrifice') ironically replicate the Protestant/Catholic divides of the early Reformation, but equally demand a false choice. It is argued that the reception of divine 'gift' necessarily involves moral sacrifice in the circumstances of a fallen world. If divine 'gift' is to find its proper human response, the demand to 'do this in remembrance of me' may have radical implications for economic life and for an understanding of the 'gift' of Christ's presence proffered by 'the poor'. In this sense participation in Christ's eucharistic body will have to involve 'spirals of grace' more surprising and complex that those envisaged by either John Milbank's or Kathryn Tanner's recent work: John of the Cross's analysis of the effects of divine 'gift' in union here becomes the test of how human desire is broken and remade in Christ.
My Response: I hope you get this far, because there were some interesting things in this lecture. Where she said: it is not the job of the priest/sacrificer to change God's mind, I thought - It is never said of God in the NT that he sighs or repents, instead the NXM becomes the Paracletos, or builder of the new temple.

But then she says - it is her (the priest's) job to mediate the laity's change of mind in a transformation of the workings of 'desire' (and so too of gender and economic relations). I thought - wait a minute, this really does separate the body into two and I cannot agree - there is one mediator between God and the human, individual or collective, and it is not the 'priest' whether male or female.

In this lecture she traced the debate about 'gift' through Derrida and Marion, to Milbank and Tanner. She argued that the debate has occluded a disturbing subtext on gender which either subordinates the Spirit/gift as stereotypically 'feminine' (Milbank) or effectively sanitizes divine 'gift' of any association with gender or the 'erotic' (Tanner). And I think - finally, she is on to two somethings, both of which miss the mark - i.e. her argument is apophatic. What she has done here though is to slip from grace to Spirit without warning, just when we needed the rest of Romans 6-8 or John's fountains of living water connected to the prayer of the psalmist to give us the pointer to the reality our desire must seek. Yet I think one might find the ladder of angels within this structure.

Lecture 4 - Real Presence, Real Absense: The Body Broken

The last lecture explicates a new rendition of Christic 'presence' at the eucharist. Returning once more to Aquinas, Dr. Coakley surveyed a number of intriguing re-readings of his theory of transubstantiation, arguing that the close connection in Thomas's account with the metaphysics of incarnation (and the associated theme of Marian impregnation) is worthy of greater attention, as is the strongly apophatic dimension of Thomas's argument. If eucharistic presence involves forms of 'cosmological disturbance', the we need to clarify further what bodily and political transformations that might involve. The question of Christ's 'presence' this cannot be properly formulated without attention to the issue of sacramental efficacy, itself inseparable from economic and political tests of paschal transformation.
My Response: I can't make head nor tail of my notes here except an instruction that I must read Aquinas volume 3 and Duns Scotus - relational not substantial. O well! Some day - when my psalms project is much more fully developed.

My questions remained:
1. Why the restriction of the priestly roles to the ordained? I remain concerned that the priesthood as perceived by the laity separates the body into two parts, and runs the risk of the ordained not being of the people of God.
2. Why remain on the threshold of the Holy of Holies when one is invited in through the veil, that is to say, his flesh?
3. And let us not forget that it is by the Spirit that we are conformed to the death of Christ, including all our desires - sex, money, and getting the right answer. I continue to wonder how the priestly-lay hierarchy, the two-tiered church that I grew up with and that will likely outlast me, will become more capable of expressing the mystery of the Gospel.

There are aspects of our traditional words and processes that shroud in darkness rather than reveal the beauty of holiness.

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