Saturday, October 1, 2011

Imagination and immateriality

Joe Heschmeyer’s post on “the dog that didn’t bark” is turning out (for me, at least) to be a gift that keeps giving.

If you’ll remember — if not, just follow the link — Joe’s post was on Eucharistic theology. His major point was, if Catholic Eucharistic theology is wrong, then we should see in the writings of the Church Fathers a theology that the Church denies; we should see a Lutheran or Calvinist or Evangelical theology. But since several of the Church Fathers directly assert that the bread and wine become the true Flesh and Blood of Christ, we must believe that Protestant interpretations are wrong and the Catholic understanding correct.

Into the combox came a particularly long and rambling vomit from an ex-Catholic turned anti-Catholic. Two-thirds of the way through, we finally come across a specific, on-topic objection:

Anyways, again, as I’ve stated in other posts, the Lord’s Supper MUST be symbolic since, “Not one of His bones shall be broken” [Jn 19:36, cf. Ps 34:20]. Think about it, if the Eucharist is the true body, blood, soul, and divinity, then His bones would be broken every time your teeth crush the host. Yet, “the Scripture cannot be broken” [Jn 10:35]. Also, since He called himself the Door [Jn 10:7-10] and Vine [Jn 15:1-8] (among others), should I take that literally and worship doors and vines as you do with the host? It’s irrational. Not just Eucharistic or “apostolic succession” teachings, but almost all RCC teachings.

Is the Church being overly literal in insisting on the Real Presence? Or is what we’re seeing here a failure of imagination?


Let’s first qualify the terms imagination and imagine. I can see my cousin Janeen in my imagination; I can imagine her feeding her pet pug, Baxter. It doesn’t follow that she doesn’t exist, that Baxter doesn’t exist, or that she can’t feed him. Therefore, when I say, “I can imagine x,” x doesn’t necessarily exist only in my imagination.

Let’s take this further. Imagination is a very useful tool to more than just cartoonists and science-fiction/fantasy writers; physicists, engineers, architects, and chemists (to name just a few) imagine solutions to problems before testing them in the field. A man who’s deedy with tools can imagine a tool shed, figure out from that imagined plan what he’ll need to build it and construct the darn thing all without putting pencil to paper. Only a very unreflective person sneers at imagination, or assumes that it automatically misleads.

It amuses me that a mathematician can find the imaginary number (square root of -1) useful, but assumes that anything else imagined must be useless. In the same way, I find it incredible that Hollywood can create any number of fantastic creatures using CGI and that physicists can postulate as many as eleven different universes related to our own, but some of the same people can’t handle the idea of immaterial beings or bodies, can’t handle the idea of an immaterial level to our universe that can invade our material reality at will.

Many of these people are science-fiction/fantasy writers. Many of them are Christians. Some are sci-fi/fantasy writers who are Christian. And yet they can’t grasp a basic concept of Christian philosophy. Perhaps if they thought of it as an alternate, parallel dimension ….

The centerpiece of our anti-Catholic attacker’s argument is that, when the consecrated Host is eaten, if Catholic Eucharistic theology were true, then Jesus’ bones would be broken. He might just as well have said, “If the consecrated Host became Jesus’ true Flesh and Blood, they would all turn into human bodies, with legs, arms and beards.”

Now do you begin to see the error? Our ex-Catholic is importing accidents of a material body into an immaterial Being.

Scripture only gives us the vaguest hints that Jesus’ resurrected body is not quite the same as the body that died on the Cross. For one thing, some people — the two men on the road to Emmaus (Lk 24:15-16), Mary Magdalene (Jn 20:14) — couldn’t immediately recognize him though they’d spent months in his company during his earthly mission. For another, he could appear and disappear at will, even passing through closed doors (Lk 24:31, 36; Jn 20:26), yet could eat and drink (Lk 24:41-43; Jn 21:9-13).

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish man! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body which is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. … What is sown is perishable, what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual [i.e., immaterial] body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body (1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-44).

This is why St. Paul calls Jesus’ resurrection “the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor 15:20). When the dead man (Lk 7:12-15), Jairus’ daughter (Lk 8:41-42, 49-56), and Lazarus (Jn 11:1-45) were resurrected, they kept their old mortal bodies. Not so with Jesus — his had put on not just incorruptibility and immortality but a completely different nature altogether, something like a butterfly emerging from the cocoon of a caterpillar.

This difference between material and immaterial being is why angels are represented as humans with wings, Satan and his minions as beasts with horns and tails, heaven as a city in the clouds, and hell as a rocky, dark vale full of fire: This is the imagination of man trying to come to grips with immaterial realities indescribable in material terms.

Dearie me, it’s almost as if I were addressing an atheist objection rather than a Protestant! Patrick Coffin, the host of Catholic Answers Live, often remarks, “Scratch an atheist, find a fundamentalist.” Here, our ex-Catholic offers us a “Lady or the Tiger” forced choice between a seemingly insane literalism and a presumably much more rational symbolism, much in the manner that an atheist might present a choice between a similarly insane literalism and dismissal as falsehood.

However, his forced choice depends on an idea that ignores a basic concept of Christian metaphysics. The Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity present in the Eucharist is not a material body with material accidents. Because it is an immaterial Body, it can suffer division and ingestion without harm; break a consecrated Host in two, and both halves have the entirety of his Body.

How is that possible? Well, how was the multiplication of the loaves and fishes possible (Jn 6:1-14)? It’s no accident that John precedes the “Bread of Life” discourse with the feeding of the five thousand.

Yet it’s a connection our ex-Catholic can’t see, because his imagination is too wedded to materialism.