Thinking Sacramental Presence in a Postmodern Context: Leuven Encounters in Systematic Theology II

Boeve, Lieven & Leussen, Lambert (eds)
Leuven University Press (2001)
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Saint Paul opens his magnificent passage on our eschatological prospects with a tiny preface beautifully pointed in Handel's introductory recitative to The Trumpet Shall Sound in Messiah: "Behold! I tell you a mystery" and, being Saint Paul, he's not joking. Which only goes to show that in spite of all protestations of the inadequacy of human language to describe the ineffable, theologians have tended to take themselves too literally and nowhere has this been more obvious and divisive than in the mechanics of grace, atonement and the Eucharist.

Having said all that, I might seem to be contradicting myself when I say that this curate's egg of a book - though it would have to be a very eclectic curate - edited by Boeve and Leussen is sometimes maddeningly cautious and self deprecating but as it is, as its title makes clear, a study in postmodernism one can hardly be surprised. The term is variously defined in different papers but from the Sacramental perspective in general and our understanding of the Eucharist in particular the two main assertions of this intellectual movement are: that there is no such thing as a grand narrative; and that what the reader brings to a text is as important as what the author offers. The first of these assertions is clearly a piece of self-regarding, recursive nonsense because - to play Lyoatard and Derrida at their own game - that there is no grand narrative is perhaps the grandest narrative of all compared with various narrow narratives such as Marxism and Aristotelian metaphysics. Indeed, this notion may be seen rather sooner than its authors could have foreseen - another lovely postmodern paradox - as part of the self-indulgent, 'playful' intellectual movement which reflected the outrageous economic boom which has now gone bust. Little wonder, then, that our speculation has taken a turn towards the serious, although I doubt that the rather wishful thinking of radical orthodoxy will take us very far. The second assertion is, at the same time, nonsense and helpful: nonsense because it puts all authorship, from a romantic novel to Einstein's Special Theory or Douglas Campbell's 1200-page book on Romans [1] into the same class. This point was brought home to me sharply when I realised that my French wasn't good enough to read Lacoste's untranslated paper.

But, conversely, the concept that we bring ourselves to text, not least to theological text, is helpful, particularly in the context of the ineffable and mysterious, because Christianity involves a personal commitment whose character varies with each individual but, just to put the record straight, this idea, often called "reception theory", was developed in the theological sphere by Gadamer, long before our merry band came to play.

Based on the idea that we bring ourselves to an authored text, the main point of these collected papers is that our participation in the Eucharist is not possible without our personal commitment. It says in various ways with various qualifications what the wise authors of ARCIC already know [2]: That Saint Thomas Aquinas's original formulation of "true presence" was sloppily passed down the generations, through a nominalist prism, to become "real presence"; that "Transubstantiation" was only ever, even at the extremist anti Protestant Council of Trent, a way of trying to understand the mystery (aptissime) and was never a doctrine; and that to think of the Epiclesis as the facilitation of a change at a moment of time in a point of space is  seriously to misunderstand the Augustinian and Thomist views both of time and presence. The upshot of the debate - being postmodern - is that no really firm consensus is reached but what I brought to the texts was a traditional Roman Catholic orientation to Eucharist and what I took away was altogether more Cranmerian: nothing happens at the Sacrament of the Eucharist unless I believe that it does; the celebrant is not set apart but is the embodiment of the whole Church. Whether celebrants are also, as Thomas puts it, acting not on behalf of the Church but of Christ at the moment of Consecration is an unresolved issue, although Jack Mahoney in Christianity in Evolution has some revolutionary things, from a Roman Catholic perspective, to say on this subject.

Although the papers have many gems hidden amidst the turgid prose, if you really want to understand Lyotard, Derrida, Lacan, Kierkegaard and, above all, Heidegger, pick up a clutch of these "made simple" books.

This collection of papers from a symposium at the University of Leuven (Louvain) is strictly for the specialists although I must say that I enjoyed the hard labour. What puzzles me about the event itself is that the Cardinal's vapid opening remarks are followed by some hair-raising speculation. Launched by Boeve in a masterful introduction which stands alone as a well crafted and fair-minded summary. On this basis it's hard to know as a Roman Catholic theologian what it takes to get you thrown out. The discussion of women priests, although massively important in itself, is trivial next to the content of this symposium because if the Roman Catholic Church is not Eucharistic it is nothing. On this point you might want to play the game of spotting who is missing in the recently published Michael Paul Gallagher's Faith Maps of influential Roman Catholic theologians from Newman to Ratzinger.

I hope that the editors will feel moved to distil these ponderous and necessarily uneven contributions into a synthesis which can be fully read in English. Because of the sheer weight of Barth and von Balthazar we have given too little attention to the French literature crowned by Marion and there isn't a "made easy" book on him yet!

See also...

Study Notes

[1] Campbell, Douglas A.: The Deliverance of God: An Apocalyptic Rereading of Justification in Paul, Erdmann’s, 2009.