Category Archives: theology

Long Distance Eucharist?

As the coronavirus pandemic that has raged across the world for the last eight months continues with no clear end in sight, massive changes have been wrought in our society.  Not least among these has been the complete or partial closure of many churches.  Some have suspended services altogether; others have shifted to services streamed over the Internet; and others have provided drive-in services.  Many churches have been reopened for public services with restrictions (social distancing and use of masks) since the beginning of June; but many continue broadcasts of services for the benefit of those who prefer not to risk in-person attendance.

This unprecedented situation has been the source of much discussion, much of it political, but some theological.  I’m not interested in the political aspects of the situation at all.  On the other hand, in a discussion in the comments section of a blog I frequent, a very interesting theological issue came up.  This was in the specific context of Catholic services, to wit, the Eucharist at Sunday Mass.  The question was this:  When the priest says the words of consecration of the bread and wine to make them the Body and Blood of Christ, why would it not be possible for those watching at home to have their own portions of bread and wine, and for the priest to include the bread and wine of all home-bound parishioners in his prayers?  Could not everyone then receive Communion, even without having to come to Church?

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Angels, Devils, or None of the Above?

Having talked about angels and demons, I want to see if those beings exhaust all the non-corporeal beings that exist.  Typically, the Abrahamic religions tend to categorize all immaterial, incorporeal beings–what we’d tend to call “spirits”–as ultimately either angelic or demonic.  With the partial exception of Islamic jinn, there are no other categories envisioned.

Pagan religions, both ancient and modern, by contrast, have a bewildering variety of spirit-beings that cover the entire spectrum of morality from good to evil and everywhere in between.  As Jeffrey Burton Russel points out in The Devil:  Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, in most ancient religions, God (in this context, Russell uses the term “the god” in referring to the monotheistic deity) and the gods are morally ambivalent.  Gods and spirits might be helpful or harmful, good or bad.  Any given god might in fact be harmful or helpful, depending on the context.  The fickle behavior of the Greek pantheon is a perfect example of this, with even beloved and noble deities such as Athena being capable of spiteful and vindictive actions, as in the myth of Arachne.

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The Best Laid Plans (Do Not Require a Plan B)

The-Best-Laid-Plans-Of-Mice-And-Men-Often-Go-Awry

The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft agley,
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!

–Robert Burns, “To A Mouse, On Turning Her Up In Her Nest With The Plough”

This is famously misquoted in standard English (as opposed to Burns’s Scots dialect) as “The best-laid plans of mice and men go oft awry.”  In any case, the sentiment is true enough.  How often do we plan something only to have events seemingly conspire to screw it all up?  How often does the most meticulous planning crash and burn before our eyes?  It’s not for no reason that we have the American idiom “Plan B”.  This is, of course, what you do–or attempt to do–when your original idea, Plan A, fails.  Sometimes we seem to run through the whole alphabet of plans and still things “gang agley”.  Then again, we’re not God.

The point I’m getting at here is something I’ve alluded to numerous time over the course of this and other series of posts at this blog.  In this post, I want to address the matter in a more direct and explicit manner.  The matter at hand relates to the interpretation of the Fall of Man, as described in the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.  My main purpose in “Legends of the Fall” has been to try to find a way to understand the aforementioned Fall given our current understanding of human origins and the impossibility of reconciling that understanding with the Genesis account.  I’m still pretty far out from coming to such an understanding, admittedly.  Nevertheless, I think it is useful to look at issues which, while partially tangential, nevertheless have implications for the course of the main argument.

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Theism Revisited: God, Gods, and Íñigo Montoya

Eight years ago, I looked at the various forms of theism and considered what they meant for us moderns, particularly my fellow Catholics.  For various reasons, I want to return to that topic and look at it from a different perspective.

I’ll start with a common atheist slogan often used in discussion with monotheists (usually Christians).  I should make clear upfront that I am not deriding or criticizing atheists as such.  I put in that disclaimer because a commenter on one of my posts a year or so ago took considerable umbrage at my noting that he was, in fact, an atheist in linking to his blog.  I thought that by doing so I was indicating that people who disagree on substantial matters can actually agree on other things.  He seemed to think I was somehow calling him a horrible, awful, evil person because he was an atheist.  That was a complete and total mischaracterization of what I said, and bore no resemblance to it, in fact, and we ended up having a fairly long (and, alas, pointless) argument in the comments.

Thus, I want to note here that while I’m going to discuss a view that many atheists hold that I think is mistaken, this is in no way meant to disparage atheists as such, or paint them as evil people.  In fact, plenty of theists consistently make the very same mistake.  It is a somewhat subtle mistake that is very widely held; and thus I think it to be worth discussing, from either a theistic or atheistic perspective.  Onward, then!

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Arguments Against Universalism: A Personal Encounter

Back here I discussed two forms of argument against universalism, both of which I considered to be red herrings–that is, arguments that don’t actually address the issue at hand.  The first argument boiled down to saying, “Don’t worry about the fate of others–worry about yourself.  Your main goal is to keep yourself from going to hell–God will take care of everyone else.”  This altogether avoids the issue of whether eternal damnation is just, or congruent with God’s infinite goodness, so it’s certainly a red herring.  I had this further to say about it, though:

In the interest of full disclosure, I am personally very, very allergic to the “worry about yourself, never mind about others” argument–or “pseudo-argument”, I should say–for personal reasons. I’ll elaborate those in a post soon to follow, since it would take up too much of the current post if I related them here. Keep tuned for that story.

Well, I want to relate that story now.

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I Ain’t Got No Body, Yet Again: David Bentley Hart, Spirit, Matter, and Bodies

Way back here I looked at the distinction between embodied minds–that is to say, creatures like ourselves, which have both bodies and souls–on the one hand, and  bodiless creatures–pure minds lacking any kind of body composed of either matter or energy, that is to say, the beings we have traditionally referred to as angels and demons.  Later on, I reconsidered the matter, looking at the difficulties in the notion of completely disembodied minds, and speculating on the possibility that angels and demons might have bodies of a sort after all.  Recently, I have come across an interesting essay by David Bentley Hart, one of my favorite theologians and men of letters, which throws further light on this subject.

In setting the scene for the essay, Hart very forcibly argues that the Hellenization of Christianity is a feature, not a bug, that it goes back to the very beginning of the faith, and that modern attempts to remove said Hellenization in order to recover a “pure” Christianity are both doomed and missing the point altogether:

Naturally, this [picture of early Christianity drawn by N. T. Wright] also entails the simultaneous creation of an equally fictional late antique Judaism, of the sort that once dominated Protestant biblical scholarship: a fantastic “pure” Judaism situated outside cultural history, purged of every Hellenistic and Persian “alloy,” stripped of those shining hierarchies of spirits and powers and morally ambiguous angels and demi-angelic nefilim that had been incubated in the intertestamental literature, largely ignorant even of those Septuagintal books that were omitted from the Masoretic text of the Jewish bible, and precociously conformed to later rabbinic orthodoxy—and, even then, this last turns out to be a fantasy rabbinic orthodoxy, one robbed of its native genius and variety, and imperiously reduced to a kind of Protestantism without Jesus.

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Wright’s anxiety is quite in keeping with a certain traditional Protestant picture of the pagan and Jewish worlds of late antiquity, one that involves an impermeable cultural partition between them—between, that is, the “philosophy” of the Greeks and the “pure” covenantal piety of the Jews.

These are points I’ve made before in various contexts, and I strongly agree with Hart here.

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Will the Real Apostolic Succession Please Stand Up? Recognition of Lineages

We’ve discussed Apostolic Succession in general, and we’ve seen how it came to exit even outside established churches, while still remaining valid.  As with most things in life, however, it’s more complicated than it seems at first.  That’s what I want to discuss in this post.

For the churches that claim Apostolic Succession, there are two interrelated but distinct issues regarding valid clerical lineage, the internal and external.  The internal issue is whether the men (and for some churches, women) whom the church in question chooses to serve as bishops (and secondarily, priests and deacons) are in fact validly ordained in that church’s lineage.  In the vast majority of cases, this is a non-issue.  All churches claiming Apostolic succession have some form or other of training and “quality control”* system for would-be clerics.  There are lengthy periods of training (usually in a seminary), advanced degree requirements, various types of screening and vetting, and so on.  Thus, an existing bishop doesn’t ordain just anyone as bishop, priest, or deacon.  Furthermore, a minimum of three bishops is required to ordain another bishop (usually, many more than three are involved) as an extra level of caution in making sure the lineage is valid.  That is, even if one or two of the bishops are somehow not in a legitimate line of succession, there are enough others involved that there is almost complete certainty of Apostolic Succession being passed on to the new bishop.

The external issue with Apostolic Succession is which purported Apostolic lineages in other churches a given church recognizes.  This is where it gets interesting, and sometimes complex.

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Chasing the Incarnation

This post from Reditus perfectly makes the point that I have discussed, but less effectively, in my series on dualism.

Reditus

A haunting image that has been etched into my mind manifested itself to me in a Russian Orthodox church during the All-Night Vigil for the Feast of the Annunciation. At a certain point during Matins (I won’t bore you with the context too much), the bearded priest stood before the icon of the Annunciation and chanted one of those old leftover ancient Slavonic chants with censer in hand. I am not sure why this made such an impression on me: it was a good hour into the service, and I know little Old Slavonic (I can sort of muddle my way through understanding what is going on.) The priest wore a sky blue phelonion gilded in gold, the robust baritone voice echoed through the church, and the melismatic chant reached back into time and grabbed from it some hidden reality that gleamed like the clouds at dusk…

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Wandering Bishops

Rene Vilatte, wandering bishop par excellance

We discussed the validity and liceity of the Sacraments, particularly Holy Orders, last time, noting that a church may recognize lineages of Apostolic Succession of bishops as having valid Holy Orders despite that lineage being outside that particular church.  In short, the Church may recognize a man as a “real” bishop even if he was ordained irregularly.  One way this can occur is though schism, pure and simple.  That is, a bishop goes rogue and breaks away from the Church, then ordains as many men as he sees fit.  Since the bishop was validly ordained in the Church, these ordinations he performs, though illicit and carrying the penalty of automatic excommunication for both the bishop himself and those he ordains, are valid.  The men he ordains, in short, are real bishops, full stop.

We saw back here, though, that while some lineages indeed arose through schism (or in some cases, it would be better to say they were maintained despite schism), there are many small independent groups that were formed by individuals with their own ideas about how a sacramental church should be.  Often there was no formal schism, and the founders of these groups sought out ordination to gain legitimate Apostolic Succession.  How did they manage this?  Through the phenomenon, mentioned but not described previously in this series, of wandering bishops.

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When is a Sacrament not a Sacrament? Validity and Liceity

In the process of looking at Apostolic Succession, we’ve looked at some of the (occasionally complex) terminology involved, and we’ve looked a bit at the major churches that claim Apostolic Succession.  I want to look next at how the various churches recognize–or refuse to recognize–these claims.  In order to do that, though, I’m going to have to talk a little bit about sacramental theology.

A sacrament, in the words of the Baltimore Catechism, is “an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace“.  The churches claiming to have Apostolic Succession have (with a few nuances in one or two cases) retained the sacraments as part of their worship and practice.  The number is traditionally set at seven:  Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist (or Communion), Confession (or Reconciliation), Matrimony, Holy Orders (ordination of a man as deacon, priest, or bishop), and Anointing of the Sick (or Extreme Unction).

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