A friendly discussion on the Real Presence and the Eucharist: Steven Nemes’s first response

Christ is for everyone! is hosting a friendly discussion between myself and Andrew Harland-Smith on the topic of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Here is my first response to Andrew’s opening statement.

The Eucharist: Metaphysics or Communion?

In the first place, I want to thank Andrew for his willingness to talk about these issues with me. The argument he gives for the doctrine of the Real Presence is a rather common one, so I am glad that he offered it.

As far as I can tell, Andrew’s argument is as follows:

  1. Ontological union with Christ is the essence of the Christian understanding of salvation.
  2. This union can only be accomplished by the Real (corporeal) Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
  3. Therefore, Christ is really (corporeally) present in the Eucharist.

As for the nature of this “ontological union” with Christ, Andrew proposes that it must involve the totality of our being. We need salvation because of sin. This salvation consists in our union with God in Christ. The “rupture” between God and the human being is not only a legal or juridical one, but also a metaphysical one. It is one that has to do with our very mode of being. Now, because we have both a bodily and a spiritual aspect, our union with Christ must involve both of these aspects. Hence, it is not enough that Christ be spiritually present in the Eucharist in some way. He must also be united to us in body, which would be impossible if He were not corporeally present in the Eucharist. Therefore, Christ is really corporeally present in the Eucharist.

Assuming that I have accurately summarized the essence of Andrew’s argument, I will now offer a few remarks by way of critical response.

First, I would say that Andrew’s argument would need to be slightly qualified and reformulated in order not to fall victim to obvious counterarguments. If Christ is corporeally present in the Eucharist, then why are His body and blood not perceptible in any way? Why, for example, does the bread not taste like flesh, or the wine like blood? Or why isn’t the bread too heavy to lift with one hand? What kind of body is that which cannot be perceived at all? And if Christ is corporeally present, is He digested by us as we eat Him and what is left later expelled? Does it hurt Him when we bite into His body? Is He losing mass as more and more of His body is eaten by Christians everywhere throughout the world? And how can Christ be corporeally present in a number of different places at once? Is only part of His body there, in New Zealand, where Andrew lives, and another part of it here, in America, where I live?

It precisely because of questions like these that many proponents of the Real Presence doctrine prefer to formulate their position as follows: Christ is substantially (rather than physically or corporeally) present in the bread and wine of the eucharistic meal. Now, proponents of the Real Presence can disagree with each other about how and in what way Christ is substantially present in the bread and wine. Thomas Aquinas says that the substance of the bread and wine are changed (transubstantiated) into the substance of Christ’s body and blood. Others will say that the substance of the bread and wine remain, while they are somehow united in a miraculous way with the substance of Christ’s body and blood. But in any case, all such proponents of the doctrine of the Real Presence prefer to say that Christ’s mode of presence in the Eucharist is substantial or sacramental, rather than physical or corporeal.

Second, I think that Andrew’s metaphysics of union makes the doctrine of the Real Presence redundant for the purpose he assigns to it. According to him, the Eucharist is supposed to unite us to Christ in body and soul. But Andrew says that a union between Christ and the human being was already accomplished in the Incarnation. What more, then, is the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist doing? Perhaps Andrew will say that it strengthens our love for Christ and faithfulness to Him. But you do not need the Real Presence for that; such an effect is equally possible on my own conception of things. Perhaps Andrew will say that the Eucharist strengthens a certain mysterious bond between Christ and us – which bond is not just a bond of love and faithfulness, and which goes beyond the bond established by the fact of the Incarnation – so that we are less disposed to drift away from Him into sin. But this seems plainly contrary to experience. It is just as easy to sin before receiving the Eucharist as after if a person does not have love for Christ in the heart. It is the fulness of the Holy Spirit in us that makes us resistant to sin, a fulness that is experientially manifest in the fact that we love Christ and think about Him with faith, and not the mere fact of having partaken of the Eucharist.

Third, I think the kind of ontological union that Andrew is describing is impossible. One person cannot become united with another person except by means of a communion at the level of spirit. I am not united to my wife by virtue of the mere fact that we engage in the conjugal act. It is possible and common to engage in the conjugal act and to accomplish no greater union than existed before. Rather, I am united to her because I love her and am committed to her just as she loves me and is committed to me. But even if all this obtains, it is still true at the level of ontological identity that I am not her and she is not me. When she experiences herself, – e.g., in hunger or boredom or longing or whatever, – she experiences it and not me. Even in the conjugal act, it is obvious that each person only experiences his or her own enjoyment, such as it is occasioned by the other person; the one does not experience the enjoyment of the other person, which may not even exist at all. Each person remains irreducibly him- or herself. The “union” that obtains between free persons is a harmony of spirits, not a strange metaphysical “blending.” So also, Scripture most commonly and predominantly presents the relationship between God and the human being as the sort of relationship that obtains between free persons. As a result, the kind of union with God in Christ that Christianity calls for is a spiritual union of this sort: it calls us to love God, to be committed to Him, to live in harmony with Him, to understand ourselves in relation to Him, and so on. But the human being is not literally blended with Christ at the ontological level, each person remaining irreducibly him- or herself.

These remarks therefore constitute my first response to Andrew on this subject. I very much look forward to seeing what he has to say by way of rejoinder!

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