A friendly discussion on the Real Presence and the Eucharist: Steven Nemes rejoins

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 rejoinder to Andrew’s initial response to me.


Eating Christ’s Flesh

With his most recent response to me, Andrew clarifies a few things about the manner in which Christ’s body and blood are present in the Eucharist and the way in which the Eucharist accomplishes an ontological union with Christ. In the interest of saving time and space, I will try to respond directly and without ornament to what he says.

Andrew says: Union with Christ involves the ontological union of distinct persons into a “grander corporate personality.” The distinctions between persons are not lost, but together they nevertheless form something greater.

In response: This is arguably not different from what I said earlier. I mentioned that persons are not metaphysically blended with each other or with Christ, but simply maintain a harmony of spirit. I am not sure what else a “grander corporate personality” can be except that. Consider the example Andrew gives of a bookshelf. It is a union of distinct parts: glue, wood, nails, varnish, etc. And yet these altogether form one bookshelf. But the bookshelf is not a natural unity. It has only “accidental unity” or “accidental form,” if we can call it that. Its unity is accidental insofar as it is attributed to it by persons. There is no such thing as a bookshelf unless there are human beings around to take that thing as being a bookshelf. If all human beings died and there were only cats left, the bookshelf would no longer be a bookshelf. Thus, the ontological unity of the bookshelf does not exist in itself, but only insofar as people take it as one thing. And this is what happens any time we have a unity arising out of previously distinct things that maintain their ontological distinction, whether we are talking about artifacts (e.g., a house, a car, a briefcase) or groups of persons (e.g., teams, associations): so long as the united items maintain their ontological distinction, their greater unity is merely an accidental and attributed unity, not a real one. Thus, if we form a greater corporate personality with Christ, it is one that emerges out of a harmony of spirits. Christ and we all take ourselves to be a part of something, to be “on the same team,” so to speak. But if we did not think about ourselves in that way, there would be no unity. Thus, the unity between ourselves and Christ is only at the level of spirit.

Andrew says: Coitus must accomplish some greater, specifically physical sort of union than merely a union of spirit, given the way that Paul speaks in 1 Cor. 6.

In response: I am not sure why the biblical language of “joining” and “becoming one flesh” or “one body” must be taken in such a metaphysically robust way. There is no reason to believe that it is true in that sense. After the conjugal act, a golden thread does not appear between the two persons, connecting them to each other physically. Neither does it necessarily become physically difficult to be apart from each other. To the contrary, it sometimes happens that after the conjugal act, the desire for the company and attention of the other person diminishes — not necessarily because something bad has happened, but simply as a result of the satisfaction of an urge. At most, such language of “being or becoming one flesh” can be taken to refer to the performance of the conjugal act itself, in which the physical distance between two persons is as minimal as possible. This is the sense in which a person becomes “one body” with another. And Paul’s argument about joining the members of Christ with a prostitute argues from the symbolic weight of the metaphor of being Christ’s body. If I am to think about myself as an extension of Christ’s body, — although I am not really so; this is only a metaphor for guiding my actions, — then I cannot unite myself to a prostitute. But if one takes Paul too literally, then absurdities follow. For example, Paul is speaking as if someone in the Corinthian church had already slept with a prostitute. In that case, the damage is done. Is Christ therefore ontologically united to some prostitute from the first century? I should hope not! Or if a man unites Christ to a prostitute, then does he also unite Christ to his own wife, since the man remains a part of Christ’s body? Is Christ’s virginity therefore lost? Against all this, I think it is better to maintain that “anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with Him” (1 Cor. 6:17). Paul is not offering a robust metaphysical picture of the union that exists between Christ and the believer. He is arguing from a central metaphor from the Christian life against a particular course of action. The union that is accomplished between Christ and the human being, literally understood, is a union of spirits, not a physical or metaphysical one.

Andrew says: The accidents of the bread and wine do not inhere in Christ.

In response: Depending on how far Andrew wishes to take this line of thinking, it may become quite difficult to understand how Christ’s flesh is eaten in the Eucharist on his view. And it also seems to me that Andrew has misunderstood my question about how Christ can be present in New Zealand and also in Arizona. I was asking whether Christ is spatially or locally present in those places. In other words, I am asking if the location of the bread and wine is also the location of Christ’s body and blood. If Andrew says that He is locally present where the bread and the wine are, then I cannot see how he also maintains that Christ is imperceptible. How can Christ’s body and blood be spatially present without being perceptible? It is a part of the very notion of “body” that it takes up space in a definite place in relation to other things and that, in principle if not always in practice, it can be perceived. Even if one had to be very small or very large, every body is perceptible as a matter of principle. Thus, even subatomic particles would presumably become perceptible if one were very tiny. But if Andrew says that Christ is not locally or spatially present, that even the accident of the location of the bread and wine does not belong to Christ, then I do not see how He is being literally eaten. He is not located where the eating is taking place. He does no go into the mouth, nor down into the stomach. In that case, I do not see how He can be eaten. Andrew could say that Christ is being eaten in some mysterious, sui generis, purely sacramental way, simultaneously with literal eating of the bread and wine. But this just shrouds the Eucharist in mystery and makes it obscure. The memorialist conception is easier. The bread is eaten literally, and Christ is eaten spiritually. The eating of Christ is sacramental in the sense that the symbolic use of the bread and wine is what synchronizes the literal and the spiritual eating.