October 8, 2008

Baber on the Real Presence

Some of the papers to be presented at the Society of Christian Philosophers, Pacific Division Conference have now been posted. Mine isn't up yet, but I will provide a link when it is. For now, I want to point readers to a paper by the University of San Diego's Harriet Baber which she has entitled simply "The Real Presence". We have previously discussed here the difference between transubstantiation and real presence. Baber describes this quite nicely in her introduction:

Aquinas� defense of transubstantiation in Summa Theologica Part III, Questions 75 � 81 is a philosophical analysis of the real presence doctrine, invoking Aristotelian metaphysics and the machinery of Scholastic philosophy.

What Baber attempts to do is to provide an alternative account of the real presence which is, as she says, "metaphysically innocent", but still accomplishes everything Aquinas attempts to accomplish.

Section 1 of Baber's paper discusses the work the doctrine needs to do. I will pass over that part. Section 2 is entitled 'Real Enough For You?' This section notes that the word 'real' is usually defined by contrast with something else. Baber thinks that 'real' in this case is opposed to 'subjective'. That is, no matter what state the observer is in, it is still objectively true that the bread is the body of Christ, and the wine is the blood of Christ. This claim seems to me to be supported by 1 Corinthians 11:29 - if it was dependent on the state of the observer, then how could someone who 'eats and drinks without recognizing the body' be doing anything other than eating bread and drinking wine? And why would that be so objectionable?

However, I'm not convinced that this is the appropriate contrast to draw. I don't know who Aquinas's opponents were, but by the time the Church of Rome dogmatized transubstantiation in the counter-Reformation, the opponent was clear: it was Huldrych Zwingli. As such, it seems reasonable to suppose that, at least in the Western debates on the subject over the last five centuries, real presence is 'real' as opposed to metaphorical. Calvin moderated Zwingli's view with his 'spiritual presence' interpretation, but on Calvin's view, although Christ is literally (spiritually) present in the elements, the elements are still only symbols of his body and blood.

Depending on one's theory of language/symbolism, this may still be objective. For instance, if authorial intent is the key to meaning, then it will be objectively true that the bread and wine are (i.e. represent) the body and blood of Christ. Similarly, if the speaker community is key, and the Church is taken to be the speaker community, it will again be objective.

Much of Baber's paper focuses on showing that her 'metaphysically innocent' account of the real presence preserves objectivity, but it is only at the end that she addresses the question of preserving literalness. First, here is how she formulates her account:

On the proposed account, the act of consecration is analogous to the act of writing out a check. It is an event which occurs (1) in virtue of a conventionally prescribed action (2) by a legitimately credentialed agent (3) intending to write out a check (4) using appropriate materials (5) as required by institutional conventions. (1) I write a date and amount with my signature underneath. (2) I, a sane adult with a bank account and the money in it to cover the check, am legitimately credentialed. (3) I intend to write out a check. (4) The colored, rectangular bit of paper on which I write is a check form bearing the routing number of my bank. (5) Legal and institutional conventions make a check that meets these conditions money: I give you that check saying, truly, �Here�s my $200.� You may not believe me. You may doubt that I have the money in my account to cover the check; you may be skeptical about the solvency of the financial institution on which my check was written; or, more radically, you may not understand the whole check-writing convention and wonder how a small piece of paper could be worth $200. That doesn�t matter. I gave you $200 because conditions (1) � (5) were satisfied. Even if you don�t cash it, you have that $200 until, given the established conventions, the check expires.

Following Aquinas, theologians have suggested comparable conditions on the validity of a Eucharist. (1) a particular sequence of actions has to be done in concert with the recitation of a specified formula. (2) These actions have to be done by a priest, an individual credentialed by the Church to play this role. (3) In doing these actions he must intend to �do what the Church does�� deferring to theological expertise and church doctrine. (4) The matter of the sacrament is that which is specified by the Church: wine and wheaten bread, leavened or unleavened according to jurisdiction. (5) Institutional conventions make that bread and wine the body and blood of Christ. Apart from the intention of the priest to �do what the Church does,� the beliefs and other psychological states of participants do not matter: where conditions (1) � (5) are satisfied the elements of the Eucharist are the body and blood of Christ. Virtuous and wicked communicants, believers, unbelievers and the bone ignorant consume the body of Christ�as do church mice gathering up the crumbs from under the table.


Now, it isn't clear to me whether this account will run afoul of the literalness requirement. It does seem to take the elements to represent Christ. Furthermore, money is a conventional object, so it is clear that we can stipulate conventions by contract, and this will alter what counts as money. But surely the body of Christ is not a conventional object! On the other hand, perhaps all objects are 'conventional' from God's perspective, so that he can give such stipulations.

At any rate, Baber does deal, however, briefly, with the question of literalness, and she argues that the 'representation' in her view is equivalent to Aquinas's distinction between 'local' and 'sacramental' presence. This is how she describes the sense in which the elements are Christ:

I saw Barak Obama yesterday�on the evening news. I pointed at the TV screen saying, �That�s Obama� and what I said was literally true. Likewise, according to the real presence doctrine as understood here, if I pointed at the consecrated elements of the Eucharist saying �That�s Christ� I would speak the literal truth. In each case, if pressed, I would qualify my claim and qualify it in the same ways. No, I did not see Obama or Christ in person. I saw Obama on TV and I saw Christ in the sacrament. In both cases the character of the representation depends upon the character of its object and in both cases actions done to the representation do not affect the object represented. Even if I move my TV set, Obama is impassible and unmoved in Denver and turning off my TV set does not turn off Obama, who keeps talking regardless of what viewers do in the privacy of their living rooms.

But still, I saw Obama: I didn�t just see a symbol of Obama.

So does it work? I'm not sure. It seems to me that Obama might be 'present' in my living room (on television) in only a metaphorical sense. Certainly he is there only by way of a representation. Is that a sort of metaphor? Notice how close Baber is to Zwingli: the difference is simply that Baber appeals to a non-symbolic form of representation. Nevertheless, a very interesting article. I look forward to discussing it at the conference.

Posted by Kenny at October 8, 2008 12:34 PM
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