In recent days various commenters here have been talking about the Christian sacrament of Holy Communion and raising the question of whether this amounts to cannibalism.
It's an ancient and ridiculous charge, but perhaps it's not surprising that early critics of Christianity -- to say nothing of modern-day critics -- have raised the charge, given the Christian idea that in the Eucharist (another name for the sacrament, as is the Lord's Supper), participants are said to be fed the body and blood of Christ in a foretaste of the great heavenly banquet of reconciliation.
Mostly it's Catholics nowadays against whom the charge of cannibalism is made, so today this Presbyterian is going to defend the Catholics against the accusation and explain in some detail why it's a wrongheaded argument. Much of it has to do with the Aristotelian science on which the Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation is based. More on that in a minute.
For help in this task, I am indebted to the late Dr. Hugh Thompson Kerr, a great Presbyterian, who once wrote this:
"Perhaps the situation may be clarified by an illustration taken from the life of one of Scotland's greatest preachers, Dr. Alexander Whyte, of Edinburgh. Dr. Whyte had a sincere admiration for Cardinal (John Henry) Newman and sent him his "Commentary on The Shorter Catechism." In that handbook, Dr. Whyte, in commenting on the words, 'Not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood,' said, 'This is directed against the Popish doctrine of transubstantiation. According to that doctrine the bread and wine are changed into the very flesh and blood of Christ, so that all communicants literally and physically eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ.'
"Cardinal Newman was not satisfied with this statement, and wrote a most interesting letter: 'December 15, 1883. My dear Dr. Whyte -- I thank you for your Commentary. . .it rejoices me to meet with so much in it which I can sympathise and concur in, and I thank you heartily for the kind references you make to me in the course of it and for the words you have written in its first page.
"But it pains me that so large a heart as yours should so little enter into the teaching fo the Catholic Church, let alone agreeing to it. Thus you say that we consider that we physically eat our Lord's flesh and drink His blood in the Holy Eucharist. We consider the substance of His body and blood to be in the Sacrament, and thereby to be given to us. Excuse this outbreak of controversy, and believe me to be, Most truly yours, John Card. H. Newman.'
"In the second edition of the Commentary, Dr. Whyte substituted for his former statement these words: 'According to this doctrine, the substance of the bread and wine is converted into the substance of the very flesh and blood of Christ, so that all communicants literally and substantially partake of His flesh and blood.'"
One might take issue still with Whyte's use of the term "literally," but at least he got the right focus on substance.
As I said, this goes back to science that grew out of Aristotle, who divided the world into "accidents" and "substance." By accidents he meant the texture, color, taste and appearance of a thing. So some bread is spongy and white and has a rough feel. By substance, he meant the core essence of something -- for bread, it would be its "breadness." Thus in the Eucharist, the substance of bread and white is changed into the substance of Christ's body and blood even though the accidents of bread and wine remain the same.
So one physically eats bread and drinks wine even while consuming the substance of the body and blood of Christ. And since substance is not a physical attribute, the charge of cannibalism is unfounded.
All of this may seem like theological dancing on the head of a pin, but it has caused a long split in the church -- and it's a split I believe must be healed if the church ever is to live up to Jesus' desire "that we all may be one."
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MUSLIMS' ROLE IN U.S. MILITARY
In the aftermath of the Fort Hood murders, a Washington Post writer has done this good piece about Muslims in the U.S. military. I will have more to say here this weekend about this week's visit to Kansas City by Eboo Patel, founder and executive director of the Interfaith Youth Core, but I liked his answer when he was asked about what happened at Fort Hood. In part he said: "The extremists of all traditions belong to one tradition, the tradition of extremism." He said those extremists should thus not be honored by being included as a member of any religion. And if they try to tell you they are acting in the name of Islam or Christianity or Judaism or any faith, simply say you don't believe them because people of those faiths don't act that way.
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P.S.: After mid-morning today, I almost certainly will have no chance to post your comments until tomorrow. And then until Monday my Internet access may be unreliable. Thanks for your patience. Bill.