Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Literal (or A Brief Explanation of the Eucharist)

"Joe, we don't really, literally, believe that the Eucharist is the Body and Blood of Christ.  I mean, if I smuggled a host away from Mass one day, gave it to a team of top notch scientists to analyze in a lab, they're going to see bread in their microscopes and in their analyzers.  Bread, not flesh or blood.  So it can't literally be Jesus's body, it's only symbolic.  Right?"

This lovely question came to me from a good friend who found the notion of the Eucharist rather fascinating.  I gave him a brief explanation of the metaphysics of the Eucharist, but he asked for me to blog about it.  Probably so he can refer to it, reference it, etc. etc.  So here's your post, you who know who you are:

The answer to your question lies in the term "literal."  You asked if the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, which is a really good question to ask.  The answer to this question is the pivotal point of all Catholicism, so it's certainly worth a look.  But first and foremost, let's examine the term "literal".  I can imagine that you, along with most people, define literal as empirically true, that is, as scientifically verifiable.  A zoink is literally a zoink to the extent that it has the scientific attributes of a zoink.  If a said object doesn't have the scientific attributes of a zoink, then it is not literally a zoink.  This scientific notion of literal is very good and very practical.  However, I don't think it suffices to be considered as "literal," at least not in the pure sense that we seek to obtain.

Let's look at a tree.  How do you recognize it to be a tree, and not, say, an elephant or a bush or great-aunt Tilda.  All four things are material, yet all four are different.  We recognize their differences not because of the tree itself, but of the qualities of the tree.  These qualities of the match our knowledge of trees and show us that the object we see is a tree and not our dearest great-aunt Tilda.  "But Joe," you ask, "Isn't this confusing example the same thing as the scientific notion of literal you discussed above?"  Great question!  No,  it is not, and here's why:  Reduction and Abstraction.  Allow me to explain.  Reduce the tree to its components:  Trunk, branches, leaves, roots.  Reduce those further:  Cells.  Reduces those even further:  Molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, and whatever other quantum-mechanical divisions you please.  Along each step of the reduction process, you'll have me, asking "Well how do you know that x is x and not y, z, or q?"  And, in your purely scientific explanation of the problem, you'll keep reducing until you can no longer reduce, at which point I'll still be asking "But how do you know that its a quantum of energy (or whatever else it may be reduced to)?" And eventually, either at the end of the reduction process or somewhere within it, you have to appeal to an abstract, immaterial concept that corresponds to and identifies the thing in question.  This immaterial, abstract quality can be called the "essence" of whatever it is you happen to be studying.  Its the immaterial quality that makes a zoink a zoink, a tree a tree, and your great aunt Tilda Tilda.  (Read that last sentence aloud if it confused you.)

If you're confused, ask this guy.
He's the last guy who really understood
this metaphysical stuff.
 Now, any materialist (those who believe that the material world is all that exists) readers are probably fuming right now, because I just made the entire material world reducible to immaterial essences.  Also, anyone who  really disliked philosophy is either no longer reading and not really understanding what it is I'm trying to express.  Sorry, I'll try harder next time to simplify all this.  But for now, back to defining "literal".

When I say that a zoink is literally a zoink, I mean that it has the essence of zoink.  It has "zoinkness". Because everything is ultimately reduced and abstracted to essence, saying something is "literally" this or that depends less on the science and more on the essence (although science is a pretty good indicator of essence most times).  So when I say that the Eucharist is literally the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, I mean so in the purest, most essential way.  The Eucharist is not scientifically the Body of Christ (or at least not usually).  But it can very well be (as Catholics certainly believe it is) the Body of Jesus Christ.  By the Holy Spirit, through the Priest, the essence of the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of Christ, so much so that, while our senses and sciences still perceive bread and wine, these are merely the accidents, a sort of physical illusion that conceals from us the reality of the Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist.  By all scientific standards, there is bread and wine.  But literally, there is Jesus Christ, present in the accident of bread and wine, and thank God for that.

More may come, more may not.  Depends on the sorts of questions I'm posed.

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