This has come up in several different ways in the past few weeks, be it conversations about denominational identity, philosophical discussions about the metaphysics behind iconography or the eucharist, or a debate about theological hermeneutics.
What I have been encountering lately is a particular kind of theological claim. That claim goes like this: action a results in divine response b. This rite of blessing over the elements results in the real presence of God in those elements. This reading of scripture results in the moving of the Holy Spirit within the life of the Christian. This sort of prayer results in my eternal salvation, and this prayer to a particular saint in heaven will most certainly be answered.
My first critique of such reasoning is that it implies a level of necessity embedded in those actions which we simply cannot know. This critique, however, doesn’t do much, because its the same critique I would offer about almost all metaphysical claims.
The second suspicion I have is a bit more meaty and is what makes it likely that I am a Zwinglian.
This critique starts with a particular belief of mine, which is that God is a person. I think most Christians will share this belief with me so I am not overly worried about that being a controversial claim…
From this starting point, I want to reassess the theological argument we just introduced: action a leads to divine response b. What I want to suggest is that in addition to the metaphysical question about necessity embedded in these claims, there is also a theological question about necessity.
That is because it seems to me that this claim implies that God must necessarily respond to the action in question in a particular way. God must be present when the rite is performed, the Holy Spirit must be present when the words are read, God must save me when I say this prayer, etc.
This implied necessity is concerning to me because of what it implies about the personhood of God. If God is bound by necessity to respond in a particular way to these human actions, then God is subject to being controlled by human beings. This, to me, sounds like a cosmic vending machine, not a genuine person. And for that reason, I am suspicious of any such theological argument which seems embedded with such a notion of necessity.
Now, there is an important clarification that I need to make to ensure that I don’t leave this post with an image of a very distant and cold God. That is to say that my concerns are about claims which make a necessary link between a particular action and a divine response to that action.
My belief is that God is loving and desires a loving relationship with humanity. God wants to be present to us in very real and tangible ways. But I get worried when we attach to any particular action a claim that it must result in a particular divine response.
Which is why I think the label Zwinglian may be appropriate: my concern is about preserving God’s choice to be present in the sacrament (broadly defined) and not assuming that the sacrament must contain God’s presence. In other words, I want to claim that there is nothing inherent in the sacrament itself that demands the presence of God, that when God is present it is because God has chosen to be.
So the 20th Century German theologian Karl Barth’s famous claim that God can be revealed in a dead dog on the street just as easily as in the eucharist or in the words of scripture seems to me to be right, and that implies, I think, that God doesn’t have to be present in any of those things unless God chooses to be. God is not bound by our actions, God relates to us in a loving relationship as God chooses to do.
Now, I write all this acknowledging that I still willingly worship in a fairly traditional episcopal church which at least outwardly expresses a fairly high sacramental theology.
Which raises a question that I think is worth pondering but won’t delve into here:
Are religious rituals and ceremonies, and the spiritual experiences they impart, more important to God or to us?
- Sacramental and Prophetic Presence (doohan.id.au)
- The Catholic Church: Between the sublime and the ridiculous (rappler.com)