Monthly Archives: August 2009

Abraham, Isaac, and Eucharistic Sacrifice

Matthew Levering - Sacrifice and Community - Jewish Offerings and Christian EucharistThis week, I’ve been working through Matthew Levering’s book, Sacrifice and Community: Jewish Offerings and Christian Eucharist. Herein Levering highlights what he sees as an unhelpful trend within contemporary theology towards a type of Eucharistic idealism, that is “the linear-supersessionist displacement of the Jewish mode of embodied sacrificial communion by spiritualizing accounts of the Eucharistic communion with God” (p. 8). One of the key questions Levering seems to be wrestling with is:  if de Lubac is right that “the Eucharist makes the church,” how are we to understand this sacramental meal as either a reconciliatory participation in the redemptive life of God or as that which gives shape to the ecclesial life of the church when it is intentionally bifurcated from paradigms of sacrificial action? Interrogating this tendency in the theology of Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Hegel, Schillebeeckx, and Karl Rahner, Levering argues that such a move slides sacramental practice away from an embodied cruciform communion into patterns of interiority and (a false sense of) superiority.

Put more positively, the core of Levering’s thesis is that: 

“The Eucharist, as a communion of love in and through Christ’s sacrifice, involves learning crucifmity as members of Christ’s sacrificial Body. As such, the Eucharist fulfills Israel’s mode of sacrificial worship, in which sacrifice and communion are inextricably integrated. [This] account of cruciform communion [. . .] thus belongs to the spiritual and liturgical exercises — the limp of Jacob — by which Israel is moved from creature-centered idolatry to praise of the God who is sheer Act. God sets before Israel the task of fleeing idolatry by embodied wisdom (Torah) and sacrificial communion (Temple), and in Christ the two are one. Union with Jesus Christ in the sacramental-sacrificial liturgy of the Eucharist is both a sharing in Christ’s sacrificial fulfillment of Torah and Temple and a contemplative participation in the trinitarian life of the divine Word” (pp. 27-28).

In the first chapter of the book, Levering explores this motif of Eucharist as a “sacrificial or cruciform communion” by juxtaposing Jewish and Christian readings of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22. He makes a few arguments that I found particularly intriguing.

The first reflects merely a passing interest I have in exegetical symbolism within Scripture. Levering begins the chapter by pointing out that according to the rabbinic tradition “Genesis 22.2, combined with 2 Chronicles 3.1, indicates for the rabbis both that the place where Abraham went to sacrifice his son was none other than ‘the mountain on which Solomon built his temple’ and that ‘the aqedah is the origin of the daily lamb offerings (the temidim) and, less directly but more portentously, of the Passover sacrifice as well'” (p. 29). I find the connection between Moriah and Zion here informative in that it draws strong parallels with the story of Abraham, the Exodus, the Levitical systems of ritual sacrifice and purification, the Temple, the paschal all alongside the persistent covenant faithfulness of YHWH (cf. Jon Levenson, The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son). These narrative elements of covenantal grace, creation ex nihilo in the giving of the name, the radical contingency of faith suspended from the gift of the promise, and the sacrificial obedience to the call manifested here in the story of Abraham and Isaac reverberate throughout the life of Israel and are given an unimaginable depth in Jesus, the paschal Messiah, who “sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Heb. 7.27).  

Second, Levering then turns his focus upon Abraham’s near sacrifice of Isaac and the expiatory logic of the narrative itself. He argues that certain philosophical and exegetical analysis of this text has uniquely contributed to the sort of spiritualizing abstractions that have crept their way into Eucharistic theology. In particular, he cites Gerhard von Rad and Søren Kierkegaard’s (Lutheran) emphasis on Abraham’s faith as the nucleus of radical subjectivity as a particularly powerful movement away from Jewish notions of active obedience to the call of YHWH. For von Rad, Abraham’s obedience serves as purely demonstrative of his great faith; unequivocally his faith is what really counts. As Jon Levenson points out, “von Rad, like Kierkegaard a Lutheran, replicates the most basic paradigm movement in the theology of his own tradition, the Pauline paradigm that affirms faith in contradistinction to deeds as the supreme and defining element in spiritual authenticity” (cited on p. 34). In contrast to this reading of things, Levenson maintains that “[t]he aqedah’s significance is not solely that Abraham evidences the spiritual quality of trust or faith. Rather, Abraham’s actions – in this case actively obeying God’s command to sacrifice Isaac and bringing Isaac to the very point of sacrificial immolation – carry meritorious weight in the eyes of God” (p. 34).

Levering clearly summarizes this alternative reading as follows:

“What God tests in Abraham goes beyond merely a test of Abraham’s attitude of trust. The issue rather is whether Abraham will sacrifice every created thing, even the beloved son of the promise, to God at God’s command. Not mere trust, but active willingness to sacrifice the most prized creaturely reality is at stake. Sacrifice embodies and enacts radical willingness to give up everything creaturely for the sake of the Creator; sacrifice is the true enactment, and therefore the true test, of right worship of God” (p. 35).

Undoubtedly, Levering has tapped into something very important here. I heartily agree that it is a mistake to underestimate the role of praxis, of faithfulness, of discipleship in the liturgical and sacramental life of the church. That being said, I worry that in his excitement Levering has too quickly brushed aside the equally valuable contributions of Kierkegaard. It seems to me that Levering’s analysis unhelpfully sustains the faith-works dichotomy by succumbing to the (all too Catholic) temptation of once again swinging the theological pendulum away from faith/subjectivity back to the sacrifice/action side of the table. Especially when Levering quotes Levenson’s language of the “meritorious weight” of obedience (and does so without qualification), he appears to have spun the debate around in a circle of antitheses – antitheses, I might add, that do not adequately reflect the underlying message of the texts in question (either in regards to Gen. 22 or the theology of Paul – as I have talked about elsewhere).

I would suggest that there may be a middle road that would allow the full weight of both Kierkegaard’s emphasis on faith and Levenson’s emphasis on embodied sacrificial praxis, bound together in a paradoxical union precisely in they are both grounded elsewhere: the gratuitous excess of God’s gracious gifts. Hebrews 11.17-19 offers a helpful point of departure,

“By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking, he did receive Isaac back from death.”

This narrative is certainly about faith (and chucking that to the side out of a fear of an illicit “Lutheranism” undoubtedly inflicts a degree of violence to the text). Yet equally that faith is only meaningful here to the extent that he acted on it, flying in the face of all human logic, in radical obedience to the call of YHWH. Throughout his chapter, Levering presents his case under the following basic headings: 

1. “The aqedah, sacrifice, and action” (this being my own paraphrase)

2. “Sacrifice and feasting”

3. “Sacrifice and community”

However, in order to truly outflank the tendency to dichotomize this narrative, I suggest a fourth element needs to be included in Levering’s analysis: “Sacrifice and covenantal promise.” As we see in the Hebrews text, Abraham is described as “He who had received the promises.” In Genesis 12, God calls Abram to go to a new land and father a new people to bring God’s blessing to the world. The covenant that God establishes is contingent primarily upon the faithfulness of God to be true to the promise.

I will make you into a great nation
       and I will bless you;
       I will make your name great,
       and you will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
       and whoever curses you I will curse;
       and all peoples on earth
       will be blessed through you.”

Abraham cannot make himself into a great nation – despite his efforts to do so (Gen. 16). Nor is his agency the basis of the promise’s efficacy. Instead, both his belief (Gen. 15.6) and his obedience (Gen. 12.4; 15.10; 22.3) are only intelligible in light of the covenantal grace to which they respond and by which they are empowered. It is through this evental founding of the promise that YHWH speaks Abram into existence with the giving of a new name (Gen. 17.5), gives Isaac from the barren womb of Sarah under the shadow of persistent disbelief, and provides the ram on the Mountain of Moriah – returning to Abraham his son received “back from death.” And yet this covenant also beckons forth Abraham’s willing participation through faith and sacrifice, not as bifurcated instances of oppositional tension, but as two interpenetrating movements within a single complex act of obedience.

This final emphasis on covenantal promise deepens the impact this narrative has on the development of Eucharistic theologies of “embodied cruciform communion” by reminding us that the church is Christ’s body gifted to us through the grace of God. We act in faith precisely because our trust has an object: the faithfulness of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the one true God of the promise; God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In this light, we can affirm with greater clarity and weight Levering’s closing claim:

“Our communion flows from our incorporation into Christ’s sacrifice. The sacrifices of Israel, as fulfilled in Christ’s sacrifice and participated in the Eucharist, remind us that God, in both creation and redemption, calls us forth as members of his historical Body, a community whose characteristic mark, despite its failures, is the imitatio Christi, self-sacrificing love” (p. 48).


Cruciform Charity

One of the most striking features of David Hart’s account of the history of Christianity in his Atheist Delusions is the central place afforded to the practices of charity. Hart notes that such practices constituted a unique feature of the gospel that radically distinguished the early church from its cultural surroundings. Not only was ancient pagan religion seemingly incapable of sustaining charity and mercy as a meaningful praxis of devotion, but it lacked the theological foundations necessary to make service to “the least of these” intelligible. In Hart’s view, it was the shocking, cruciform rupture of the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ — God manifested to humanity and the human beheld for the first time in the glory of the Son — that enabled us to truly grasp the inherent and universal dignity of human personhood. He writes,

“[. . .] the entire idea of human nature has been thoroughly suffused with the light of Easter, ‘contaminated’ by the Christian inversion of social order; our nature is [. . .] first and foremost our community in the humanity of Christ, who by descending into the most abject conditions, even dying the death of a criminal, only to be raised up as Lord of history, in the glory of God, has become forever the face of the faceless, the persona by which each of us has been raised to the dignity of a ‘co-heir of the Kingdom'” (p. 180).

With such theological discussions of incarnation, cross and resurrection, redemption, participation, personhood, deification tightly in the background, Hart gives some helpful historical catalogues illustrating the various ways in which this cruciform charity took shape in the life of early Christians. To quote at length,

“There was, after all, a long tradition of Christian monastic hospitals for the destitute and dying going back to the days of Constantine and stretching from the Syrian and Byzantine East to the Western fringes of Christendom, a tradition that had no real precedent in pagan society (unless one counts, say the valetudinaria used by the military to restore soldiers to fighting form). St. Ephraim the Syrian (A.D.C. 306-373), when the city of Edessa was ravaged by plague, established hospitals open to all who were afflicted. St. Basil the Great (A.D.C 329-379) founded a hospital in Cappadocia with a ward set aside for the care of lepers, whom he did not distain to nurse with his own hands. St. Benedict of Nursia (A.D.C. 480-537) opened a free infirmary at Monte Cassino and made care of the sick a paramount duty of his monks. In Rome, the Christian noblewoman and scholar St. Fabiola (d. A.D.C. 399) established the first public hospital in Western Europe and — despite her wealth and position — often ventured out into the streets personally to seek out those who needed care. St. John Chrysostom (A.D. 347-407), while patriarch of Constantinople, used his influence to fund several such institutions in the city; and in the diakoniai of Constantinople, for centuries, many rich members of the laity labored to care for the poor and ill, bathing the sick, ministering to their needs, assisting them with alms. During the Middle Ages, the Benedictines alone were responsible for more than two thousand hospitals in Western Europe. The twelfth century was particularly remarkable in this regard, especially wherever the Knights of St. John — the Hospitallers — were active. At Montpellier in 1145, for example, the great Hospital of the Holy Spirit was founded, soon becoming a center of medical training and, in 1221, of Montpellier’s faculty of medicine. And, in addition to medical care, these hospitals provided food for the hungry, cared for widows and orphans, and distributed alms to all who came in need” (p. 30).

“Christian teaching, from the first, placed charity at the center of the spiritual life as no pagan cult ever had, and raised the care of widows, orphans, the sick, the imprisoned, and the poor to the level of the highest of religious obligations” (p. 164).

Atheist Delusions

David Bentley Hart - Atheist Delusions

In his fresh and polemical new book, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies, David Bentley Hart takes on the so-called “New Atheists,” throwing the full weight of his historical insight, theological prowess, and rhetorical profundity into exposing and then dismantling recent assaults to the faith.

The underlying purpose of the book is to clear the air of the wildly unfounded assertions and distortions that attempt to depict Christianity as a blind, violent, superstitious, and primitive stain on our collective moral sensibilities, shrouding the “progressive” story modernity likes to tell about itself with a sense of legitimacy and superiority. In Hart’s estimation such tales of our (supposedly) rational, scientific, and tolerant struggle against dark ages of irrational dogmatism, cultural and creative stagnation, “wars of religion,” and so forth are simple and enchanting, “easily followed and utterly captivating in its explanatory tidiness; its sole defect is that it happens to be false in every identifiable detail” (p. 34).

Instead, Hart makes a case for the genuinely and irreducibly revolutionary impact of Christianity on the West. As he notes in the Introduction,

“My chief ambition in writing [this book] is to call attention to the peculiar and radical nature of the new faith in [the cultural] setting [of late antiquity]: how enormous a transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination Christianity constituted in the age of pagan Rome; the liberation it offered from fatalism, cosmic despair, and the terror of occult agencies; the immense dignity it conferred upon the human person; its subversion of the cruelest aspects of pagan society; its (alas, only partial) demystification of political power; its ability to create moral community where none had existed before; its elevation of active charity above all other virtues” (pp. x-xi).

Now based on the early hype surrounding the book (undoubtedly encouraged by the rather superfluous blurbs garnishing the back cover), I admit that I felt some initial reservations about what kind of book Hart had actually produced here. Would I find a defensive, angry, even (rhetorically) violent call to arms in defense of a new Christendom? Or perhaps another rosy theological apologia sweeping the seamier sides of the Christian historical past under the rug of our selective memory? In clashing dueling sabers with the likes of Dawkins, Hitchens, Dennett and the rest would Hart ultimately come to emulate the very style and depth of argument he seeks to rebuff?

If I’m honest, the first couple of chapters did stoke my skepticism, albeit briefly. Hart’s more aggressive, ad hominem attacks on the authors of the New Atheism (to the point of intellectual name-calling) do not exactly boost the credibility of his argument, nor will his cutting and abrasive language likely win him many friends amongst his ideological objectors. That being said, Hart is at least honest about his methodological approach and his occasional lack of pleasantries. And while the style of his critiques are a bit harsh at times, the content is most certainly sound, provoking, and justified. In light of the “intellectual rigor” of his opponents, perhaps Hart has a point when he says that “Atheism that consists entirely in vacuous arguments afloat on oceans of historical ignorance, made turbulent by storms of strident self-righteousness, is as contemptible as any other form of dreary fundamentalism. And it is sometimes difficult, frankly, to be perfectly generous in one’s response to the sort of invective currently fashionable among the devoutly undevout, or to the sort of historical misrepresentations it typically involves” (p. 4).

Minus a few such complaints, Hart’s book is a brilliantly insightful and eloquent essay on the rise of Christianity in the first four or five centuries. I appreciated the fact that Hart refuses to white-wash the historical data into a simplistic, sanitized picture of Christianity that pretends away faults in life and practice of the church, while nonetheless being honest about the bold and unprecedented impact Christianity has had upon the consciousness of the West. Hart is at his strongest in his clear critiques of the modern project and the current situation it has left us in, but also in his detailed historical analysis of the facinating consequences of the Christian gospel upon the social imaginary of ancient paganism.

Instead of attempting some sort of summary or overview, I’ll bring my general comments to a close here. There are plenty of reviews of Hart’s book out there that are far more nuanced and thorough than the one I’ve just presented. My intention here and in the few posts to follow is not so much describe or defend Hart’s book as a whole, but to interrogate a few particularly insightful gems he offers us in its pages.

A new publication

This week I received some rather exciting news. It turns out that my little essay on Ivan Illich, Stanley Hauerwas, and “crisis” has officially been published in a special issue of LORE, documenting San Diego State University’s 2009 Crisis Carnival Conference. The objective of the conference was to facilitate a critical and interdisciplinary exploration of “The Ecstasy of Speed” in our contemporary society.  A few months back I posted some of my own reflections of the conference as a whole. However, now the full text of my essay is available to view for the first time here.

In addition, my good friend, Gaelan Gilbert, not only helped to coordinate the event, but also presented an excellent and detailed paper on time, liturgy, and secularism through the lens of late Medieval Corpus Christi pagents. Pulling together such variant figures as Charles Taylor, Gilles Deleuze, Pickstock, Ricoeur, Le Goff, and Michel de Certeau, this essay is particularly interesting due to its creative (even playful) interweaving of historical data, philosophical analysis, and theological perspicuity.

For a helpful overview to the various themes addressed throughout the conference, I also recommend having a look at Gaelan’s formal introduction to the volume.