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True Communion

I much appreciated Nathaniel Peters’s discussion of spiritual communion through the lens of William of Saint-Thierry (“Spiritual Communion,” June/July). The focus on the fact that the Eucharist does its work, after all, through God’s action (that is, the Holy Spirit) and not our own is a salutary reminder—literally—and opens up avenues for thinking more flexibly about the eucharistic gifts themselves in contexts of physical constraint.

Still, I hesitate before the almost completely dematerialized individualism of the presentation here, which is framed primarily in terms of the Christian’s “soul.” Spirit, soul, mind—these are the categories that, for Peters, seem to ultimately define the value of the Eucharist. While not wishing to minimize these elements, surely, they cannot be exhaustive of what is essential to the Eucharist, namely, that it is given as a body to the gathered bodies of the Church.

While 1 Corinthians 11 itself cannot stand as a complete discussion of the Eucharist, its interests are not optional either: “Discerning the body” includes quite explicitly engaging in practical faith the bodies of one’s neighbors with whom one is joined through and in ­Jesus’s flesh, either in charity or in dissolving self-condemnation. Peters does speak of charity in his description of spiritual communion’s character and consequence, but it comes across as an abstracted concept. If there are no other persons—bodies—with whom to interact in charity (or its contradiction), to be driven toward or remade and reconciled with in the shared flesh and blood of the Lord, can there be a Eucharist at all?

I would not want to say that there cannot be (although my own Anglican tradition has generally taken a dim view of “private” Eucharists). But I might wish to say that the very exercise of spiritual communion is itself a statement of inadequacy and need before God that is peculiar to situations of hardship and circumstantial coercion. A true communion, perhaps, but one that is always wet with tears. As such, it might in fact be good to be pressed into such a reception, but only if pursued with an ardent prayer for God’s grace to make even this kind of constrained gift no longer necessary.

Ephraim Radner
wycliffe college
toronto, canada

Nathaniel Peters wants to help us understand that there is more to the concept of spiritual communion than “communion lite.” He demonstrates quite well its spiritual richness. But I cannot help but feel that it is a poor substitute for the real thing, especially as we have come to experience the Eucharist in the liturgical and sacramental renewal of the last half century. Unlike in the Middle Ages, Catholics as well as Protestants have become accustomed to receiving the Sacrament weekly. It is the high point of our Sunday experience of worship and we have been deprived of it for months.

The heart of the sacramental experience is the intersection of the historical body of the crucified and risen Lord, the sacramental body of Christ in the Eucharist, and the Church that becomes the body of Christ in the world by sharing from the same loaf and cup (1 Cor. 10:16–17). Spiritual communion cannot provide this somatic reality. The Church from the beginning was a meal of fellowship, even perceived as a supper club in the Greco-Roman culture. Some ­Christians continued to meet for their ­Eucharist even after Emperor Trajan abolished dinner clubs as subversive around a.d. 110. Bishop Ignatius of Antioch was reportedly brought before the authorities for allowing his community to continue to meet for the meal. No matter how minimal the elements of bread and wine have become in the course of history, they still have the semblance of a meal intended to be consumed bodily.

Today, we don’t find the body-soul dualism of William of Saint-Thierry and other medieval theologians persuasive if it diminishes somatic reality. My great fear is that the incarnational character of Christian spirituality will be lost in the necessity of social distancing and the substitution of virtual for bodily connections. The sacraments of the Church are the stoutest bulwark against a bodiless spiritualism. They cannot be administered apart from the body. I’m with Ignatius of Antioch on this.

Frank C. Senn
evanston, illinois

Nathaniel Peters replies:

My thanks to Ephraim Radner and Frank Senn for their letters. Their concerns seem to be that my ­description of spiritual communion does not take sufficient account of our bodily reality, both as persons and as members of the body of Christ, and that we should not settle for spiritual communion as a full substitute for sacramental communion. In the end, I think we agree on the principles at hand.

When we consider Eucharistic reception, we are looking at one particular aspect of the Eucharist, which fits into and does not exclude others. Acknowledging that the Eucharist is spiritual food should not detract from the fact that we are physical beings as well. The Spirit that we receive in spiritual reception of the Eucharist—whether or not we are also receiving sacramentally—binds us as members of the body of Christ, and the Eucharist is given to us so that we can serve those other members.

Lastly, I share Radner’s and Senn’s desire that spiritual reception apart from the Sacrament should make us long to experience its full sacramental reality, which remains the source and summit of our spiritual life.

Death, Thou Shalt Die

My thanks to Carl R. Trueman for his reflection on the denial of death in contemporary society (“The Final Enemy,” June/July). When I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, I was struck by the nobility of our funeral service and how—with its open casket, reverence for the body, a final kiss goodbye to the person “fallen asleep in the Lord,” and our prayers for the salvation of the deceased—the Orthodox not only recognize death’s reality but affirm that it will not have the final word. The world misses so much by eschewing that approach in favor of “life celebrations” or new disposition practices—such as liquefaction and being poured into the sewer!

As a longtime anti-assisted suicide activist, I also wholeheartedly endorse Trueman’s criticisms of the euthanasia movement, which indeed denies death’s power by “controlling” it via suicide. That isn’t control: It is ­surrender.

Trueman’s splendid essay does, however, fail to reference “­transhumanism,” a new social movement that denies death. The transhumanist seeks to overcome the nihilism triggered by materialism and replace it with the belief that, through the wonders of biotechnology, nanotechnology, and cybertechnology, immortality itself will be his—all without humility, prayer, forgiveness of sin, or indeed, faith in anything beyond the scientific method.

More specifically, come the “singularity”—an eschatological event in which our technological prowess becomes unstoppable—the transhumanist believes he will attain life without end, perhaps by uploading his consciousnesses into cyberspace, by repeatedly renewing his body through cloned organ replacements, or by having his head cryogenically frozen after death to allow eventual resuscitation via attachment to a cyborg body. As Woody Allen once put it, “I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” For those fearful that death brings the utter oblivion of nonbeing, embracing technology as savior offers hope that naked materialism otherwise denies.

Trueman provides the only answer the Church can offer to a culture increasingly tempted by such escapism. We must dedicate ourselves through ascetic discipline and prayer not only “to live as God’s people,” but also “to die as God’s people.” That kind of witness moved mountains when Christianity was a mere “startup,” and remains the only authentic means for our faith to overcome the contemporary world’s headlong flight into a death-denying neurosis that reaps desolation in the here and now and risks eternal consequences in the hereafter.

Wesley J. Smith
alexandria, virginia

Carl R. Trueman replies:

I am most grateful to Wesley J. Smith’s kind letter regarding my ­article—all the more so because of my own longstanding admiration for his ­courageous work in the area of the ethics of euthanasia.

He is absolutely correct in identifying transhumanism as another example of the way we humans try to deny our mortality. My silence on that score was merely a function of word limit, not a tacit statement of transhumanism’s moral indifference. Certainly, technology has become the means by which the Nietzschean dream of self-transcendence will allegedly be achieved. Like gender reassignment surgery, it will do no such thing; rather, it merely gives some superficial and transitory plausibility to our dreams of autonomy. One might regard it as yet another of those Freudian illusions of our secular age—an act of forlorn wishful thinking. But though doomed to failure (again, as with gender reassignment surgery), it is in no way a harmless illusion. Its proponents will likely cause terrible human carnage in the process of proving themselves fools.

As Smith notes, such things witness both to the arrogance of human aspirations to autonomy and to the bizarre faith in science that now grips our culture—bizarre not because science is unimportant, but because ­science can only tell us how we can do things, not why we should bother or care.

At the bottom of it all, as Smith and I agree, lies the fear of death, ­itself surely an irrational thing within a strictly scientific framework. Could it be that the writer to the Hebrews is correct? “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes ­judgment.”

Christian Nationalism

Having reviewed Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s Taking America Back for God for the Oxford Journal of Church and State, I wish to comment on Peter J. Leithart’s ­review of the book (“Christian Nation, Yes and No,” June/July). I write in praise of the review. Leithart and I are both conservative Protestant Christians, and the Christian nationalism that Whitehead and Perry observe deserves repudiation for its idolatrous syncretism. Moreover, I wish to extend a criticism of the book that Leithart mentions, and that is its failure, at times, to decouple Christian nationalism from the authors’ convictions. What they cynically label “Christian nationalism” includes concern about sexual ­complementarity and pro-life convictions, which, last time I checked, predates the idea of America by at least two thousand years.

Christian nationalism, it seems, is motivated by a concern for unfairly privileging a particular religion in society or instrumentalizing it for the sake of social cohesion. If that is the goal, it is problematic, and the authors are helpful on this understanding. However, where successful mission yields social cohesion, I am not willing to castigate religion as inherently instrumentalized or attach an epithet like “nationalism” to it. Cultural cohesion, as a natural byproduct of religious influence, is not intrinsically corrupt. At its best, religion helps the nation-state anchor its account of political community in a life-giving ethic rooted in transcendence. The authors are less helpful on this account: Lacking proportionally in their discussion is the legitimacy of a Christianity ­oriented to a common good that is not in agreement with their moral and political presuppositions.

Tribalism reflects much of the problem with the discourse around religion and nationalism. Religious practitioners see themselves as internally motivated by altruism, whereas external critics detect nefarious quests for power. The authors were unhelpful in untangling these complicated differences.

The idea of Christian nationalism presented in the book would be more intellectually honest had it been rendered Christian nationalisms. In Whitehead and Perry’s account, Christian nationalism is almost exclusively a right-wing phenomenon. They ignore current attempts among progressive Christians to fuse religion and politics for nationalist ends when it suits their politics. For example, Doug Pagitt of former Emergent Church infamy and noted Christian pacifist Shane Claiborne have, predictably, jettisoned emphasis on local church ministry and have exchanged parish centrality for political centrality in their “Vote Common Good” Project. Numerous other examples, such as the ministry of Rev. William J. Barber, could be offered. Neither Pagitt, Claiborne, nor Barber are working for a Trump re-election. Is this not a form of left-wing Christian nationalism? The voices that decry “Theocracy!” and nationalism often fall silent when it is their politics receiving a religious sanction. How curious that causes of this nature go unexplored in Taking America Back for God. My request for Leithart is for him to expand on his understanding of left-wing Christian nationalism and to reflect upon its absence in an otherwise helpful volume.

Andrew T. Walker
the southern baptist theological seminary
louisville, kentucky

Peter J. Leithart replies:

I am grateful to Andrew Walker for his response to my review. We agree about Whitehead and Perry’s sleight of hand when they lump “Christian nationalism” with moral standards that were generically Christian up until the day before yesterday.

Regarding Walker’s question about left-wing nationalism, I partly disagree. One of the revealing details of the book—one the authors did not elaborate—was their recognition of elements of Christian nationalism across the political spectrum. They classify Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights agenda as a form of Christian nationalism, insofar as he called the U.S. to be true both to its founding convictions and its Christian heritage.

Walker is correct, though, to detect a double standard. Despite his demand for Christian truth to bear on public life and law, King would never be labeled a “theocrat,” which is typically a rhetorical trick to link conservative Christians with brutal Islamist movements. To my mind, the existence of left-wing theocracy is no surprise. Theocracy is inescapable in any politics founded on the evangelical claim that Jesus is the risen and exalted King whom all rulers must honor.