Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Check out the typical textbook treatment of Eucharistic theology, and you’ll find a précis of Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli. A handful of stray modern theologians may make an appearance—Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Henri de Lubac, Barth. What you won’t find is a substantial discussion of Descartes, Hobbes, Kant, Hegel, or Schiller. That’s regrettable. “This is my body; this is my blood” is one of the most philosophically challenging of all human utterances, forcing us to consider the meaning of substance, the modes of presence, the concept of embodiment, the relation of God and creation or heaven and earth, the metaphysics of change, and on and on. There’s inherent interest in knowing whether modern philosophers have tried to untie this knot and, if so, how.

Xavier Tilliette’s 2006 The Eucharist in Modern Philosophy, just published in an English translation by Jonathan Martin Ciraulo, goes some ways to filling that gap. Tilliette’s concise, dense overview shows that sacramental theology has loomed larger in modern philosophy than we might expect. His cast of characters divides roughly into two groups. In the first several chapters, he summarizes the work of philosophers who recast Eucharistic theology in their own categories, while the second half of the book surveys Catholic writers who articulated fresh, expansive, sometimes innovative accounts of the Eucharist.

Descartes heads the first group. Intent on proving himself a faithful son of the church, he formulated a “crudely” physical explanation of transubstantiation, rooted in an understanding of substance as extension, shape, and motion he believed superior to scholastic hylomorphism. Across the channel, Newton expressed relief that, as an Englishman, he had no need to follow Descartes “into a strange country” to prove transubstantiation. Hobbes dismissed transubstantiation as a form of magic, and castigated Descartes for succumbing to the “Madnesse” of abusing language to defend “Absurdity.” Confining religion within the bounds of reason and moralism, Kant had little use for the “delusion” that “God has attached special graces to the celebration of this solemn ritual.” The young Leibniz took another tack. Believing Cartesian substance was incompatible with transubstantiation, he proposed a dynamic concept of substance as force. And the older Leibniz introduced the mysterious concept of a “substantial bond” that united soul and body, the natures of Christ, and the living Christ to bread.

Feuerbach famously reduced theology to anthropology, and his sacramental theology displays the same focus. There’s nothing unique about bread and wine; Christ’s body and blood is just as surely present in a hymn as at the table. At the same time, Feuerbach reveled in the quasi-sacramental, sacrificial character of non-sacramental food and drink: “Wine is the blood of plants, and flour the flesh of plants, which are sacrificed for thy well-being!” On his deathbed, Schleiermacher proclaimed the words of institution “are the foundation of my faith,” the focal point of mystical union with Christ in the community of love. The Supper, he wrote, is the highest means for “maintaining living fellowship with Christ,” and every other means of communion is “either an approximation to it or a prolongation of it.”

Catholic authors picked up some of these anthropological themes without discarding the metaphysical apparatus of transubstantiation. Franz von Baader’s essay “On the Eucharist” begins with an account of the “hidden mystery in the nutritional process in general,” which he believed to be an undeveloped theme of traditional theology. Following Aquinas, he pointed to the miraculous reversal of spiritual nourishment: Instead of being absorbed into the eater, spiritual food absorbs the eater into itself, so the Eucharist becomes a nuptial feast of union between Christ and his bride. For Maurice Blondel, transubstantiation is “a prelude, under the veils of mystery, of the final assimilation, of the supreme incorporation of all that exists to the Incarnate Word.” Teilhard de Chardin likewise claimed “transubstantiation is surrounded by a real, albeit attenuated, divinization of the whole Universe.” The transubstantiated creatures of bread are tokens of what the world will one day become.

There needs to be a book, a very big book, about how sacramental and liturgical theology contributed to the formation of modern culture. Tilliette’s book isn’t it. Though it covers essential ground, it focuses too narrowly on transubstantiation, which is only one plotline in a more complex story that includes Protestant sacramental theologies, Protestant-Catholic battles, and the Radical Reformation’s assault on sacraments. By focusing on how modern philosophical categories have been used to elaborate transubstantiation, Tilliette starts too late in the story. What needs to be investigated is how sacramental theology and practice shaped the categories of modern philosophy in the first place. The question isn’t simply, “Can Cartesian substance or Leibniz’s monadology make sense of the real presence?” We need to ask, “To what degree are Descartes’s or Leibniz’s metaphysics effects of tectonic shifts in sacramental theology?”

This very big, very hypothetical book can’t confine itself to philosophy. It needs to grapple with Henning Graf Reventlow’s neglected masterpiece on The Authority of the Bible and the Rise of the Modern World, which traces critical biblical scholarship to Anabaptist hostility to ritual and the Old Testament. It needs to reckon with the work of historians like Lee Palmer Wandel, Lori Branch, John Bossy, Alexandra Walsham, and Joseph Leo Koerner, as well as contra-Reformation histories like Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation and Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars

It also needs to do full justice to the genuine, albeit modified, Eucharistic piety of Protestant Christianity and to work through the concept of “sacramental poetics” as developed by Regina Schwartz, Kimberly Johnson, and others. It must critically examine the “disenchantment” thesis of Max Weber and his many disciples, Keith Thomas’s story of the “decline of magic,” and Charles Taylor’s account of our “secular age.” Though secularization theories are formulated in the generalized idiom of the social sciences, they’re really about Christian sacraments because they’re all centrally concerned with a Western world in which the Eucharistic liturgy was the traditional loci of sacred enchantment. In short, there needs to be a book that examines modern civilization, not merely modern philosophy, in the light of the massive sacramental, liturgical, and ecclesial disruption of the Reformation, a book that justifies, modifies, or refutes T. S. Eliot’s intuition about early modern “dissociation of sensibility.”

There. I’ve assembled an initial bibliography. Someone else—preferably someone who has read and knows everything—can take it from here. 

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.

Click here to make a donation.

Click here to subscribe to First Things.

Image by Pavel Danilyuk licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles