A Secular Communion
Fr. Stephen Freeman · June 14, 2010
Fr. Stephen looks at the pressures created by our secular culture, particularly how they affect our communion with God.
Thinking about God and communion with God are not the same thing. The modern world is a difficult place for those who believe in God. The reigning culture has relentlessly moved God out of the day-to-day world and relegated him to various religious spheres of existence.
So it is that we live in what I describe as a “two-storey universe.” We dwell in a world defined by nature and its laws, a world of cause and effect, a world in which the presence of God is almost, in any form, a problem.
Perhaps the one place relatively safe from such exile is the realm of human thought. Modern believers cling to a God whose existence is a matter of intellectual or emotional acceptance, but to bring God into the public realm risks the ire of political opposition, charges of superstition, or simple discomfort.
Without belaboring the history of secularism, at a certain point modern culture began to confuse “thought” with “spiritual,” while anything “physical” was deemed “of the world,” or in some cases, simply “empty ritual.”
Of course, anyone who spends any time with their thoughts quickly discovers that thoughts are very fleeting things. Our minds wander. Our thoughts frequently torment us. Concentration is sporadic at best, particularly in our modern electronic world. And so it is that modern man is not a spiritual being. He can barely think about God without blinking.
Of course, the modern confusion of thought with spirit is simply nonsense, a theological error born of an over-reaction to Catholic theology during the Reformation and post-Reformation. We think, but we are not thoughts. The Gospels are decidedly physical in their presentation of God. It is the Word who has become flesh that causes wonder in the writings of St. John. “We handled him,” he says in his first epistle. It is not that he says, “We understood him,” or “We thought about him.” Instead he says, “We handled him.”
The Cross is a story told with virtually no theory. It is blood and nails and a pierced side. It strikes me as strange, therefore, that modern Christianity has often sought to make of the sacraments—those physical materials and actions given us by Christ—a matter of thought.
Within much of contemporary Christianity, the truth of the sacraments is not to be found in their action and substance, but in the minds of those who participate. Baptism is seen as a choice, the Eucharist as a remembrance, and, as such, they become sacraments of the secular world. God is believed in, but not present. Water becomes mere symbol. Grape juice and crackers, serving first as reminders of wine and bread, and, secondarily, as a remembrance of the absent Lord. “This is not my body, this is not my blood.”
I had an opportunity several years ago to lecture at an evangelical college. In the course of the lecture I quoted from the sixth chapter of St. John’s Gospel, which is, without question, the most complete commentary on the meaning of the Eucharist to be found in the Scriptures, where Christ says, “Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.”
After the lecture I was accosted by a freshman, who, with great passion, argued with me. He was certain that the passages had a spiritual meaning. Christ could not possibly mean that we should eat his flesh and drink his blood. Sometimes literalism makes for a very inconvenient truth.
We live in a very material world, which is entirely a matter of design. We are not thoughts trapped within bodies, nor should we imagine the Christian faith as an idea, divorced from the material world. It is, perhaps, the most material religion possible. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” God became flesh.
That same Word gave us bread and wine with the words, “This is my body, this is my blood,” the remembrance of which is not an act of recollection, but an act in which Christ makes himself truly present.
Christianity is losing the battle of ideas, if only because Christianity is not an idea. The faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” is a way of life, not a set of ideas; a true communion; and the life of God. It is God who makes himself present to us in our world, and not just in our heads. It is true that if we allow ourselves to have true communion with him, he will heal our thoughts—do all that, given time.
Communion with the secular world is a communion of emptiness. Its ideas are false and its promises are not true. At the end of the secular world lies only death, from which no idea will save us. But we are not without hope. The God who so loved us as to become flesh and dwell among us is the same God who so loves us that our own flesh can become his abode. “Whosoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.” Glory to God!