Monday 14 June 2010

Eucharist and Social Imagination: Understanding Cavanaugh

William T. Cavanaugh's Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Social Imagination in Early Modern Europe

by Keith Hebden

In Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Social Imagination in Early Modern Europe William Cavanaugh gives an overview of how the reformation debate on the nature of the Eucharistic sacrifice was formed as much politically as theologically. This fits with a broader theological method that Cavanaugh uses. Cavanaugh is much influenced by both the Radical Orthodox school and by Mennonite ecclesiology. So he draws on an orthodox understanding of Christian faith and on the Church fathers and mothers to reflect a radical understanding of Christian faith and worship.

Cavanaugh focuses on Luther's polemic against the Catholic Church in distilling a reformed theology of the eucharist. He notes that were one to rely on Luther's other polemic – against other reformers like Zwingli – a different emphasis would emerge but not a contradictory one. So for Luther the sacrament of bread and wine is a testament rather than a sacrifice because he sees the role of gift-giver as being exclusively with the God's agency. Humans respond in faith and should do prayer(1) and charity in relation to other people but cannot add or take away from God's initiative and complete role as gift-giver. Cavanaugh calls this a "zero-sum logic"; if God gives and we give back then there is an exchange rather than a gift and the grace of God is annulled. For Luther a human agency brings the sum back to zero instead of leaving us in eternal debt to God. (p. 587)

It is this logic of the market and exchange value that Cavanaugh focuses in on and identifies as modern: at odds with the medieval worldview. Helpfully, Cavanaugh describes what he sees as the relevant difference here between a medieval and a modern social system (accepting that there are blurring of these differences in the historical transition). For the medieval social imagination the primary illustration of society is of a human body. This body has different parts with different function; it is organic; hierarchical divinely ordained; held together by mutual obligation.(591) So the medieval mind begins with the social collective and sees how individuals must play their part: the hands must feed the stomach or they will suffer, even if they don't see the stomach's usefulness accept to eat the fruit of another's labour, and so on.

For the modern mind set, however, the point of departure is the abstracted free and private individual. Social relations between these individuals can be seen as either through a fair exchange of privately secured goods (the zero-sum) or through gift. (593) At this point Cavanaugh can't resist developing the theme of how this notion of the individual helped carry the moral development of the nation state to protect these now atomised individuals – no longer held in mutual, divinely appointed obligation – from killing each other.

But there is a problem with applying this zero-sum individualism to a theology of the Eucharistic sacrifice. And it is the problem that gift giving leaves an unbalanced maths:

Self-sacrifice in its modern mode preserves self-possession and precludes mutual participation because there must be an unreturned transfer from one discreet self to another. Self-sacrifice reinforces the boundaries between what is mine and what is thine – even if I give all – because it remains crucial that the absolute distinction between giver and recipient be maintained in order to identify self-sacrifices as such. Agape thereby appear to exclude eros, the desire of the giver to be with the recipient.(597)

The charitable act is problematic because it creates a power imbalance and is self-nullifying.

Cavanaugh is positive about Luther's intention to reform the corrupted practices of the Roman Catholic church in turning the work of offering the Eucharist into an opportunity in itself for an exchange to take place. In other words, the theology and practice was corrupt. However, he sees Luther's response as one that de-eschatologises the Eucharist and takes out human participation. (589)

For Cavanaugh, the patristic theology of anamnesis is key to re-thinking the Eucharist. Put simply, when the Eucharist is celebrated there is a collapsing of time, or rather the past event of Christ's sacrifice is drawn into the present moment of its celebration and the future hope of it's fulfilment is drawn forward into the now. With this theology it is possible to say that as the Priest and people celebrate the Eucharist they take part in God's sacrificial act – as they eat of Christ so they become the Body of Christ the very sacrifice they receive.

Cavanaugh uses the theology of Irenaeus and of Augustine to pull out a socio-theological response. For Irenaeus there can be "no distinction between our offering and Christ's offering in the Eucharist."(599) We are drawn into the divine life and our offering is made part of God's – neither deducting nor adding to it. For Augustine it is the sharing of the sacrifice with Christ that unites us with God. As Cavanaugh puts it: "In the sacrifice of the God-man, the zero-sum distance between divine agency and human agency is collapsed into the Body of Christ." (600) This solves the problem of unfair exchange because no distinction is made between giver and recipient and gift since all are part of the body of Christ in the work of the Eucharist.

Cavanaugh Concludes:

It may be possible after all, then, to embrace a conception of sacrifice which does not fall prey to the modern imagination of social exchange and its politics of oscillation between public self-interest and private philanthropy. At the same time, there is much in the patristic ideas of sacrifices that transcends the static hierarchical organicism of medieval Europe.(602)

What is radical about this orthodoxy is it's reliance upon the Eucharistic imagination to impact the social imagination. The Eucharist draws the Church into a new and realising eschatology of a society where all receive every gift and the gift of giving in every sacrifice made.

"William T. Cavanugh," Eucharistic Sacrifice and the Social Imagination in Early Modern Europe," in Journal of Medieval and Early Modern Studies, Duke University Press, 31: 3, Fall 2001, 589.

The full text of William Cavanaugh's paper can be found here and even more archived stuff here.