From Juju to the Eucharist

As Cal Thomas has thoughtfully illustrated yet again, people deny any and all connection between themselves and the object of their hostility.  They rename sauerkraut “liberty cabbage” and French fries “freedom fries” and they try to pretend that Muslims and Christians “don’t worship the same God”.  Protestants like Thomas are free (if you call it that) to try to overcome the Law of Non-Contradiction by main force.  But American Catholics who are in this mood after 9/11 do not have the same luxury. 

Not that they don’t try.  But two forces tend to stop them. 

First, there are atheists who tend to make treacherous allies in the Clash of Civilizations.  Just when Catholics sidle up to our godless friends for a good laugh about, say, Muslims enthusiastic about drinking the urine of Mohammed, they find themselves betrayed by their new friends who laugh at the Catholic enthusiasm for drinking the blood of Christ.

Second, Catholics have a Magisterium that reels them in from rash theological judgments.  And it is that, rather than aesthetics, that should form the basis for evaluating our relationship with non-Christian religions.  Here, for instance, is what the Magisterium says on the matter of Islam:

CCC 841: “The plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator, in the first place amongst whom are the Muslims; these profess to hold the faith of Abraham, and together with us they adore the one, merciful God, mankind’s judge on the last day.”

After that, only Catholics who get their theology from Sean Hannity rather than from the Holy Catholic Church can declare that Christians and Muslims “do not worship the same God.”

That’s not some new-fangled Spirit of Vatican II ecumaniac thing, by the by.  Here, for instance, is Pope St. Gregory VII, writing to the Muslim Sultan of Bougie in North Africa in 1076:

For there is nothing which Almighty God, who wishes that all men should be saved and that no man should perish, more approves in our conduct than that a man should first love God and then his fellow men … Most certainly you and we ought to love each other in this way more than other races of men, because we believe and confess one God, albeit in different ways, whom each day we praise and reverence as the creator of all ages and the governor of this world.

In short, the Council did what the Church has always done, not just with Muslims, but with every religious tradition in the world: it affirmed what can be affirmed in common.  Muslims believe there is one God, the God of Abraham.  So do we.  Denying this simply lands us in self-contradiction.  Affirming that does not mean we affirm everything in Islam, just as affirming our common belief in one God with the Jews does not mean we deny the doctrine of the Trinity or the deity of Jesus.

Now another point of commonality we have, not just with Muslims, but with most normal healthy people is the sense that there is more than meets the eye going on with created things.  What underlies this impulse, from the perspective of the Christian revelation, is the perception that all creation is a mode of divine communication and can therefore be a means of grace.  The psalmist sees this when he sings “The heavens declare the glory of God!”  The primal instinct to see meaning in creation—and therefore Somebody to Mean It—runs deep in the human DNA. 

The sacramental sense is glimpsed in the universal tendency of human beings to form the fixed notion that certain aspects of creation can somehow be “special”—charged with a particular juju or charm or luck or cooties or good medicine or the Fear of the Lord: something that sets this bit of creation apart from the other bits.  This marble is the lucky marble.  That tree is the sacred tree.  This hill is where the temple must go.  That valley is the accursed place.  This article of clothing must be worn every seventh day.  That day is sacred.  This is the special ring.  That sword is the sword you must swear upon.  This bone is special because it is the bone of St. Fingel of Odoburg, etc. 

It is an impulse as old and broad as the human race.  And it is an impulse which is shared, in unguarded moments, even by postmodern secularists who wear wedding rings, keep their grandfather’s watch long after it has ceased to work, and hallow the room of their son who was killed in the auto accident.  Indeed, despite his mockery of Catholics who allegedly revere magical body fluids in our devotion to the Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, there is ultimately no other explanation for the mysterious faith of the atheist that the magical three pound piece of meat behind his eyeballs is somehow more significant than the three pound piece of meat behind the theist’s eyeballs.  Theists can explain the basis for the atheist’s devotion to the human brain as rooted in the truth of man as a rational animal made “in the image and likeness of a God who is the Logos”.  Atheists are forced, by their own first premises, to say that they just arbitrarily prefer their three pound piece of meat to that of theists—usually on some vague ground that their rationalism “has better survival value”.  What is left unspoken is how the assumptions of Judeo-Christian tradition unconsciously taken for granted by the atheist supply a reason why it is better to live than die. 

As this illustrates, it does not necessarily follow that humans clearly know why they hallow come creaturely thing, nor what exactly is being hallowed, nor what is the fitting way to hallow it.  For sin has clouded the intellect, weakened the will and disordered the appetites, resulting in the pagan impulse to worship the creature instead of the Creator (as ancient semites worshipped the image of Baal and modern atheists worship their own capacity to reason).  Indeed, apart from the corrections given by the biblical revelation (and often even these don’t restrain the problem), the impulse to indulge superstitions of every conceivable kind—from offerings to Moloch to pinches of incense to one’s ancestors to drinking the urine of Mohammed—is endemic.  The prophets battled it continually in the Old Covenant and the Church continues to battle it today.  But the fact that you can fall in an infinite number of directions does not mean there is no such thing as standing.  The fact that humans can make all sorts of wrong connections between creation and Creator does not mean there are no right connections.

Fallen man, feeling after God, remains now what he has always been:  a beggar who has happened on a trail of bread crumbs and is faced with a choice:  he can sit down, devour the few bread crumbs within reach and starve.  Or he can follow the crumbs of revelation back to the Loaf and eat.

For the fact is this: the Word became flesh, died and rose, and instituted the Eucharist as our means of participation in his divine Trinitarian life.  In so doing, he transformed the relationship of Spirit and matter and confirmed the sacramental sense that he built into us with the gift of his Body and Blood.  The only thing more foolish than the ways in which the sacramental sense can attach itself to unworthy objects like the urine of Mohammed is to deny altogether the reality of the sacramental sense and so reject the gift of Jesus Christ, fully present in the sacrament of his Body and Blood.  “Eww!” is not an argument and people who pride themselves on their superior rationality should know that.  Ultimately the question turns not on aesthetics but on the question which every person who has ever lived will have to answer: the question Jesus asked his disciples at Caesarea Philippi: “Who do you say that I am?”

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