Charles Taylor’s remarkable book A Secular Age achieves something quite different from what other writers on secularization have accomplished. Most have focused on decline as the essence of secularism—either the removal of religion from sphere after sphere of public life, or the decrease of religious belief and practice. But Taylor focuses on what kind of religion makes sense in a secular age.
He speaks of “the conditions of experience of and search for the spiritual” that make it possible to speak of ours as a “secular age.” Taylor is asking not only how secularism became a significant option in a civilization that not so long ago was explicitly Christian, but what that change means for the spiritual quest, both of those who are still religious and those who consider themselves secular.
I doubt many people have even perceived that aspect of secularism, and Taylor’s book should be as much of a revelation to them as it was to me (see Peter Steinfels’s review essay, “Modernity and Belief,” May 9). Viewing secularism as Taylor does means calling into question some of the presuppositions of the usual discussions, including the notion that “science” has undermined the possibility of religious belief, or that science has “disproved” religion. Since the people who are attacking religion in the name of secularism today, such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, talk mainly in terms of the conflict between religion and science or religion and reason, I will return to this question later on, but I would like first to describe Taylor’s alternative story.
Much of A Secular Age is devoted to a history of the conditions that gave rise to secularism, conditions that can’t be summarized with the usual formulas. Taylor argues that the Reformation—which rejected monasticism even as it demanded a kind of monastic discipline for everyone—was the culmination of a long history of reform in Christianity, whose consequences turned out to be particularly momentous for the modern world. He goes on to show how, when Protestantism itself came into question, long-term pressure toward reform continued, first in eighteenth-century Deism, with its strong emphasis on benevolence, and then in the nineteenth century with the emergence of unqualified secular humanism and its emphasis on progress.
According to Taylor, it is not science or Darwinism that accounts for these developments, but the continuation of a moral narrative already long present in Christianity. Even the late nineteenth-century emergence of antihumanism, exemplified by Nietzsche, can only be understood in terms of the particular features of what was being rejected: namely, both Christian and secular belief in social reform. By seeing the emergence of the secular age as a historical narrative rather than a theoretical discovery, Taylor’s story explains our present quandaries far better than any competing account. Seeing secular modernity as largely a product of pressures for reform that were initially Christian also allows him to see modernity in part as a Christian success story. And though the success of these several waves of reform efforts seemed to imply that their religious sources were no longer necessary—that secular “progress” could take over from religious impulses—as Taylor shows, the new secularism produced its own problems, ones that sometimes, but not always, led to a retrieval of religious belief. Today, neither belief nor unbelief can be taken for granted, and numerous examples of both continue to appear on the scene. The last part of Taylor’s book outlines the possibilities and conundrums in the midst of which we now live.
A Secular Age is not a work of apologetics; Taylor isn’t arguing for the correctness of one view, his own, over all the others. On the contrary, he argues for the conditions of experience that make all of the views intelligible, starting with secularism. He argues that the religious view, more specifically the Christian view, still makes sense even in a secular age, but not that it is the only one that makes sense. It would be hard to find a book on this subject with so little polemic, with so generous an understanding of all the possible positions—including those farthest from his own—and so little need to show that any side in this multisided process of change is more virtuous than any other. Taylor is clear from the beginning that he writes as a believing Catholic; he views the Christian effort to reinvent itself in the new secular world as a positive event (though he is merciless toward its many failings). Critical of both secular and religious positions, he strives above all to understand where we are, so that we can see where we are going.
From a period of naive belief in 1500, when the educated and uneducated alike accepted Christian teaching as simply the way things were, we have moved to a situation today where everyone, believer and unbeliever alike, recognizes that religious faith is an option individuals have every right to reject (as many do.) So, for Taylor, while Europe in 1500 was a religious and largely Christian age (I might add that for Taylor medieval Christianity was far from ideal, and much that has happened since is a great improvement), we now live in a secular age, not because there are no believers—there are many—but because secularism is a significant option, fervently accepted particularly among intellectuals, that reminds all believers that their belief cannot be taken for granted in the larger cultural world. “Naiveté is now unavailable to anyone,” Taylor succinctly observes, “believer and unbeliever alike.”
To shed some light on certain aspects of change in American history (and Western history generally) that help develop Taylor’s framework, let me turn to Andrew Delbanco’s book The Real American Dream. Delbanco organizes this small book into three chapters, “God,” “Nation,” and “Self”—the “predominant ideas,” in his view, that have successively organized our culture and society, providing a context of meaning capable of bringing hope and staving off melancholy. In speaking of God as the first predominant idea that organized our culture, Delbanco is referring primarily to the culture of the New England Puritans of the seventeenth century, a period in American history similar in some ways to the time around 1500 in Europe. Nation became the predominant idea from the time of the Revolutionary War until well into the twentieth century. Most recently, Self seems to have replaced (or at least subordinated) God and Nation as the predominant idea of our culture.
Keeping in mind that modern history is not in fact a story of continuous benevolent reform, but of horrific conflict right up to this moment, these changes did not happen in some natural and gradual way; rather, they were prepared by disastrous moments of history. The unity of Christendom circa 1500 was broken by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which in turn led to devastating wars of religion in France and, worst of all, the Thirty Years War of the first half of the seventeenth century. This war wreaked its worst destruction in Germany but had consequences throughout Europe, including the violent religious conflict in England from which our Puritan ancestors were fleeing.
It is not too much to say that these wars of religion helped propel the first wave of secularism among early modern intellectuals. To a significant degree, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment was a reaction against the religious fanaticism that had led to war. And the religious wars in turn helped prompt the rise of modern nationalism—a major shift for all Europeans, not just intellectuals. As a focus of loyalty, the nation could overcome divisions of faith, and as a form of solidarity it could initiate reforms that would lift the status of all citizens. Indeed, many of the modern reforms of which we are justly proud—abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, universal social and medical insurance, and so forth—were achieved, at different times and to differing degrees, by nation-states.
Yet moral achievements linked to sympathy for all one’s fellow citizens were all too often also linked to hostility toward other nations, a nationalist aggressiveness culminating in the twentieth century with wars of a violence previously unknown in human history, bloodier than even the wars of religion. So if devotion to God had its disastrous consequences earlier, devotion to nation has had, and continues to have, disastrous consequences. In the face of militant secularist claims that all conflict arises from religion, it is worth remembering that the greatest destructive movements of the modern era, fascism and communism, were entirely secular in their ideology.
I think this disastrous history has something to do with Delbanco’s argument that the Self has become our predominant idea. While America—perhaps uniquely in the Western world—seems able to keep God and Nation as predominant ideas together with Self, in Europe today neither God nor Nation musters deep loyalty among a significant majority. Instead, we see the emergence of the individual Self as the primary moral focus. At its best, Self as the predominant idea is expressed in the new international human-rights regime, which places the dignity of the individual at the center of moral concern and pressures governing bodies that systematically violate that dignity to change their ways. But if God and Nation as organizing ideas have had their downside, so surely does Self. When radical individualism rules, the dignity of every human being is all too often reduced to looking out for number one—a phenomenon whose negative consequences are all around us.
If the present situation of religion in society is the result of a history of dramatic social change stretching back at least five centuries, how is it that our leading secular advocates, with their scientistic attacks on religion, see modern secularism as the result of Darwin’s having “disproved” Christianity or religion in general? That might be right if religion were a scientific theory that could be disproved by scientific advance. (In fact, Christianity as scientific theory is a hallmark of the fundamentalism that emerged in the twentieth century, a movement of conservative believers who have tried to prove that dinosaurs and humans existed at the same time and that the theory of evolution is therefore false.) Believers in all faiths throughout most of history, however, have known all along that religion is not a scientific theory, but a form of life—a way of being in the world that is built on faith and trust, not cognitive statements that can be empirically disproved.
At this point let me shift gears and discuss certain kinds of spiritual experience that survive even in a secular age, and what their persistence might tell us about whether God is really absent from our lives. Charles Taylor quotes from the autobiography of Bede Griffiths, an English Benedictine monk who died in 1993. Here Griffiths describes something that happened to him in 1924, long before he became a Catholic and was still a conventional Anglican:
One day during my last term at school I walked out alone in the evening and heard the birds singing in that full chorus of song, which can only be heard at that time of the year at dawn or at sunset. I remember now the shock of surprise with which the sound broke on my ears. It seemed to me that I had never heard the birds singing before and I wondered whether they sang like this all year round and I had never noticed it. As I walked I came upon some hawthorn trees in full bloom and again I thought that I had never seen such a sight or experienced such sweetness before. If I had been brought suddenly among the trees of the Garden of Paradise and heard a choir of angels singing I could not have been more surprised. I came then to where the sun was setting over the playing fields. A lark rose suddenly from the ground beside the tree where I was standing and poured out its song above my head, and then sank still singing to rest. Everything then grew still as the sunset faded and the veil of dusk began to cover the earth. I remember now the feeling of awe which came over me. I felt inclined to kneel on the ground, as though I had been standing in the presence of an angel; and I hardly dared to look on the face of the sky, because it seemed as though it was but a veil before the face of God.
I would like to pair that account with one by writer and statesman Václav Havel, evoking something he experienced while imprisoned for his efforts to reform the regime in Communist Czechoslovakia:
I call to mind that distant moment in [the prison at] Hermanice when on a hot, cloudless summer day, I sat on a pile of rusty iron and gazed into the crown of an enormous tree that stretched, with dignified repose, up and over all the fences, wires, bars, and watchtowers that separated me from it. As I watched the imperceptible trembling of its leaves against an endless sky, I was overcome by a sensation that is difficult to describe: all at once, I seemed to rise above all the coordinates of my momentary existence in the world into a kind of state outside time in which all the beautiful things I had ever seen and experienced existed in a total “co-present”; I felt a sense of reconciliation, indeed of an almost gentle consent to the inevitable course of things as revealed to me now, and this combined with a carefree determination to face what had to be faced. A profound amazement at the sovereignty of Being became a dizzying sensation of tumbling endlessly into the abyss of its mystery; an unbounded joy at being alive, at having been given the chance to live through all I have lived through, and at the fact that everything has a deep and obvious meaning—this joy formed a strange alliance in me with a vague horror at the inapprehensibility and unattainability of everything I was so close to in that moment, standing at the very “edge of the finite”; I was flooded with a sense of ultimate happiness and harmony with the world and with myself, with that moment, with all the moments I could call up, and with everything invisible that lies behind it and has meaning. I would even say that I was somehow “struck by love,” though I don’t know precisely for whom or what.
Are these experiences of Griffiths and Havel, and many more like them, scientific accounts that can be proved or disproved empirically? Or might they represent an altogether different way of relating to reality? Taylor’s term for what the two men describe is “fullness,” an experience he contrasts with the experience of emptiness, which he also calls exile. We know that some of those who have experienced fullness most profoundly have also experienced emptiness, what Christian mystics have called the dark night of the soul. But don’t all of us at times wonder, What is the point? Why am I even alive? Fullness and emptiness are to some degree part of everyone’s life, even if not conveyed in the dramatic form of the great mystics (or with the eloquence of Griffiths and Havel, for that matter).
But Taylor also describes what he calls the “middle condition”—the everyday life which, if you have renounced religious faith, is all there is. Of this “middle condition” Taylor writes:
This is where we have found a way to escape the forms of negation, exile, emptiness, without having reached fullness. We come to terms with the middle position, often through some stable, even routine order in life, in which we are doing things which have some meaning for us; for instance, which contribute to our ordinary happiness, or which are fulfilling in various ways, or which contribute to what we conceive of as the good. Or often, in the best scenario, all three: for instance, we strive to live happily with spouse and children, while practicing a vocation which we find fulfilling, and also which constitutes an obvious contribution to human welfare.
Taylor respects people who live in this middle position (in an earlier book, Sources of the Self, he writes approvingly of what he calls the modern “affirmation of ordinary life”), even as he notes our culture’s widespread desire for “something more”—“a hunger for meaning,” often expressed as an interest in the “spiritual,” and often with the caveat, “I’m spiritual but I’m not religious.” Some who possess such a hunger, Taylor observes, resolutely repress it, choosing to believe that there just isn’t anything more. He gives Camus as an existentialist example, but some postmodernists seem to fit the bill just as well. We live, they seem to say, in a dark, cold, and meaningless world, so make the best of it. Carve out whatever meaning you can for yourself and don’t expect anyone or anything to bring you salvation. Here, the middle condition risks sinking into emptiness.
The absence of God is part of the challenge of secularism. But meeting that challenge means looking for the ways we might find that God is not absent after all—that even now God is present, closer to us than the vein of our neck, as the Qur’an puts it. To me this means challenging, as I have been doing all my life, the individualistic starting point that underlies so many of our contemporary assumptions. It is a religious truth—but in this case also, I would argue, a sociological one—that we are social beings all the way down. Such a belief was a core thought of one of the founders of sociology, Emile Durkheim. I recently came across an anecdote that illustrates the teaching of the Durkheimian school in this regard. This is a story recounted by Louis Dumont about his teacher, Marcel Mauss, the nephew and leading student of Emile Durkheim, and it concerns one of Dumont’s fellow students:
Toward the end of the year in which he was to take his diploma in ethnology, a fellow student told me that a strange thing had happened to him. He said something like this: “The other day, while I was standing on the platform of a bus, I suddenly realized that I was not looking at my fellow passengers in the manner I was used to; something had changed in my relation to them. There was no longer ‘myself and the others’; I was one of them. For a while I was wondering what was the reason for this strange and sudden transformation. All at once I realized: it was Mauss’s teaching.” The individual of yesterday had become aware of himself as a social being; he had perceived his personality as tied to his language, attitudes, and gestures whose images were reflected by his neighbors.
Though this account is not as dramatic as those of Griffiths or Havel, I would argue that it is of the same kind. Mauss’s teachings were didactic and can certainly be called scientific, but Dumont’s fellow student was not convinced simply by rational argument. Something happened to him from the outside, so to speak. He “saw” a reality that until then had only been an argument. He became what he knew. In this sense I would consider his experience religious, like those of Griffiths and Havel. All three cases summon a new sense of meaning in the world, one in which the self is no longer an outside observer, as one must always be in scientific work, but part of a common world that is social and, in the cases of Griffiths and Havel, cosmological as well.
It would be easy to call these experiences subjective, and to explain them in terms of individual psychology. I don’t doubt that psychology is part of it, and yet an experience in which self and world are participating in each other—are in communion, so to speak—cannot be so simply dismissed. Too much human reality would be lost by such a reductive move. Perhaps we need to consider why that reductive move is so tempting in our cultural situation, why the distanced view of reality seems more genuine than the participatory sense of the world. Taylor speaks of objectification and disengagement as intellectual hallmarks of the educated elite already in the seventeenth century, and shows how this cultural attitude, drawing on the prestige of science, expressed a new social aspiration. Enlightenment thinkers were struggling to disengage themselves from a tangle of obligations and constraints that included kinship and patron-client relationships, aristocratic privilege, and royal authority. Christian symbolism was deeply entangled in this web of social constraint. For aren’t father and king primary ways of referring to God? And didn’t the church sanction almost every form of that constraint?
To Enlightenment thinkers, Christianity was just one more way in which individuals were treated as children, subordinated to arbitrary and unquestionable authority, denied the autonomy that they considered essential to human dignity. “Men will never be free,” Denis Diderot is said to have pronounced, “until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest.” For Diderot, religion and the old society he longed to escape were so thoroughly intertwined that he had to reject both of them in order to attain the new world he hoped for. Taylor would not deny that Diderot’s anger was in some sense justified, that the church had indeed entangled itself with the Old Regime to an unacceptable degree. If he had a chance to argue with Diderot, however, he would probably show him that his very ideal of individual dignity would have been unthinkable without the Christian tradition, and that by throwing out that tradition and uncritically adopting a stance of disengagement, he was losing far more than he knew.
By using the prestige of science to support social and cultural changes long at work in Europe quite independently of science, Enlightenment thinkers abandoned not only religion as a way of relating to reality but, in an important sense, everyday life as a way of relating to reality. The scientist brackets the world of everyday life, suspending its taken-for-grantedness so that anything and everything can be called into question. In so doing, the scientist must strictly limit, so far as possible, all his or her own cultural and social preconceptions—religious, personal, even emotional. Whatever form of reality comes under study must be investigated without prior prejudice, revealing its own truth and not that of the investigator. In no other human realm is the distance between subject (the scientist) and object (whatever is studied by the scientist) greater: in this respect, science requires a certain asceticism and denial of self, and the scientist who allows personal feelings or beliefs to influence his scientific findings is not doing science. It is this model of radical disengagement that the Enlightenment philosophers sought to enshrine.
Such disengagement has its uses, clearly. As the only or primary way of relating to reality, however, its consequences would be catastrophic. If, as I believe, we are social all the way down, then we are formed from our earliest childhood by the care of others, whom we learn to care for in turn. We are our engagements and our obligations: as parents and children; as teachers and students; as husbands and wives; and as fellow citizens. Yes, oppressive engagements and unfair obligations do exist, and it is right to resist them; but the stance of radical disengagement is not a human stance, and we adopt it at our risk.
Let me give an example, from a recent discussion of science and religion in the New York Times. The article reported on a conference in November 2006 at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, in which a discussion seemed to turn into a kind of antireligious scientific evangelicalism.
Carolyn Porco, a senior research scientist at the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, called, half in jest, for the establishment of an alternative church... “We should let the success of the religious formula guide us,” Dr. Porco said. “Let’s teach our children from a very young age about the story of the universe and its incredible richness and beauty. It is already so much more glorious and awesome—and even comforting—than anything offered by any scripture or God concept I know.”
What Porco apparently didn’t understand when she invoked this “alternative church” is how fully such a notion abandons real science. What she wants to “teach our children” is not a theory but, as she says herself, a story, a narrative—that is, a myth. That the universe is incredibly rich and beautiful, I have no doubt. But I know for certain that science is not in the business of telling us about that richness and beauty; in fact, it cannot possibly tell us and still be science. Nor is it science’s business to comfort us with the glorious and the awesome. Indeed, all of its great achievements would be undermined if it tried to take on that role. This is what philosophers call a category mistake: imagining that science can do what only religion can do, and messing up science in the attempt. From the point of view of science, the universe is neither dark, cold, and meaningless, nor glorious and awesome; it simply is. In the end, that is why science is never enough: it can give us information but not meaning, and human beings can’t live without meaning. Even the claim that the universe is meaningless is a kind of meaning. As the case of Porco suggests, scientists, like the rest of us, need meaning.
The question of science and meaning provoked one of the great discourses (I almost wrote “sermons”) of the twentieth century, Max Weber’s “Science as a Vocation.” Weber struggled with the question of whether science has any meaning, whether it can even prove that the results of its own investigations are worth knowing. Quoting Tolstoy, he asserted that “science is meaningless because it gives no answer to our question, the only question important for us: ‘What shall we do and how shall we live?’”
For Weber there are no “objective” answers, only “subjective” ones, and it is a matter of arbitrary choice which one we choose. He took his stand in a kind of stoic middle position, ending his essay by calling us “to work to meet the ‘demands of the day,’ in human relations as well as in our vocation.” But at the close of his essay he says something surprising, hinting at a way to span the gulf between objectivity and subjectivity in the modern world. Meeting the demands of the day, he writes, “is plain and simple, if each finds and obeys the demon who holds the fibers of his very life.” “Demon” here translates the Greek daimon—not an evil spirit but a kind of personal spirit, such as the one who warned Socrates whenever he was tempted to do something wrong. It is significant that, to express his deepest convictions, Weber had to resort to figurative, even “religious” language. He knew what Taylor’s fullness was, and even yearned for it, though he felt that it was not a realistic possibility in the twentieth century. All his life, Weber was fascinated by what he called the “ethic of brotherliness,” expressed above all in Jesus, the Buddha, and St. Francis, but he doubted we could find such people in the streets of the modern city. His own daimon was a completely private one, which is finally the only kind possible for a radical individualist.
I have been suggesting all along that God is not absent in our secular age, but is as present as ever—everywhere around us, if we could but see. The accounts of Griffiths and Havel remind us that even in the twentieth century, Weber notwithstanding, God can still be powerfully experienced, and that the fullness Taylor describes is as readily available to us today as it has ever been. I am not saying that such experiences “prove the existence of God.” I am quite sure that God is not a thing, and so not something that can be proved or disproved. God is not a theory, and the way to God is through a living relationship, not theorizing. That I think, is what Griffiths and Havel are showing us. True, both their accounts seem to start with a kind of nature mysticism—Griffiths in the fields at sunset, Havel viewing from his prison yard the sunlight in a great tree. Yet Griffiths ends with an intuition of the face of God behind the veil of the sky, and Havel experiences the sovereignty of Being: not a being, but Being, with a capital B, what Paul Tillich called Being itself. This is one of the traditional ways of speaking of God, and in the end Havel tells us that he was “struck by love,” though he didn’t know for whom or what. It isn’t hard to imagine that with Havel’s cultural background the Johannine teaching that God is love was present in that experience.
This prospect raises a further question: Is it possible that God is still present in the church, or is that the last place we could find him, as many of our spiritual seekers today believe? To help explain my intimation that God is in fact present in the church, let me turn to Charles Taylor once again. We have seen that in the eighteenth century, some among the intelligentsia rejected the Christian church because they believed it a bastion of arbitrary authority and illegitimate hierarchy, utterly opposed to the autonomous individual—and that the church was to some degree guilty as charged. But idealizing the autonomous individual (who, by the way, was typically an adult male of high social status) meant losing a deeper meaning that defined the church. The Christian church is fundamentally about relationship, about communion—in Greek, koinonia. As Taylor notes in A Secular Age, the very definition of the Christian God is in terms of communion: one God in three persons, already a society, though one so intimate as to be deeply a unity.
Do the members of the divine Trinity present a hierarchical relationship? Though some in the early church argued about this—father and son, after all, would seem to imply hierarchy of a sort—fundamentally the meaning of the Trinity rests not on hierarchy (or equality), but on a profound set of relationships. Augustine likened the Trinity to a string trio, each playing a different instrument and making a different contribution, but so attuned to one another that they produce a common sound, each line of which needs the other two to be intelligible. It is precisely this sense that reality is ultimately social that many modern intellectuals who have turned against the church have lost. Taylor writes:
At the heart of orthodox Christianity, seen in terms of communion, is the coming of God through Christ into a personal relation with disciples, and beyond them others, eventually ramifying through the church to humanity as a whole. God establishes the new relation with us by loving us, in a way we cannot unaided love one another. [We love because he first loved us, 1 John 4:19.] The lifeblood of this new relation is agape [the biblical Greek word for love], which can’t ever be understood simply in terms of a set of rules, but rather as the extension of a certain kind of relation, spreading outward in a network. The church is in this sense a quintessentially network society, even though of an utterly unparalleled kind, in that the relations are not mediated by any historical forms of relatedness: kinship, fealty to a chief, or whatever. It transcends all these, but [is rather] a network of ever different relations of agape.
“Of course,” Taylor quickly adds, “the church lamentably and spectacularly fails to live up to this model, but this is the kind of society that it is meant to be.”
In the Christian tradition, God is revealed to us everywhere, but particularly in the sacraments (especially the Eucharist) and in the word, especially the words of Jesus. Catholics have held onto a doctrine about the Eucharist that Protestants originally rejected but are now tentatively reappropriating—namely, the doctrine of the Real Presence, which holds that in the Eucharist, right here on this altar, this bread and this wine are the body and blood of Christ. The Eucharist, or Communion, is not only a remembrance of an event that happened two thousand years ago, but an event happening now: Christ is giving his body and blood for us right now. And we in turn are called, as some radical Catholics put it, to be Eucharist for others, that is, to give our body and blood for others as he gave his for us.
Recently I came across a particularly poignant account of finding the presence of God in the Eucharist—that of Mother Teresa, surely one who gave her body and blood for others. Her recently published autobiographical reflections, Come Be My Light, reveal that she experienced a dark night of the soul, an experience of emptiness and exile, more strongly than anyone had imagined. But the one place where the presence of God never failed her, she said, was in her daily Eucharist: there was God in the bread and the wine, the body and the blood. It was that presence that helped her to go on in her dark moments.
For most of us, most of the time, taking Communion is a routine and quite ordinary event. But not always. When I taught my undergraduate course on the sociology of religion, I required my studens to write a paper based on first-hand experience, such as field work in a religious community, that would then be analyzed with concepts from the course. Over the years I got a number of papers, almost always from Catholic students, for whom, even after years of routine practice, the bread and the wine were suddenly and powerfully experienced as the body and blood of Christ, and the experience was as transforming as those of Griffiths and Havel. What the experience most powerfully expressed was a sense of being united with God, but also with all human beings.
Actually, what my students experienced is very close to St. Paul’s understanding of the Eucharist in 1 Corinthians 10:16–17, which the King James Version translates this way: “The cup of blessing, which we bless, is it not the communion [Greek koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” The Revised Standard Version renders this question differently—“is it not participation in the blood of Christ?”—while the New Revised Standard asks, “is it not a sharing in the blood...?” Whether translated as communion, participation, or sharing, koinonia is the same word, and all three translations convey an important part of its meaning. In my Episcopal parish, when sending out lay ministers to take the Eucharist to those who are too old or sick to come to church, the priest says, “In the name of this congregation, I send you forth bearing these holy gifts that those to whom you go may share with us in the body and blood of Christ,” and the congregation responds, “Though we are many, we are one body because we all share one bread and one cup.” We are enacting the words of St. Paul; sacrament and word come together.
For a powerful example of how the word can help us experience the presence of God even in the midst of our individualistic culture, let me turn to St. Paul’s great speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, as recounted in Acts 17. The question of whether the sentiments expressed in the speech really belonged to Paul, or merely present what Luke, the author of Acts, thinks Paul would have said, shouldn’t deter us from paying attention to the remarkable words themselves. Among other things, it is one of the few truly interfaith moments in the New Testament, for Paul wants to show the Athenians that they already understand at least part of what he wants to say:
From one ancestor [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For “in him we live and move and have our being,” as even some of your own poets have said.
Paul recognizes that the pagan Greeks had an intimation of the presence of God, that God is not far from each of us, whatever our tradition. And in the words “in him we live and move and have our being,” isn’t Paul pointing to the very kind of experience that Bede Griffiths, Vaclav Havel, and Louis Dumont’s fellow student had in our own time?
In the First Letter of John, following the line “We love because he first loved us,” John immediately goes on to assert that “those who say ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:19–20). The way to God is through love, sharing, participation, communion—that is, through a profound sense of our membership in one body. That love is God’s ever-present gift, now as much as in the first century or in 1500, if we could but see.
This essay is adapted from a talk given to the Catholic Studies Program at the University of Detroit Mercy.
Related: Sex & Christianity and The Sting of Death, by Charles Taylor
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