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Liturgy and life: ancient, medieval and modern

15 June 2010

Here’s an interesting review of what looks like an interesting article, showing how Eucharistic theology both reflects and shapes the understanding of society. A Pinch of Salt: Eucharist and Social Imagination: Understanding Cavanaugh:

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.

I haven’t read the article itself yet, but post this as a reminder to download and read it, and to comment it to others who might find it interesting. You can download it here. The review is worth reading on its own, even without the article.

It notes that the Reformation doctrine of the Eucharist was bound up with modernity and its stress on individualism. Luther’s Eucharistic theology is based on

[the] 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 to me, Cavanaugh’s conclusion seems to look a lot like Orthodoxy. As the reviewer notes

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 draws on the theology of Irenaeus and of Augustine to draw 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.

That seems pretty close to the Orthodox understanding of the Liturgy, and maybe one way to postmodernity is through Patristics, but perhaps people who are better versed in liturgical theology than I am could read Cavanaugh’s article and correct me if I am wrong.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 15 June 2010 12:41 pm

    Thanks Steve,

    Your quote made me realise how I’d over-laboured the word drawn! So I’ve gone back to fiddle with it.

    There will be at least two more soon on Cavanaugh’s theology of the Eucharist. Or rather his political reading of an Orthodox theology.

  2. Errol Narain permalink
    15 June 2010 6:20 pm

    Too modern for me. Cataphatic? Needs an apophatic balance to reatin the mystery.
    I am horizontal sacramentalist- organic, grassroots, incarnational, therefore socialization and missional is important for me.
    At the basis of this is a faith that is transformational and empowering.

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