Sapere aude! Have courage to make use of your own understanding! is thus the motto of enlightenment.
So wrote Immanuel Kant, and he should know, his philosophical synthesis being the metaphysical backbone of the Enlightenment enterprise, especially in the area of religion. The Enlightenment demanded that one climb out from under the sway of “priestcraft” and intellectual adolescence to the new-found freedom of understanding and moral judgment. Freedom was not only a political issue; for Kant it was an intellectual one: to be human means to think for yourself. And it is religious dogmatism which hampers this freedom of thought and action, especially its unenlightened belief in arcane religious rituals. For instance, what could be more intellectually fettering than the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation? According to Kant, as the walls of the Bastille fell in France in 1789, so too should Eucharistic belief and adoration collapse under the weight of freedom. Well, one eminent Frenchman disagrees.
Professor Jean-Luc Marion is one of the greatest living philosophers, an Immortel (member of the Académie française), and a devout Catholic. He has revolutionized the philosophical history of Descartes, re-worked the fundamental framework of phenomenology, and offered profound theological reflections from a postmodern perspective. But his first theological writings were on the Eucharist, a result of his own time spent in adoration. And it is as a broadly Enlightenment philosopher that he claims the Eucharist is the ultimate gift of freedom to man.
Marion delineates the multiple manifestations of God to humans. First, God showed himself to be the Creator by making the world and all that is in it; then he made himself known through Scripture and its stories. At the appointed time he became incarnate, manifesting himself in flesh and blood. Finally, he offers himself under the species of bread and wine by transubstantiation in the Eucharist. We take him into ourselves as our daily bread, and he turns us into himself through grace. The revelatory logic here is one of ever-greater closeness: from distant traces of creation to communion through eating and drinking.
This schema is nothing new. What Marion brings to the table is a focus on the subjective involvement in this process, the freedom of the person that is more fully engaged by each of these different manifestations. Just as the manifestations begin from a distance and end with intimate communion, so too do they involve a deepening of freedom in the individual receiving them.
As Marion writes:
[T]he more [God’s] reality lowers himself, the more is it necessary to deepen the gaze that perceives the brilliance of [his] presence. The more the gift of God realizes himself without reserve, the more is it able to be rejected.
The possibility of rejection is key to the practice of freedom. For most of history it was unimaginable to reject the idea of a Creator; even today it is hard to quell the sense of the divine, despite the work of secular humanists and atheist propaganda. The inspiration of Scripture requires more attention, but anyone reading the Sermon on the Mount can recognize the moral superiority of the teachings of Christ; hence the study of the Bible outside specifically Christian contexts. For many the incarnation is a tough pill to swallow, but the phenomenon of “Jesus the Great Moral Teacher,” no matter how terminally insufficient to account for his greatness, still points to the attractiveness of this single human life. Jesus is not like any other man – perhaps he is more than a man?
But the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation and the practice of Eucharistic adoration seem somehow different. They don’t demand a response in some sort of overt, challenging fashion, as do the teachings of Scripture or the sayings of Jesus. Instead, transubstantiation and Eucharistic adoration offer God to us in a radically hidden manner. In some ways, God has done most of the work in revealing himself in Creation, through the Scriptures, and as Jesus Christ. But the Eucharist leaves us with much of the work; it is not obvious at all that the Host is actually the substantial presence of Christ, God-become-man. Affirming that truth requires much more from us, a free response beyond what our senses and sensibilities tell us. Hence the response in adoration is more than a cognitive one: we adore on our knees.
In a way, transubstantiation, far from being a magical ritual, is the mature expression of Christian faith: God becomes a res, a thing, allowing us to reject or mistake him for something else, to forget or ignore him in his tabernacle. He respects our freedom, not compelling but inviting the practice of faith, waiting for us to respond to his gracious visitation.
If Jean-Luc Marion is correct, the question is not, pace Kant, when we shall become enlightened enough to stop believing in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but when we will be free enough to start adoring him there.
Image: Peter Paul Rubens, The Last Supper