Last week I was feeling puckish, so I tweeted out, “What if, and just go with me here, what if only the sacraments are sacramental?”
I think most people got that I was being somewhat playful. Still, some folks were, well, they weren’t entirely pleased. So I wanted to quickly unpack some very rough, very semi-developed, in-transition thoughts on that, which also happen to dovetail with last week’s short post on “disenchantment” narratives.
First, let me clear the deck and just say I am very much pro-sacraments, value baptism, celebrating the Lord’s Supper weekly, and understanding them to be doing something more significant than mere memorialism. I went Reformed partly for Calvin’s strong doctrine of the sacraments. They have become central to my understanding of the Church, the preaching of the Gospel, and the practice of the faith in a way they never were before.
That said, I’ll admit I’ve been a bit suspicious of a certain sort of spirituality of “sacramentality” that’s hot in, well, semi-nerdy, theology circles. Of late it’s been hot to talk about “sacramental ontology” and how terrible it is that it’s been lost due to whatever cause (Protestantism, nominalism, univocity, etc.–though often not technology, which is probably the biggest culprit), and how we need to regain it, and so forth.
The problem is, most of the time I’m not exactly sure what folks mean by that phrase “sacramental ontology.” Nor am I entirely sure others do when they use it. At least, people seem to be much potential for equivocation and confusion in the midst of all the excitement. To quote the great philosopher Chazz Michael Michaels, “nobody knows what it means, but it’s provocative; it gets the people going.” And so, yes, I was poking fun at that. (Maybe that’s unfair, and not really academic, but it’s Twitter, so what do you expect?)
Still, I think I get why some were annoyed. For some of the folks who go in for it, it has to do with seeing in the sacraments an antidote towards modern disenchantment. Last week I talked about one thread, or version of the “disenchantment” narrative having to do with the loss of belief in the supernatural, spirits, fairies, God himself, etc. But another thread has to do with a sense that the universe becomes a different sort of space in the modern period. Creation becomes mere nature, organism becomes mechanism, and the sense of wonder one has at beholding the stars is reduced from being a functioning of the sensus divinitatus to mere physio-psychological epiphenomenon. If you take your eyes off your phone long enough to even look up at the stars.
How do the sacraments function against this? Well, for some the sacraments tell us that “matter matters”, or that the stuff of the material order can actually function as a medium of divine grace. God can use stuff to communicate truth to us about himself. The world, with its order and beauty, is not just dead nature, but the appointed, spatio-temporal medium of our encounter with our Creator.
Now, so far as that goes, I’m all fine with that. David hymns God for the way nature declares God’s glory in Psalm 19. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that the world testifies to God’s existence and power. And the seraphim remind us in their hymn the Lord in Isaiah 6 that the whole earth is full of his glory. So Calvin: “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Leaning into a solid, biblical doctrine of creation will push back on much of that sense of disenchantment.
And so, yes, from a certain angle, you can argue that one of the key advantages of the Protestant doctrine of the sacraments, precisely in its rejection of transubstantiation, is a defense of created bread and wine as actual elements wherein God meets his people. In doing so, it sort of assumes this anti-disenchantment portrait of creation having a communicative telos to it.
Some of you may be thinking, “well, Derek, if you’re willing to concede all that, then what is the complaint about?” Well, a couple of things, both of which I will admit may be (probably are) anecdotal senses to things.
As I said, some folks don’t seem to be just saying that. They seem to be importing into all their talk about nature being sacramental something far more akin to a 19th century, mystical, nature-Romanticism under the guise of a properly Christian doctrine of creation and the sacraments. It’s not so much a communicative doctrine of creation, but a magical one.
Second, maybe more importantly, is the sense that the sacraments themselves are being instrumentalized in a way that washes out and evacuates their own proper meaning. In other words, if I ask you the question, “What are the sacraments about?”, I truly hope your answer is not primarily, “it shows me matter matters,” “the world is an enchanted place,” etc.
Those may indeed be corollaries down the line. But the primary meaning of the sacraments is the concrete, historical actions that comprise the story of the gospel which they are meant to communicate: dying and rising in union with Christ, sprinkling a clean conscience, being washed pure of your sins, the broken body and shed blood of the Godman given for you, the coming wedding feast of the Lamb, the Father feeding his children, Christ’s New Exodus Passover, communion and participation in Christ’s Body, and so forth. These realities are what the sacraments are about, what they are meant to communicate and effect in us. They are particular signs and seals of a particular gospel covenant.
But when your focus is on how the sacraments show us that everything is sacramental, well, you’ve lost the sacraments. Or, to quote The Incredibles, when Elastigirl tells Dash, “everybody is special, Dash,” he replies, “which is another way of saying nobody is.” My worry is that when we’re entranced with everything being sacramental, nothing will be a proper sacrament.
As I said, this is all too brief and not very carefully worked out, but there it is. I’d be happy to read folks follow-up, additional thoughts, clarifications, and so forth. But for now, I here tweet, and I can do no other.
Soli Deo Gloria