Learning to Think Twice About Sacraments

The Second Day of Christmas and the Synaxis of the Holy Theotokos

Prayer_Rope_Square.jpegA WISE rabbi offered me this radical truth, way back in the 1970s: “Most people think once in their lives.” It is indeed a great gift, he confessed, to discover a single truth to orient one’s life, to making it the lodestar and true north of one’s existence. “Rare is the person,” he added, “who thinks twice.” What he meant is that our single insight constitutes such a breakthrough that we rarely reconsider it. Seldom do we hold our idée fixe at a sufficiently critical distance so as to challenge its adequacy: to think twice.

I.

Insofar as my own evangelicalism can be counted as representative, I am perhaps like others in discovering a single governing idea during my collegiate years. I thought once (and with apparent finality) when I came to discern that fundamentalist Christianity is utterly inadequate. To place my faith in biblical inerrancy, to regard Scripture as a book of science and history, to deny the eons-long evolutionary development of the natural order, to adopt a propositionalist understanding of the chief Christian doctrines—miracles, the Virgin birth, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, Substitutionary Atonement—was to be left with an impoverished Christianity.

A thorough immersion in the theologies of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich during graduate school confirmed my original idea. Tillich taught me that every person and every culture, even every work of art, has an implicit concern for ultimacy: for those things that demand final rather than proximate loyalty. In order for such ultimate concern to be authentic, it must be centered in God, the source and ground of Being. If faith in God is not to be directed to an idol, it must be expressed in symbols. For Tillich, a symbol not only points to something else but, in a very deep sense, participates in the reality at which it gestures. Tillich’s Protestantism liberalism thus struck me as infinitely preferable to Protestant fundamentalism. I had thought once, and that seemed enough.


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 I approached my first year of teaching, therefore, believing that my chief task was to wipe the grins off fundamentalist faces. I wanted to rub the noses of pious literalists in the crusty snows of secularity, challenging what I assumed to be their naïve fundamentalism with the hard quandaries of modern unbelief. Thus did we read Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. Using Tillich’s Dynamics of Faith as an interpretive lens, I sought to demonstrate that, while none of these novelists was a professed Christian, they all address implicitly religious questions: the persistence of doubt, the problem of suffering and tragedy, the apparent futility of human existence, even the death of God. It’s an approach still worth taking.

Yet I immediately faced a problem—there wasn’t a single fundamentalist in any of my classes! My students were almost all products of the secular 60s. They had been formed by the Vietnam war, by the racial crisis, by (as was then said) “sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll.” The Tillichian claim that “the divine is characterized by the victory of the creative over the destructive possibility of the holy, and the demonic is characterized by the victory of the destructive over the creative possibility of the holy” was completely opaque to them. Tillich’s watchword—“Religion is the substance of culture, and culture is the shape of religion”—was hardly a creed worth dying for.

What to do? Slowly I came to discern that an anti-fundamentalist remains a certain kind of fundamentalist, since the opponent still defines the essential terms. A negative faith is also a barren faith: opposition trumps affirmation. And so I was compelled to think twice, to ask whether Protestant liberalism is the best alternative to Protestant fundamentalism. It took me a long time to arrive at this second idea. Yet gradually I came to see that what my students needed was also what I needed: a thorough immersion in such imaginative writers as Dante, Herbert, Donne, Dostoevsky, Hopkins, Chesterton, Eliot, Auden, Tolkien, Lewis and (my first love) Flannery O’Connor.

These authors did not fit the liberal-conservative antithesis. Unlike fundamentalists, their belief was not located primarily in the mind. Yet neither was it grounded on subjective experience, like much liberalism and evangelicalism. Whether Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic, or else Roman Catholic, my heroes were all sacramentalists. They were men and women who understood Christian faith as participation in the sacramental Body of Christ. Their fiction and drama and poetry are embedded in the radical otherness and mystery of the sacraments.

II.

Sacrament is not a word to be used lightly. As with the word Incarnation, we turn it into an adjective at great peril. Sacramental and incarnational often become loose terms for describing almost anything and everything as holy. Sacraments proper prevent such mush. They are outward and visible signs of inward and invisible grace, as the classic definition declares. Sacraments are effectual events, performative acts. They enact what they declare. These holy mysteries create a new reality, even if invisibly, that cannot be created elsewhere or by any other means. When the priest or minister declares a man and woman to be married, they at that moment become so. They are not symbolically joined but sacramentally bound.

So it is with baptism. When performed by an authorized person with the right intention and in the triune name, baptism initiates believers into the Body of Christ. Sacramental baptism is not the public confession of the well-intended convert. It is the indelible gift of the Church. It brands us with the Cross. It sears the mark of Christ into our flesh. “Christians are not born but made,” said testy Tertullian. Even when we miserably fail to fulfill our baptismal promises, we can escape our Christening no more than we can elude our shadow.

The Eucharist, of course, is the supreme sacrament. Yet I had been brought up to regard the Lord’s Supper as a symbol, a means of grateful remembrance of Christ’s death. Because it performed nothing efficacious, we celebrated it only four times a year, and with no sense of its utter necessity. Having to think twice about Christ’s own body and blood has been my greatest challenge. Of no symbol could it ever be said what our Lord declares of his own sacrament: “Whoever does not eat my flesh and drink my blood has no life in them.”

There is nothing magical about this and the other sacraments. As Flannery O’Connor said, if we partake of the Eucharist in order “to feel something special,” we have corrupted the holiest of all things. We have made it a means for the fulfillment of our own subjective desires. To receive it unworthily, therefore, is to risk our damnation. O’Connor thus likened the Eucharist to seeds being dropped silently into our bloodstream. Gradually—often taking years, even decades—these invisible kernels open and blossom into radically transformed life.

Sacramental Christianity is analogical. It provides the spectacles for a bodily encounter with the entire cosmos as reflecting and echoing and reverberating with the wonder of God’s gift to us. Among this plethora of analogies and symbols are sacramentals. They are material objects or actions that serve as aids to Christian devotion and practice. They are ubiquitous, found almost anywhere. Rosaries and prayer ropes, holy water and priestly blessings, the imposition of ashes and the Stations of the Cross, pilgrimages and shrines, genuflection and prostration and crossing ourselves: these are all sacramentals. This weekend’s celebration is devoted to such sacred analogies as found in the earth itself. The earth is not our mother, said Chesterton, but our sister—a fellow creature. Having faith in the sacraments thus enables us to think twice. To the extent we are sacramentalists, we understand the world as God’s gift because it constitutes a cornucopia of sacramentals.


Ralph Wood is Professor of Theology and Literature at Baylor University.  He was the keynote speaker at the second and third annual Eighth Day Symposium and will be back with us for our second annual Inklings Festival.

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