Friday, 16 March 2018

Recovering Symbolic Realism

Theologians debating about symbolic realism.

"Merely symbolic.

Traditional and conservative Catholics are used to hearing these words as a way of watering down the Catholic belief in the sacraments and the Eucharist, and by extension the Incarnation itself. When we learn how to engage in typical Catholic apologetics of the Eucharist, and the proper interpretation of John 6, we are taught that Christ cannot mean that the bread of the Eucharist is "merely a symbol" of His body; rather, He means precisely what He says, that one must eat His actual body. It is real. Likewise, in the institution narrative, when He says "This is my body," He does not say "This is a symbol of my body." Jesus is insisting on the realism of the sacrament, a realism that metaphysically transcends all of our former conceptions of what it means for something to be real. The Protestants and the Modernists, then, are wrong to think of the Eucharist as a "mere symbol." We Catholics must respond to them that it is not a symbol, but a reality. Christ is really present in His body, blood, soul, and divinity. He is not merely symbolized. The Catholic author, Flannery O'Connor, once said of the Eucharist: "If it is a symbol, then to Hell with it."

Taking my cue largely from the work of Jean Borella, but also from certain hints in Hans Urs von Balthasar, I would like to suggest a slightly different approach. The Protestants and the Modernists are wrong, certainly; but I think something more fundamental to their error is the assumption that symbol and reality are mutually exclusive. The Catholic apologetic response to the Protestant and Modernist error about the Eucharist also rests on the same assumption. The Protestant says, The Eucharist is merely a symbol. The Catholic apologist responds, No, it is not a symbol: it is real. I, however, prefer to say: It is both. Symbolism and Realism are not mutually exclusive; indeed, I think it is philosophically necessary to maintain that symbolism and realism uphold each other, and it cannot be otherwise.

Naturally, this conviction of mine is rooted in a certain Platonic worldview which sees the reality of things as consisting precisely in their character as symbolic of a higher order of reality. Participation is the ground of the existence and intelligibility of things in our experience. In the classical, Neoplatonic sense, a symbol is precisely nothing other than an immanent participation in a transcendent intelligible order. The symbol reveals reality itself as the togetherness of immanence and transcendence, contingency and necessity, change and permanence, matter and form, etc.; and yet it is a togetherness in which these dual dimensions remain distinct. To speak in the terms of William Desmond, the symbol is a mode of metaxological mediation. Metaxology is a speaking of the Between; the symbol pertains to the betweenness of being, flanked by the same and the other, participating in both, jointly but distinctly. The symbol mediates between immanence and transcendence, as a mode of being between them. 

Certainly, it would be wrong to equate the sacramentality of the Incarnation or the Eucharist with the mode of symbolism that is described by Platonic participation. The man, Jesus Christ, does not merely participate in the Divine Nature; rather, He is hypostically united to it. One may point to the man, Christ, and truthfully declare that He is God, and God is a man, in a literal sense. The reality surpasses participation; whereas the is of a metaphor - "God is the rock of my salvation" - is not literal. Likewise, the Eucharist is Christ in a manner that is not metaphorical, but literal; one identifies the Eucharist as being the substance of Christ Himself. A metaphor does not designate any such identification. Yet it is not therefore unreal. The is of a metaphor designates a different reality than that of identity, to be sure; but it does designate a reality. The rock participates in God by a likeness that is ontologically grounded, and thus constitutes a real pathway of communication with the transcendence that it symbolizes; it is not merely fantastical, as an image of that transcendence. This is what the notion of symbolism is meant to communicate: the real possibility of "touching" transcendence. In this sense, the person of Christ, or the sacrament of the Eucharist, is definitely and undoubtedly a symbol, not by way of participation, but by way of identity. (Of course, one must understand this identity properly; it is hypostatic, i.e. it is not an identity of the human and divine natures, but of the Person who is both Man and God.) Christ is the symbol par excellence; He is in a sense the archetype of every symbol, that towards which all symbols tend. Participation is, in some sense, a desire for identity, though it also involves the recognition of non-identity. Yet identity is mysteriously and hypostatically achieved in Christ. 

I do understand, of course, where the typical response of Catholic apologetics - which is also the response of Pius X to the Modernists, in Pascendi Dominici Gregis - is coming from. There are perhaps two reasons that may partially justify the mindset which engenders the response, It is not a symbol: it is real. 1) A desire to avoid reducing the Eucharistic presence to a fiction, and thus something unreal; and 2) a desire to avoid reducing the substantial presence of Christ in the Eucharist to a mere presence by participation. The former desire rests on a misunderstanding of symbolism as something contrary to realism. The latter, however, is more justifiable, because within symbolism itself there is indeed a distinction between participation and identity (or substantial presence), even though both are quite real. Nonetheless, symbol does not mean only participation, but togetherness; and never were immanence and transcendence more together than in either the person of Christ or the sacrament of the Eucharist. This is why I think it is more proper to say that these realities are symbols in the most radical sense, par excellence. 


  1. Have you met/worked with Desmond there at Leuven? I found Being and Between quite helpful.

    1. Desmond is actually one of my professors at Leuven currently. An excellent man.