One of the greatest gifts with which humanity has been endowed is the ability to make fruitful distinctions. One of our greatest temptations is that of making false distinctions; the tendency to tear asunder what God has joined together.
This presents a problem that goes beyond mere academic philosophizing. Ideas have consequences. At some point some zealous soul will fool around and start making applications based on those ideas. Notions which initially appear as epistemological conundrums eventually give way to ethical concerns. And this should concern us.
Like Adam, we are called to name the world as God has made it; to categorize creation in such a way as to preserve unique diversity, while claiming every swirling atom for a unified teleology. In his wisdom, God made a world of “differents” to serve a singular purpose—the manifestation of his multifaceted glory. To wit, lakes are not land, plants are not platypuses, birds are not buffaloes, men are not meteors; and yet, all of these reflect peculiar and particular glories of the One who made them. What was done on the first day of creation is distinguished from that which was done on the sixth day of creation, yet this division does not betray a different purpose. Such diversity is not the dissonance of notes out of tune, it is not a creational cacophony. Rather, each constituent part sounds its individual note for the sake of the whole. The instruments are many, the melody is one. This is a symphony. This diversity is the very definition of harmony.
Adam’s vocation involved naming and nurturing nature. As a priest, he was responsible for guarding the sanctity of the garden-temple and rendering its manifold fruit back to God in worship. His was the task of making distinctions between birds, beasts, and blades of grass while still recognizing their standing as holy things. As his call turned upon fruitful distinctions, his fall turned upon false distinctions—epistemological conundrum, ethical catastrophe. Adam was the first modernist, drawing the ultimate false dichotomy between a supposed sacred and secular order. He laid claim to the tree in the midst of the garden as though it was not already spoken for. He made the same fateful mistake as all thieves and robbers—he confused the two words “thine” and “mine.” Adam’s chief sin was in committing the sacrilege of secularization—rupturing the relationship between a creaturely object and its hallowed purpose.
Things haven’t changed much. Like father, like sons. We still attempt to carve the creation into neat little blocks, whittling those down further into manageable chunks. After sifting through them, we lay hold of pieces—those we esteem to be truly valuable—and set the others aside for “religious purposes.” Some are tempted to call this “tithing.” In reality, it would be better to call it theft. Every attempt to separate the world into secular bits and sacred bits is mutinous. There is a term for those actions which seek to divide a kingdom in two; that word is treason.
There is but one King. The world already bears a stamp of ownership, as do all of those who populate it. Wisdom demands that we look closer at creation and see the fingerprints of the One who fashioned it, that we look into the faces of Spirit-and-sod-formed men and see the inscription of God upon their foreheads so that we may rightly render to God the things that belong to God—which is everything.
Unfortunately, this sacred/secular, natural/supernatural dualism is the very air we breathe. We are as aware of its presence as a fish is of water. We still tend to make hard distinctions between the material and spiritual, extending the latter label only to those things which happen on Sundays through largely invisible and intangible means. This is simply our adamic blood boiling.
A failure to see all of the various parts of the world as God’s creations, and thus as God’s gifts, results in a weak and anemic view of the dbaptismal font and the Lord’s Table. We tend to see these as dim signs that (somehow) point toward intangible gifts, rather than seeing that the signs themselves are actually manifestations of grace. We miss the wonderful truth that, as graces, they perform the very things to which they point.
Consider the Eucharistic meal. To what does it point? Answer: communion with God and with our fellows. But what is actually accomplished through its observance? Answer: communion with God and with our fellows. At the Table, communion is not merely symbolized but actualized as those who share together the Body of Christ share together as the Body of Christ. By eating and drinking together, that which is signified becomes reality in a visible and tangible way. Yes, this eating is spiritual, but eating is also as sociological as it is biological.
Our diminished view of the covenant meal is due to our blindness concerning all meals. We misunderstand the nature of the feast because we misunderstand the nature of food. Perhaps it is a highly-functioning form of latent Gnosticism, or maybe it’s just spiritual amnesia; either way, it seems quite strange that thirty seconds after we have bowed our heads and given thanks we have already forgotten that the mashed potatoes and gravy are the “gifts of God for the people of God.”
Perhaps the person who has exerted the most influence upon me with regard to these ideas was a man named Alexander Schmemann, an Orthodox theologian who died in the year of my birth. In his masterful work, For the Life of the World, he writes:
“Man is what he eats.” With this statement the German materialistic philosopher Feuerbach thought he had put an end to all “idealistic” speculations about human nature. In fact, however, he was expressing, without knowing it, the most religious idea of man. For long before Feuerbach the same definition of man was given by the Bible. In the biblical story of creation man is presented, first of all, as a hungry being, and the whole world as his food.
Second only to the direction to propagate and have dominion over the earth, according to the author of the first chapter of Genesis, is God’s instruction to man to eat of the earth: “Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat….” Man must eat in order to live; he must take the world into his body and transform it into himself, into flesh and blood. He is indeed that which he eats, and the whole world is presented as one all-embracing banquet table for man. And this image of the banquet remains, throughout the whole Bible, the central image of life. It is the image of life at its creation and also the image of life at its end and fulfillment: “… that you eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.”
A bit later he says:
“Man is what he eats.” But what does he eat and why? These questions seem naïve and irrelevant not only to Feuerbach. They seemed even more irrelevant to his religious opponents. To them, as to him, eating was a material function, and the only important question was whether in addition to it man possessed a spiritual “superstructure.” Religion said yes. Feuerbach said no. But both answers were given within the same fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material. “Spiritual” versus “material,” “sacred” versus “profane,” “supernatural” versus natural.
Schmemann is rejecting the dueling dichotomies which plague modern thinking. He insists upon an alternative that is rooted in the creation, cognizant of the consummation, and is consciously eucharistic and liturgical. Beginning with creation, he points out that Adam was created a hungry being, with a need to take life in from without, but insisting that the food Adam needed was never purely “physical” sustenance: “In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God.” That is, both the food and the eating are gracious gifts of God with a view toward worship. Every eater dines on God’s bounty, and every meal is enjoyed coram Deo. Every meal is a potential eucharist, beginning with and infused by thanksgiving.
Further, it is precisely this world, the world of eating and drinking, of baking and banking, that God and Jesus put at the heart of Christian worship. At the center of Christian worship stands a table, and the climactic event toward which all liturgical action moves is a meal of bread and wine, a feast on the good things of this earth. And there is never even a need to baptize day-old bread, as it was always a holy thing. This meal, like all other meals, is a transfiguration: bread becomes praise and people become bread for God. Gone is the veil between the “material” and the “spiritual.”
This meal of the things of this world is a foretaste of a future banquet in which we enjoy the good things of the age to come. This world will be transfigured into the new heavens and new earth. Our bodies will be raised, and the world of the resurrection is this world transformed, not a “holy world” that replaces this “common world,” but this world of eating and drinking, baking and banking, will be transfigured into the kingdom. That eschatological reality has come in Jesus, the firstfruits of the resurrection, and, the eschatological banquet begins already now in the eucharistic meal. Thus, every eucharist is eschatological; a weekly parousia, a tantalizing taste of the future. All of creation is destined to be what the Lord’s Table now is, it is all destined to be the medium of our communion in Christ with the Father through the Spirit.
In Jesus, the “age to come” has broken in upon this age. Anticipating the eschaton, the eucharistic meal of bread and wine already enfolds the world of baking and banking into the sacrament. Through the works of farmers and merchants and engineers and cooks, the whole world has been brought into the presence of God and rendered up as a thanksgiving offering. Was this not what Adam was called to do?
Creation was given as an act of communion, for the purpose of communion, with a view toward communion. Communion at the Lord’s Table is a “common meal” in that we all share together in the presence of God; common meals are communion for the very same reason. As Schmemann said, “All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man.” So let us stop chopping the world into imaginary chunks. Instead, let us use those carving knives to cut bread until the whole world has risen into one loaf—a worldly offering to God.