Sunday, February 11, 2007

Sacraments—diminished by Subjectivism and Individualism?

When a human being, even a saint, partakes of a Sacrament he does not cease to be—in modern parlance—an “individual” and he does not suspend his subjectivity. That is, he is conscious of feelings and he knows himself to be distinct from others present.

This being so, many have seen the Sacraments as ministering only or primarily to him in his individuality and subjectivity in order to raise his affections towards God and away from sin, and to impel him in his personal life to live more fully in holiness and piety. However, if this is how the Sacrament is understood then, it may be claimed, the people have been inadequately instructed. Of course, to be inspired, uplifted and energized to go forth in one’s individual life to love and serve the Lord is good, really good, but if it is the expressed and only purpose of the Sacrament, then it is insufficient and misleading, for it leaves out a very major dimension.

Looking back through time, we now see that in the medieval period the Sacraments—in the context of the ex opere operato doctrine of divine presence and action— were generally considered to be a means of individual salvation and stimulants of individual devotion, piety, and sanctification. Any larger reference, theological and spiritual, was hidden and not prominent. That is, what we may call the organic relation of both the person receiving the Sacrament, and the Sacrament itself, to the Church as the Body of Christ (“the Mystical Body of Christ”) was not primary in interest or emphasis. If it were in mind at all, it lay behind the view of the Sacraments as divine actions working psychologically and atomistically. We are familiar with well-known devotional books from the medieval period which illustrate the concentration on subjectivity in piety.

This common medieval approach of subjectivity was not much changed by the Protestant Reformation or the Roman Counter-Reformation in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. On the one side the cry of, “by faith alone and not by works,” could easily create and nourish the primacy of subjectivity, that of faith in the heart; and, on the other, the emphasis upon attendance at Mass without regular receiving of Holy Communion encouraged subjectivity in the sense of being stimulated personally by the Event to be more devout and ready to do the will of the Lord in daily living. The relation of the Sacraments to the Mystical Body of Christ was not prominent in either tradition.

Later in Protestant history, there arose Pietism and then the Evangelical Revival and out of these emerged a warm, heart-centered form of piety with emphasis on “personal assurance” that “Jesus is mine.” By this time the impact of modern, expressive individualism was also being felt in western society, and so to the intense subjectivity of inner conviction and assurance was added the sense of a real and vital individual and direct relation[ship] with God the Father through Christ. Sacraments in Evangelical Protestantism were very much in the background and personal, individual experience of conversion or “being born again” was in the foreground. In fact Sacraments were seen as only having meaning as the acts of human beings towards God and not acts of God in grace toward man—thus Baptism was dedication to God and the Lord’s Supper was remembering Jesus on the Cross and his atoning work.

In the Catholic Camp the subjectivity, strengthened by individualism, was also much present where, for example, the Mass was less a fellowship of fellow believers and more a collection of individual Christians who rarely received the Body of Christ, but who engaged in private devotions as the priest did his important thing at the altar. Most of the devotions recommended for use by pious souls before, during and after Mass, encouraged personal, individual piety and sanctification. One attended the Service with many others but one was there as one individual amongst many such cultivating one’s relation with God and the saints.

There is a real sense that Vatican II, amongst other things, attempted in the 1960s to bring to the forefront the idea of the Church as the Mystical Body of Christ and of the Sacraments as the actions of Christ within His Body and therefore, in the first place for the good of the Body—and then secondarily for the individual sanctification and good of the individual member. (Those who know the writings of E Mersch, Yves Congar and Henri de Lubac will recall that they wrote powerfully of the Church as the Mystical Body and the Sacraments as intimately related to this Body.) However, trying to correct excessive subjectivism and expressive individualism is a difficult task and has to be renewed in each generation and just how far Rome has been successful in all this is open to debate. (It may have replaced the old ways with the new ways of communitarianism and easy approach to the altar!)

To get Protestants in general to think first of the Mystical Body and then of the Gospel Sacraments in relation to that Body is asking a lot! It is perhaps impossible for subjectivity and individualism seem to reign completely in much of American Protestantism and Evangelicalism. In the liberal main-line denominations, under the influence of the liturgical movement, attempts have been made to recover the doctrine of the Mystical Body but these attempts have been somewhat put off track through the presence of progressive, liberal theology.

In the Anglican tradition, as also in the Lutheran tradition, there is both the basis for the possibility of the priority of the Mystical Body and also of the possibility of the priority of subjectivism and individualism. In the classic Book of Common Prayer services of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, the emphasis is upon the Holy Trinity as the God of the covenant of grace who in mercy provides the Sacraments in order to bring repentant sinners into this covenant and thereby into the kingdom, family and church of God. Thus, one can find in them the clear teaching that Sacraments exist within the Body of Christ primarily for the good of this Body, which is also the Bride of Christ. And one can major on this.

At the same time, because of the heavy emphasis in these Services upon the duty of repenting of sin and believing the promises of God, of self-examination and lively faith in the crucified and risen Christ, they can easily be read as encouraging the equivalent of the old medieval subjective approach, but with a more biblically-based expression.

We may summarize the essential points in the following way:

“The Sacraments do not operate by their effect upon our feelings, nor is their primary purpose our individual edification. They operate because they are the acts of Christ in his Mystical Body the Church, and their purpose is the building up of the Body of Christ by the ever closer and fuller incorporation of his members into him. It is the function of the Sacraments to establish, to maintain and to extend, to vivify and to unify, the Mystical Body of the whole Christ, made up of the Head and members in one organic and coherent pattern of life, to the glory of God the Father.”

I hope that it is the case that Anglicans in renewal in North America are moving away from subjectivism and individualism in their sacramental understanding and practice.

Sexagesima 2007

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