Recently (and weirdly) the Holy Eucharist has been in the news.
Back in June, noted Washington socialite and journalist Sally Quinn, an announced agnostic, took communion at Tim Russert’s funeral Mass. There was a fair amount of furor over what appeared to be Quinn’s blithe transgression of the sacred barriers surrounding the Eucharist. More recently, in the culmination of a convoluted and fairly childish series of events, the University of Minnesota biology professor PZ Myers declared himself baffled by the furor (extending all the way to threatening emails) with which Catholics responded to the theft of a consecrated Eucharistic wafer by a student. In retaliation for such behavior, Myers announced his intent to publicly desecrate a Host.
Baffled is a good word for the whole thing. Meeting every appeal to theology, tradition, and symbol with the phrase “It’s a frackin’ cracker,” [warning; language] Myers dismisses as silly and nebulous all arguments that the theft could possibly carry greater cultural weight than, say, stealing a Triscuit. Strangely, it appears that Myers actually believes that deep down Catholics really acknowledge this – they must, so it goes, because people are inherently rational – and are simply being pigheaded to spite him.
Quinn, on the other hand, is a devotee of the church of Sheila, a favorite of sociologists and other students of contemporary American religion. Sheilaists see little value in boundaries, in self-denial, in the mysterious grandeur of an inscrutable and demanding God. Rather, like the eponymous Sheila (described by sociologist Robert Bellah) they seek self-fulfillment in religion, tinkering with the symbols and meanings of a variety of faiths Eastern and Western, mixing and matching theology and therapy in pursuit of personal validation and meaning. For Quinn, to partake of the Eucharist was to “feel closer to Tim” – not to participate in any sort of meaningmaking so particular as that which a denomination might offer. She meant “no disrespect,” she says, and the sentiment is certainly sincere; indeed, being true to her own system of faith merely trumps the exclusive boundaries of Catholicism.
So, the exclusivity, the determined supernaturalism of Catholic rite have always seemed foreign and a little (or lot) strange to Americans raised and nurtured on an increasingly inclusivist and rational Protestantism. Myers’s harshly sarcastic castigations and Quinn’s airy boundary blurring stem from the very same and very American, impulses: egalitarianism, suspicion of authority, confidence in individual common sense, a preference for practicality over mysticism.
I’ve ruminated a bit before (here) about Mormon eucharistic theology. But these particular events have caused me to think a bit more about what precisely the elements of “the sacrament” are to Mormons, and what it does.
Though I’d imagine most Mormons would surely find Myers’ actions offensive, such a reaction probably stems more from his belligerent disrespect for religion in general than from the particular sense of sacrilege that Catholics feel. Like many reformed Protestants, heirs of the theology of Reformer Huldrich Zwingli, Mormons, in general, are memorialists. The bread and water are merely that, symbolic reminders of Christ rather than metaphysical bearers of saving grace or his ‘real presence.’ (See here for a recent discussion of Mormon baptism that takes a similar position.)
This theology may also indicate why Quinn’s action would be less disturbing to the locals if it had taken place in a Mormon sacrament meeting. Like many other Christians, Mormons restrict the Eucharist – but it is, paradoxically, a mark of the modern interpretation of the rite that such restriction is only enforced upon straying members of the elect as a means to encourage self-examination, while non-Mormons are left to their own devices. The bread and water is now spoken of as a time to renew one’s covenants, to reaffirm one’s dedication to follow Christ. To partake, like Quinn, absent such commitments is meaningless rather than sacrilege, because the meaning of the Eucharist has in the twentieth century become dependent upon the covenantal state of the communicant.
There’s a part of me (the same part that enjoys Calvin) that wishes Mormon theology was less austere and accomodating than this. But of course, Mormons have their own sacraments, those of the temple, in which such is precisely the case. Mormonism’s public sacraments resemble the democratizing and demystification of the Radical Reformation; their private sacraments mystical and exclusive Catholicism at its highest.
However, Section 27 of the Doctrine and Covenants, transcribed in August 1830, long before the sacramental theologies outlined above hardened, is interesting to consider here. It foregrounds an aspect of the Eucharist often overlooked; that is, the bread and wine as a type of the wedding feast of the Lamb, a millenarian interpretation that overwhelmed theologies of memorialism. The Saints here are instructed that wine will be restored to the cup in place of water when Christ himself comes to drink. The prosaic reason why water is commended to the Saints, of course, is that wine was associated with ‘enemies,’ merchants and vintners who stood part of that looming, vaguely hostile Gentile world that early Mormons saw all around them. But such a warning is linked to an implicit promise: that world would be subdued when Christ came again. Soon.
In this way, then, the Eucharist was tied to an electric sense of the supernatural; a vibe of holy expectation shot through it in a way that utterly bypassed the question of the properties of the bread and water themselves. The Eucharist of section 27 is a divine boundary marker, dividing the wheat from the tares, re-orienting human society along supernatural lines, marking the Mormons as God’s elect, the invisible and the visible church in one. The elements themselves hold no sacred power; the grace of the rite, rather, resided in the boundaries, and in history. To take the Eucharist from the hands of Joseph Smith was to become a part of a radical and apocalyptic world. But the bread was just bread, and the wine could just as easily be water.
Of course, scholars like Jan Shipps have argued that the sacred boundaries of the nineteenth century, marking off literal Zions and holy territory, have since dissolved into less grandiose borders marked through individual behavior. The evolution of the Mormon sacrament may reflect this. But there also may be something less academic to it. In the introduction to Ritual in Early Modern Europe, author Edward Muir recalls his own experience as a Mormon priest, blessing and uncovering the sacramental trays, and the holy awe he felt. “My account of the sacrament neither follows church doctrine nor was designed to promote faith,” he writes. Rather, “It was designed to identify something about the emotional experiences that are possible by participating in a ritual.”  The meanings of the Mormon sacrament have changed over time; not always in logically coherent or consistent ways, but always in ways that held meanings for individual people. One lesson Mormon history could take from the Myers and Quinn experience, then, may be that the popular and personal can give us great insight into the ways theology is experienced as religion.