Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Cavanaugh and Yoder and the Possibilty of a Common Bread - Part 1?

Being moved by the work of William Cavanaugh I was quickly brought back to the five walls (I am sure there was some functional reason for this) of my church office at Hillcrest Mennonite Church. I can harbour great admiration for the role of the Eucharist in Cavanaugh's Catholic work but can I have that inform in a significant way how I articulate and practice communion here at my Mennonite church? Having recently returned to the work of John Howard Yoder I was looking for some direction.
What I appreciated about C's work was how he based its beginning and end in a theological account of the abundance of God and its relationship to the kenotic expression of Christ and ultimately of our participation in that relationship. I viewed this in contrast to the recent highly functionalist accounts of responding to our social ills (namely Claiborne and McLaren). Between these two expressions I find of course that Yoder fits in neither.
Yoder does not believe that our strategic response can be in any way adequate to 'fix' the problems around us. Yoder describes what is still an obsessions with contemporary ethics in The Politics of Jesus,

One way to characterize thinking about social ethics in our time is to say that Christians in our age are obsessed with the meaning and direction of history [you could perhaps read here, 'save the planet']. Social ethical concern is moved by a deep desire to make things move in the right direction. Whether a given action is right or not seems to be inseparable from the question of what effects it will cause. Thus part if not all of social concern has to do with looking for the right 'handle' by which one can 'get a hold on' the course of history and move it in the right direction.

Yoder rejects any such handles whether left or right politically as having an inadequate understanding of reality. He states finally that, "It has yet to be demonstrated that history can be moved in the direction in which on claims the duty to cause it to go." Christians are rather to 'look' to the mover of history, Jesus, and walk in step with him.
I thought that at least there was some common ground to work with between Y and C understanding that human ambition and action were insufficient to the challenge before us. However, I think I underestimated the differences in the conception of the Eucharist or Breaking Bread.
Y takes as basic Jesus directions at the Last Supper to be instituting a 'common meal'. In his article "Sacrament as Social Process" Y writes,

What the New Testament is talking about in 'breaking bread' is believers actually sharing with one another their ordinary day-to-day material substance. It is not the case, as far as understanding the New Testament accounts is concerned, that, in an act of 'institution' or symbol making, God or the church would have said 'let bread stand for daily substance.' It is not even merely that, in many settings, as any cultural historian would have told us, eating together already stands for values or hospitality and community formation, these values being distinguishable from the signs that refer to them. It is that bread is daily sustenance. Bread eaten together is economic sharing. Not merely symbolically but in actual fact it extends to a wider circle economic solidarity that normally is obtained in the family.

Y looks to the immediate reality of the practices themselves and takes from that their meaning. Taking aim at a particular Catholic theology whose primary concern is understanding that what is being partaken is the body of Jesus. Y then makes the claim "that there is no direct path from this point to economics. The Roman Catholic authors who establish such a connection have to start over again from somewhere else." In the footnote to his quotation Y cites several Catholic theologians who have made this connection, which he sees as having started 'somewhere else.' This is the question I need to put C. But for now I will ask a brief question of Y.
Y states that the sacramental practices of the church are "wholly human, empirically accessible. . . . Yet each is, according to apostolic writers, an act of God. God does not merely authorize or command them. God is doing them in, with, and under human practice: 'What you bind on earth is bound in heaven.'" As such these practices are fully accessible to the 'secular' public for implementation. Then it follows that "sharing bread is a paradigm, not only for soup kitchens and hospitality houses, but also for social security and negative income tax." This find takes us far from C's almost ontological claims regarding the nature of the Eucharist. And should not Y in some way acknowledge this ontological reality. If the 'sharing bread' is sufficient as a paradigm and if God acts within it then must there not also be a claim to abundance not unlike the feeding of five thousand and the later outlandish claim for the people to feed on Jesus's flesh as outlined in John's gospel? Do we not then come into contact with something more explosive and generative then basic material distribution? Does Y imply something about the material order that he is not letting on here? He states later that these practices were not "revealed from above" but were derived from existing cultural models. I find it difficult to understand these practices as cultural 'all the way down'.
These probes and questions are preliminary as I will need to read more from both C and Y. Any thoughts?

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