Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Missional Eucharist

In talk and print about "Missional" congregations, the bogeyman is often the forced-conversions of the 9th century and sacramental doctrine that makes the Eucharist an end-in-itself. As is often the case, careful historical investigation, which U of Chicago's Rachel Fulton provides at length, complicates the matter considerably:
"To be sure, Frankish missionaries were initially far from averse to using threats of violence against reluctant converts.. [but] what is all the more remarkable is that by the beginning of the ninth century, the Saxons did convert, or at the very least accepted baptism along with its institutional entailments... Various reasons, in addition to fear and exhaustion, may be adduced for this acquiescence: hope for material rewards from both their new king and his powerful God, wonder at the exemplary lives of the missionaries, admiration for the civilization of their conquerors. But is is also possible that, at least for some, persuasion conquered fear as the Christians now in their midst developed more effective methods of translating the tenets of the new religion (the immortality of the soul, the certainty of final judgment, belief in the Holy Trinity, and the narrative of the Incarnation) into terms more comprehensible within the expectations of the old (the inexorability of Fate, the dependence upon the gods for fertility, healing, and the protection in one's earthy life)..."

"This is not to say the the Frankish Christians did not systematically eradicate pagan shrines... It is to say, however, that for whatever reasons the Saxons initially accepeted baptism, within a generation or so they had made their religious expectations known to their Christian teachers, and that the teachers, in an effort to answer the questions put to them by their students, responded as Augustine suggested they should : sympathetically" (26).
To exemplify such concessions, Fulton posits that the doctrine of the real presence, promoted in this era by Paschasius Radbertus (and attacked by Ratramnus), was in fact a catechetical response to the Saxons who had less of a framework for historical memory and needed divine love to be liturgiclly manifest. Should Fulton be correct, a high Eucharistic doctrine is not ecclesial baggage from the thirteenth century, but the fruit of missional engagement and gospel translation to a pagan world in the ninth. (Not to mention its manifold anticipations.)

This is not to say the doctrine was invented to please pagans, but that positive doctrinal development and definition - of which the real presence is most definitely an example - is often made only in response to discerning engagement with the world.