Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Rush to the Ecumenical End Zone

I hold a personal grudge toward all millinerd readers who knew of George Hunsinger's Ecumenism and Eucharist: Let Us Keep the Feast, but left me to find it on my own now two years after its publication.  Forgiveness pending.

The book seems to revolve around this crucial insight about divided Christianity: "The most urgent and overriding goal... is not self-preservation [institutionally or personally] but reunion."  This, I am currently convinced, in addition to Simone Weil's fascinating contention that one can receive the eucharist through the eyes, remains an imperfect but at least interesting answer to the question, posed so frequently to Protestants such as myself, "Why haven't you yet converted to Catholicism or Orthodoxy?"  That is to say, personal conversions do bring personal relief, but they frequently do less to ameliorate, and more to exacerbate, remaining divides.  Yes, there are many exceptions to this general rule, and one can - hypothetically - work for unity from any given fragment.  Still, the hope for greater Christian unity beyond one's personal predicament remains a compelling reason for staying with the fragment one knows best.

Guided by this principle, Hunsinger makes a strong Protestant case for the real presence via eucharistic transelementation (for which he provides ample cross-confessional documentation), asks pointed questions that the Reformed, Catholic and Orthodox communions are afraid to ask, sacramentalizes Niebuhr's Christ and Culture schema, and (of course!) concludes in the realm of art and architecture, without which his proposals can't be fully realized.  I have my disagreements, but they are overwhelmed by the fact that unlike so many, Hunsinger simply gets that Mercersburg high church Protestantism is not a personal preference for those into that sort of thing, but an ecumenical necessity.  And yet, it's the personal moments that drive the points home, such as Hunsinger relating how excruciating it is to sit through crackers and grape juice sacramental trainwrecks, or (in the Pro Ecclesia Summer 2010 discussion of the book) what it's like to eat at Mt. Athos alone.   At any rate, here's a sample:
The point of this exercise in ecumenical admonition has not been to make any one tradition look good by making others look bad.  It has only been to suggest that there are more than enough warts (defectus) to go around.  No existing church can reasonably claim to be free of them in non-trivial respects.  It is perhaps the special vocation of Reformational churches, formed as they are by the great and liberating doctrine of simul iustus et peccator, to press the point. 
It may also be our vocation, I would add, simply because we have more warts.  And how can I resist quoting Hunsinger on the good Karl Barth:
Readers familiar with my previous writings may wonder how anyone so steeped in Barth's theology could have arrived at the positions in this book.  The most general answer is that I wish to align myself with the trajectory established by Thomas F. Torrance and Alasdair Heron, who have blazed a trail before me, moving not only with Barth and through Barth on the eucharist, but also beyond and against him....
It fell to T.F. Torrance, Barth's student, to make the connection that his mentor never quite managed to carry through: "The action of the supper," wrote Torrance, "is not another action than that which Christ has already accomplished on our behalf, and which is proclaimed in the Gospel."  It is rather the very same action in a new and sacramental form.  Ecumenical theology after Barth has every reason to exploit this insight.
Indeed, without Torrance, Hunsinger "might never have seen how to get from Karl Barth to something like the ecumenical center," which is to remind us that the ecumenical center Karl Barth is not. Perhaps the Torrance trajectory also helps explain why Adam Neder's important section on Barth and the Orthodox take on divinization is an addendum, whereas Torrance and divinization required a book in and of itself.  (Protestants unfamiliar with divinization might consult this Leithart post.)  And did I mention that the book reconciling Palamas and Aquinas on divinization has already been written?  Or that Jonathan Edwards had not dissimilar ideas?  Yes, these are exciting ecumenical times, at least in the rarefied contours of academe.

I won't comment any further on Hunsinger's accomplishment, other than to say that Eucharist and Ecumenism may be, to invoke that tired cliché that is in this case appropriate, "essential reading." Christian theological discourse today can resemble a linebaker pile-up of enclave confessional theologians alongside equally dogmatic secular academic theologians.   But Hunsinger, when given the ball, managed to push his way past some fleshy defenders and get a first down for ecumenism.  The least we can do is cheer.  Granted, a look at the scoreboard is depressing, but no matter.  Someone in the stands is holding up a placard reading Jeremiah 31:10.

Next play:  Hail Mary.