A Sacramental Ontology – Hans Boersma

April 9, 2012

Surveying the barriers that contemporary thinking has erected between the natural and the supernatural, between earth and heaven, Hans Boersma issues a wake-up call for Western Christianity. Both Catholics and evangelicals, he says, have moved too far away from a sacramental mindset, focusing more on the "here-and-now" than on the "then-and-there." Yet, as Boersma points out, the teaching of Jesus, Paul, and St. Augustine -- indeed, of most of Scripture and the church fathers -- is profoundly otherworldly, much more concerned with heavenly participation than with earthly enjoyment.
In his new book, Heavenly Participation, Boersma draws on the wisdom of great Christian minds ancient and modern -- Irenaeus, Gregory of Nyssa, C. S. Lewis, Henri de Lubac, John Milbank, and many others. He urges Catholics and evangelicals alike to retrieve a sacramental worldview, to cultivate a greater awareness of eternal mysteries, to partake eagerly of the divine life that transcends and trans-forms all earthly realities.

It is difficult for Christians — whether Catholic or evangelical — to imagine a time when theology was regarded as the most important discipline. The modern period has taught us to look to other sources as the main guides for establishing our life together. The argument that theology is the most authoritative guide for our common (public) life seems profoundly presumptuous to many who have grown up in modern liberal democracies. In fact, many will claim that such a high view of theology strikes at the very root of our cultural arrangement. I will not dispute this claim. It seems to me unsurprising and even logical, considering that modernity takes its cue from earthly rather than heavenly realities. Its basic, dissident choice has been to take temporal goods for ultimate ends.

I find myself in agreement with John Milbank’s oft-quoted statement: “The pathos of modern theology is its false humility. For theology, this must be a fatal disease…. If theology no longer seeks to position, qualify or criticize other discourses, then it is inevitable that these discourses will position theology.”[ John Milbank, Theology and Social Theory: Beyond Secular Reason, (Oxford: Blackwell,1990)] Furthermore, if the political and economic establishment of modern liberal democracies feels threatened by the view that theology should be our primary disciplinary practice, perhaps this is simply an indication of the ultimate incompatibility between modernity and the theological convictions of the Great Tradition. None of this is to suggest that I am setting out to do battle with “outside” economic and political forces. Rather, I am taking aim at historical developments within theology, which I believe lie at the root of our contemporary cultural problems. As a result, I am calling for a resacramentalized Christian ontology (or outlook on reality).

The word “ontology” may put some people on edge. The expression places us, so it seems at least, in the area of abstract, metaphysical thought. Should Christians really concern themselves with ontology? Isn’t the danger of looking at the world through an ontological lens that we may lose sight of the particularities of the Christian faith: God’s creation of the world, the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the particular ecclesial community, and Scripture itself? I understand these fears, and I appreciate the word of caution as an important one. Nonetheless, the objections do not make me abandon the search for an ontology that is compatible with the Christian faith.

As I hope to make clear throughout this book, I believe that the Great Tradition of the church — most of the Christian era until the late Middle Ages — did have an ontology. The call for a purely “biblical” theology seems to me terribly naive. Whether consciously or subconsciously, we all work with a particular ontology; unfortunately, usually the ontology of those who plead for the abolition of ontology turns out to be the nominalist ontology of modernity.

However, I do agree with the cautionary comment that a Christian ontology must be centered on Christ, that it dare not avoid the particularity of the visible church, and that it needs to take seriously the church’s engagement with divine revelation in Scripture. These concerns, I believe, were carefully safeguarded in the Platonist-Christian synthesis of the Great Tradition. This tradition was quite conscious of the fact that there is no such thing as a universally accessible, neutral “ontology” separate from the very particular convictions of the Christian faith.

Sacramental Ontology as Real Presence
Before going any further into this discussion, I think it is necessary to define some of my terms. What do I mean by “sacramental ontology,” and by the “Platonist-Christian synthesis” on which it relies? Until the late Middle Ages (say, the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries), people looked at the world as a mystery. The word “mystery” did not have quite the same connotations that it has for us today. Certainly, it did not refer to a puzzling issue whose secret one can uncover by means of clever investigation. Our understanding of “mystery novels,” for example, carries that kind of connotation.

For the patristic and medieval mindset, the word “mystery” meant something slightly – but significantly — different. “Mystery” referred to realities behind the appearances that one could observe by means of the senses. That is to say, though our hands, eyes, ears, nose, and tongue are able to access reality, they cannot fully grasp this reality. They cannot comprehend it. The reason for this basic incomprehensibility of the universe was that the world was, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” Even the most basic created realities that we observe as human beings carry an extra dimension, as it were. The created world cannot be reduced to measurable, manageable dimensions.

[Flannery O’Connor puts it well: “The fiction writer presents mystery through manners, grace through nature, but when he finishes there always has to be left over that sense of Mystery which cannot be accounted for by any human formula" (Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, ed. Sally and Robert Fitzgerald [1957; reprint, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 19701, 553).]

Up to this point, my explanation is probably relatively uncontroversial. Most of us, when we think about the ability of the senses to comprehend reality, realize that they are inadequate to the task. And I suspect that we generally recognize that the reason for this does not lie mainly in faulty hearing, poor vision, or worn-out taste buds, but in the fact that reality truly is mysterious. It carries a dimension that we are unable to fully express. But let me take the next step, and I suspect that in doing so, I may encounter some naysayers. Throughout the Great Tradition, when people spoke of the mysterious quality of the created order, what they meant was that this created order — along with all other temporary and provisional gifts of God — was a sacrament.

This sacrament was the sign of a mystery that, though present in the created order, nonetheless far transcended human comprehension. The sacramental character of reality was the reason it so often appeared mysterious and beyond human comprehension. So, when I speak of my desire to recover a “sacramental ontology” here, I am speaking of an ontology (an understanding of reality) that is sacramental in character. The perhaps controversial, but nonetheless important, point that I want to make is that the mysterious character of all created reality lies in its sacramental nature. In fact, we would not go wrong by simply equating mystery and sacrament.

What, then, is so distinct about the sacramental ontology that characterized much of the history of the church? Perhaps the best way to explain this is to distinguish between symbols and sacraments. A road sign with the silhouette of a deer symbolizes the presence of deer in the area, and its purpose is to induce drivers to slow down. Drivers will not be so foolish as to veer away from the road sign for fear of hitting the deer that is symbolized on the road sign. The reason is obvious: the symbol of the deer and the deer in the woods are two completely separate realities.

The former is a sign referring to the latter, but in no way do the two co-inhere. It is not as though the road sign carries a mysterious quality, participating somehow in the stags that roam the forests. In diagram 1, symbol X and reality Y merely have an external or nominal relationship. The distance between the two makes clear that there is no real connection between them. Things are different with sacraments. Unlike mere symbols, sacraments actually participate in the mysterious reality to which they point. Sacrament X and reality Y co-inhere: the sacrament participates in the reality to which it points.


In his essay “Transposition,” C. S. Lewis makes this same point when he distinguishes between symbolism and sacramentalism [C. S. Lewis, "Transposition," in The Weight of Glory, and Other Addresses (1949; reprint, San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 102.].

The relationship between speech and writing, Lewis argues, “is one of symbolism. The written characters exist solely for the eye, the spoken words solely for the ear. There is complete discontinuity between them. They are not like one another, nor does the one cause the other to be.” By contrast, when we look at how a picture represents the visible world, we find a rather different kind of relationship. Lewis explains:

Pictures are part of the visible world themselves and represent it only by being part of it. Their visibility has the same source as its. The suns and lamps in pictures seem to shine only because real suns or lamps shine on them; that is, they seem to shine a great deal because they really shine a little in reflecting their archetypes. The sunlight in a picture is therefore not related to real sunlight simply as written words are to spoken. It is a sign, but also something more than a sign, because in it the thing signified is really in a certain mode present. If I had to name the relation I should call it not symbolical but sacramental.

For Lewis, a sacramental relationship implies real presence. This understanding of sacramentality is part of a long lineage. According to the sacramental ontology of much of the Christian tradition, the created order was more than an external or nominal symbol. Instead, it was a sign (signum) that pointed to and participated in a greater reality (res). It seems to me that the shape of the cosmic tapestry is one in which earthly signs and heavenly realities are intimately woven together, so much so that we cannot have the former without the latter.

Later on, I will need to say more about what this reality is in which our sacramental world participates. For now, it is enough to observe that the reason for the mysterious character of the world — on the understanding of the Great Tradition, at least — is that it participates in some greater reality, from which it derives its being and its value. Hence, instead of speaking of a sacramental ontology, we may also speak of a participatory ontology.

Of course, any theist position assumes a relationship between God and this world. And many evangelicals will, in addition, agree that this link between God and the world takes on a covenantal shape. God makes covenants both with the created world as a whole (Genesis 9:8-17; Jeremiah 33:19-26) and with human beings (Genesis 15:1-21; 17:1-27; Exodus 24:1-18; 2 Samuel 7:1-17; Jeremiah 31:31-33; Hebrews 8:1-13). There is, I believe, a great deal of value in highlighting this covenantal relationship.

But the insistence on a sacramental link between God and the world goes well beyond the mere insistence that God has created the world and by creating it has declared it to be good. It also goes beyond positing an agreed-on (covenantal) relationship between two completely separate beings. A sacramental ontology insists that not only does the created world point to God as its source and “point of reference,” but that it also subsists or participates in God.

A participatory or sacramental ontology will look to passages such as Acts 17:28 (“For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, `We are his offspring”), and will conclude that our being participates in the being of God. Such an outlook on reality will turn to Colossians 1:17 (“He [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together”), and will argue that the truth, goodness, and beauty of all created things is grounded in Christ, the eternal Logos of God. [See also the angelic hymn of Isaiah 6:3, which proclaims that "the whole earth is full of his glory"; and Ephesians 1:23, which speaks of the church as Christ's body, "the fullness of him who fills everything in every way."] In other words, because creation is a sharing in the being of God, our connection with God is a participatory, or real, connection — not just an external, or nominal, connection.

Few people have expressed this distinction better than C. S. Lewis has: “We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words — to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.” [C. S. Lewis, "The Weight of Glory," in Weight of Glory, 42] We do not want merely a nominal relationship; we desire a participatory relationship. In fact, a sacramental ontology maintains that the former is possible only because of the latter: a genuinely covenantal bond is possible only because the covenanting partners are not separate or fragmented individuals. The real connection that God has graciously posited between himself and the created order forms the underlying ontological basis that makes it possible for a covenant relationship to flourish.

When we talk about “real presence,” we tend to think in terms of Eucharistic theology, and we ask the question: Is Christ really present in the Eucharist (the sacramentalist position), or is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper an ordinance in which we remember what Christ did by offering himself for us on the Cross (the memorialist position)? Of course, there are all kinds of shades and nuances in the various positions, but this is nonetheless a fair description of the issue at stake in the differing approaches to the Eucharist.

On the one side, we have those who insist on a participatory or real connection between the elements and the heavenly body of Christ itself; on the other side, people argue for an external or nominal connection between the elements and the ascended Lord. [As I mentioned, we do need to take account of nuances. For example, the way I have described the alternatives, it may be difficult to slot in Calvin's understanding of spiritual presence. On the one hand, clearly, Calvin is not a memorialist; on the other hand, he never describes Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper as "real" presence. For in interpretation of Calvin's views as in sync with "real presence," see William R. Crockett, Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 1999), 149-52.]

Understandably, debates surrounding a participatory or real link between Christ and creation came to a head in connection with the issue of the ecclesiastical sacrament of the Eucharist. This was, after all, the central sacrament in the church’s life. Eucharistic debates, important for their own sake, had wide-ranging implications. So, for good reason, by the time the sixteenth-century Reformation came around, the church had been debating the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist for centuries.

I simply wish to draw attention to the fact that the debates surrounding the real presence (or, we might say, participation) in the Eucharist were but the particular instantiation of a much broader discussion about real presence. While the church fathers and medieval theologians did look to the bread and wine of the Eucharist as the sacrament in which Christ was really present, in making this point they simultaneously conveyed their conviction that Christ was mysteriously present in the entire created order. Christ’s sacramental presence in the Eucharist was, we might say, an intensification of his sacramental presence in the world.

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