The Protestant Era by Paul Tillich
Paul Tillich is generally considered one of the century's outstanding and influential thinkers. After teaching theology and philosophy at various German universities, he came to the United States in 1933. For many years he was Professor of Philosophical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then University Professor at Harvard University. His books include Systematic Theology; The Courage to Be; Dynamics of Faith; Love, Power and Justice; Morality and Beyond; and Theology of Culture. The Protestant Era was published by The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois in 1948. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock<
Chapter 7: Nature and Sacrament
No other question in Protestantism has from the beginning offered so much difficulty as has the question of the sacraments, and no other has received such uncertain answers. This is no mere accident, for the whole protest of the Reformation was in fundamental opposition to the sacramental system of Catholicism. Indeed, all sides of the Protestant criticism may be interpreted as an attack of the Protestant spirit upon the Catholic tendency to a sacramental objectivation and demonization of Christianity. The teachings of the Reformed churches represent the most thoroughgoing application of this principle of Protestantism. The famous answer of the Heidelberg Catechism to the effect that the Mass is "an accursed idolatry" expresses the vigorously antidemonic attitude of the Reformed churches in their battle against the Roman Catholic view of the sacraments. Luther broke with Zwingli, because Zwingli’s hostile attitude toward the sacraments was strange to the mystical element in Luther’s faith (though Luther did not him self succeed in working out a clear and consistent theory of the sacraments). The situation in the church today reflects the same tensions. Many ministers who are in a position to judge the situation as it really is remark with anxiety the "death of the sacraments." Nor are strong countertendencies visible, not even in theology. Yet the problem of the sacraments is a decisive one if Protestantism is to come to its full realization. A complete disappearance of the sacramental element (not the same thing, be it noted, as the particular sacraments) would lead to the disappearance of the cultus and, finally, to the dissolution of the visible church itself. For this reason Protestantism must deal seriously with the whole sacramental aspect of religion, an aspect that is fundamental for an understanding of the way in which Protestantism can gain a strong historical form. The aspect of the question with which we shall deal here is, in spite of its importance, often neglected. It is the problem of the relation between nature and sacrament. Bearing in mind the concrete situation in which we find ourselves, I should like to begin with an analysis of the two sacraments still alive in Protestantism and of the significance of the word in its relation to them.
I. The Sacrament of Baptism
We begin with baptism not only because it is the basic sacrament but also because it is the easiest to analyze. The sacrament of baptism has only one element, and this element is a simple element, water. It is through water that baptism becomes a sacrament. Without water there would be no baptism. But, on the other hand: "Without the Word of God, the water is simply water and no baptism." This statement from Luther’s Catechism raises a whole series of profound theological and historical problems. Among these problems we must first ask the question as to what is meant by the phrase "simply water." And if water as such is to be described as "simply water," why use water at all? Why is not the "Word of God" sufficient without water, why need there be a sacrament? There are three possible answers to this question, which is the question concerning the natural element in the sacrament.
The first answer gives a symbolic-metaphoric interpretation of the element. It considers water as a symbol, say, for purification or for drowning or for both together and speaks of the dying of the old, the unclean, and the resurrection of the new, the pure. On this interpretation, sprinkling by water or baptism by immersion serves the purpose of setting forth in an understandable picture the idea that is expressed also by the accompanying word. The act of baptism is thus a visible representation of the idea of baptism. Obviously, other pictorial actions could serve as representation of the same idea, such as passing through fire, going down into a cave and the like, as are, in fact, familiar in votive ceremonies or in the mystery religions. The use of water may also have a rational motivation, on the ground that water is easy to use, or it may have some justification in the fact of its traditional use. But neither of these explanations suggests any necessary, intrinsic relationship between water and baptism.
The second answer may be characterized as the "ritualistic" interpretation of the element. Here it is asserted that the relation between water and baptism is merely accidental. The connecting of the two is dependent on a divine command. Because of this command, water acquires its sacramental significance as soon as it is employed in the properly celebrated rite of baptism. A residue of this conception, which is fundamentally nominalistic in character, is evident in the Protestant claim that the sacrament had to be instituted by Christ himself according to the biblical reports. The ritualistic conception does not even hint that there might be an intrinsic relationship between water and baptism.
The third answer gives a realistic interpretation of the element. It explicitly raises the question as to whether there is not a necessary relationship between water and baptism. It questions Luther’s view that water is "simply water," although accepting his repudiation of the magical conception of the sacraments. A special character or quality, a power of its own, is attributed to water. By virtue of this natural power, water is suited to become the bearer of a sacral power and thus also to become a sacramental element. A necessary relationship between baptism and water is asserted. This realistic conception seems to me to be adequate to the true nature of the sacrament. It rejects the idea that there is a merely arbitrary connection between the idea and the material element.
II. The Sacrament of the Lords Supper
The analysis of the Lord’s Supper is much more difficult and complicated. To begin with, we have here two perceptible elements, bread and wine. In the second place, neither of these elements is an original natural element; both are rather the result of an artificial changing of natural products. In the third place—and this is the most important point—the two together represent the body of Christ, the basic element of the Lord’s Supper. And in the fourth place, whereas the body of Christ as a body belongs to nature, as a transcendent body it is beyond nature.
The meaning of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament is that it is the sacramental appropriation of the exalted body of Christ. The human body is the highest creation of nature, containing within itself all other natural elements and, at the same time, surpassing them all. The eating of a real body is, of course, out of the question. The anthropophagism of a primitive cultus had already been eliminated by the antidemonic struggles of early religious periods. And the body of Jesus Christ, in so far as it existed at a particular time in history, is obviously inaccessible to us.
But it is just this body that becomes accessible to us through the fact that it has become transcendent. It remains a body; it does not become spirit; it becomes rather a "spiritual" body. As such it is accessible. But as such it lacks perceptibility. It lacks the natural element without which a real celebration of the sacrament is impossible. The problem is solved by substituting organic substances for the body, substances that nourish the body and that have the form of artificially prepared means of nourishment. That is, in place of the body we have the elements that nourish the body.
We may now make use of the various interpretations of the sacrament which we have derived from our analysis of baptism. If we apply the results of this analysis to the elements of the Lord’s Supper, first, to the basic element of the Supper—the body of Christ—it is evident that the body of Christ can be understood only by means of the third, the realistic interpretation. What is it supposed to symbolize? The spirit of Christ? In that case we should be attempting to symbolize black by white. The body of Christ itself is what is referred to. A natural reality is elevated to transcendent, divine meaning. Participation in the divine power is a participating also in the divine power in nature. It seems to me as if Luther’s (logically absurd) theory of the ubiquity of the body of Christ was an attempt to give expression to this idea.
It is a more difficult question if we try to determine the precise significance of the secondary elements, the bread and wine. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is the simplest answer to the question. Through transubstantiation, the bread and the wine—the secondary elements—are in substance annulled and replaced; there remains only one element, the body of Christ, which, by means of the transubstantiation, assumes the bread and wine into its own mode of being. Among Protestants, on the other hand, the independence and separate character of the secondary elements are maintained. Hence the question as to their significance is all the more difficult, and especially the question as to the reason for the choice of just these elements. A ritualistic conception of the sacrament would center attention upon the words of institution, for ostensibly they contain a command of Jesus. The command would be responsible for the linking-together of the primary with the two secondary elements, and thus the association of the body of Christ with bread and wine would be explained as the mere accident of a historical situation. But this interpretation would practically eliminate the primary element of the Lord’s Supper, the exalted body of Christ; for neither the pouring and drinking of the wine nor the breaking and eating of the bread have any symbolic relation to the transcendent Christ, although at least the breaking of the bread is a clear and adequate symbol for the event on Golgotha. Beyond this the ritualistic interpretation cannot go. The realistic interpretation, on the other hand, can explain bread and wine as representing the natural powers that nourish the body and support in the human body the highest possibility of nature. They point to the presence of the divine saving power in the natural basis of all spiritual life as well as in the spiritual life itself.
III. The Word and the Sacrament
The classical combination "word and sacrament" means, in the first place, "the word as well as the sacrament." Next it signifies, "the sacrament through the word." And it has often been used, especially in Protestantism, as "word without sacrament." This variety of implications is inevitable so long as the two concepts are understood as being qualitatively contrasted or, more concretely expressed, so long as it is denied that the word by itself can have a sacramental character. But there is no justification for such a denial. The word is, first of all, a natural phenomenon. As such, it can, like other natural elements, become a part of a ritual act in which it functions as the bearer of a transcendent power: it can become sacramental.
The word as breath, as sound, as something heard, is a natural phenomenon. At the same time, however, a word is the bearer of a meaning. There are two possible ways of understanding the relation between the word as a natural phenomenon and the word as a bearer of meaning. The one possibility is to deprive the word of its intrinsic power and to deny any essential relation between the word and the meaning it bears. The power, the significance, the penetrating force of words is then attributed to the meaning which could be expressed as well by other words. The words are thought of as arbitrarily interchangeable. The other possibility is to consider the sound and the meaning as bound together in such a way that the natural power of words becomes the necessary bearer of its power of meaning, so that the one is not possible without the other. Where this is asserted, words by their natural power are potential bearers of a transcendent power and are suitable for sacramental usage.
Sacramental words that definitely exhibit this character are to be found in Protestantism in connection with the administration of the sacraments and also in the pronouncing of the words of absolution. In these cases the following questions arise: Are the words that are here used only signs that indicate and communicate a meaning? Or are they words in which sound and meaning are so united that the speaking of the words, and therefore the natural process of speaking as such, has a power through which they can become bearers of a transcendent power? If the second question is answered in the affirmative, a realistic interpretation of the sacramental word would be implied, and the ritualistic conception, which traces the words back only to commands, as well as the symbolic-metaphorical interpretation, which makes words only empty tokens, would be precluded.
We have shown in our analysis of the two Protestant sacraments, as well as of the words used in them, that the "realistic" interpretation alone provides an adequate explanation of their nature. We must, however, raise the question as to whether such an interpretation is logical and justifiable and as to what significance its application would have for a theory of the sacraments and for the shaping of the cultus in Protestantism. Above all, we must ask: What conception of nature is implied in such a realism and how can it be shown that such a conception of nature is necessary?
IV. Ways of Interpreting Nature
The concept of nature has a number of very different meanings, depending upon what it is contrasted with. The formal concept of nature contrasts the natural with everything nonnatural (the unnatural or the supernatural). It therefore also includes soul and mind as results of natural growth. The material concept of nature contrasts the natural with everything in which freedom is involved. The concepts antithetical to the material concept of nature are spirit and history. Theology places a negative value-judgment upon the natural in the formal sense, which is viewed as corrupted, sinful, and fallen, in opposition to the supernatural, which is the redeemed, the restored, the perfected. In this study we are concerned with nature in its material sense as the bearer of sacramental meaning and power.
The conception of nature that we find earliest in history, so far as we have knowledge of it, is the magical-sacramental conception. According to it, everything is filled with a sort of material energy which gives to things and to parts of things, even to the body and the parts of the body, a sacral power. The word "sacral" in this context, however, does not signify something in opposition to the profane. Indeed, at this phase of cultural development the distinction between the sacred and the profane is not a fundamental one. The natural power in things is, at the same time, their sacral power, and any commerce with them is always both ritualistic and utilitarian. One could characterize this primitive view as pan-sacramentalism, but, if this is done, one must remember that what we today call the "sacramental" is not thought of by the primitive mind as a separate or special religious reality. The primitive man holds to a magical interpretation of nature; the technical control of reality is supposed to be effected without reference to what we call natural law." The control of reality is accomplished through the operations of magical energy without using the circuitous methods of rational manipulation. It should be pointed out, however, that there has never been a merely magical relation to nature. The technical necessities somehow always assert themselves and create certain areas in which rational objectivity prevails.
When this occurs, generally the magical view of nature disappears and is replaced by the rational-objective attitude. Only when the latter view of nature is reached may we speak of "things" in the strict sense, that is, as entities completely conditioned. Mathematical physics and the technical control of nature based on it are the most impressive and the most consistent expressions of this view. Nature is brought under control, objectified, and stripped of its qualities. No sacramental conception can find a root in this soil. Nature cannot become the bearer of a transcendent power, it can at most be an image of it, a witness to it. But the rational-objective view of nature is also never fully applicable. The qualities of things resist any attempt at their complete eradication. Even in the structure of the atom there is something primordial, a Gestalt, an intrinsic power. And the highly complicated machines created by the applied sciences are, in many ways, analogous to the basic organic forms; they can gain a new magical power over the minds of those who serve them.
The technical attitude toward nature and its merely quantitative analysis have been opposed since the times of Greek philosophy by the vitalistic interpretation of nature. Here an immediate power of being is attributed to things. Everything, the whole world-process, is envisaged as an expression of life: élan vital, "the vital urge," the "creative power of life," and the like are the characteristic phrases used. The modern Gestalt theory has given unexpected scientific confirmation to these ideas. But vitalistic philosophy goes beyond this justified protest. Even the mind is subjected to the principle of unbroken vitality and is branded as a sort of disease and fought against as a degenerate form of life. In this vitalistic philosophy nature recovers its power again, but it is a power without meaning; and power without meaning is ultimately impotent. Sacramental trends on the basis of the "vitalistic" philosophy of nature can be seen in the attempts of some semipagan movements to re-establish the symbolism of the religions of nature by using elements and forms of the natural world (fire, water, light) as powerful in themselves without relationship to spirit and transcendence.
The symbolic-romantic interpretation of nature attempts to give back to nature its qualitative character, its depth, its meaningfulness, by interpreting nature as a symbol of the spirit. The power of things is the power of soul or spirit in them. It is clear that this provides rich possibilities for the symbolic interpretation of sacraments. In the place of pan-sacramentalism we have here a pan-symbolism. But it should be pointed out that this view is very little aware of the real structure of nature. It gives us the creations of an arbitrary imagination. The quantitative, calculable "nature" of physics is certainly not overcome by it; only subjective imagination has been added. For this reason the symbolic-romantic interpretation of nature cannot provide a solid basis for a new theory of the sacrament.
The unsatisfactory character of all the interpretations of nature mentioned thus far drives us to a view which we may call "new realism," a term in which elements of the medieval and of the modern use of the word "realism" are united. Thinkers like Schelling and Goethe and Rilke in our day, have proposed this way of penetrating into the depth of nature. We must follow them with the means of our present knowledge of nature and man. The power and meaning of nature must be sought within and through its objective physical structures. Power and physical character, meaning and objective structure, are not separated in nature. We cannot accept the word of mathematical science as the last word about nature, although we do not thereby deny that it is the first word.
The power of nature must be found in a sphere prior to the cleavage of our world into subjectivity and objectivity. Life originates on a level which is "deeper" than the Cartesian duality of cogitatio and extensio ("thought" and "extension"). It was the wish of the vitalistic interpretation of nature to reach this level. But a philosophy of life that denies intellect and spirit has deprived life of its strongest power and its ultimate meaning, as even Nietzche realized when he said: "Spirit is life which itself cutteth into life." The difficult problem for all attempts to reach the uncleft level of reality is the necessity to penetrate into something "nonsubjective" with categories of a subjective mind and into something "nonobjective" with categories of objective reality. This necessarily falsifies the pictures, which can be corrected only by a strict understanding of the indirect, symbolic character of terms used for the description of the power and meaning of nature.
A realistic interpretation of nature such as we have outlined would be able to provide the foundation of a new Protestant theory of sacraments. But this alone is not sufficient. No sacrament, in Christian thought, can be understood apart from its relation to the new being in Jesus as the Christ; and, consequently, no sacrament can be understood apart from history. Nature, in being adapted to sacramental use in Christianity, and especially in Protestantism, must be understood historically and in the context of the history of salvation. Obviously, there are historical elements in nature. Nature participates in historical time, that is, in the time that proceeds in an unrepeatable and irreversible way. The structure of the cosmos, of atoms, of stars, of the biological substance, is changing in an unknown direction. Although the historical element in nature is balanced with the nonhistorical one (the "circle of genesis and decay," the self-repetition in nature, the circular movement which dominated Greek thinking), Christianity, following old mythological visions in Persia and Israel, decided for the historical element and included nature in the history of salvation.
If nature is interpreted in this realistic and, at the same time, historical way, natural objects can become bearers of transcendent power and meaning, they can become sacramental elements. The Protestant criticism against any direct magical or mythological use of nature as the bearer of the holy is heeded. Nature, by being brought into the context of the history of salvation, is liberated from its ambiguity. Its demonic quality is conquered in the new being in Christ. Nature is not the enemy of salvation; it does not have to be controlled in scientific, technical, and moral terms or be deprived of any inherent power, in order to serve the "Kingdom of God," as Calvinistic thinking is inclined to believe; rather, nature is a bearer and an object of salvation. This is the basis for a Protestant rediscovery of the sacramental sphere.
V. Examples of the Realistic Interpretation of Nature
We shall now give some examples of the realistic interpretation of nature. This will be difficult because the apprehension of the inherent powers of nature is not a possible task for rational discourse. Other methods of approach must be employed, and these methods are not conclusive because they permit us to do little more than point to something the acknowledgment of which cannot be forced. Our task is made a little easier, however, because, in spite of all our rationalistic education, certain elements of the realistic interpretation of nature are still present in our minds, consciously and subconsciously.
In all times and even in Christian lands the feeling that certain numbers have a peculiar quality of their own has had an astonishing power. In the first place we must mention the number 3, for the mystical quality of this number has, more than its logical nature, contributed to the idea of trinity from the time of Origen to that of Hegel. We can still understand the quite different significance of the number 4 and the cubic perfection which it has connoted since Greek classicism. We can still sense something of the tension and richness suggested by the number 12. The ambiguity of such intuitions finds expression in the valuation of the number 7, partly as holy, partly as evil. Christianity, of course, cannot accept the valuation of anything natural as evil in itself, because "being as being is good"—an evaluation that Augustine rightly derives from the idea of creation. This refers to numbers as well as to all other natural objects, whether they are, in the present stage of the world, useful or dangerous for men. They become evil in the context into which they may enter and which is dependent on finite freedom. Yet all these intuitions are residues, and any attempt by occult means to recover them in their power can scarcely be successful. Probably the real significance of numbers for us has to do with a quite different aspect of the matter, namely, the mystery of infinite numbers and their relation to the finite.
We are still sensitive to the natural power residing in certain elements in inorganic nature. The four elements of the old philosophy of nature—of which water is particularly significant for us, because of its use in baptism—have always exercised a strong power over men, even when we have made a conscious effort to guard against it. Depth psychology offers a partial explanation for this phenomenon. It points out that water, on the one hand, is a symbol for the origin of life in the womb of the mother, which is a symbol for the creative source of all things, and that, on the other hand, it is a symbol of death—the return to the origin of things.
A residue of former awareness of the powers of nature lies in the idea of the "precious" stone (Edelstein); clearly, the word precious here is not to be interpreted either in aesthetic terms (beautiful) or in terms of price or technical quality. (Recall the "magic tales" about the power of precious stones and also the use of precious stones in the Apocalypse.)
The metaphysics of light in medieval philosophy shows a surprising unity of physical knowledge and mystical intuition. The "light" in this theory is the forerunner of the modern electrodynamic analysis of matter, and, at the same time, it is the symbol of the divine form, as manifest in all things. The romantic philosophy of nature tried to penetrate into the qualitative power and spiritual meaning of light but was not able to bridge the gap between poetic imagination and scientific research.
Goethe was more successful in this respect in his famous doctrine of colors and in his fight against Newton’s quantitative-dynamic theory of light and color. In this controversy (which is not yet decided, even on the level of physics) the quantitative-technical interpretation of nature, represented by Newton, clashed with the qualitative-intuitive attitude toward nature, represented by Goethe. Goethe was passionately interested in what we have called the "power" of colors, their spiritual meaning and effect. Theology should seriously consider this problem. The development of Christianity from the Byzantine through the high medieval to the Protestant epoch is mirrored in the use of colors for pictures and churches. The "gold" of the Byzantine basilicas and of the early Gothic paintings expresses the mystical-transcendent feeling of this period. For "gold" is not a color in the scale of natural colors; it is, so to speak, the transcendence of mere color and therefore the adequate expression for transcendence as such. In contrast to this, the stained windows of the cathedrals let the natural light in, but in a broken way and in the most intensive colors. The metaphysics of light and the stained windows correspond with each other. In the Protestant churches (in so far as they are genuine and not simply Gothic or Byzantine imitations) the light of day streams through unstained windows, adding to the intellectual atmosphere, but this often makes the distinction between school and church difficult to observe.
The myth of Paradise (the Garden of Eden) shows the "power" of vegetative life, represented by the trees and their significance for Adam. They are bearers of divine powers, such as eternal life and the knowledge of the good and evil forces in all things. In the transcendent fulfillment, according to the Apocalypse, there will be the tree of life, by whose leaves the nations will be healed.
The "power" of animals can be seen in a fourfold direction. The animal can become a symbol of intense energy, as, for example, the bull, the lion, and the eagle in religious symbolism. Second, it can become the most vivid symbol for the demonic in nature, as expressed in the serpent and the demonic animal figures and gargoyles of Gothic sculpture. The demonic "power" of animals appears in a shocking way in the experience of the "guardian of the threshold" in occultism, a phenomenon that might be characterized as man’s intuition of himself in abhorrent animal forms. In the light of this experience we can easily understand the offensive quality of abusive epithets drawn from the names of animals. The strong reaction against such names may be explained as an unconscious assertion of the validity of the epithet and, at the same time, as a deep inner resistance to this very assertion. Animals—this is the third direction in which their "power" can be seen—are most important for religious sacrifices. They replace and represent the sacrifice of man which the gods or God rightly demand; and so an animal, the lamb, can symbolize the great sacrifice on Golgotha in all Christian art and literature. The fourth point which can be made about the "power" of animals shows the tragic limitations of their power. Mystics and romantics have discovered that something like melancholy is expressed in the face of the animal, a feeling of frustration and bondage in the service of vanity, as Paul has called it. According to such poetic-philosophical vision, nature generally and the animals especially have failed to reach the freedom and spirituality which are the heritage of man.
The sense of the meaning and power of the human body has never been lost, despite the influence of mechanistic biology and medicine. In the human body all the potencies of nature are concentrated, but in such a way that they transcend their lower forms and rise to a level of freedom. In the human body nature enters history. The coming of the Kingdom of Heaven is accompanied by the healing of the human body. The Christ is, as Jesus replies to the Baptist, to be recognized by his power of healing. The disciples receive the gift of healing, because it belongs to the new being. In the body of the Christ nature is united with history. In the "center of history" nature reaches its fulfillment in the body which is the perfect organ and experience of the Spirit. This, of course, is the basis of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament.
The examples given so far deal with the power and meaning of natural objects. No realm of such objects is, in principle, excluded from a sacramental consideration. But, beyond this, power and meaning can be found in situations and configurations of nature. We refer to the old and also to the new belief that such complexes express something which can be "read" out of them. The most famous example of this belief is the astrological interpretation of nature. In our estimate of it we must distinguish two elements: the general presupposition of the interdependence of all parts of the universe and the cosmic determination of the individual being, on the one hand; the method of deciphering and calculating special forms of this dependence, on the other hand. While the latter has no convincing methodological foundation, the former is implied in the very concepts of cosmos or universe and in the philosophical, as well as the theological, presupposition that everything participates in the ground and structure of being and, consequently, can and must be understood in unity with the whole.
The power inherent in natural configurations is also visible in the rhythms of certain recurring events, like day and night, summer and winter, seedtime and harvest, and also in the rhythms of human life, such as birth and puberty, work and rest, maturity and death. The power inherent in these rhythms of nature has in all times given rise to their use as bearers of sacral power. Most rites of initiation or consecration and many of the great festivals have their origin here. An awareness of the power in these rhythms of nature still plays an important role in Jewish and Christian historical thinking and in their idea of a history of salvation. The syncretizing of the pagan with the main Christian festivals has its roots in the historical-realistic interpretation of nature in Christianity.
These examples, which could be augmented almost indefinitely, must suffice. But one natural process—the most important for the Protestant attitude toward nature—must be given considerable attention, namely, the "word." Like all other objects and complexes in nature, the word had originally a magical significance. It had a power in itself as, for instance, the holy word Om in India; the incantations and charms all over the world; and the remnants of this basic feeling in the liturgicaI formulas of the Christian churches. Indeed, the sense of this power has been so great that any suggested change in certain of these words would meet the most fanatical religious resistance. This fact shows that it is not the meaning as such, which could be expressed in different ways, but the inherent magical or quasi-magical power that is decisive. In direct contrast to the magical word we have the "technical" word as it employed, for instance, in commercial trade-names. We find the best examples of this type in artificial words, such as, for example, "Socony," "A and P," and "C.I.O.," or in the attempt of Esperanto to create a purely utilitarian means of communication. The same meaning could be just as well expressed by some other combination of sounds. Yet it should not be overlooked that a cleverly selected commercial trade-name possesses a suggestive force and does eventually acquire a new power.
The word as a device of aesthetics transcends both the magical and the technical word, although it is ultimately rooted in the magical use of words—we still speak of the "magic of poetry." But the magic of a poem is mediated by the aesthetic form in which sound, rhythm, and meaning are united. Since the end of the nineteenth century a struggle has been directed against the banalization of the aesthetic word in poetry and prose. "Banal" is a characterization for words that have lost their original power by daily use and abuse or by the disappearance of an originally powerful meaning embodied in them. Nietzsche, Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke, and many others tried to save language from this sort of degeneration. They fought a desperate and not always successful fight against the disintegration of language as a spiritual power in a world of mass communication and of continuous lowering of the spiritual level. Movements of liturgical reform have worked in the same direction in Catholicism as well as in Protestantism. But it is not enough to rediscover and use the language of periods that possessed greater power of spiritual expression than ours does. It is necessary to find expressions adequate to our own situation, words in which the transcendent meaning of reality shines through a completely realistic and concrete language, the language of self-transcending realism. On this ground alone can Protestantism create a new sacramental word.
There are many other realms and elements of nature whose relation to sacramental thinking could be discussed. The examples given so far are offered to show a way in which Protestantism in its cultus, as well as in its ethos, could reach a more affirmative attitude toward nature. The lack of such an attitude has greatly contributed to the rise of an anti-Christian naturalism which has not only scientific but even stronger emotional roots: the religious devaluation of nature has been answered by a naturalistic devaluation of religion.
VI. Sacramental Objects
Any object or event is sacramental in which the transcendent is perceived to be present. Sacramental objects are holy objects, laden with divine power. From the point of view of the magical interpretation of nature, any reality whatsoever may be holy. Here the distinction between "the holy" as divine or as demonic, as clean or unclean, is not yet known. At this stage the unclean and the holy can still be looked upon as identical. The significance of prophetic criticism lies in the fact that it dissolves the primitive unity between the holy and the real. To the prophets the holy is primarily a demand. Nothing can be holy apart from the fulfillment of the law. Holiness and purity are brought together. The "unclean" is eliminated from the idea of the holy. To the extent to which this process takes place the original sacramental interpretation of nature disappears. The holy is now transformed into an unconditional demand, transcending any given reality. Nature as such is deprived of its sacred character and becomes profane. Immediate intercourse with nature no longer possesses religious significance. Ritualistic demands are transformed into ethical (and utilitarian) demands. Nevertheless, the sacramental attitude does not lose its power. Indeed, it can never entirely vanish from the consciousness. Unless the holy has some actuality, its character as a demand becomes abstract and impotent. In Hegel’s view that the "idea" is not lacking in the power to realize itself we can still discern a residue of the sacramental attitude, in contrast to the antisacramental, critical, and moralistic attitude of the Enlightenment. If this holds true for the secular sphere, it is all the more true for the religious sphere. No church can survive without a sacramental element. However effectively prophetic criticism serves to make impossible an absolute reliance upon the holy as present, however effectively it opposes every fixation and every objectification of the sacrament, it cannot do away with the sacramental background; indeed, prophetic criticism itself is possible only by virtue of this background. Just as Old Testament prophecy in its vehement attack upon the demonic sacramentalism into which the old worship of Yahweh had fallen continued to hold to the sacramental idea of the covenant between God and nation, so the Protestant fight against Roman Catholic sacramentalism remained bound to the Scripture as an expression of the presence of the divine in Jesus Christ. Any sacramental reality within the framework of Christianity and of Protestantism must be related to the new being in Christ. No Protestant criticism would be conceivable in which this foundation was denied.
But if the presence of the holy is the presupposition of any religious reality and any church, including the Protestant churches, then it follows that the interpretation of nature in sacramental terms is also a presupposition of Protestantism, for there is no being that does not have its basis in nature. This holds true also for personality. If the holy is seen as present in a personality, if the personality shows that transparence for the divine which makes the saint a saint, then this is expressed not only in his spiritual life but also in his whole psychological organism, in "soul and body." The pictures and sculptures of the saints would be meaningless without the presupposition that their sainthood is expressed in their bodies and especially in their faces. Sainthood is not moral obedience but "holy being," a substance out of which moral and other consequences follow. The "good tree" precedes the "good fruit." But where the "holy being" is accepted as the "prius" of the holy act, there the basic principle of all sacramental thinking is also accepted: the presence of the divine, its transparence in nature and history.
VII. Protestantism and Sacrament
Protestant thinking about sacraments must not revert to a magical sacramentalism, such as has been preserved by Catholicism down to our own time. No relapses to a pre-prophetic or pre-Protestant attitude should occur on Protestant soil.
This means, first of all, that there can be no sacramental object apart from the faith that grasps it. Apart from the correlation between faith and sacrament, there can be no sacrament. From this it follows that a sacrament can never be made into a thing, an object beside other objects. The intrinsic power of nature as such does not create a sacrament. It can only become a bearer of sacramental power. Of course, without such a bearer there can be no sacramental power, the holy cannot be felt as present. But the bearer does not in and of itself constitute the sacrament. Moreover, we must remember that for a Christian the idea of a purely natural sacrament is unacceptable. Where nature is not related to the events of the history of salvation its status remains ambiguous. It is only through a relation to the history of salvation that it is liberated from its demonic elements and thus made eligible for a sacrament. However, their relationship does not deprive nature of its power. If it did, that would mean that being itself would be destroyed; for the intrinsic power of things is their power of being, and for them to be without power would mean that they were without being. When the term "being" is employed other than as an abstract category, it means the power to exist. To say that the world has been created is to say that power of being has been given to the world. And the world retains this power, even if it is demonically distorted. It is not because of an alleged powerlessness of nature that Christianity cannot recognize purely natural sacraments; it is rather because of the demonization of nature. In so far, however, as nature participates in the history of salvation, it is liberated from the demonic and made capable of becoming a sacrament.
It could be inferred from this that the Protestant interpretation of nature would attribute sacramental qualities to everything. No finite object or event would be excluded as long as it was the bearer of a transcendent power and integrally related to the history of salvation. This is true in principle, but not in our actual existence. Our existence is determined not only by the omnipresence of the divine but also by our separation from it. If we could see the holy in every reality, we should be in the Kingdom of God. But this is not the case. The holy appears only in special places, in special contexts. The concentration of the sacramental in special places, in special rites, is the expression of mans ambiguous situation. The holy is omnipresent in so far as the ground of being is not far from any being; the holy is demonized because of the separation of the infinite ground of being from every finite reality. And, finally, the holy is manifest in its power to overcome the demonic at special places, ultimately at one place, in Jesus as the Christ. The danger of this situation is that the "special places," the peculiar materials, the ritual performances, which are connected with a sacrament claim holiness for themselves. But their holiness is a representation of what essentially is possible in everything and in every place. The bread of the sacrament stands for all bread and ultimately for all nature. This bread in itself is not an object of sacramental experience but that for which it stands. In Protestantism every sacrament has representative character, pointing to the universality of the sacramental principle.
The representative character of sacramental objects and events does not imply, however, that it is possible to create a sacrament arbitrarily or that these objects or events are interchangeable at will. Sacraments originate when the intrinsic power of a natural object becomes for faith a bearer of sacramental power. Sacraments cannot be created arbitrarily; they originate only by virtue of historical fate. All sacramental realities depend upon a tradition which cannot be abandoned arbitrarily or exchanged with some other tradition. But it can be destroyed by prophetic criticism. Most of the sacramental features of the Catholic tradition have been radically questioned by Protestantism; indeed, they have been abandoned on Protestant soil. And the process of reduction has not stopped with this. In the course of its history Protestantism has become so indifferent to sacramental thinking that even the two remaining sacraments have lost their significance, with the result that only the word has retained a genuinely sacramental character. In the revival of Reformation theology in our day, the word plays an immense role, whereas the sacraments play no role whatsoever. It is fairly evident that the Protestant sacraments are disappearing. To be sure, they can still have a long life simply because of the conservative character of all sacral forms. And then, too, renaissances of one sort or another are by no means beyond the range of possibility. But the one thing needful is that the whole Protestant attitude toward the sacraments be changed. Of primary importance for such a development is a new understanding of the intrinsic powers of nature which constitute an essential part of the sacraments. We need also to realize that the word has its basis in nature, and hence that the usual opposition between word and sacrament is no longer tenable. We must recognize the inadequacy of "Protestant personalism" and overcome the tendency to focus attention on the so-called "personality" of Jesus instead of on the new being that he expresses in his person. We must consider the unconscious and subconscious levels of our existence so that our whole being may be grasped and shattered and given a new direction. Otherwise these levels will remain in a state of religious atrophy. The personality will become intellectualistic and will lose touch with its own vital basis. The phenomenal growth of secularism in Protestant countries can be explained partly as a result of the weakening of the sacramental power within Protestantism. For this reason the solution of the problem of "nature and sacrament" is today a task on which the very destiny of Protestantism depends. But this problem can be solved only by an interpretation of nature which takes into account the intrinsic powers of nature. If nature loses its power, the sacrament becomes arbitrary and insignificant. Of course, the power of nature alone does not create a Christian sacrament. Nature must be brought into the unity of the history of salvation. It must be delivered from its demonic bondage. And just this happens when nature becomes a sacramental element.
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