The Presence of the Past and the Eucharist

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is

The following article appeared in Process Studies, pp. 218-231, Vol. 13, Number 3, Fall, 1983. Process Studies is published quarterly by the Center for Process Studies, 1325 N. College Ave., Claremont, CA 91711. Used by permission. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The presence of Jesus is not limited to the Eucharist. But this does not remove the importance of it to many forms of Christianity. If the contributions of the Eucharist were better understood they might dispel the tendency to conceive of it magically and the total rejection so often exhibited.

One of the great philosophical mysteries is that of time. What are past, present, and future? One of the great Christian mysteries is the "real presence in the Eucharist. How can Jesus Christ be present today? The two mysteries are connected, for in the Eucharist an event of the distant past is re-presented or made present again.

1. Whitehead’s Vision

Whitehead’s philosophy was not developed to explain this Christian mystery, but it does involve fresh reflection on the philosophical mystery of time. At the heart of his vision is creativity," which he describes as "the many become one, and are increased by one" (FR 32). Each "novel entity is at once the togetherness of the ‘many’ which it finds, and also it is one among the ‘many’ which it leaves" (PR 32). The many are the past of the becoming entity, and that entity is the togetherness of that disjunctive past. Each present actual entity is the conjunction of that entity’s entire past world. Every actual entity in that entity s past participates in the present conjunction of all those entities into the new, present entity. Whitehead’s most fundamental metaphysical vision thus affirms the effective presence in every concrescing entity of all the entities in its past, both near and remote. Creativity is this many becoming the new one.

At times Whitehead describes the same process as a concrescence of feelings or prehensions instead of as the many actual entities becoming a new actual entity. But this does not change his meaning. A physical feeling or prehension is the way a past actual entity functions in the concrescence of the present one. It is the causal efficacy of the past entity achieved by its actual immanence in the present one. Viewed from the perspective of the present occasion, prehensions are the processes of appropriation of "the already constituted actual entities" (PR 335). The philosophy of organism is an account of how past actual entities are effectively immanent in their successors.

Whitehead explains quite specifically how prehensions introduce past actual entities into the new one. Each prehension is analyzed into two aspects, the objective datum and the subjective form. Both belong equally to the prehension and hence also to the prehending actual entity. Selected feelings of past entities jointly constitute the objective datum for the new one. To a large extent the new subjective form is a reenactment of subjective forms in the objective datum, so that there is a flow of feeling from the objective side to the subjective side of each entity. Thus each entity objectively includes feelings from the past and subjectively reenacts many of them.

I labor this point because the best systematizers of Whitehead’s thought have obscured it or even denied it. Ivor Leclerc, without doubt one of Whitehead’s finest interpreters, allowed his interpretation to be guided by Whitehead’s questionable classification of physical prehensions as a mode of perception. Leclerc assumes, as Whitehead does not,1 that perception "is having ideas in the mind as images of what is without."2 For perception in this sense, the perceived is passive and external. Hence he interprets Whitehead to mean that in physical feeling, what is felt is mere condition and datum for the feeling. He thus substitutes for the dynamic actual world of Whitehead, whose perpetual constitution of itself into new entities is creativity,3 a lifeless past, incapable of exerting real causal efficacy.4 Ironically, when Leclerc turns to the philosophy of nature on his own, he sees that causality requires the agency of the cause, which Whitehead illumined by his basic vision of creativity and immanence. But having excluded that side of Whitehead’s thought from his earlier interpretation, Leclerc now criticizes Whitehead for failing to provide the requisite doctrine.5

Nevertheless, despite the blindness of his interpreters, Whitehead’s own vision of causal immanence remains as lure for feeling, elaborated in a score of ways, and challenging our habitual assumption that one actual entity cannot be literally, ontologically ingredient in another. Each occasion, for Whitehead, is constituted by the literal, ontological (but partial and objective) presence within it of every entity in its past.

The account of "real presence" in this essay is inspired by Whitehead’s vision. It is not, however, argued from the texts of his writings. Instead, under his influence, I have analyzed what is involved in our experience of past and present to show how the past is truly felt as effectively present.

2. How the Past is not Present

The ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are present today in that they are remembered. The Eucharist is particularly designed to call these events to memory. For some Christians this is explanation enough of the real presence of Jesus Christ in the sacrament; but for others it is insufficient, since it does not distinguish the Eucharist from a mere memorial." The implication is that in a mere memorial what is present is only a picture of what is supposed to have happened in the past, and that such a picture may not be in fact derived from what occurred in the past. People are often moved by deceitful pictures or even by purely invented ones. If what is present is only the picture, then the connection of the picture to events that may or may not have occurred is irrelevant. In this view, even if the picture were accurate, those events would not really be present.

If, however, a memorial involved true memory, and not the mere production of a picture or idea, then what is present is what is remembered, namely, the past events. Eucharist as memorial is a representation of Jesus Christ, that is, a service in which Jesus is made present again. Jesus’ real presence in subsequent Christian experience is at least partially of this sort.6 But there are major obstacles to understanding how memory can function to make the past effectively present. For much common sense it seems evident that what is present is precisely what is not past, so that talk of the presence of the past is perceived as nonsensical; and there is no doubt that there are some meanings of "present" in terms of which no past event can be present.

Of the many meanings of "presence" three are primarily in view when presence is rightly denied to past events. The first is suggested by the expression "my present subjectivity." Here I have in view my own subjective immediacy. By definition nothing other than this immediacy itself and its formal ingredients can be present in this sense, and of course no past event is identical with that subjectivity. Hence this kind of presence must be denied to the past.

The second and third meanings inapplicable to historical events in the past have to do with modes of presence in which something other than one’s own subjectivity is present to that subjectivity. The second identifies the present with all that is occurring simultaneously with this subjectivity. Present in one’s world in this sense are the events that are now taking place. An astronomer can calculate where a star is now in distinction from the locus at which it is seen in the night sky. The assumption is that since the time when the star emitted the light that is now reaching us, the relative positions of the star and the earth have changed. The star is not at present where it appears.

Since all sensory experience takes time to happen, the distinction that is magnified in the case of the star obtains everywhere to some minimal degree. The events presently transpiring on the hill across the valley are not identical with the ones that gave rise to the sound of a rifle shot that is now heard coming from that direction. In visual experience of events at a distance of a few feet, the temporal lapse is insignificant. Nonetheless, the principle remains that what is present in this sense of now occurring somewhere in the universe, near or far, is not yet felt by the subject. In the language of Whitehead, contemporaries occur independently of each other.

The third meaning of presence depends on sense experience. Whatever the astronomer says about the present locus of the star in the second sense, in experience it is located where it is seen. It presents itself there. Phenomenologically that is where the star presently is. Even if there are reasons to suppose that in the millions of years since the departure of the light that is now reaching the earth the star has exploded or burnt out, the star is still present to human experience there now.

More generally "present" often describes all of that which one is aware of through touch, hearing, or sight. What is present is what the senses present as there-now. When distances are not great, this is commonly identified with what is present in the second sense, but philosophically this identification is responsible for considerable confusion. Strictly speaking, what is present in the sense of contemporary is never present in the sense of presented, and what is presented is never contemporary.

3. The Reality of the Past

These three senses of presence are often taken as the only literal ones. When this is done, no argument is needed against the real presence of a past figure, for a past figure by definition is not the present subjectivity, is not contemporary, and is precisely one no longer subject to being presented through the senses.7 The presence of a past figure can be made intelligible and justified only by a quite different notion of presence specifically appropriate to the relation of the past to the present.

However, formulating such a notion of the presence of the past depends on surmounting a second obstacle -- the tendency to deny reality to the past. According to this view, what is now past was once real, namely, when it was present; but now only the present is real. The remembered past is acknowledged to have reality in being remembered. But in this view the locus of that reality is exclusively internal to the present. By implication, the remembered past does not have a fundamentally different status from the falsely imagined past.

The question is whether past events now have reality only in present events or whether they have their own integrity for present events as givens. An example will help to direct attention to the crux of the issue. I now remember a conversation that occurred yesterday. Clearly the conversation is not now occurring. What is occurring now is the remembering. What then is the status of what is remembered? Does it have its reality only in being remembered, that is, does the present act of remembering bestow reality upon it? Or does the present activity come up against the past event as something given with its own independent integrity to which the remembering attempts to conform itself?

Phenomenological analysis indicates that remembering relates the present to something objective to it, something with determinate content, something which it may more or less fully and accurately grasp. I make mistakes in recalling what occurred. This would be impossible if the remembering constituted the past it remembers.

Examples could be multiplied. One could appeal to the dominant assumption of historians that, despite constructionist theories to the contrary,8 they are engaged in discovering and reconstructing aspects of what occurred rather than in constructing a past or bringing it into being. Historical writing is distinguished from fiction -- at least in its intention and in the norms by which it is judged.

The case for the objective givenness of the past is so strong that the question arises as to why the denial is so persistent. The problem is that of locus. Where is the past now? The assumption is that only what is somewhere now, is given; that is, that only what is present in the three senses considered above is real. Thus a tight circle is drawn. Only the present is real because the real is necessarily present.

This denial of reality to the past has been disastrous for philosophical discussions of efficient causality. There is widespread agreement that the cause precedes the effect, which means that the cause is past when the effect is present. But if the past is real only as it is given reality by the present, most of the connotations of "cause" cannot apply to it. Indeed the reality of the "cause" becomes the effect of its effect! In this view present reality becomes the only cause, and it causes nothing but itself.

Many philosophers have simply abandoned the idea of "cause," but it is impossible to give up all notions of the effect of past events on present ones. Most transitive verbs imply such effects. The sense of the derivation of experience from our bodies would have to be regarded as illusory apart from causality. In general, explanations of events would become meaningless.

Since the denial of reality to the past has so many results that are in conflict with common sense and universal experience, the intuition that supports it should be subjected to critical scrutiny. That intuition is that what is real must be somewhere now, and that the past is nowhere. The simple answer to this is that the past is in the past. The difficulty is that the idea of "somewhere" is bound up with the notions of presence discussed above, so that, by definition, the past is excluded as a locus.

The contention here is that the notion of "somewhere is confused, and that when the confusion is overcome, the apparent self-evidence that it refers only to the present can be dissipated. The self-evidence reflects a common sense in which locus refers to a three-dimensional space, whereas modern physics and philosophy alike require that locus be defined in terms of four dimensions, including time. In Whitehead’s language, the extensive continuum as the potential locus for all standpoints underlies the past and future as well as the present (PR 103). When this mode of thought is really internalized, it should be possible to recognize the four dimensional past as the locus of the reality of past events.

If the past were not real, there would be no escape from solipsism of the present moment. That is, the individual occasion in the moment of its becoming can have no real relation to strictly contemporary events, and if the phenomenologically given present is not caused by past events, then it must be pure projection. Only by recognizing the past as that given reality with which every present has to do can these absurd consequences be avoided.

4. Causal and Real Presence

The past is not present in any of the three senses considered above, but it is present in a fourth and equally important sense. It is causally present. This present causal efficacy of past reality can also be viewed from the side of present novel actualization. That actualization takes account of the past realities or, in Whitehead’s language, prehends them. Whitehead teaches that the world is so intricately bound together that every past actuality is prehended to some extent, however trivial. The new event selectively embodies and reenacts elements of the past. The selectivity is partly due to the fact that no event can reenact all the richness of feeling available to it. It is also due to the fact that the selectivity of past realities has long since obscured most aspects of the remote past. That there is such a past with its own complete determinateness is felt, but most of its determinate feelings are not available for present experience. Historians, believing that there is a determinate and settled past, seek information about it. They provide well-warranted propositions about past figures to which we give assent. But this must not be confused with the primal feeling of the reality of past events.

In relation to the vast majority of past events this primal feeling is vague, trivial, and unconscious. In it, nevertheless, the whole past is causally present to each new occasion. This causal presence of the past is ontologically more fundamental than any other form of presence. Every event is causally present in all subsequent history (cf. PR 350f.).

Causal presence is certainly real. But since all the past is present in this sense, the causal presence of most historical events is trivial. If the idea of the presence of a particular historical figure has any importance, it must be by virtue of diversity in the way different past events affect the present. It would not be helpful to speak of "real presence as identical with causal presence in general.

There are several useful distinctions here. First, there is the distinction between contiguous and noncontiguous past occasions. A contiguous occasion immediately precedes and adjoins the prehending one. The fill richness of its feeling is available for reenactment. Even here selection takes place, since there must be integration with feelings derived from other contiguous occasions, but no preceding act of selection restricts this one. There is the possibility of very extensive continuity of feeling. For example, in one moment I am likely to enjoy an experience very much (never exactly) like that of the preceding moment. Noncontiguous occasions, on the other hand, are felt through the selective mediation of contiguous ones. Ordinarily this selection progressively restricts their potential contribution.

However, there is no direct correlation between proximity and importance of contribution. In some instances the contiguous occasions do little more than mediate the novel feelings of a relatively remote occasion. The experience of touch affords a good example. The nerve endings at the tips of my fingers feel a rough surface. Their feelings are mediated through the nerves in the arm to the brain. The result is that I feel the feeling in my fingertips. One could also say that what I directly feel is the feeling of contiguous occasions in the brain, which in turn feel their neighbors, and so forth. There is truth to this as we know by the fact that a surgical cut or an anaesthetic can stop the communication to me of the feelings in my finger tips. But it is also misleading. However much my doing so depends on intervening events, what I feel in the ordinary sense of the term is the feeling in my fingertips. The two points can be accurately combined by saying that I feel the feeling in the finger tips as this was felt by contiguous nerve cells as these were felt by others and so forth.

The feeling in the fingertips is a special case of causal presence. In spite of its being spatiotemporally somewhat remote, it is present to me subjectively with an immediacy and effectiveness lacking to the presence of even the contiguous occasions in the brain. All are causally present, but to distinguish this special form of causal presence, I will call it "real presence." The causal presence of a past noncontiguous occasion is real" when it is rightly felt as originating elements of feeling that are important to the becoming occasion and when intermediate occasions function primarily to mediate these elements as they are derived from that entity.

In the case of the senses, the structure of the central nervous system in the healthily functioning human body facilitates the frequent real presence in personal experience of the nerve endings. Other parts of the body are rarely really present except when something goes wrong. But real presence is not limited to this kind of physiological base. It can be found also in the field of memory. Particular past experiences, especially if they were emotionally intense, continue for a long time to affect the emotional tone of subsequent occasions. After such experiences it is said that one will never be the same again, and this is quite literally the case.

The film The Pawnbroker offers a vivid and believable portrayal of this kind of real presence. The pawnbroker’s experience in a Nazi concentration camp shaped the emotional tone of all his subsequent relations. The film explains this through flash-backs suggesting that at decisive points in his subsequent life he vividly recalled the acutely painful experiences endured in the camp. These experiences were really present to him.

A third example of real presence can be taken from the collective American experience of the assassination of President Kennedy. This collective experience is not adequately conceived as the sum of individual experiences, as if these occurred in relative autonomy. The reactions of each interacted with the reactions of others and were especially affected by the news media, so that a national mood emerged which shaped the feelings of highly diverse individuals. To some extent that mood has permanently affected the collective (and therefore the individual) American feeling about being American. From time to time, as on the occasion of the assassination of Robert Kennedy, that event has become really present again collectively. It is more often really present for individuals.

Real presence usually involves the presence of relevant ideas. These ideas change through the passage of time. This history of the associated ideas profoundly affects the experiences in which the past event is really present. But the real presence of the past event is distinct from simply the presence of these changing ideas. It is a mode of the causal presence of particular elements of the past that had emotional intensity and originality of content. These are lifted out of their vagueness and triviality by being highlighted and focused upon in the becoming occasion. The intervening experiences that had obscured them are transformed in this respect into mere transmitters of the originating events. This occasional renewal of the real presence of the Kennedy assassination, for example, brings changing ideas to the fore. But what is really present is a causally effective event.

5. The Presence Of The Distant Past

The discussion thus far has left open the possibility that events that are really present have their effect only through the mediation of temporally intervening events. This may be the case, and "common sense supposes that it is. Nevertheless, the vividness and intensity of the real presence that some past events occasionally display suggests a more immediate relation, and there are speculative philosophies that imply its possibility.

William James envisioned a "common reservoir of consciousness to exist, this bank upon which we all draw, and in which so many of the earth’s memories must in some way be stored."9 James speaks of this as "a cosmic environment of other consciousness."10 And he employs this theory in his speculative interpretations of mediumship.

Henri Bergson, who was also interested in parapsychological phenomena, taught that "all our past is conserved."11 "Consciousness implies both the existence in space of what is beyond our present perception and the existence of a past in memory of which we are not actually conscious."12 For him it is not remembering that requires explanation, but forgetting.13 No more than James did Bergson suppose that the past is stored in the brain. On the contrary, "the role of the brain is to mask the useless part."14 "The brain cannot be the storehouse of memories, but it may contain the machinery by which memory translates itself into action."15 What is important now for the organism s survival is not this cumulative past but what is occurring in the current environment. ‘Our reluctance to admit the integral survival of the past has its origin, then, in tile very heart of our psychical life -- the unfolding of states wherein our interest prompts us to look at that which is unrolling, and not at that which is entirely unrolled."16

Whitehead shared this Jamesian-Bergsonian vision of a past that is now effective and is given in and for present experience. He developed the idea less than did James or Bergson for the interpretation of extraordinary experiences, but his account opens the way, equally with theirs, and with greater precision, for such extension and application.

In Whitehead’s language the question is whether an experience can include unmediated prehensions of noncontiguous events. He believed that his general doctrine of each experience taking account of the entire past favored the view that there are direct or unmediated prehensions of other than contiguous events. But he acknowledged that current physical theory makes no use of action at a distance. Hence, as a contingent fact about our world, he agreed that probably physical causation in our cosmic epoch requires spatio-temporal contiguity. However, he saw evidence that we can be affected by mental experience even at some spatial distance. His major illustration is telepathy (cf. PR 468-70).

Even if the empirical evidence for telepathy is sufficient to warrant its acceptance as a reality, that in itself does not necessitate the view of action at a distance. Telepathic communication could be analogous to speaking. In speech there is the air in which waves are produced to mediate the sound to the hearer. We know now that thought is accompanied by waves of various sorts. It is possible that these waves reach a recipient who can associate meanings with them in much the way we hear meanings in the sounds of words. One who accepts telepathy but denies action at a distance can appeal to some such theory.

This is not impossible, but if there is no a priori objection to action at a distance, then the simplest explanation of telepathy is that the entertaining of a thought by one person can directly affect the experience of another; or, from the other point of view, that one person may prehend directly aspects of the experience of another. The apparent irrelevance of distance and the importance of particular personal affinities in the more striking stories about telepathy favor this interpretation.

Whitehead does not discuss memory in these terms as Bergson does, but his theory of prehensions of noncontiguous events illuminates memory as well. Consider an instance of vivid recollection of a past experience. Assume the rare instance when much of its detail reoccurs with some exactness. How does this past experience reach the present?

There are two ways in which this experience may be mediated. First, it maybe mediated through the cells in the brain. The brain is an exceedingly marvelous and complex organ, and it would be danger-otis to assert limits to what it can do. However, it is difficult to conceive how the complex unity and integration of parts of a past experience can be mediated by the brain. Certainly no single cell could contain such an experience, and it is difficult to think that a particular circuit set in action by that distant past event has retained it in the intervening time so little affected by subsequent events. It is plausible to think of each human experience as having an effect on many of the circuits in the brain, and these in turn as having a complex effect on subsequent human experiences. But it is not plausible to think of such an experience as permanently "stored" in the brain.

The second possibility of mediation is through the successive human experiences. Contiguity could be maintained on this view only if in dreamless sleep there are such successive experiences, so that the chain is never broken. Since consciously the experience in question may not have been remembered for many years, it must be assumed that it was unconsciously felt. This unconscious feeling would have to retain the experience in all of the richness and individuality with which it is now recalled. Indeed, everything in the past which can in principle be recalled in the future under hypnosis, for example, must be fully present in unconscious experience at every moment. This is an enormous role to assign the unconscious!

If there are a priori grounds for assuming that direct prehension of noncontiguous occasions is impossible, one of these theories must be adopted with all its difficulties. If there is no a priori ground for denying that, in addition to being influenced by the brain and by intervening experiences, there is also an element of direct recall of past experience, then a much simpler theory, more in accord with introspective evidence, is possible.

Even if there is direct recall of experiences in the noncontiguous past, those past experiences are also mediated to us through intervening events in both the brain and unconscious personal experience; for every experience takes some account of the entire past. Hence it is impossible for any experience simply to reenact a past one, near or far. Also one would expect that a past occasion would be directly prehended in a significant way only when conditions were peculiarly conducive to this unusual occurrence. There should, for example, be correlations between direct prehensions of a noncontiguous event and activity of particular brain circuits associated with that event.

Parapsychological literature tells of another set of experiences not shared by most people. Incredulity here is understandable, but if there are no a priori grounds for denying direct prehensions of thoughts and feelings from the past, the evidence should be examined. Some psychics seem to be able to prehend aspects of the past experiences of other persons, usually in conjunction with handling objects worn by them. Some people have "memories" of events in the lives of past persons, which have led to theories of reincarnation. The incredulity aroused by these claims is associated with the impossibility of explaining them in terms of mediating fields or events. If they occur, they can only be direct prehensions of occasions in the lives of other persons.17 Such indications as exist ofa "collective unconscious are also explicable in terms of unconscious prehensions of a shared past. Sir Alister Hardy believes that analogous phenomena function in the animal world and have played a role in evolution.18

It is necessary to point to striking cases like these in order to explain the general hypothesis that there are prehensions of noncontiguous occasions. But if the hypothesis is true, it should be exemplified in unspectacular ways in ordinary experience as well.

The examples given above entail that the subject prehend the past experience in terms of its content or objective data as well as its emotion or subjective form. But in most prehensions of our past experiences, even the contiguous past, what is felt is primarily its subjective form. Emotions are transmitted from moment to moment of experience, often without clear indication of their original objective correlate or source. Psychologists have made us aware that much of our emotional response to new situations is not appropriate to them. It is explained by past experiences whose content has been forgotten but whose emotions are still effective.

There is also evidence that the subjective form or emotional tone of present experience is affected by the emotional tone of other people. Whitehead refers to the "instinctive apprehension of a tone of feeling in ordinary social intercourse (PR 469). These days one speaks of vibrations. There are times when one feels another persons empathy in a way that suggests a more immediate response to ones feelings than can be accounted for through the orthodox view of interpretation of physically mediated stimulation of the brain.

6. Jesus’ Presence in the Eucharist

This long discussion of the way in which past events are effectively and experientially present provides a context for considering the real presence of Jesus. That presence is a special case of the general principles. If the possibility of unmediated prehension of noncontiguous events is allowed, that category can be applied to Jesus’ presence and can deepen the understanding of the experience of presence. If it is denied, Jesus’ real presence is still intelligible.

Jesus’ presence in this sense, in distinction from the presence of the Risen Lord or the Eternal Son, is rarely asserted clearly in traditional theology. Perhaps the assertion of the presence of the past has seemed too paradoxical. Yet the rhetoric of piety frequently suggests it in its prayers and hymns, in the proclamation of the Word, and especially in the liturgy of the Eucharist. What are most explicitly represented in the Eucharist are the events of Jesus’ eating with his disciples and of his passion.

The interpretation of the Eucharist has been a point of bitter contention in Christendom. Roman Catholics have often insisted on a transformation of the substance of the bread and vine into the substance of the body and blood of Jesus. Lutherans have sometimes agreed that the presence is substantial but denied that this involved replacement of the natural substance of the bread and wine. Calvinists have thought more in terms of a spiritual presence to the believer effectively signified by the bread and wine.

In light of this long history of controversy it is striking that theologians representing these traditions today do not insist upon their historic formulations in a divisive way. Instead they find that widespread agreement is possible. Many of them agree that Jesus Christ is really present, that the bread and wine are efficacious signs of his body and blood, and that the presence is not dependent on the subjective faith of the participants.19

The preceding discussion of the presence of the past shows that these shared tenets are intelligible and credible when Jesus Christ is understood to be the historical Jesus, or the decisive and climactic events of his life. Indeed, the crucifixion followed by the resurrection experiences were events of such intensity and significance as inevitably to constitute a real presence in the subsequent experience of the disciples and of any community that grew up about them. But they would have long since faded into trivial causal presence had the community not committed itself to their repeated renewal. The renewal of the real presence was effected in many ways, but it focused in the Eucharist repeated specifically in memory and symbolic reenactment of the event. Typically it was in the Eucharist that the otherwise diffuse and vague causal presence of Jesus became vivid, consciously effective, and therefore real. Each observance of the Eucharist mediated his real presence to subsequent observances.

In relation to the contemporary tendency to psychologize the sacrament, this understanding of the reality of the past and its causally effective presence supports the theological consensus of a presence not dependent on the subjective state of the worshipers. The worshipers recognize an existing causal presence. Through symbolization of the past event, that causal presence is enhanced to significant efficacy. That symbolization is also partly objective to the subjective states of the individual worshipers. These subjective elements are thus affected by the objective presence of Jesus.

Causal presence objectively precedes the reenactment of the event, and the reenactment heightens that presence into real presence in a way that is partly objective to the individual worshiper. But subjective factors are equally important. Without a suitable intention there is no real presence, and the extent of the effectiveness of the presence in the individual worshipers depends on their receptivity. Although the general causal presence is independent of subjective factors, the real presence is a result of the polar interaction of the objective and the subjective. Subjective intention and receptivity presuppose objective presence, and the effectiveness of the objective presence depends on the intention and receptivity. Heightened objective effectiveness resulting from subjective factors in turn deepens and purifies intention and increases receptivity.

While rejecting psychologizing, this view of real presence also opposes the magical tendencies of some traditional doctrines. First, real presence is not limited to the Eucharist or to a list of sacraments. Jesus’ causal presence is everywhere, and that influence can become a real presence at other times and places than in the Eucharist.

Second, the real presence is in the total event of the Eucharist and is focused in the participants. It is not in the bread and wine as such. The causal efficacy of Jesus for the elements considered in abstraction from the participants is trivial. This does not make the elements superfluous, since the reenactment of the symbolic repetition of Jesus’ eating with his disciples is the appropriate and adequate way to make Jesus’ presence real. But the bread and wine are the occasion and not the embodiment of his presence.

Third, the Eucharist has other values than effecting the real presence of Jesus. The communion of the participants with each other and with God may be more important than their communion with Jesus. Making vivid the ideas associated with the Eucharist may make more differences in the lives of the participants than making Jesus himself really present.

Fourth, although the sacrament has been central to most of Christianity, the main agency of mediating Jesus’ causal presence and making it real, it is not essential to Christian existence. This is both because Jesus presence can be realized in other ways and because Christian existence can occur where Jesus’ presence is not realized. The Society of Friends has as much claim to the label Christian as has any other group, in spite of its rejection of traditional sacraments.

But the facts that the real presence of Jesus is not limited to the Eucharist and that not all forms of Christianity are bound up with the realization of this presence do not remove the importance of the idea. For many Christians this effective presence is important, even central, for Christian life. A clearer understanding of how this presence functions may help to reduce both the tendency to conceive it magically and the total rejection that has expressed the reaction to this abuse. It may help to give renewed reality to the celebration for those for whom it has become an empty rite. The potential contribution of the Eucharist to Christian life and unity might then be more fully realized.



1On page 272 of his excellent book, The Nature of Physical Existence (London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: Humanities Press, 1972), Leclerc quotes from Science and the Modern World in support of his interpretation of Whitehead. He is probably correct that in that book Whitehead has not fully broken from "the Neo-platonic doctrine of ideas" (p. 273). However this break is complete and systematic in Process and Reality and most explicit in Adventures of Ideas, Chapter X, where the notion of one actuality as truly present in another, and not merely represented in it, is asserted to be the one fundamental metaphysical advance since Plato (AI 214f.). In the latter book Whitehead recognizes the danger that his earlier rise of "perception" can lead into confusion, and he acknowledges "that it may be advisable for philosophers to confine the word ‘perception’" to "experiential functions which arise directly from stimulation of the various bodily sense-organs" (AI 229). What Whitehead means by physical or causal prehension is not a species of perception in this sense, and it is not to he understood in terms of the Neoplatonic doctrine.

2 Leclerc, op. cit., p 273.

3 Leclerc’s interpretation of Whitehead in The Nature of Physical Existence draws out the implications of his earlier interpretation in Whitehead’s Metaphysics: An Introductory Exposition (London: George Allen and Unwin; New York: The Macmillan Company, 1958). There, in his otherwise lucid and illuminating explanation of Whitehead’s doctrine of creativity (pp. 81-87), he says nothing of ‘the many becoming one" with its strong note of the agency of the many, and he identifies creativity instead exclusively with the "self-creating activity" (p. 87) of concrescing occasions. He provides, of course, no documentation for this one-sided emphasis.

4 It is significant that in Whitehead’s Metaphysics Leclerc has stated, without textual support from Whitehead, that for Whitehead past entities do not "exist in the full sense of ‘exist’, and . . . are no longer properly ‘actual " (p. 109). For Whitehead, in contrast, "existence" in the sense of "the categories of existence" is the status of data for feeling (PR 36).

5 The denaturing of Whitehead’s doctrine of causal efficacy in Leclerc’s interpretation is expressed on page 110 of Whitehead’s Metaphysics. There Leclerc quotes Whitehead as follows: "The functioning of one actual entity in the self-creation of another actual entity is the ‘objectification’ of the former for the latter actual entity" (PR 34).After noting the parallel language with respect to the functioning of eternal objects, Leclerc writes: "It should be noted that the term ‘functioning’ in neither case implies ‘agency’ on the part of the entity functioning. This should be stressed because the contrary supposition might arise from Whitehead’s statement . . . that upon objectification an actual entity ‘acquires efficient causation whereby it is a ground of obligation characterizing creativity’ " (PR 40). That "functioning" is some kind of "agency" is, of course, just what any reader of Whitehead would suppose, and Leclerc quotes nothing from Whitehead against this reading. But having interpreted creativity as self-creating activity and having denied existence to the past, Leclerc must interpret Whitehead as denying agency to the past as well. In fact, Whitehead’s doctrine of the causal immanence of the past in the present provides for the kind of mutual "acting on" and "relating" that Leclerc’s own reflections on the philosophy of nature lead him to demand (The Nature of Physical Existence, p.309).

6 I do not want to foreclose other possibilities such as that Jesus’ presence is mediated by God or is that of the risen Jesus who is now enjoying new experiences in "heaven," but this essay deals only with the re-presentation of past events.

7 It is entertaining, but not particularly fruitful, to reflect that events in our past are in the present of observers in other solar systems in both the second and the third senses of present. One such observer may now be watching Jesus being baptized by John. Another, whom we calculate as present in the second sense, may so calculate such presence that Jesus’ baptism is for him now present in the same sense.

8 Constructivism is vigorously defended by John W. Meiland, Skepticism and Historical Knowledge (Random House, Inc., 1965).

9 John J. McDermott, ed., The Writings of William James (Modern Library, Inc. 1967), p. 799.

10 Ibid., p. 798.

11 Darcy B. Kitchin, Bergson for Beginners (C. Allen & Co., 1914), p. 246,

12 A. D. Lindsay, The Philosophy of Bergson (Kennikat Press, Inc., 1968), p. 167.

13 Henri Bergson, The Creative Mind (Ottawa, New Jersey: Littlefield Adams and Co., 1965), pp. 153ff.

14 Kitchin, Bergson for Beginners, p. 246.

15 Lindsay, The Philosophy of Bergson, p. 176.

16 Harold A. Larrabee, ed., Selections from Bergson (Appleton-Century-Crofts, n.d.), p. 55f.

17 On this theory they do not provide evidence for metempsychosis as usually understood.

18 Sir Alister C. Hardy, The Living Stream: A Restatement of Evolution Theory and Its Relation to the Spirit of Man (William Collins Sons & Co., Ltd., 1965), pp. 253ff.

19 Cf. the summary of results of recent bilateral conversations among world confessional families in Nils Ehrenstrom and Günther Gassmann, Confessions in Dialogue (World Council of Churches, 1972), pp. 117-23. The history of the overcoming of the dominance of substance categories in Roman Catholic circles is told in Joseph M. Powers, Eucharistic Theology (Herder and Herder, 1967). Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy (Harper & Bros., 1948), p. 266, makes this point in a chapter on "Ritual, Symbol, Sacrament" which, in dependence on C. D. Broad, develops a doctrine of real presence similar to the one argued for here.