Good Babylonian Theology

Michael Metzger

You know we’re in exile when you discover some good theology in Babylonian literature.

Many cultural analysts liken our situation today to the Judeans in the Babylonian exile. They were outsiders, exiles, in a land of exile. Western (including American) Christianity is an outsider, or exile, operating outside the arenas where American cultures are mainly made.

One way to recognize this is to do what the sons of Judah (a small percentage of the Judeans in Babylon) did over the course of their first three years in exile. They studied the language and literature of Babylon (Daniel 1). But why?

C. S. Lewis knew why. Everyone is made in God’s image, so Lewis believed everyone gets at least part of the story right. “I couldn’t believe that nine-hundred and ninety-nine religions were completely false and the remaining one true.”[1] Lewis felt that Christianity is not just the fulfillment of Judaism, but all faiths, for all faiths get some things correct.

Put another way, Lewis was confident that pagans, in the fine phrase of Edward Norman, got it “broadly right.” Shrewd Christians study pagan literature, as Paul studied Athens’ pagan poets to see where they got it broadly right.[2] The sons of Judah did likewise in Babylon.

This is why I read the Economist, an international weekly newspaper that focuses on current affairs, international business, politics, and technology. It’s good Babylonian literature.

And it occasionally touches on theology. In a recent article, the magazine highlighted what cannot be achieved online when it comes to the faith. First, the magazine writes, “God does not work as well over Zoom. The ineffable is lost.”

Ineffable means indescribable, what Augustine wrote: “If you can understand it, it’s not God.” God desires more to be experienced than explained—touched more than merely discussed.

Pre-Enlightenment churches get this. We see this in the art, architecture, the smells, and so on. They evoke a sense of wonder, the ineffable.

Much of American Christianity doesn’t get this. In older traditions, the Eucharist is the centerpiece of the service, so God doesn’t work well online for he isn’t present in the Eucharist online. Newer, Enlightenment traditions see the sermon as the centerpiece of the service, so they feel God does well online because instruction can be done well online. But this model does away with the ineffable, which is best experienced in the bread and wine.

The Economist gets this. “Transubstantiation, it is widely agreed, is not possible over the internet.”[3] That’s good Babylonian theology, even if you’re unfamiliar with the word transubstantiation.

It’s the conversion of the substance of the Eucharistic bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ at consecration. Only the appearances of bread and wine remain. Many pre-Enlightenment traditions hold to this, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Or they hold to consubstantiation, where the substance of the bread and wine coexists with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist. Either way, pre-Enlightenment churches recognize the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is not possible over the internet.

Why not? Pre-Enlightenment traditions are embodied, where flesh-and-blood ministers must be present to consecrate the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. These traditions take seriously Jesus’ words that “unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no part in me.” This embodied presence is not possible over the internet.

But with the advent of Enlightenment rationalism we see disembodied faiths, where the real presence of Christ is reduced to merely symbolic presence. Jesus isn’t actually present, so, as the Economist wryly notes, “Companies selling communion wafers and wine have been doing a brisk trade to worshippers stuck at home.” Just throw away the leftovers.

This horrifies pre-Enlightenment traditions. They recognize, as Tim Keller writes, that the Lord’s Supper is the “ultimate renewal ceremony” of the marriage covenant between Christ and His Bride. In the Eucharist, every little bit of Jesus’ body and blood that’s left over is not disposed of in the trash. Horrors.

But the fact that Babylonian literature such as the Economist has to remind us of this fact tells me American Christianity is in exile… and only a few get it.

[1] C. S. Lewis, God In The Dock, ed. Walter Hooper. (Eerdmans, 1970), 54.

[2] Richard John Neuhaus, “C. S. Lewis in the Public Square,” First Things, Vol. 88, September 1998, pp. 30-35.

[3] “Lockdown has turned Christianity into a winner-take-all business,” The Economist, April 3, 2021.

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10 Comments

  1. Hi Mike, would it seem to you that those who have taken communion regularly via Zoom with their virtual faith communities have done so mistakenly or ignorantly?

  2. Probably a little of both. But it’s less an issue of intention, as most Christians’ hearts are good. It’s more an issue, as C. S. Lewis and other noted, that most western Christians are blind to how the Eucharist was sacramental until the Age of Enlightenment. Since most contemporary evangelicals unknowingly hold to Enlightenment assumptions, including disembodied knowledge, most hardly know what sacramental means or implies. It means God is bodily present. It implies that the Eucharist is impossible over the internet. I lament that this is happening, but I’m pretty sure God laments just as much all that I have done ignorantly or mistakenly in the past, or what I’m unknowingly doing today that’s ignorant or mistaken.

  3. I think I need to understand better “transubstantiation.” Whilst I’m not opposed to the idea, I struggle to see a strong Biblical support for it. I’m not a member of one of the older faith traditions and so my local church does not teach it. But I do appreciate how the church through the ages has grappled with weighty questions of faith (e.g. the nature of God, the trinity, and the position of Christ within the trinity) and where they have done best is where they’ve based it solely on the Bible. Where they seem to go astray is adding human traditions, popular philosophies (e.g. enlightenment thinking), being dogmatic on items that are not totally clear from scripture, or an over-emphasis on secondary issues, perhaps. Can you point me toward a good reference on the topic, preferably from a Protestant, evangelical perspective? I quite enjoy materials from Ligonier. I guess the Reformed Church adheres to transubstantiation, right? Thanks!

  4. Andy: I suppose the easiest way to imagine trans (or con) substantiation is in Jesus turning water into wine, adding to the loaves and fish, etc. God is the maker is all substances, so he easily has the power to transcend, or work within, substances such as bread, wine, water, fish, etc. Easy peasy as my grandkids say.

    I’m not clear as to how the Reformed tradition views this, as I’ve seen various takes on the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist – or lack thereof. For what it’s worth, I found “A Secular Age” (by Charles Taylor) to be most helpful in this regards. Trans (or con) substantiation happens quite easily inside the “enchanted” frame.

  5. Mike, where in Scripture do we see that the bread and wine needs to be consecrated by an “ordained” person? Further, as a boy growing up in a pastor’s home I often wondered why we didn’t celebrate communion at home, and daily. As I read the Bible then, and even now, it seems like Jesus was inviting us to do this as often as we, Christ’s people, gathered. Isn’t the gathering of a Christian family at meal time one of those times? And, I never saw where that celebration of Jesus redemptive sacrifice required the “blessing” or “consecration” of an person with an imputed power to bring about a mystic transformation of bread and wine into the body and blood of our Savior.

    Just thinking

  6. Bob: Let me suggest a few ways to address your questions.

    1) Even Calvin timed his circuit around Geneva to ensure that he would receive communion at the hand of an ordained cleric.

    2) For her first 300 years, the church was mostly Jewish. It thought institutionally. The church is the embodiment of the institution of marriage, the marital gospel, for she is the bride of Christ. Priests occupy Jesus’ priestly office (Jesus occupied four office: prophet, priest, king, redeemer), continuing Jesus’ consecrating the bread and wine at the Last Supper, turning them into his body and blood. Roughly 75 percent of the worldwide church holds to this view, that the church is built on apostles, which is why, in Acts 6, the service of deacons presupposes Eucharistic feast consecrated by Apostles (the first Presbyters). This is supported by church teaching beginning with Justin Martyr.

    3) Another way to imagine this is to ask yourself: do you see a connection between Joe Biden and George Washington? Of course you do. Everyone knows they’re connected via the institution of the Presidency and the Office of the President that Washington held and Biden now holds. Thinking institutionally goes a long way in recognizing why and how a sacamentalist view of the Eucharist is embodied in ordained clergy.

    4) Finally, we have to recognize how it is only in the last 500 years, with the Enlightenment, that traditions arose that dispensed with church tradition (as well as thinking institutionally). They represent @25 percent of the worldwide church, mostly western (i.e. American) Christianity. In these newer traditions, anyone can serve communion, there is nothing mystical going on in the Eucharist, no real presence, no transformation of the bread and wine, it is merely symbolic, and the leftovers can be thrown away.

  7. Mike, a few questions.
    1. It would help if you’d “reveal” your own church affiliation. Are you a leader who leads by example? To take you literally about your 500 year cycles means that you hold fast to the Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy of 1000-1500 AD because everything since then is in “decline” in your estimation, including all Protestant reformations and Anabaptists who aren’t “built on apostles,” something you seem insistent upon either retaining or starting or renewing – and how – if you’re not RC or EO? Who practices this to your satisfaction, free of decline, in the last 500 years?
    2. Calvin’s Consistory prosecuted as law-breakers Geneva’s citizens who weren’t in church on Sundays – maybe that’s why Calvin was in church on Sundays?
    3. In the world of opinion, I understand how you and some readers may find a “digital presence of The Lord” unsatisfying, but I read Jesus and Paul being unconstrained by tradition. Being present with mature believers to remember The Lord or by being the one mature believer present with young believers I bet probably satisfies many readers that love of the brethren and remembering The Lord is being conducted honorably. If it’s impossible to identify apostolic succession, you nevertheless appear to have a solution when “the church is built on apostles.” I hope you’ll clear up what this means – outside of a claim to identify actual apostolic succession, it seems like mature believers accountable to others sufficiently accounts for apostolic presence.
    4. At different times a tolerance (vs. utter destruction) was practiced by Jews toward others, like Babylonians, but never a practice of adopting anything “good” from them. I’d study another culture’s theology to help those in that culture understand what’s best: Christian theology. I’d find good things only to help people understand better things, like Paul in Acts 17. You do this too: you study us Americans to help us understand your conception of better Christian theology. But as for the Ineffable – I agree: it is experienced from/with God. I don’t think Paul declared that the Athenians had not found The Ineffable God. When Paul says “that they would seek God, if perhaps they might feel around for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us,” he does not say that “they” have not found Him. I don’t know the Greek but the English looks like an excellent kind of exclusive yet also inclusive preaching.

  8. Hi Dave: I appreciate your questions, and don’t mean to sound evasive, but they remind me of George Hunter’s “The Celtic Way of Evangelism.” He writes, “Most Western Church leaders assume the only useful streams of insight is, by definition, confined to Roman Christianity and its Reformation offshoots.” He goes on to note Asian Christianity, Eastern Orthodox churches, Oriental Orthodox churches, Slavic churches, ancient African churches, and so on. He also notes Celtic Christianity predates Roman Christianity and its Reformation offshoots, so I’m drawing on more traditions than you cite.

  9. Hi Mike…I love your emphasis on Augustine and the ineffable. Noting how it arouses discomfort in so many brings you face-to-face with the deep impact of post-modern thinking on each of us. Reading through your post reminded me of opening stanza of T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from the Rock”, where he writes:

    …Endless invention, endless experiment,
    Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
    Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
    Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
    All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
    All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
    But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
    Where is the Life we have lost in living?
    Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
    Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
    The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
    Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

    I know my faith has been deepened and its spirit enriched by the liturgies of our faith (as discussed, for example, in James K.A. Smith’s “You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit”) and the liturgies of everyday life (as discussed, for example, by Trish Harrison Warren in her “Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life”).

    Thanks for this timely reminder of where we are as a culture…and how we might exit to a higher plane — i.e., nearer to God in our thinking and doing.

  10. Mike, I appreciate your work even though I sometimes struggle with your view that everything seems to relate to pre-enlightenment or post-enlightenment. But this post is over-the-top, hair-splitting of the first order. I have friends across the Eucharistic spectrum so much so that it’s hard to read the gospel accounts of the first communion without hashing all the different viewpoints in my head. That’s wrong and caused me to formulate a maxim. The first people I shared it with to see if might be a valid idea were both from strong Eucharistic backgrounds: a Lutheran and a Catholic priest. Both agreed with me: “The fact that Jesus died on the cross for my sins is WAY more important than how I choose to remember it.” I know that not everyone agrees. The day I posted this in a blog, a Catholic friend told me that “The Eucharist is meant to divide people.”

    “Transubstantiation is not possible over distance” presumes first, as others have pointed out, that ordained clergy of some sort is required to consecrate (or “change”) the elements – something for which there is zero New Testament evidence. Second, that such consecration is not possible over a distance. Why not? Jesus healed from a distance. Paul claimed to be with the Corinthians in spirit. For that matter, you and I have never met, but I partake of your “substance” every time I read your blog.

    Again, I think we are unnecessarily dividing people and splitting hairs. I know you meant well, but this blog was not helpful.

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