Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Real Presence as opposed to Ominpresence - a reflection for Advent

If you have any experience with or knowledge of liturgical (heavily sacramental) Christianity then you probably have heard of the debate over the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist because the Eucharist is such an important element of such traditional forms of worship. It boils down to the question of whether Jesus becomes truly and actually present in the wafer that is blessed by the priest - whether it actually hosts Christ. Obviously if you have no interest in discussions about Jesus this is a moot point. But assuming you are curious even for the sake of argument, what exactly might this mean? After all, it has been argued, isn't God supposed to be omnipresent? And if you accept a Trinitarian formulation, this would mean that Jesus is also omnipresent. So what gives? I am not a Roman Catholic and I am not speaking in any way on behalf of that faith. What follows is simply what went through my head when I pondered this question, randomly drawn from a bank of topics floating on the periphery of my consciousness, on the drive to work several weeks ago.

Let's first borrow some Buddhist/interfaith mystic imagery. Not because it is absolutely necessary, but because it helps me express some of my thoughts more clearly. At the Ascension, Jesus re-entered the heart of Creation. In a certain panentheistic view, the Divine is both the source and substance of existence as the Ground of Being, i.e. God is the water (ultimate dimension) and phenomena are the waves (historical or relative dimension). This idea is compatible to some degree with Eastern views such as the relationship between the ineffable Tao and the tangible world in which we live. So having manifested in Form, Christ returns to Emptiness (to use a loose Buddhist analogy - yes yes I know that both form and emptiness are different aspects of the same reality, and that's kind of the point).

It is similar to the idea of Buddha entering Nirvana. Yet we are taught that Nirvana (the realm of perfection) and Samasara (the realm of suffering and dissatisfaction) are not two different places. They reflect the duality produced by the delusions from which we suffer by thinking that phenomena have their own independent and intrinsic existence apart from other phenomena and their source (i.e. that a wave can exist independently of other waves and water). This false sense of separation manifests in the ills of the world, such as hatred and greed and existential despair as we crave things (producing unhealthy desires and attachments) that we subconsciously believe will fulfill us and make us whole. This has been compared by others and then by myself to the idea of sin as separation from God and looking for fulfillment in the wrong places.

It is also similar to the idea of the Pure Land, or pure lands, or Buddha-fields. Each is the creation of one who has awakened to their delusions and to their true nature. They are (also) how the world appears to someone who sees reality-as-it-is and as-it-can-be as opposed to the myopic view of the deluded being. In much the same way, Christ is reported to have said that the Kingdom of God is within us - that is isn't some far off place. This suggests that reality is much grander and more beautiful than our perceptions, based on our biases from limited senses, our prejudiced and limited expectations, our typical ways of thinking and feeling, etc, might suggest. But we are blind to this fact. Hence we read things such as the suggestion that if we had faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move mountains. In the thousands of years of recorded history, including the two thousand years since the time of Christ, no one has moved a mountain. I know it was figurative/rhetorical, and in that sense some major things have been "moved", but it also points to how little faith we really have.

In this case I am using faith to refer to believing in that larger, more amazing reality that figures such as Moses, Siddhartha Gautama, and Joshua ben Joseph have been describing to us. Faith as belief in the capacity to awaken to this grander world. People believe in all sorts of things, including things associated with their religion, with Jesus, with the Buddha, etc. But the dirty secret, I think, is that most of us haven't really seen these wonders with our own eyes. So while we profess X, Y, Z, we tend to live in and live as if we are in the more mundane, disappointing, limited world to which we have become accustomed. This is what I tend to think of as "the World" in Biblical terms. It is the dull, limited construction of reality that we slog through on a regular basis, a dimmer view with less potential for greatness and more temptation for selfishness. It is the same realm that I associate with the Buddhist idea of Samsara. It is the fertilizer of cynicism - the proof of the atheist (position) and the doubt of the agnostic.

If, for the sake of argument, you accept the premise as laid out thus far, then the perplexing questions which I raised (or more accurately echoed) are not difficult to resolve. Yes, the Divine is all around us but we are blind to that fact. Even most of the believers - as they go on "faith" rather than proof. In 1 John 4:12 we read that "No one has ever seen God..." Turning to Buddhism, how many Buddhists have managed to truly see the Pure Land? And how and why do Bodhisattvas "return to" Samsara to guide and inspire us? Well, if "the World"/"Samsara" is the realm of our collective delusion, wherein we cannot see the Divine or reality-as-it-is, then entering this realm would mean coming to us where we are - in our world of unreality and suffering. That is, bringing some of this Light of wisdom and compassion into the darkness of our ignorance and selfishness. Getting back to the Eucharist - it can then be construed as an aspect of the Divine that we can see even though the rest is still opaque and murky - sharing and revealing Itself to us even though we still cannot otherwise see beyond our usual limitations.

It isn't that the Divine isn't always present anyway, it is that we cannot usually detect it or perceive it in a direct and clear way. In that sense, the Real Presence refers to that aspect of the Divine which we can perceive to be "real" even in our illusory world, even in our confusion. Like a window or lens helping us to see beyond our normal perception. Hence the emphasis on "real" but also on "presence". Every celebration of the Eucharist then is a chance to re-live the coming of this Light into the world as told in the narratives of the life of Jesus.

OK, well, there you go, a little something to kick off the Advent season this Sunday, the season revolving around the anticipation of the coming of the Light in the Christian tradition, as well as for those Buddhists looking to celebrate and remember the Enlightenment of the Buddha in a couple of weeks. Be well.


  1. I prefer the Anglican viewpoint. "If not here, then nowhere. If here, then everywhere."

    Or as John Donne (and Bland Tucker) put it:

    "When Jesus died to save us, a word, an act he gave us; and still that word is spoken, and still the bread is broken.

    "He was the word that spake it, he took the bread and brake it, and what that Word did make it, I do believe and take it."

    (Just a little food for thought addenda: "Sin" is (for us) not only separation from God; it is also separation from self and from others.

    The "kingdom of God" is, famously in optional translations from the koine greek, not only "within", but also "among" us.)

  2. I don't see any contradiction between that and my analysis, but then, this is a more recent/hobbby-like exercise for me, not something I have spent years experiencing and trying to contemplate.

    For example...

    ...it wouldn't be about Jesus not being present, but about not being able to truly "see" him in our illusory/deluded state.

    ...as the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn suggested in his writings on Jesus and Christianity, the bread Jesus gave his disciples is still here today if we understand how to look for it. So again, it is a matter of our awareness of something (which makes it "real" to us) rather than its existence that is missing/absent.

    ...as the analogy of the water/waves suggests, the delusion of separation would be both from other people (i.e. other waves/phenomena) as well as from the water (the Divine).

    ...the same would apply to the interpretation of the Kingdom of God, which is here used to imply the real and true state of all things. The idea though is that our understanding and experience of reality comes from within, hence a change to "find" this Kingdom can be compared to an awakening. The truth was there even when we were asleep and dreaming.

    Thanks for taking the time for a dialog on a matter of personal meaning to you with someone who is less versed about and less careful with that matter.

  3. I agree; there seems to be no essential contradiction. Of course, I might get an argument whether my view of the christian sacraments is actually "the" Anglican viewpoint. I speak more from personal/professional/hymnological experience than from the armchair theologian's point of view.

    (Happy Thanksgiving, btw.)

  4. I guess it depends - some Anglo-Catholics may see it differently I suppose. Belated Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

  5. More likely the challenge comes from "evangelical" areas. (I was sponsored by an anglo-catholic parish and was led in this direction by an anglo-catholic priest. The thing about "fixed" liturgies is that they are the context for receiving "surprise".)

  6. ...faith as a intuition of something beyond oneself; placing our faith in the beyond, the "other shore" - is this not the basis of most religions - the recognition of a limited knowledge constrained by our five senses; and the reaching out to the Other - in Buddhism we would say to that something that has the characteristics of a Buddha - compassion, wisdom, kindness, working for the benefit of all sentient beings - other religions would describe it in their own symbolism - but we are entrusting in Amida... God... Allah... placing it at the centre of our lives, no matter how imperfect we are, always being called back to our true refuge.

    Some ideas after a talk i heard this morning...

  7. Thanks Ray, I hope you have been well.


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