November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
July 26, 2011
Among the slogans of the recent food movement is the admonition, “Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food.” This slogan makes a surprising assumption: that the eaters being addressed don’t know what their food is. You can imagine this shift in consciousness and may have undergone it yourself—while considering your Hostess cupcake or energy drink, you may have wondered, what is this? The chasm between the farmer and the food has created this little moment of mystery in which the eater ingests a strange object. But this is not a uniquely modern feeling; this dissonance between apprehension and appetite does not first arise from global capitalism. It was first a medieval feeling that arose from Christian dogma. In 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, the Church declared the doctrine of transubstantiation with these words: “[The] body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine; the bread being changed (transsubstantiatio) by divine power into the body, and the wine into the blood, so that to realize the mystery of unity we may receive of Him what He has received of us.” The communicant at the medieval altar and the consumer standing in the snack aisle undergo a similar feeling—all of a sudden their food has become something beyond understanding.
Of course, for the believer, the mystery of the Eucharist abides far deeper than in any other food, or even in food itself. It is not only the mystery of life but also the mystery of death. That is, it is possible to take the meaning of the Eucharist simply to be that God is the infinite provider, the one who promises an eternal feast and thereby sustains our natural life just as the lilies of the field or the birds of the air are sustained. Mystery, then, abides in the life of the whole world, in general life, the kind of life Aristotle called zoe. Indeed, the paschal meal invites its eaters to remember that God is the giver of all life and the continuous, daily bread of the world, like the manna given in the desert, without which nothing could live at all. But the Eucharist is more than manna, more than life. “I am the bread of life,” Jesus says in John. “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (John 6:49–40). This food is given through death, and having come through death, the food has overcome it. The bread and wine are an inverted momento mori, a reminder to the communicants that they will not die. In the meal, new life exceeds the borders of natural life into eternity. Contravening the order of zoe, new life emerges as what we can only perceive as an immediate imbalance: life without death.
However, the hollow shape of death is present in the Eucharist as the obverse side of its abundance. The abundant life revealed on the cross acts through death and death has left its mark. Christ’s resurrected body, in other words, remains his corpse as well. We have both before us on the table. What could it mean to have a meal inscribed with the empty shape of death? With the promise of eternal life, the body of Christ assumes an abundant, amorphous liveliness, but its presence in the Eucharist also becomes newly morbid, carrying death with it like a vacant trophy.
Standing at a distance from the altar, the life proclaimed by the Lateran Council to be baked into the bread may be dreadful and embarrassing. Natural life is always “over-determined” by the last word of death, whereas this new life is not. In that way, it is unnatural. We may recall the early indictments of Christianity as a barbaric cult practicing cannibalism and “theophagy,” or the eating of one’s god. There is something intuitively wrong about the Eucharist, something that we perceive as a transgression against nature. Yet this transgression announces itself as the forgiveness of sins. It is very confusing.
After the proclamation of transubstantiation, the host was kept in vessels designed like the reliquaries that were made to hold the saints’ remains. Communicants were invited to contemplate the bread transformed into flesh in the same way they might venerate a relic. For these Christians, the bread was no longer food; it became a peculiar kind of sacred stuff. The host was at least once confused with a relic in the thrall of veneration when a man attempted to eat the arm bone of a saint. Isn’t this a wholly unnatural teaching, one that may cause its disciples to confuse bread with bone, eternal life with a souvenir from death? Georg W. F. Hegel made a famous remark concluding his chapter on phrenology, which finds new importance here—“the being of Spirit is a bone.”
Although modern Christians rarely confuse the sacrament with a bone, the outsider objection to the ritual survives. A friend once left the tutelage of the poet Gary Snyder to study theology in Minnesota. Snyder was surprised and agitated by her decision to migrate from the sunny coast of Californian poetry to the frigid halls of Lutheran doctrine. His last words to the young poet were, “Christians are sinners who eat their god.” While studying in Minnesota, she no doubt read Martin Luther’s words refuting transubstantiation, insisting upon a real presence of “the true body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ under the bread and wine.” Of course, Luther says little more about the nature of this presence, but ostensibly, Luther had Snyder’s objection in mind. Christians are not sinners who eat their God, he clarifies, only sinners who eat (in) God’s presence. Spirit is not bone, Luther may argue, but spirit is present nearby.
Luther may further insist that one cannot get to know the sacramental food without eating it. In other words, the knowing is in the eating. Christians eat their God and in this way, we know our food. However, we cannot know the Eucharist in the sense that we cannot finally say what happens inside, under, or around the bread. It is the same with Karl Barth’s doctrine of the Word. Barth says the Word is given through Revelation and we know it fully there; however, the Word is nowhere contained in the words of Scripture nor can its presence be beckoned by our will. This means that we may know the Word completely in the event of revelation, but not as a word like other words, which may be understood and overcome. On the level of explanatory knowledge, that kind of knowledge that bears out in discourse with another, the Word remains veiled, totally hidden from understanding. There is no way to convey the Word to another—and what is it to know something that cannot be conveyed? It is a kind of unknowing knowing, if it is any kind of knowing at all. That is, the Word presents itself, but it cannot be re-presented by any other word. In the same way, we know the bread in our mouths and we know that it is God, but we cannot tell each other how.
In its utter incommunicability, the Word is the exception to all other words. Similarly, as the sign for an utterly unknown eternal life, the eucharistic food is the exception to all other food. The world’s food sustains us until death, but always carries this “until death” within it. The food we eat at the communion table sustains us beyond death. The very thought of any “beyond” exceeding death is just as incommunicable as the Word, yet in the meal, we are told that this is the kind of food that feeds the life within us. Well. What kind of life is this? A complex government of biology? Human life, having received the eucharistic food, is not so simple as that; it is not Aristotle’s zoe. Human life is not only sustained by its immanent world. It is sustained, we believe, by something beyond nature’s (false) equilibrium. Both beyond death, which is nature’s corollary to life, and beyond knowing, as in the baffled reply “beyond me!” (What is the life within me? “Beyond me!”).
It is not a new intuition that life is beyond those who live it. It is the spark igniting thinking, new and old. This beyondness is apparent in the history of what Michel Foucault calls “forms of culture,” those disciplines by which humans interrogate themselves: literature, art and most characteristically, philosophy. Philosophy shows ipso facto that humanness exceeds itself; without wit or intention, we assume an agency outside ourselves with which to reach for greater reasonor redouble upon ourselves in reflection. This spontaneous subjectivization is apparent in René Descartes’s writings at the level of the individual intellect, but beginning in particular with Immanuel Kant, the central problems of philosophy move beyond the purely subjective and take an anthropological form. As Foucault reads it, when Kant asked, “Was heisst Aufklärung?” he meant, “What’s going on just now?” and even more precisely, “What are we?” or “What is human?” More than asking, “What am I?” as Descartes did, Kant is asking, “What is this life in me? What is Man?” This is a wholly unnatural question, a question that exceeds its own conditions.
If one takes the baffled question, “What is this life in me?” as the founding query of philosophy, then Edmund Husserl is right to call the appearance of philosophy in the ancient world the dawn of a “fantastic dream.” The Apostle Paul also considers the Greek’s love of wisdom to be foolishness. Theirs was a dream that reached beyond the limits of the finite world to search for both the ground of the world’s being, its esse, and the structure of its order, its logos. The completion of this task is pure fantasy. With Kant, then, the fantasy invades our species and our bodies and resides in us as a form of life.
The movements of religious and reflective thinking in the modern period may for a moment be centered around this pivotal question: does this beyondness, which is immanent to life, constitute a great excess or a total void? It is easy to understand how it may be experienced as both, even (or especially) by a Christian. The religious tradition is obligated to abundance. Honoring this obligation, David H. Kelsey has called human life “eccentric existence,” meaning that we have our centers outside ourselves in the infinite life of God. This expression of our beyondness emphasizes the abundance of the beyond. Yet, conversely, couldn’t this eccentricity be experienced as a total lack? The negative obverse of finding one’s true self outside of oneself is the transformation of the former self into a life without a center. If the true I exists centered in God, around what does the self that sins and dies turn, the self that is most unlike God? What is the center of this shadowy life? In this case, a stark nothingness fills the center of “pure” human life (life apart from God). What better term for this stark nothingness than death or void?
And it follows that this void may be reinscribed back onto God’s life, as in the “death of God” theology, which argues God’s kenosis, or the total emptying of God into the world. From this perspective, abundant life means that God’s life has become equal to our own by trading its otherness for an existential solidarity. On the cross, God says to us “we’re all in this together,” acknowledging that we all live under the sign of death. Seen from a slightly different angle, then, the guarantee of our abundant eccentricity in some great Other quickly slips into the void.
This death of God theology finds an advocate in modern theories of psychology and desire. We left the broad sweep through philosophy above with Kant’s relocation of its founding fantasy (to answer “What is this life in me?”) to the body. But it was Sigmund Freud who first saw fantasy fully inhabit the body, and he saw it always in the dimension of death. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Freud analyzes his own dream, in which he is confronted by his patient Irma, whom he worries he has mistreated. She complains of pain and shows him her throat for examination. Freud sees its scabbed and infected appearance. The dream then transfers all the blame for Irma’s suffering away from Freud, blaming her infection on another doctor’s treatment. Here, Freud’s own unconscious, that extra subjectivity that accompanies him without his knowing—the self in himself but beyond himself—presents itself in the flesh to give voice to his anxiety and then to relieve it. The excess felt in living, once formulated quite politely by Descartes’s cogito (“I think, therefore I am”) has burst out in the red, living flesh.
What steers this excess of the self? Freud sees in the unconscious a basic drive (trieb) toward death. For Freud, death is life’s final sign. Psychoanalysis is often dismissed for focusing its theory too narrowly on sex, but while sex may shape the contours of psychoanalysis, Freud lays its topology against a greater background, which he identifies as death. Freud is clear about death’s priority among life’s drives and desires. Indeed, Jacques Lacan considers the death drive to be the “culminating point of Freud’s doctrine.” And Slavoj Žižek has said this about the death drive, “Humans are not simply alive, but possessed by a strange drive to enjoy life in excess of the ordinary run of things—and ‘death’ stands simply and precisely for the dimension beyond ‘ordinary’ biological life.” For these theorists, death is bound to enjoyment as the overdetermining, yet hollow, telos of all desire. This inscription of sex and desire into the empty space of death makes psychoanalysis a truly novel form of culture. Its subscribers say that because desire makes us human, thereby distinguishing us from “‘ordinary’ biological life” or Aristotle’s zoe, then death, as the ultimate aim of desire, occupies a peculiar position at the center of human life.
For Christ however, “abundant life” is excess without death. Christ, as the recapitulation of the form of human life, has lived through death and is through with it. Death has left the building. Paul’s taunt in 1 Corinthians 15:55, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” may be rephrased for modern readers as “Where, O death, is your ‘master sign’? Where, O death, is your ‘drive’?” These too have slipped into the nothingness of death itself, which should not be mistaken for the final character of all signs and desire, but rather as the shadow of their renewal in Christ.
The savior who appears in Revelation 5:6 as the horrific enfleshment of a butchered lamb has this very excess of life as his own. This grotesque visage of the lamb evokes Jesus’s resurrected corpus come down from the cross and abiding with the apostles, Thomas’s finger stuck crudely into his side. It also recalls the raw flesh of Irma’s throat with the anxious doctor’s finger probing it. By this image of the butchered lamb, given to us to eat into ourselves, we may take abundant life to be the form of our own life, the meat of our own bodies, which has been shot through so fully with the life of God that it has become as strange and terrifying as death. By saying “I believe in the resurrection of the body,” we confess that Christ has given us his own flesh to poke at as if it were our own, promising that abundant life abides within it, even as his body shocks us with the empty form of death.
Those who object to the unnaturalness of the Eucharist dare not acknowledge death’s emptiness, its nothingness within abundant life. When Thomas marvels at the empty space of death in Christ’s side, he marvels at nothing. The same is true for those who balk at the morbid “abberance” of the Eucharist: they balk at the nothingness of death. What they see in the meal is what the meal is missing. What they cannot see is all that it is. They prefer to eat the food that reminds them they will die, rather than swallow the terrifying excess that they bear in life.
Against the Paul of Corinthians, the widow and the orphan may object that death still clearly wields its sting in the here and now. To the widow, death’s consolation is this, “Madame, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.” But, the Christian promise of eternal life refutes Hemingway, who supposes his “realism” to be backed by the natural law: what lives must die just as sure as what goes up must come down. The life in Christ’s risen body is so unnatural that its story refuses to end. Christians eat this strange life into themselves, believing it is their own and all the while marveling, what is this? So, is the minister of the Eucharist a true-story teller? Won’t those who eat the bread and drink the wine surely die, just as their ancestors did? By what token could we say that they will not?
If life overflows death in the Eucharist and if the intuitive objection to the ritual (“Christians are sinners who eat their god”) is due to the hollow imprint of death in the bread, death having suffered its final defeat, then why may we observe death’s victory everywhere? If we took Paul’s rhetorical question asking after death’s sting as an invitation, we could marshal a nearly endless list of death’s victories big and small, from the unknown millions of political causalities to the personal deaths in our homes and the many cases in which these two deaths are the same. What could it mean to proclaim the death of death into the world?
Well, it can hardly be proclaimed—certainly not as other words are proclaimed. Rather, because it is given for us to eat, we must chew it over. At its zero level, the Eucharist is a gift we must dare to eat and be content digesting. Eucharisteo translates to “I give thanks.” In the language of the gift, this digestive thankfulness is a promise, a gift abiding in the not-yet and received in faith and hope. By deferring the fullness of the gift, the giver assumes all the debt, allowing the receiver to accept the gift without anxiety. “The promise as a kind of gift” lies “between the pure and agonistic forms of the gift,” or between a gift with no expectation of reciprocity (pure) and one loaded with a reciprocal expectation (agonistic). In other words, the Eucharist is a gift demanding faith over reciprocity. The promise of the Eucharist is a token and a foretaste. But a token has real purchase and a foretaste has true flavor.
The promise of abundant life, a life unconditioned by death, is the gift. However, such a gift is unintelligible in a place where all stories appear to end in death. Such a deathless life is as unrepresentable as the Word itself. How are we to receive such a life then, except by a faith just as strange? By strange I do not mean a weird faith, but a faith that is entirely unknown and unpredictable. Speaking of unpredictability, Jacques Derrida dwells on the distinction between the French words futur and l’avenir, explaining that the simple futur is the predictable projection of the current state of things, whereas l’avenir is the unpredictable future, the future that is yet to be shaped by the unexpected arrival of an Other or an event. The faith required by the promise is a faith of l’avenir. The poet Robert Hass writes, “All the new thinking is about loss. / In this it resembles all the old thinking.” By “new thinking” the poet means “old thinking” and by “old thinking” he means thinking. The now is not truly new and neither will the futurbe. However, l’aveniremerges with the truly new, the unexpected and unpredictable. The communion meal is the promise of just such an unpredicted gift; and our faith is just as strange. In the bread and wine, we already have the truly new gift, but we cannot say what it will be. There is nothing to do about it but digest in thanks. It is not hard to do. It is as simple as swallowing.
We are the same as the medieval communicant who could not tell if his food was bread or bone. If all stories end in death, we must swallow the bone and feel it stuck in our throats. But if in this meal we truly have new life, then it does not matter what is bone and what is bread. There is no sense in asking, what is true food? or what is true drink? With the Eucharist, we have the promise not only as a word but as a way: “This do in remembrance of me.” It is a way to remember l’avenir now, to recall the gift we will have already received.
 “Canon I, Fourth Ecumenical Council: Lateran IV 1215,” Medieval Sourcebook, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/lateran4.html.
 All biblical quotations are from NRSV.
 Early scholarship identifies a myriad of ancient religious practices as precursors to the Christian Eucharist. Brahman priests ate rice cakes consecrated as flesh and bone; the Greeks drank wine considered to be the blood of Dionysus; during their festival of winter solstice, the Aztecs baked an effigy of the god Quetzalcoatl that was then stabbed, its heart removed and eaten by the Aztec men. These accounts can be found in James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (London, UK: The MacMillan Company, 1900) and Preserved Smith’s A Short History of Christian Theophagy (Chicago, IL: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922). However, these rituals were outlying exceptions to the norm of sacrificial meals in which the god was not present in the food. The presence of the god then assumes a new centrality in Christianity. Moreover, theophagic rituals were uncommon in the Mediterranean context in which Christianity developed. Therefore, speculation that the Christian church privileged the Eucharist in its theology and worship as a means of appealing to local customs is most likely a retrojection of anthropology onto early Christian history. See James Edwin Smith’s From Symposium to Eucharist: The Banquet in the Early Christian World (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress, 2003).
 Hegel, The Phenomenology of Mind, trans. J.B. Baillie (London, UK: Swan Sonnenschein& Co., 1909), 355 ff. Italics in original.
 Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism, trans. C. G. Prottengeier (Chicago, IL: Wartburg), 137. Emphasis added.
 This simultaneous revelation and hiddenness of the Word is expressed as its “one-sidedness” by Barth “That God’s Word is one-sided means that when spoken to us an received by us it does not meet us partly veiled and partly unveiled, but either veiled or unveiled, yet without being different in itself, without being spoken and received any the less truly either way.” Barth, Church DogmaticsI/I (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers), 174. What is veiled is truly received but cannot be known apart from faith.
 Television interview with Alain Badiou, L’enseignement de la philosophie, first broadcast 1965 by Radio-télévisionscolaire.
 See Foucault, “The Subject and Power,” Critical Inquiry 8, no. 4 (1982): 785.
 Husserl, The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology, trans. David Carr (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1970).
 Kelsey, Eccentric Existence (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
 Death of God theology is currently most associated with the names Thomas J. J. Altizer, Gianni Vattimo and John Caputo.
 “It seems, then, that an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things[. . . .] If we are to take it as a truth that knows no exception that everything living dies for internal reasons—becomes inorganic once again—then we shall be compelled to say that ‘the aim of all life is death.’” Sigmund Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (New York, NY: Norton, 1961), 30 and 32. Italics in original.
 Lacan, Écrits: A Selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, NY: Norton, 1977), 101; and Žižek, On Belief (London, UK: Routledge, 2001), 104.
 Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 1999), 100.
 Gregory Walter, “Agamben on Sovereignty and Possibility,” The Journal of Religion 90, vol. 4 (2010): 471.
 Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas,” Praise (New York, NY: Ecco, 1999), 4.
Caleb Hendrickson lives in New Haven, Connecticut, and is pursuing his MDiv at Yale Divinity School.