Thoughts on the Sacrament

August 31, 2006 | 28 comments
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Kiskilili poses the following very interesting question:

Often appearing to be caught between pronounced sacramentalist tendencies (ordinances effect real change that goes beyond their symbolic import) and an underdeveloped theology regarding the significance of our so-called “non-essential� ordinances (no transubstantiation for us!), we seem at a loss to explain clearly the difference between a non-priesthood holder reciting the blessing over the bread and water of which people then contemplatively partake, and the same situation when a priesthood holder pronounces it.

Implicit in Kiskilili’s question, it seems to me, that the presence or the absence of the priesthood must make sense in some way other than symbolic import because symbols are inherently conventional and there is no reason that we couldn’t simply rearrange the symbols differently and have the same meaning. Hence, the reference to transubstantiation, which presumably provides a powerful way of understanding the sacrament in other than symbolic terms.

Let us imagine, however, that we lived in Kiskilili’s proposed world. Anyone can recite the blessings, we eat, and then we contemplate. The question arises, of course, of why we say these particular prayers, why we eat and drink, and why we contemplate. In other words, we have a certain given order — the current method of administering the sacrament in the Church — and then we simply subtract an element — the priesthood. The question is why do we keep the elements that remain.

There are a couple of possible answers. One might be that we simply like the sacrament. The prayers and the ritual are aesthetically or emotionally satisfying. The contemplation seems to contribute to our sense of psychological well being. In short, we prefer to do this than something else. The problem with this approach, however, is that it reduces the ritual to a matter of preference. However, to the extent that what we hope for is what the words say — that the bread and water will be sanctified unto our souls — it seems clear that preference is too thin a basis for what we wish for. For something to be holy or sanctified is for it to partake of the divine. Hence, our preferences standing alone cannot sanctify or make holy unless we identify them with the divine. One could, of course, make this leap — and on some readings of Mormon theology it might not even be much of a leap — but the complete subjectification of the divine required for preference to be sanctifying seems one leap too far. To say that something is holy because we will it to be holy seems, to me, to deny God.

Another answer might be history and community. One adopts the prayers, bread, water, and contemplation because the ritual emerges from a history and a community that one identifies with. I suspect that something like this sort of an assumption lurks behind Kiskilili’s hypothetical. We accept the given order of the community and the history, subject to the prior constraints of justice. The allocation of priesthood authority is unjust, and accordingly we abandon those parts of the given order that claim the necessity of this injustice. This approach gets around the problems of preference. It can make sense of the giveness of the ritual. The question becomes whether or not history and community have the power to sanctify. Here I think that we are on much stronger ground. At the very least, history and community represent an interruption in our subjectivity. To have a history or to be part of a community is always to be part of an order that exceeds ones own preferences or choices. It is less clear whether or not partaking of the transcendent of history and community is the same as partaking of the transcendent of the divine.

A third answer is that our attachment to the giveness of the ritual lies in the identity of the giver. We adopt the prayers, bread, water, and contemplation because this is a ritual given to us by God. The bread and the water partake of the divine (are sanctified unto our souls) not because of a metaphysical transformation but because we experience the bread and water as sacred emblems of Christ in virtue of the fact that God gave us the ritual. It is holy — it partakes of divinity — because it was given by God, and to follow the strictures of the ritual is to participate in an order given by Him. This seems to provide us with a good account of how the ritual is sanctified or holy, but it makes the jettisoning of priesthood problematic. The sanctification and holiness involved in the ritual comes in its giveness from God. To the extent that we re-author the ritual, it ceases to be given. It is something that we have created. Which brings us back to the question of justice.

On the historical view of the sacraments, justice was invoked as a principle that justified the jettisoning of certain elements of the ritual. In this sense it was a political rather than an interpretive decision. Perhaps we can still invoke justice, but this time as a hermeneutic principle. We reject the necessity of priesthood because we don’t think that was actually part of the order given by God. God, after all, is just and would not give an unjust order. Hence, the requirement of priesthood must be a non-divine interpolation into the giveness of the ritual. In other words, it is an example of human rather than divine authorship. I tend to be a Quinian about our beliefs and interpretations. I think that virtually any particular statement can be rationally maintained so long as we make adjustments elsewhere in our beliefs. In this sense, there is nothing incoherent per se about affirming the “efficacy” of a sacrament prayer said without the benefit of the priesthood. I would want to see, however, what adjustments must be made to accommodate this belief.

If we are to maintain priesthood as part of the sacrament, however, it seems to me that we must take it as part of the giveness of the ritual. This, of course, will require adjustments in our other beliefs. It seems to me that we will need to do one of three things. First, find an understanding of male priesthood that does not violate contemporary ideas of justice and gender. I suspect that this is not possible, as a key concept of in those ideas of justice is, I take it, that no person can be excluded from a position of value on the basis of gender. It seems to me that the only strategy available here is to deny that holding the priesthood is a position of value, which I don’t find particularly plausible. Second, we can simply abandon or modify our sense of justice. This looks a bit more promising. For example, we might modify it to mean something like “no one can be excluded on the basis of gender from a position of governmental or business or educational value on the basis of gender,” or “no one can be excluded on the basis of gender from a position of value in an institution that they do not voluntarily participate in.” Still, this will create some problems. Third, we can simply deny that injustice is evidence of the absence of divinity. It may be that God is simply not all that concerned with gender justice in this context. This is a scary answer, as we would like to think that God is always concerned with justice. I suspect, however, that we are wrong about this.

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28 Responses to Thoughts on the Sacrament

  1. HP on August 31, 2006 at 1:56 pm

    I am confused. I had thought that the primary purpose behind essential “priesthood” ordinances was the making of covenants requiring the seal of the priesthood upon them. In other words, we don’t do these things primarily to have a moment in which to ponder the meaning of deity and our relationship thereunto (an activity for which I believe no priesthood is required). Rather we do them because we believe that the priesthood is necessary in order to make some of the covenants we make binding in heaven.

  2. Mark Butler on August 31, 2006 at 2:25 pm

    An ordinance is no more and no less than “that which God has ordained” in the manner that he ordained it. So if according to his purposes God decrees that for the next three weeks the sacrament shall be administered and passed by the young women, ordination or no, that would be more than adequate to sanctify the sacrament administered thereby. In other words, in a matter such as this it is God’s will, his conventions, that matter, not ours.

    I tend to think that God does indeed care about the gender justice aspects of this regime, but that he has a purpose in it we do not understand, and furthermore operates on much larger time scales than we do. I certainly believe that woman are electors in the divine republic of the exalted, and I cannot imagine them supporting a plan that didn’t have some resolution for this problem on the horizon, when the Lord’s purposes are fulfilled in this mortal estate, perhaps as soon as the millennial terrestrial, I don’t know.

  3. Rosalynde Welch on August 31, 2006 at 2:38 pm

    What’s a “Quinian”?

  4. Greg Call on August 31, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Here’s the wikipedia entry on Quine: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Willard_Van_Orman_Quine

  5. Greg Call on August 31, 2006 at 3:26 pm

    Interesting post, Nate. I find it interesting that the “mormon-on-the-street” reaction to this issue in almost invariably your Option #1: “take my priesthood, please!” Option #2 I find highly problematic if we are serious about our conceptions of Zion. As for Option #3, it is indeed scary, but probably the most scriptural. I’ve appreciated Rosalynde’s previous ruminations on this view, and I would link them here if I recalled exactly when and where she posted them.

  6. Christian Y. Cardall on August 31, 2006 at 3:46 pm

    It may be that God is simply not all that concerned with gender justice in this context. This is a scary answer, as we would like to think that God is always concerned with justice. I suspect, however, that we are wrong about this.

    Depending on your point of view, this is either the most theoretically potent answer or the most egregious of special-pleading magic wands. The celebrated ‘eternal perspective’ wherein God will eventually right all wrongs and wipe all tears from our eyes is a rug under which any conceivable injustice committed by God’s earthly agents can be swept, since (in Elder Wickman’s felicitous phrase) this life is just a nanosecond in our eternal existence. Some things must just be tolerated in order for Zion to organically grow and develop.

    One of the reasons I am so concerned about the nature and validity of prophetic witness is to try and determine which perspective is more likely to be correct.

  7. Frank McIntyre on August 31, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    I take something like Option #1 on priesthood leadership callings, but not priesthood ordination.

    I am fine with Option #3 slightly elaborated– namely God is very concerned with justice as He defines it, but we may not be quite as good as we think at defining what is justice. Of course, we know that what God is concerned about is eternal life and immortality. It is not obvious that imposing or even allowing temporal justice is the best way to achieve that goal.

  8. DKL on August 31, 2006 at 4:41 pm

    Rosalynde, the Wikipedia article isn’t exactly clear on what Nate means when he says Quinian.

    If I may be so presumptuous as to explicate what seems to have been Nate’s intent: In this case, he appears to be referring to something that Quine referred to as the theory of least destruction. This can be fairly commonsensically expressed by saying that you shoudn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Specifically, when a theory is shown to be false (see what the wikipedia article says about confirmation holism), the rational course is the least disruptive.

    In science, we see this in practice 2 + 2 fails to equal 4. For example, 2 gallons of water combined with 2 gallons of alcohol does not equal 4 gallons of liquid. We don’t say, “2 + 2 must not equal 4.” We pursue a less disruptive path, and say, “volume in not conserved.”

    In religion, the upshot is that according to Quine’s approach, when you realize that a particular religious theory is not true, it is not a rational response to become an atheist (though this is certainly a common response). It is more rational to adjust beliefs elsewhere and chose a less disruptive course.

    Does this make sense?

  9. Nate Oman on August 31, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    RW: What DKL said. The gist of Quine’s position is that we don’t confirm or falsify particular beliefs, but rather the whole of our beliefs. Hence, it is possible to retain or jettison any particular belief in face of virtually any contrary evidence so long as we make adjustment’s elsewhere in our beliefs. Quine does not view this as evidence of self-deception or some other intellectual sin. His claim is that this is simply how we think pretty much all of the time.

  10. Nate Oman on August 31, 2006 at 4:49 pm

    “The celebrated ‘eternal perspective’ wherein God will eventually right all wrongs and wipe all tears from our eyes is a rug under which any conceivable injustice committed by God’s earthly agents can be swept, since (in Elder Wickman’s felicitous phrase) this life is just a nanosecond in our eternal existence. ”

    Christian: It is hardly just the injustice perpetrated by earthly agents. If we take God’s power seriously then many of the “natural” injustices of the world are “conventional” in an eternal perspective. It is not simply that God could have revealed a different ecclesiastical governance structure but didn’t. It is that he could have created a world without excrutiatingly painful childhood diseases, etc. and did not.

  11. Nate Oman on August 31, 2006 at 4:55 pm

    Greg: I am not quite sure why option 2 presents a problem for our concept of Zion. It seems that it is only a problem if we somehow assume that a commitment to the idea of Zion is tied up with a commitment to our current ideas of justice. I don’t see why this would be so. It seems to me that most of our contemporary ideas of justice are tied up with our commitment to liberal democracy. I don’t see that Zion is much of a liberal democracy.

    This does not mean, of course, that I dislike liberal democracy or the conceptions of justice that travel with it. Quite the contrary. I just think that it is probably a mistake to think of Zion as being a more finely tuned version of liberal democracy. It may be something radically different. Hence, we may be able to jettison some notions of sexual egalitarianism and still have Zion.

  12. Greg Call on August 31, 2006 at 5:21 pm

    Nate:

    I suppose I was taking issue more with your example of an option-two-type modification of the justice principle, rather than with the option itself. Thus, conceptualizing justice as ““no exclusion on the basis of gender from a position of governmental value” wouldn’t work in a society where the obstacles between religious governance and state governance are blurred or obliterated. And I think that most people’s conceptions of Zion includes this characteristic. The law going forth from Jerusalem and all that.You’re right, of course, that other modifications of our conception of justice could work in Zion, as long as we don’t imagine Zion as the ultimate liberal democracy.

  13. DKL on August 31, 2006 at 6:04 pm

    The D&C explicitly says that Deacons are not to administer the sacrament. If what they’re doing when they pass isn’t administering the sacrament, then it would seem to me that (in theory) anybody could do it.

  14. Mark Butler on August 31, 2006 at 6:17 pm

    Nate (#10),

    I think the answer is that if there were a more efficient and effective way to purify our souls than to create a world with painful childhood diseases, then God surely would have done so. So Leibniz is right, in a manner of speaking – this is the best of all possible worlds that fulfils the Lord’s purposes in the salvation of all mankind.

    I also think the aforementioned Quinean attitude is largely correct, although it properly should apply to the whole divine concert, and not to any individual. Purposely trying to construct a philosophy radically different from God’s (however tenable in abstract) is a waste of effort.

    Finally, I do not see how a true democracy (especially without separation of Church and state) can work except in a society of the perfected – otherwise majority rule will nearly always drag the righteous minority down. It seems to me that the kingdom of heaven is more like a republic, where gradually more and more citizens attain elector status, after having proven their worthiness for such a high and holy calling. That approximates a democracy in the long run, but certainly not in the beginning.

  15. Nate Oman on August 31, 2006 at 7:45 pm

    DKL: You’re right about the scriptural prohibition on deacons “administering” the sacrament. However, as I recall D&C 20 also states that it is the duty of the deacons to assist the teachers and priests in their duties. I assume that passing the sacrament falls under this category.

  16. Kent K on August 31, 2006 at 8:05 pm

    Nate 15: Which means merely that Deacons are okay to pass the sacrament. Doesn’t preclude DKL’s point.

  17. Christian Y. Cardall on August 31, 2006 at 10:32 pm

    Nate (#10): I agree, of course. But in the present rhetorical context of addressing those feeling aggrieved by what they see as an injustice in mortal administration, to point out the wider and more severe apparent injustices of mortality seems like an unnecessarily inflammatory (if more philosophically sophisticated) version of ‘Think of the starving children in India your plate could feed, and be grateful for what you have even if you don’t like it.’ The germane point to try to make in this case is not a comparison with wider injustice, but the claim that God will eventually rectify this particular injustice (if it is one).

    As it so happens, the missionaries we had over for dinner tonight left Romans 8:18 as their spiritual thought.

  18. Christian Y. Cardall on August 31, 2006 at 10:34 pm

    Oh and by the way, women pass the sacrament every week in every ward and branch—as they pass it down the row.

  19. Nate Oman on August 31, 2006 at 11:08 pm

    “But in the present rhetorical context of addressing those feeling aggrieved by what they see as an injustice in mortal administration”

    I don’t think that is my rhetorical context. I am not trying to persuade K. or anyone else who is troubled about this that they are wrong. I am trying to make sense of a puzzle.

  20. DKL on August 31, 2006 at 11:37 pm

    Nate, Kent K is exactly right. Because it is a Deacon’s duty does not make it a priesthood-only function. Priesthood holders also have a duty to invite people to come unto Christ. Home teachers have a duty to fellowship the families that they’re assigned, and the Relief Society has an overlapping fellowship duty with regard to their families. Both of these duties are defined as priesthood duties, and neither (of course) is a priesthood-only function.

    The scriptures do tend to be fairly clear about what authority is required for what ordinances/procedures/rituals. I don’t think that it is heretical or even very much of a stretch to assume that where no express authority requirement is made, no express authority is technically required.

  21. Mark Butler on September 1, 2006 at 12:15 am

    I realize that it is hurtful to contemplate of course, but as sacrifices for both men and women go, I don’t think not being called to certain offices ranks very high on the list. It doesn’t really matter what the Lord’s purpose is in the division, the only thing that matters is that he has one, that it is necessary, and that he has something better in mind in the long run.

  22. Nate Oman on September 1, 2006 at 9:00 am

    ” I don’t think that it is heretical or even very much of a stretch to assume that where no express authority requirement is made, no express authority is technically required.”

    I don’t disagree. I certainly wasn’t trying to suggest that the only-deacons-can-pass the sacrament rule had some sort of scriptural basis. Of course, I also don’t think that the universe of authoritative doctrine is exhausted by the scriptures, but that is another issue. On the deacons and the sacarment, I don’t really have a dog in the fight either way, and certainly my original post was not meant to respond in any way to this part of K.’s question…

  23. Kiskilili on September 5, 2006 at 3:59 pm

    I’m sorry I’m late to the discussion; thanks for so articulately and thoroughly examining the first part of my question.

    (For some the issue is more than a hypothetical: several years ago I read in ExII an article by a member living in a Muslim country who knew of no other members. Obviously she was unable to take the sacrament for the duration of her stay, which, as I recall, was at least a year. Instead she read and contemplated the sacrament prayers every week.)

    All issues of gender aside, I’m very interested in ritual and its role in the community, as well as in the ways priesthood functions and the meanings we assign it. For several reasons I’ve elaborated elsewhere, I doubt both the necessity of ordinances and that they effect metaphysical change, but the meaning we assign the sacrament interests me particularly because no such claims are even made for it.

    Regarding God’s justice, I’d like to believe his moral standard is at least translucent to us. After all, if God’s justice doesn’t even make sense to us, how can God expect us to behave in ways that are just? (I understand that one tenet of Calvinist theology is that what appears from the puny mortal perspective to be gross injustice–some are saved and some are damned, for inscrutable reasons–constitutes justice from God’s perspective. I find this thoroughly unsatisfactory.)

    I also think the problem of apparent systemic injustice in God’s kingdom on earth is much more specific than the problem of evil and warrants separate examination. In one instance God allows evil; in another, he reportedly perpetrates it personally. (Or not, if you find a way to explain either instance away.)

    (Of course, “not being called to certain offices,” as Mark says, is hardly a serious sacrifice. But I see more at issue than whether I personally am called to certain offices. A Spectator has revealed that women cannot say the opening prayer in her stake. I doubt she raises the issue because she has a burning desire to give every, or even any, opening prayer; perhaps it’s simply that none of the justifications that are offered make sense to her.)

    In any case, I think we need to craft a new definition of priesthood that centers on and acknowledges privileged ecclesial status.

  24. mullingandmusing (m&m) on September 5, 2006 at 4:43 pm

    (For some the issue is more than a hypothetical: several years ago I read in ExII an article by a member living in a Muslim country who knew of no other members. Obviously she was unable to take the sacrament for the duration of her stay, which, as I recall, was at least a year. Instead she read and contemplated the sacrament prayers every week.)

    Could a solitary priesthood holder administer the sacrament for himself? I’ve never seen someone be able to give the sacrament tray to himself. Anyone know if the situation above would be any different for a man?

  25. Kaimi Wenger on September 5, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    I’m pretty sure a solitary priesthood holder can bless and administer the sacrament. The separate people for passing and such are a nice formality that gives the deacons something to do, but not really necessary.

  26. Mark IV on September 5, 2006 at 6:18 pm

    m&m,

    Kaimi is right. When no other priesthood holders are present, a man can administer the sacrament to himself. You can read about this in Elder Maxwell’s biography, for example. When he was in a foxhole on Iwo Jima, he used his helmet for a cup to hold the water and he used a cracker in place of the bread.

  27. greenfrog on September 5, 2006 at 7:16 pm

    The question is why do we keep the elements that remain.

    There are a couple of possible answers. One might be that we simply like the sacrament. The prayers and the ritual are aesthetically or emotionally satisfying. The contemplation seems to contribute to our sense of psychological well being. In short, we prefer to do this than something else. The problem with this approach, however, is that it reduces the ritual to a matter of preference. However, to the extent that what we hope for is what the words say — that the bread and water will be sanctified unto our souls — it seems clear that preference is too thin a basis for what we wish for. For something to be holy or sanctified is for it to partake of the divine. Hence, our preferences standing alone cannot sanctify or make holy unless we identify them with the divine. One could, of course, make this leap — and on some readings of Mormon theology it might not even be much of a leap — but the complete subjectification of the divine required for preference to be sanctifying seems one leap too far. To say that something is holy because we will it to be holy seems, to me, to deny God.

    Perhaps I’m outside your definitional class. This is the explanation that makes sense to me. I think that our hope combined with the good-ness of the intention and result (creating or reinforcing the creation of a community of persons who are willing to mourn with those who mourn, comfort those who stand in need of comfort) is sufficient to sanctify the actions to the souls of all those who partake of it.

    Does such a position deny God? It doesn’t, to me. It seems to me that all our definitions of God are communally agreed-upon approximations. God doesn’t cease to be God because a person misunderstands some aspect of God. God is able, IMO, to respond to petitions by Hindus to Vishnu, to respond to petitions by Catholics to the Virgin Mary, to respond to petitions to God the Father by Mormons. As Mormons, we have a particular communal understanding of God (and, as Mark Butler has pointed out, it is quite a nuanced understanding, at that). Are we right? Is God limited to what we presently imagine or envision?

    Does such a position deny God’s involvement in the sacrament ritual? Depends, significantly, on what we think of as God. But concluding that sanctification might occur on the strength of hope combined with rightness of purpose and result doesn’t seem to me to lead ineluctably to “God is Dead.”

  28. Mark Butler on September 5, 2006 at 7:46 pm

    I agree that anyone coming up with new, non-doctrinally established ways to discriminate between men and women, by rule, is pretty offensive.

    As far as the women needing the sacrament in a far off country, I suggest that in such a situtation a proper degree of prayer and contemplation would serve the purpose just as well as participating in the formal ordinance. But not if she has reasonable access to the sacrament administered according to the manner God has established, although certainly any sincere prayer will not be ignored.