Needless to say, I asked this theologian some questions in our 5 or 10 minute conversation. My few questions seemed to surprise him, and may have annoyed him; in any case, he did not appear to entertain my questions at all, but defended his scholarly approach. First, I said to the clergyman, “Why not ask the man, `Why are you asking about `transubstantiation?’ Then I added, “Why not ask, `When you share in the Eucharist, are you conscious of communing with the crucified and risen Christ, or not?” At this question, my clerical friend turned away and picked his nose, showing no interest in the questions I would have asked the possible seeker.
As I think about this brief exchange, and writing a lengthy paper on the question, “What is transubstantiation?” I call to mind the well-known insight of the Buddha: “Such questions do not tend to edify.” Indeed, how can the question on “transubstantiation” possibly edify the one asking it? Again, in the more prosaic language of Hillary Clinton when speaking to Congress, “What difference does it make?” In truth, what difference does a person’s conception of “transubstantiation” matter for one’s spiritual life? In the context in which the man asked the question—while getting out of a car—does it even make sense to pour hours of work into researching the “doctrine” without asking the man a number of follow-up questions first? I would have communicated with him at a later time and asked, “Are you still wondering about transubstantiation?” If he said, “Yes, what is it?” I would ask him, “Why are you asking this question?” It may be that he heard the word and was puzzled by it. It may be that he holds weak or strong opinions about it. It may just have been a kind of throw-out question in which he feels no personal stake. Or it may be the kind of road-block verbiage that people can put up in order not to do what they may not want to do—such as return to the practice of the Catholic faith.
There is more that needs to be pointed out here. In reality, the term “transubstantiation” was introduced by Thomas Aquinas in his effort to throw some light on the mystery of the Eucharist, of the Catholic celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection in “the Mass.” It is one of many possible “explanations” generated over the centuries. When I raised this point briefly with the theologically educated clergyman, he told me that it is a matter of “the real presence” that is at stake. I responded that even the phrase “real presence” was introduced only in the sixteenth century by an Anglican clergyman trying to understand the Eucharist, and that one need not be attached to any such terms or symbols. He responded that “transubstantiation is in the Creed,” and when I asked him about “which creed?” he mentioned one from a Lateran Council. And so it goes. Are not these matters divorced from real life?
I choose to take a different approach to questions, a different approach to human beings who ask them, and a different approach to matters of faith. In truth I find such terms as “transubstantiation” substantially unnecessary for a person’s spiritual life. When one asks a question as the man did climbing out of his car, it does not seem reasonable to lift the question into an abstract intellectual realm and spend hours pursuing historical or theological research to find a suitable question. Why the man asked the question is relevant, and he may or may not know himself. In the present case, the clergyman spun off abstractions by writing a paper, rather than speak directly with and to a human being who may well be seeking God—not rationalistic explanations.
No doubt the clergyman would consider my response “anti-metaphysical,” or “anti-intellectual,” or perhaps “anti-Catholic.” What comes to the fore in such a clash is not being “anti-Catholic” or “anti-intellectual,” but this: How does one truly help another human being to seek God? To symbols lifted out of their experiential and intellectual context, such as “transubstantiation,” have any place in the life of a man or woman truly seeking God? Or do not such considerations truly cloud the mind with needless verbiage, when what is needed is simple faith? While I acknowledge a place among philosophers and theologians to explore real questions, I also know that far too many books and articles have been written on subjects which “do not tend to edify.”
Contrast this clergyman’s response by writing a 17-page single-spaced article for publication with the way the first-rate philosopher, Eric Voegelin, treated me. When I asked Voegelin questions during our three-hour conversation, he never went off on a lengthy response, but answered simply, clearly, and surely for the benefit of my mind, right there on the spot. Voegelin was not using me as an opportunity to prepare a paper or a lecture, but bringing the light of his mind to help illuminate my mind. Or more accurately: Voegelin was moving me to be attentive to the reality of the divine Intellect that illuminates human understanding, and was present right there at the moment for me. Consider this example: As I have written on several occasions, when I asked Voegelin, “What is the Holy Spirit?” he provided the simplest, clearest, and best response I can imagine: “What do you think is moving you to ask your questions?” That is how to deal with a human being’s questioning: not to cut off the process, but to illuminate it. If Voegelin had launched out into intellectual meanderings on “the Holy Spirit,” I would have understood little, and gained little. By his question in response to my real question, I was given a wonderful gift: Voegelin’s answer was itself a penetrating question, also moved by the Holy Spirit. In this brief dialogical exchange, I was immediately confirmed in the activity of asking simple questions intended to lead me into the reality called God.