Sunday, June 3, 2007

Figuratively Speaking

One of the things that non-Catholics are most surprised about when they really begin studying our faith is how literally Catholics take much of Scripture. Perhaps the clearest example of this is in the Last Supper passages, where Christ says of the bread, “This is my body”, and of the wine, “This is my blood.”

Often, however, when Catholics bring these verses to the attention to someone who does not believe in the true presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the conversation goes something like this:

Catholic: “Christ says, ‘This is my body’. Why can’t we take him at his word?
Non-Catholic: “Because Christ also calls himself a vine (John 15:1) and a door (John 10:7), among other things. Are we to believe he is actually a plant or a thing on hinges?

It’s interesting to see how an otherwise literalist student of the Bible suddenly turns figurative when it comes to reconciling his rejection of a distinctly Catholic doctrine.
The point such a person would be making, of course, is that Christ often spoke in metaphors to help his followers understand the full scope of his being. Why, the non-Catholic might ask, would we believe that the Last Supper discourse is any different?

To be fair to this perspective, here are several more “things” that God (in the person of Christ or otherwise) compares himself to through inspired Scripture:
  • The Branch (Zech. 3:8)
  • The Bright and Morning Star (Rev. 22:16)
  • The Chief Corner Stone (Eph. 2:20; 1Peter 2:7)
  • An Eagle (Deut. 32:11)
  • A Fountain (Zech. 13:1)
  • The Lamb (John 1:29; Rev. 5:6)
  • The Rock (1 Cor. 10:4)

This line of reasoning has never really made sense to me. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that, for the last eleven years, I spent a great deal of time teaching eighth graders grammar and figurative language.

There’s something of a verbal sleight-of-hand trick happening when non-Catholics try to equate the institution of the Eucharist to Christ’s many metaphorical statements about himself.

A metaphor works this way. The subject of the sentence is joined by a linking verb to a seemingly different predicate nominative, which reflectively describes something unique about the subject. A literal truth about the predicate nominative describes a figurative truth about the subject. For instance, in the sentence, “My dad is an ox”, the subject (dad) is probably big and hairy, given his resemblance to the predicate nominative (ox). It is important to note that, given the structure of a metaphor, “ox” is describing “dad”, not the other way around. The ox literally weighs near a thousand pounds and is literally covered from head to foot with hair; my dad is only figuratively an ox in that his size and hair exceed that of the average person. To understand it more clearly, one can take the metaphor and turn it into a simile by adding “like” or “as”: My dad is like an ox.

The simile approach emphasizes that it is impossible to flip the comparison around without outright changing the meaning. “My dad is like an ox” becomes outright weird when we flip it to say, “An ox is like my dad.”

Let’s take the metaphors of Scripture and state them in simple declarative sentences (using the generic “God” to simplify the process):

  • God is a vine.
  • God is a door.
  • God is the branch.
  • God is the bright and morning star.
  • God is the chief corner stone.
  • God is an eagle.
  • God is a fountain.
  • God is the lamb.
  • God is the rock.

Now, notice the problem when we look at the institution of the Eucharist:

This [bread] is my body.

Or, to make the comparison easier, I’ll substitute the word “God” for the words “my body”:

This [bread] is God.

Or, to be specific:

This [bread] is Jesus.

It would make no sense to flip the comparison (unless one’s grammar resembles that of Yoda):

  • A vine is God.
  • A door is God.
  • A rock is God.
  • A lamb is God.

These last four don’t make sense because, in the figurative examples above, God is always the subject. The predicate nominatives describe qualities of God. God is a source of life, like a vine. He is our entrance into Heaven, like a door. He is the foundation of our faith, like a “rock” or “cornerstone”. He was sacrificed for us, like a lamb.

This is how metaphors work, which is why it is outright silly to claim that in the last supper narrative, when “God” or “my body” becomes the predicate nominative. To do so would mean that we are using the divine figuratively to describe a literal truth about the bread. How is this possible? Is the bread in anyway omniscient? Omnipotent? Omnipresent? To illustrate, let’s turn our “metaphors” into similes:

  • God is like a rock. Makes sense.
  • God is like a lamb. Makes sense.
  • God is like a vine. Makes sense.
  • God is like a door. Makes sense.
  • This bread is like God. Huh?

Even the original text would fail this test (This [bread] is like my body). The reason? By putting God as the predicate nominative, the metaphor serves to exalt bread to something divine by comparison. This makes no sense and has no place in the unity of Scripture unless

Unless it wasn’t meant to be figurative …

Which would mean it was literal …

Which would mean that the bread isn’t bread anymore.

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