The most recent edition of RELEVANT Magazine contained an intriguing article by Jason Boyette, author of the “Pocket Guide” series of books…and a Baptist. Boyette openly wrestles with his tradition’s take on the presence of Christ in communion. Most Baptists traditionally believe that communion is purely symbolic and merely a remembrance…there is no special presence of Christ (whether spiritual or physical) in communion. This is sometimes called a “memorialist” position. Boyette offers some great thoughts as he entertains certain challenging Scripture passages and the majority tradition of the Church. The article is worth reading in whole, but the most intriguing part was his application of Pascal’s Wager to experiencing the presence of Christ in communion. Though I am not a memorialist, I still found Boyette’s thoughts here challenging and motivating, so I offer this section for thought:
The case for regular Communion is an easy one to make, and as a Baptist I’m perfectly willing to admit that somewhere we’ve made a wrong turn. I understand the historical background behind a de-emphasis on Communion, but it’s such a central part of Christian worship—and it has been for two millennia—that moving it to the sidelines seems a gross overreaction. This is why these days, you’ll find more and more evangelical churches increasing the frequency of Communion rather than diminishing it.
But the Real Presence is still something I can’t quite take as an article of faith. Because that is exactly what is required to believe the wafer becomes Christ’s real body and the wine physically changes into His blood: it takes faith. Faith that communion is a supernatural event, not just an event of remembering. Faith that Jesus wasn’t just talking in metaphor in John 6. And that kind of faith is difficult for me.
Still, I keep returning to Pascal’s Wager. It’s an idea the 17th century philosopher proposed as a reason to believe in God’s existence, and which contemporary Christian apologists still cite as a decent piece of logic.
It goes like this: it makes sense to live life under the probability that God exists. If we’re wrong, we don’t lose much because we’ve lived a full and moral life and have nothing to be ashamed of. If we’re right, we have everything to gain. Salvation. Heaven. The presence of God. But if we live life under the assumption God does not exist—and end up being wrong about that—then we’ve made a tragic mistake. We lose everything.
What if you applied Pascal’s Wager to the question of the Real Presence in the Eucharist? If we take it believing Jesus really is present in the consecrated host and the Communion wine, then the best-case scenario is that we’re right, and we should be commended for treating it as a deeply sacred, serious event. Worst case? We’ve observed an event of remembrance and symbolism—an event which points to the life and resurrection of Jesus—only we’ve done so with a slight misunderstanding of what it means. Still, not a huge loss.
But if we bet against the Real Presence and it turns out we’re wrong? Yikes. We’ve made a big mistake. We’ve marginalized something essential to the practice of Christianity.
For me, I am at philosophical rest with what I think the Bible says about Communion. I take the middle ground with Calvin, believing that Christ is present during the act of Communion in a spiritual way. Calvin’s point (which makes sense to me) is that Christ, having ascended to God, now seated at the right hand of the Father, is bodily present there (of course the metaphysics are fuzzy). But, through His Spirit, we are mysteriously “brought up to heaven” to commune with Christ there (or perhaps Christ is brought to us on earth through the Spirit). To me, that makes sense of the gravity of statements like “This IS my body,” coupled with other passages about WHERE Christ is (in heaven) and HOW He manifests His presence to us (by His Spirit).
But for some, they aren’t convinced by what I’m convinced by and remain in limbo. If you’re at that point, I think the Wager application here is marvelous. Maybe you don’t need philosophical or exegetical arguments (though you shouldn’t look past them), but you need an existential apologetic. If so, try this out. I can testify that, alongside the intellectual understanding of the mystery of the Eucharist, my experience of it has helped build a cumulative case for what I feel is a “comfortable” understanding and experience of Communion. Although, how can one ever be fully comfortable with something and Someone so powerful and mysterious?
Jason Boyette, “Remembering Communion,” RELEVANT Magazine, 44: March-April 2010, pp. 80-82.