Cambridge Platonists & Eucharist

The Cambridge Platonists are just that: Platonists. As such they escape much of what usually gets associated with the emergence of what Henri de Lubac refers to as “the natural” (as well as its concomitant realm of “the supernatural”), including the bifurcation of the human, premodern telos into two autonomous realms. This unified premodern telos, dominant in the ancient and medieval Christian tradition but discernable as well in antique thought, can authentically be described as praise of God or participation in God. (This is not to deny that they not fall prey to the pervasive English temptation to capitulate to the “gentlemanly” cultural status quo of their day, but such a blemish is difficult to establish on the basis of the texts I have read. Indeed, their bold and persistent call to spiritual discipline and holiness might well be seen as a posture which goes against the grain of their culture.)
As Jaroslav Pelican summarizes in the introduction to the Classics of Western Spirituality dedicated to these men (and one prominent female peer, Anne Conway), Cambridge Platonism has four primary thrusts: the sovereignty of the good, the true, and the beautiful; the goodness of inquiry; participation in the life of God; and the goodness of creation. Of these the first three stand squarely in the main of the classical Platonic heritage. And, of these, all but the second are theologically evocative of a certain approach to the Eucharist. Broadly speaking, I refer to an understanding of the Eucharist which sees it as constitutive of human deification, albeit in ways which prefigure ultimate deification (e.g., Thomas’ beatific vision), and this by radically calling into question what might be thought of as “traditional ontology,” which, after Aristotle, can be thought of as “being-as-substance.”

This move is accomplished by the following theologians who posit the following views: John Zizioulas (being – or ontology – as communion); Catherine Pickstock (being as participatory in divine excess or ecstasy); Jean-Luc Marion (God’s being as supplanted by divine agape); and Louis-Marie Chauvet (symbol – even symbolic exchange – as ontology). Even though each of these moves differ in content as well as what we might call structure (that is, they are each “messing” with “being” or ontology in different ways: for example, it is not the case that all of these thinkers simply substitute “being-as-X” for “being-as-substance”…. No, it is a bit more complicated than that.), nevertheless each of them do subvert the “traditional ontology” which is seen, for example, in the classical Roman justifications of the doctrine of transubstantiation. This is true even of Pickstock, who can be read as affirming this traditional doctrine (albeit with innovative nuances).

For this reason, then, it is surprising and disappointing (from this writer’s perspective) that the Cambridge Platonists discuss the Eucharist so infrequently. It is telling indeed that “Eucharist” does not even appear in the subject index of the Classics of Western Spirituality volume bearing their name. Indeed, even though the Cambridge Platonists resist to a laudable degree the rise of the natural (for example, Henry More vehemently argued in directly against his French contemporary Rene Descartes, after initially hoping that Descartes might expound a philosophy which would be “an invincible Bulwark against the most cunning and most mischievous effects of atheism,” nonetheless they do stand in need of reparation. And that in two particular areas, both foundational for moral theology or “ethics:” their conception of the universalizability of human reason and their reliance upon natural rights theory in service of their laudable yet deficient understanding of tolerance (both religious and political). Each of these positions are “repaired” by understanding of Eucharist as sanctification (or deification, or theopoiesis).

First, the Cambridge Platonists relinquish too much power to human reason, and they do so in a way that is inimical to Eucharist-as-deification. Of the universalizability of reason, says Whichcote: “… the intellectual nature is necessarily and unavoidably under obligation to acts of sobriety, to acts of righteousness, and to acts of godliness.” Again: “All persons, of any improvement and indifference … have this notion, that God made the world, that this has been laid before all understandings, in all ages and successions of time.” (On this view Aristotle, who believed in the eternality of matter, is relegated to the confines of irrationality.) And again: “… every man may know that God made him.”

How does “Eucharist-as-holiness” critique and therefore rescue the Cambridge Platonists here? To answer this question one must first see that essential to the Cambridge Platonists’ understanding of the universtalizability of human reason is the presupposition, and here it is quite telling that More was initially attracted to the philosophical vision of Rene Descartes) is the “flattening out of social space,” or the myth of reason which is unconditioned by the complex interplay of human social factors. In his “The Myth of Globalization as Catholicity,” William Cavanaugh suggests not only that human sociality (“complex social space”) is a necessary condition for human reason, but also that the Eucharist offers a vision and an embodiment of catholicity which unifies the human race, albeit in ways (one might say “precisely in ways”) that are always already local.

Second, in their articulation of tolerance for tumultuous 17th century England, these theologians, while positing what might be called, following John Milbank, an “original peace” of human political relationality, nonetheless apparently lack the full and most radical ratio for such an inclusive vision of human political existence. Simply put, this ratio is the Eucharist. To take just one example out of the many already mentioned above, in his The Sacraments Louis-Marie Chauvet argues sociologically that the Eucharist can be viewed as an example of symbolic gift exchange, in which a “circuit” of community members share in gift exchange which is not simply bilateral. In this community of (self) gifting, the upshot is that a superabundant economy of peace is created and sustained which truly binds people together in the fullness of human communion.

While I am not simply saying that the Cambridge Platonist’s view of human tolerance is directly critiqued by Chauvet’s view, I am suggesting that Chauvet’s picture of human community bound together by symbolic gift exchange exposes the superficiality of mere toleration. To put it a different way, toleration within human community is an unsatisfying secular parody of what true community, imaged in the Eucharist, is intended by God to be.

In summary, the Cambridge Platonists do resist a good many impulses which come with the rise of “the secular.” Nevertheless, they do not remain unscathed. A post-lubacian understanding of the Eucharist shows how their approach to (the universal nature of) human reason and human tolerance can be repaired. (In so doing, it perhaps also shows how and why the Cambridge Platonists were complicit in the rise of the “broad church” school within modern Anglicanism.)


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