Returning to the Table: Evaluating the Efficacy of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Critique of the Lord’s Supper
Diamonds may last forever; the semantic relevance of symbolism does not. As communities undergo transformation, so too do their symbolic registers, for, as the Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle observes, it is in and through symbols that humanity “consciously or unconsciously lives, works and has [its] being.” In religious settings, symbols often intersect with liturgy and ritual to ground denominations in concrete practices of reverent communion with the divine. Pragmatically, they engender subject positions, foster group solidarity and articulate a shared identity. Neither neutral nor passive, religious symbols stake claims to specific practices, theologies and interpretive traditions. As such, they hold the power to provoke discord and revolt. In the early 1830s, the American Transcendentalist and then junior preacher at Boston’s Second Church, Ralph Waldo Emerson, launched a devastating critique of the Lord’s Supper. Citing a lack of biblical authenticity and loss of congregational benefit, Emerson appealed with little success to “the brethren of the Church to drop the use of the elements and the claim of authority in the administration of this ordinance.” The bite of his argument and the passion of his tirade compel contemporary readers to consider: how do communities of faith monitor and assess the vitality of their religious symbolism? This paper will critically evaluate Emerson’s criteria for ritual, before turning to French sociologist Bruno Latour to construct an alternative vision not based on historical accuracy or didactic (propositional) efficacy, but on the transformative power of symbols to renew intimacy with the great mystery of life.
Emerson develops four main lines of argument in his 1832 castigation of the Christian symbol and practice of the Eucharist: the biblio-historical, the question of expediency, the practical and the personal. While the latter two round out his accusatory polemic, the crux of Emerson’s argument – and by extension the markings on his evaluative yardstick – centers on the former two criteria. Most pressing, on Emerson’s view, is the lack of biblical evidence and volition for maintaining the symbol of Communion ad infinitum. According to Emerson, Jesus (read: the historical Jesus, not the Jesus of faith/tradition ) “did not intend to establish an institution for perpetual observance.” Locating the sole mention of the Lord’s Supper as an occasion for eternal remembrance in the Gospel of Luke, Emerson submits that neither of the two Evangelists – neither Matthew nor John – drops “the slightest intimation of any intention on the part of Jesus to set up anything permanent.” On the contrary, Emerson insists, Jesus operated within temporal constraints, desiring that “his memory should hallow their [the disciples] intercourse…[but not] beyond the living generation.” The Lord’s Supper, thus, embodied a local and private custom that allowed “his personal friends to remember their friend;” the Kierkegaardian event of encountering Jesus in contemporaneity falls here on deaf ears. Strikingly, Emerson goes on to argue that there existed alternative rituals and symbols initiated by Jesus that proved more deserving of observance. The practice of foot-washing, for example, was accompanied by the injunction that the disciples “should do as he had done to them,” suggesting that this act of dangerous vulnerability and humility was “much more explicitly authorized than the Supper.”
Furthermore, Emerson counters the retort But what harm doth it? with a meditation on the intellectual and emotional chaos that the Lord’s Supper arouses once its scriptural sanction has been removed. Drawing on his Unitarian (as opposed to Trinitarian) theological commitments, Emerson views the Eucharist as a confusing didactic tool, observing that “there is an endeavor to keep Jesus in mind, whilst yet the prayers are addressed to God.” The implicit conflation of the two subjects, Emerson fears, may encourage parishioners to “clothe Jesus with an authority which he never claimed.” What is more, Emerson believes that the symbolic complexity of the ritual – specifically, its amalgamation of tangible and moral elements – threatens to overwhelm a Western population that is fundamentally unsuited for such a foreign and unintuitive act: “to eat bread is one thing; to love the precepts of Christ and resolve to obey them is quite another.” Lastly, Emerson expands beyond the specificity of the Lord’s Supper to critique liturgical symbolic practices more generally. He asserts that the inclusion of such institutions in worship undermines Jesus’ animosity to ritualistic formalism: “that for which Jesus gave himself to be crucified…was to redeem us from a formal religion, and teach us to seek our well-being in the formation of the soul. The whole world was full of idols and ordinances.” In effect, then, Emerson perceives religious symbolism as an obstacle to his moralistic understanding of religion as ‘doing good’.
Undoubtedly, Emerson raises as many questions as he answers: Why must religion focus exclusively on the mind? What about the psycho-social benefit of repetition in and of itself? Why not consider the development of Christian solidarity through universal participation in a common symbol? These inquiries represent but a cursory and intuitive reaction to Emerson’s unique brand of religion. Further, there are many instructive models of religious symbolism that help flesh out its dynamism and multi-vocality. A large number of these constructive interpretations rely on a ‘vertical taxonomy of the mysterious,’ in which the symbolic realm is believed to point either up to the transcendent or down to the deeper realities and meanings that undergird the symbol itself. Bruno Latour, working from a sociological perspective in the academic context of Science Studies, develops an alternative interpretive framework. In his controversial dictum entitled Thou Shall Not Freeze-Frame, Latour reframes the Science-Religion debate in terms of two inconsistent regimes of enunciation that possess respective conditions of felicity. The religious domain, Latour affirms, operates analogously to the performativity of love-talk (‘I love you’), which manifests an active transformation in both the listener and the speaker. Consequently “you have to decide, to get involved: maybe to commit yourselves irreversibly.” For Latour, the two distinctive characteristics of love-talk, and by association of religion, are its “transformation of messengers instead of the transport of information…[and the fact that it] is so sensitive to the tone in which it is uttered that it can abruptly shift, through a decisive crisis, from distance to proximity.”
More precisely, religious language / imagery / ritual avoids the pitfall of double-click communication. According to Latour, this latter form of intercourse supposes the possibility of transportation without transformation (A -> A), i.e. that “it is feasible to transport without any deformation whatsoever some accurate information about states of affairs which are not presently here.” In contrast, religious discourse strives to “disappoint the drive towards double-click, to divert it, to break it, to subvert it, to render it impossible.” This innate tendency towards metamorphosis depends, however, on the continual repetition of religious words and signs, so as to produce “into the listener the same effect, which impregnates you.” For Latour, this effect proves intimate and immanent: “Religion does not even try…to reach anything beyond, but to represent the presence…[that] is here, alive and not dead over there far away.” In contradistinction to conventional expositions on symbolic mysticism, Latour opines that the aim of religious symbols is “not to add an invisible world to the visible one, but to distort, to render the visible world opaque enough, so that one is not led to misunderstand the Scriptures but to re-enact them truthfully.” As such, religious language and iconography involve a leap of faith “which aims at jumping, dancing toward the present and the close, to redirect attention away from indifference and habituation, to prepare oneself to be seized again by this presence that breaks the usual, habituated passage of time.”
Latour fills in many of the gaps that plague Emerson’s thinking. Whereas Emerson abandons the Lord’s Supper as a mode of commemorating Jesus due to his conviction that “remembrances of him should be pleasing, affecting, religious,” Latour shifts the focus from the past to the present: “He has risen, why do you look far away in death, it is here, it is present anew.” Rather than evaluate the effectiveness of a symbol to communicate propositional claims or moral truths (Emerson’s ‘remembrances’), Latour establishes a criteria of effectiveness: what work is the symbol doing in the present? How is the believer changed? According to this methodology, symbols don’t reveal something; they render visible someone. This realignment with the embodied and experiencing subject appraises not what a congregation believes or how quickly it learns, but how closely it relates to God and the degree to which it undergoes transformation in the process. Moreover, the Latourian model gives less priority to the rehabilitation (or resurrection!) of ‘the original’ and more to the continuation of a specific symbolic tradition that, in turn, “begins to indicate how you yourself, now…should look at your Savior.” Worship for the minister, then, involves vigilantly monitoring the success of this renewal on an individual and collective level, so as to continue “the process begun by an image.”