Arcadi on Idealism and the Eucharist
April 12, 2017 — 17:36

Author: Kenny Pearce  Category: Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 0

Chapter 10 of Idealism and Christian Theology is “Idealism and Participating in the Body of Christ” by James Arcadi. This article is very clearly written and handles both philosophy and theology well. However, I have some lingering concerns about the position defended.

Arcadi begins with an admirably clear account of the spectrum of Christian positions on the metaphysics of the Eucharist. (I note, in passing, that during the Reformation and the early modern period, this was one of the most divisive questions in Christian theology, and differences over this question were at least as important as difference in soteriology in distinguishing one Christian communion from another. Today, however, these disputes are mostly forgotten by ordinary Christians—including, to a large extent, even clergy—and receive very little emphasis from Christian theologians and philosophers.) Aracadi is specifically interested in views that affirm the corporeal presence of Christ in the Eucharist for these, one might suppose, are inconsistent with idealism. Corporeal presence theories take Christ to be present bodily in the Eucharistic elements, in contrast to symbolic theories or ‘spiritual’ presence theories. Arcadi helpfully uses the term ‘corporeal presence’ rather than the more common ‘real presence’ on account of the fact that some spiritual presence theologians might like to regard the spiritual presence of Christ as ‘real’. The question with which Arcadi is concerned is whether an idealist might claim that Christ is present in the consecrated elements in a bodily way.

In his discussion, Arcadi successfully avoids a few common pitfalls. First, he avoids the conflation of real presence with transubstantiation. As Arcadi clearly explains, transubstantiation is a specific theory of how Christ is bodily present in the consecrated elements, and this specific theory should be distinguished from the bare claim that Christ is (somehow) present bodily. Second, one might think that idealism is just obviously inconsistent with corporeal presence since idealism denies the reality of all things corporeal. This, however, is not so: idealism (at least the Berkeleian variety with which Arcadi is concerned) denies the existence of matter in a particular metaphysical sense of that term, but it nevertheless affirms the existence of bodies. The doctrine in question is a doctrine of corporeal (bodily) presence, not a doctrine of material presence, so it is not so obviously inconsistent with idealism. So the question is whether the idealist can affirm that Christ is somehow bodily present in the consecrated elements.

To answer this question, Arcadi considers three theories: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, and impanation. Now, the doctrine of transubstantiation is standardly explicated in the jargon of Aristotelian metaphysics and this, one might suppose, makes it obviously inconsistent with idealism, a radically anti-Aristotelian metaphysical doctrine. (Indeed, this is precisely what I would have said prior to reading this article!) However, Arcadi argues that this is too quick, for transubstantiation can be formulated without this jargon. What the doctrine claims, at bottom, is that, when the elements are consecrated, the bread ceases to be present and the body of Christ begins to be present, although the sensible qualities of bread remain throughout, and the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent throughout. Consubstantiation is precisely the same, except that it holds that the bread continues to be present (201-2). Now these views, Arcadi argues, do turn out to be inconsistent with (Berkeleian) idealism. The reason is that a core principle of Berkeleian idealism is the refusal to distinguish the bread itself from its sensible qualities. Hence, for the Berkeleian, as long as the sensible qualities of bread are present, the bread is present, and as long as the sensible qualities of the body of Christ are absent, the body of Christ is absent (203-4).

According to the third view, impanation, Christ comes to bear to the bread a relation that is somehow similar or analogous to the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ, or Christ’s relation to his human body. Arcadi favors the latter approach, and argues that it is consistent with idealism: the bread (while remaining bread) comes to be the body of Christ in the sense that it comes to be related to Christ in the same way Christ’s human body is related to him. As indicated at 213n26, consistency with the Chalcedonian Definition appears to require that the relevant relation, on this picture, be a relation to Christ’s human soul. Arcadi takes the Berkeleian picture to hold that a given soul is embodied in a particular body just if it bears the right perceptual relation to the sensible qualities of that body (206-8). Clearly, there is no metaphysical difficulty in God’s bringing it about that Christ’s human soul bears this relation to the Eucharistic bread.

So far so good. However, as I said, I have some lingering concerns. First, one may worry that this is a Pyrrhic victory for the proponent of corporeal presence, for idealism would appear to undermine the distinction between corporeal presence views and merely symbolic views. Indeed, this will be particularly true if one holds (as I do) that on Berkeley’s view your body is the word in the language of nature that names you. On this view, that the bread means or refers to Christ (in the language of nature, and not merely by human institution) may be sufficient for it to count as Christ’s body, so there may be no ‘daylight’ between the mere symbolic view and Arcadi’s brand of impanation.

Now perhaps Aracadi’s story about the perceptual relation between Christ and the bread can help here. However, and this is my second concern, Arcadi does not spell out precisely what the perceptual relation between Christ’s human soul and the bread amounts to. If the analogy to our relation to our bodies holds, then one expects that Christ (according to the humanity) experiences pain when the worshipper chews the Eucharistic bread. This strikes me as … troubling. (Perhaps others will think this is not so bad: after all when Christ refers to the bread as his body broken for us, he is talking about his suffering on the cross. This issue merits further reflection, and I’m sure there is a large theological literature on it with which I am not familiar.)

These concerns notwithstanding, this is, as I have said, an excellent essay that handles both the philosophy and the theology with admirable clarity.

(Cross-posted at

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