Take and eat; take and eat:
this is my body given up for you.
Take and drink; take and drink:
this is my blood given up for you.
According to Gospel accounts, Christ, perspicaciously aware of His coming death, instructed His disciples to eat bread and drink wine in His remembrance.
The Last Supper is perhaps the most consequential meal in all of history. Not simply because it is an especially momentous point in the life of Christ, but also because it is the theological foundation of the practice of the Eucharist—also known as “The Holy Communion.”
Now widely and wildly controversial, the Eucharist has inspired what may be the most significant doctrinal rift in all of Christendom: presence and absence. Not only has the Eucharist been the cause of theological controversy, it has also influenced the way Protestants and Catholics have engaged with other peoples in the course of colonial enterprise and imperial governance.
Changing the Center of Action
Though the developments of the Reformation, Scientific Revolution, and Enlightenment continue to accrue great praise at present from mainstream intellectuals such as Steven Pinker and Niall Ferguson, the intellectual and material developments that attended them have constantly presented grave challenges to the Catholic Church. Thus, the Church finds it ever more difficult to articulate the long-standing relationship between Christ’s real presence in the consecrated Host and its role in how humans mediate their relationship with nature, divinity, and one another. As such, the Eucharist as a practice has never entirely recovered from the celebrity it once enjoyed—even as it faced significant challenges in the centuries preceding the rise of Protestant Christianity. Even non-Christian faiths have begun to understand the role of presence as almost heretical: the idea that unseen agents like God materially influence the quotidian affairs and conduct of human beings is an uncomfortable position for many, such as Calvinists and mainstream Protestants, to accept or rationalize. Such non-humanist reasoning threatens the idea that people are in control of what goes on in the social world. Consider German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s position on God:
“The original of its [positive philosophy] image of God is man, that flesh and blood belong to personality essentially.”
Marx extended Feuerbach’s idea that God is a manifestation of important human traits (like reason or love) to the idea of a liberal state (and operates like religion), and how humans endow the nation-state with the kind of reverence that was previously attributed to God. This line of 19th century kindred philosophies ran along an ethic of humanist writing in which, as anthropologist Webb Keane notes in Christian Moderns:
“The call to self-recognition, traced across historical time, often involves realizing that agency falsely imputed to deities is in fact human. Commonly this story of error disabused is taken to lead inexorably to the secular vision of modernity, replacing gods with humans at the center of the action.”
Reformulating the epistemic architecture of man’s relation to God worked wonders for colonialism—this shift being a product of Reformation persuasions about the real presence. But those like Feuerbach did not see this process of humanization as a necessarily unfortunate development. As anthropologist Saba Mahmood puts it, for Feuerbach, “to humanize religion is not to delegitimize it but to take a necessary step in its liberation.” Coterminous with the growth of Protestant empire, the theological debates of the Reformation and the new allegiances, liturgies, and beliefs it enthused soon found themselves in far-off lands—where the cultural and social impalements that gave colonialism its enduring infamy often took their cues from the swaggering confidence of born-again Christians who were as appalled by “native” and “primitive” ways of being as they were by the Eucharistic nags they dealt with back home.
The substance of this bold, often arrogant hostility was driven by a repulsion with gods who were really present. Colonial subjects, it turns out, were compelled by and engaged with deities in ways not unlike the Catholic Church. It stands to reason that the racializing nomenclatures of Northern European expansion infected Catholic empire too. In the nick of time, humanists and politiques were able to rethink religion as first a set of propositions instead of as a virtue and, only subsequently, a collection of empirical moral truths. But this construction opposed the understanding of the Church as a set of theologies that materialize into the organization.
While Protestant explorers impulsively sought to explain away the gods in a way that many modern theorists of religion do—that is, largely as an arrangement of semiotic impulses that cue or stand in as codes for other, very human dealings—their Catholic counterparts were not nearly as skeptical of the non-Abrahamic deities they too encountered. For them, these other gods were what historian Robert Orsi calls a form of “demonic mimesis.” In the Catholic understanding, the devil and his underlings filled the heathen cosmologies, that colonial subjects were devoted to. It wasn’t that these idols and gods were empty symbols, it was that they were very, very real—and thus needed to be smashed.
Enlightenment liberalism was able to treat “religion” as a set of beliefs that could be domesticated within the human mind. Presence became problematic because it was not only a repulsive theological position to take, but also an obstacle to the epistemic shift needed to advance colonial rule and the growth of the nation-state. Catholics were famously excluded from England’s Toleration Act of 1689 because they had not accepted themselves as a “religion”—and, by extension, “had not yet fully accepted that the State had won.”
It is perhaps because of the ease with which Protestants were able to explain away otherworldly and godly phenomena that they laid, with relative speed, the foundations for what would become the modern nation-state. Much scholarship has given care to the historical occurrences that birthed this supremely odd geopolitical arrangement that we call the nation-state. Concerns about how it generates and produces violence—in addition to restraining and repressing it—have drawn attention to how the nation-state has sapped other institutions like the Church of the ability to push back on its omnipotence. But what often appears to be lost in the academic chatter—or perhaps ignored, even innocently—is the deliberate erasure of invisible entities in the public sphere in securing the nation-state’s hegemony.
Indeed, religious freedom as we understand in the United States assumes this divine eviction. James Madison—an Anglican—experienced a spiritual rebirth in articulating his vision for a politics that escaped the bloody hangovers of interconfessional strife that were commonplace in early modern Europe and even in what would become the United States. Religion became interwoven with the logic of what would later be dubbed a “marketplace.” So, instead of asserting theological truth, the idea was that one could opt into or out of a community as a matter of conscience, as opposed to a form of commitment to a particular denomination that depended on coercion from clerical authority.
Freedom and Power
Thomas Jefferson exerted enormous influence on Madison’s decision to turn away from the ecclesiastical allegiances of the English crown, the head of the Anglican Church. In doing so, Madison laid out a rebuke of traditional religion and a case for disestablishment of religion in his famed “Memorial and Remonstrance.” Drawing upon the whole of Western history and Christendom, Madison shored up incredible sympathy for freedom of conscience and talks at some length about the origins of this concept: he looked to Cicero and shores up sustenance from Tertullian, an early Church father who introduced freedom of religion into Church canons. Madison even made a nod at the Thomistic emphasis on noncoercion.
Like Tertullian, Madison was deeply concerned about coercion of conscience—arguing that judicial institutions have to protect the “oasis of nonconformity” that allows the individual to do what the law prohibits. In this way, Madison did not want religious groups to have rights, and believed that society worked best when different religions competed for souls and placed checks on one another to prevent any kind of authoritative excess. He remarked in Federalist 51, “Society itself will be broken into so many parts. . . that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority.” Because religious practitioners were like customers in a marketplace, each religion could compete for their fidelity.
Madison’s concerns about the dangers of ecclesiastical power were warranted. But looking back on the development of the nation-state, the successors of yesteryear’s Church authorities have generated a superlatively zealous control over the human body and the practices that can be administered through and upon it in ways the clergy could not have imagined.
Unsurprisingly, the coercive nature of the nation-state as a topic of inquiry became popular in Western academic circles during the decolonization movements of the Cold War. Despite endless pages of literature on the issue, rarely have analyses of the state moved beyond the state itself to think about what non-anthropocentric forms exist in the “margins” (or even in its “center”) to challenge its power. In other words, how do the deities unavailable for empirical observation affect governance and social relations? In the decades since the rise of anthropology as an academic discipline, there has been documentation of practices that develop in undoing and challenging the state through what anthropologists Veena Das and Deborah Poole call the “pluralization” of administrative authority to include non-state actors, especially on physical nation-state borders and other spaces where the full thrust of state enforcement is absent.
Other non-state actors, particularly deities or the monist Abrahamic God at the center of practices like the Eucharist, have been quietly packed into and explained as the product of or situated within a complex of symbolisms—a development consistent with Protestant theology. The presence of these gods is deeply worrisome for political institutions that, focused on refereeing between competing religions (as Madison envisioned), have carved out their own necessity to the governance of social relations.
The gradual disappearance of the gods really present involved an institutionalization of suspicion. As James K. A. Smith wrote:
“Faith is fraught; confession is haunted by an inescapable sense of its contestability. We don’t believe instead of doubting; we believe while doubting. We’re all Thomas now.”
The contestability of an endless number of confessions has created a breezy hesitation—one that beckons people to unbelief, with a touch of guilt because they doubted God in the first place—that the nation-state is able to work to different ends in maintaining a state of mind at once filled with distrust and belief, permanence and insecurity, infinite choice and vassalage.
If Christ once asked His disciples to drink and eat His body and blood, then perhaps the nation-state too demands a commitment similar in intensity—but without the same promise of salvation, continuing to orient believers in defiance of liberal political sensibilities.
Featured Image: Corpus Christi procession in Poland in photo (1933) by Narcyz Witczak-Witaczyński via Wikimedia Commons.
Shahrukh Khan is a JD Candidate at Emory University School of Law. He was formerly a high school teacher and received his BA from Harvard College. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.