Thursday, September 18, 2008

Batter my heart...

In a recent essay in the New York Review of Books, the physicist Steven Weinberg addresses the question: How do we live without God?

Humor helps, he says. And "then there are the ordinary pleasures of life, which have been despised by religious zealots, from the Christian anchorites in the Egyptian deserts to today's Taliban and Mahdi Army...We who are not zealots can rejoice that when bread and wine are no longer sacraments, they will still be bread and wine."

I know where Weinberg is coming from, and I generally agree, but I think he is selling short the notion of sacrament. It is a fine old concept that may have some life in it yet.

Of course, I would suppose that no one any longer believes that the bread and wine of the sacrament are literally the body and blood of Christ (and I suppose I would be wrong). The entry for Eucharist in the Catholic Encyclopedia strikes me as so much gobbledegook. Wienberg is right: bread is bread and wine is wine, and we don't need to believe in God to take pleasure in both.

But this too from the Catholic Encyclopedia: "Taking the word "sacrament" in its broadest sense, as the sign of something sacred and hidden (the Greek word is "mystery"), we can say that the whole world is a vast sacramental system, in that material things are unto men the signs of things spiritual and sacred, even of the Divinity."

To understand the world sacramentally is to be aware of the depths of our ignorance, to know that even the most ordinary aspects of reality -- bread and wine, for instance -- are windows onto a mystery that we will perhaps never fully understand. I am not positing anything supernatural, and certainly not a knowable, personal God. There is only one reality, the one that presents itself to our senses, of which science gives us our most reliable knowledge. But scientific knowledge does not exhaust reality. Indeed, the more extensive becomes our knowledge, the more we are shaken, dazzled, blown and battered by "what is."

To live sacramentally is to love the world as we find it, to be open to the intuition of something vast and holy, and to know that the here and now is a pale intimation of the all and always.