Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Open Communion and Time

Again CWOB is in the news, and however tempting I do not want to revisit my old arguments. Rather, I wish to add a note about how time seems to be conceived in the debate. I'll keep it brief.

"Time" is hardly a univocal term. It can refer to the passage of minutes, hours, days, months, and years in orderly, predictable succession: a march of carefully arranged units that most of us count on in organizing our daily lives. So, for instance, it is a mark of sanity to recognize that it is 2011 rather than 1911; the man who habitually cannot remember what time it is endangers his job, his relationships, his well being. It is perfectly normal to conceive of one's life set out in these conventional units, so that one may plan accordingly the upcoming weekend's festivities, class prep for next semester, next May's wedding, paying off the mortgage, retirement. One may take this sense of time to be exhaustive, to be all there really is to time.

Of course, one might recognize that time is experienced differently from how it is measured in regular units. The animated conversation makes the car trip back home much shorter than the ride up alone, though "strictly speaking" the trip took the same time both ways. Or one may wish to argue the metaphysics of ordinary time; should we be three or four dimensionalists, say? It is unsurprising that "time" has many senses.

But among the various senses enumerated, I think it is safe to say the ordinary sense of "time" divided and subdivided into regular units has a kind of priority; it is the one we take to be most real, most pressing--the one to which we must be prepared to answer.

No doubt the debate over CWOB takes the ordinary sense of time for granted, as--so far as I can tell--unquestioned background. There is to be a regular sequence in the normal reception of Communion: Baptism then Communion. Or better: Baptism & Instruction in some sequence with Confirmation, and then Communion. The notion of a sequence requires the notion--or better, a notion--of time, inescapably. And at just this point it seems to me we typically read our ordinary notion of time as the proper notion through which to conceive the sequence in question.

That reading is tempting and eminently understandable--hardly anything to run off to Confession over--but it is also a textbook case of eisegesis, of reading into old notions (like Baptism and Communion) contemporary ideas (about time) that are foreign to the old notions. The old notions are at home with events like the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:1-9, Mark 9:2-8, Luke 9:28-36), the climactic vision of Stephen at his martyrdom (Acts 7:56), and not much later, the idea of the copresence of the timeless eternal to the mundane flux of the world here below. The old notions are at home with such things because the old notions were conceived through a different idea of time from that we take for granted. On the pre-modern idea of time, the flow of time in ordinary life is permeable at every point to interpenetration by the eternal; such a thing makes no sense on our modern conception of time. Indeed, we might feel sorely pressed to demythologize here, rejecting the notion of a timeless eternity, and reading the Transfiguration and Stephen's vision as not implying anything about copresence: eisegesis.

I mention this point as context for discussing CWOB. Maybe the pre-modern idea of time is wrong in such a way that it must be dropped from serious theology, but maybe not. I want to see the argument. That pre-modern idea sits well, after all, with the notion that Communion has an eschatological side, a notion that I think carries wide acceptance, but which can only be read as poetic, i.e. can only be deflated, by one who will accept only the modern notion of ordinary time, divided up into regular units.