The Rationalist’s Delusion and the Most Fundamental Problem of Fundamentalism

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Those born into decent homes and immersed in a particular ideology have no reason to question what they’ve been taught. I was no exception in this regard, as one raised in a functional Mennonite home, and had believed the whole “we-aren’t-perfect-but-are-better-than-the-alternatives” (a self-congratulatory mantra repeated when anything bad comes up as to prevent a full examination of our fundamental assumptions) until that paradigm became untenable for me.

This assumption of being right in our foundation, even if the details are not quite right, is not only something true of Mennonites. No, it is a feature of those indoctrinated into religious systems or political ideologies of all types. The college educated ‘progressive’ is not any more free of bias than the average Amishman—both reflect the cultural institutions that created them and, if anything, the ‘smarter’ of the two is likely more subject to bias than the humbler or that is what the current research indicates. At very least, nobody is completely free of bias and oftentimes our most base assumptions are the most difficult to honestly examine—most difficult because we have so much invested in them emotionally or otherwise.

My ‘Rational’ Foundation

Of these foundational assumptions, in Western culture there is one assumption that stands out above the rest and produces the strongest reactions when challenged. It is an assumption that is especially hard to root out of the most intelligent and knowledgeable people. It is a sincerely held belief about the nature of reality that is so prevalent that it underlies the most secular ‘progressive’ or religiously conservative and fundamentalist thinking of our times—from those espousing climate change and those pushing flat-earth theories, both share this same underlying assumption in common.

This assumption being the idea that we (either individually or as humanity collectively) are rational creatures, able to determine truth for ourselves and can essentially save ourselves through our capacity for logic and reason.

If you would have asked me, as a Mennonite, what my foundation was I would have likely answered by saying, “Jesus Christ, of course!” That, after all, is the theologically correct answer to give, something easily reference in the Bible, and a reasonable conclusion based on the available evidence, right? Of course, as an adherent to Anabaptist “believer’s baptism” and Arminianism, I would insist that my church membership was a choice. It couldn’t be any other way, could it? I mean, it couldn’t possibly have been because I was raised in a Mennonite home, born in a nation where most people identified as Christian and was fully immersed in a culture where even non-believers affirm Christian values, right?

Nah, it had to be my own careful consideration of the evidence that led to an inevitable conclusion and from that I made a rational choice to believe that man, born two millennia ago in some Palestinian backwater to a teenage virgin mother, who was actually the creator of the entire universe, allowed himself to be brutally murdered, offering himself as a means to spare us from his own wrath and then, according to those most invested in his teachings, rose from the dead and that not believing this is a one way ticket to eternal torment.

And I believe all this for reasons… [Insert circular reasoning here]

Hmm…

When Christian apologetics fail to provide satisfactory answers, which they inevitably do for anyone beyond the intellect of an adolescent, those steeped in rationalism must either abandon the enterprise of faith entirely or live in denial and ignore the cognitive dissonance.

For example, there is no way to prove the resurrection account in Scripture through rational scientific means, it is completely irrational and yet the entire Gospel of Jesus Christ rests on this miraculous event being true. How does one reconcile such an extraordinary claim with science? By a reasonable standard this is impossible to believe, right?

Is Christianity Rational?

Some, like St Thomas, who would not believe until he saw the risen Christ in the flesh, doubt until they have personal experience and thus choose what is entirely rational. Many others, however, are content to compartmentalize, they partition the miraculous to another time and place (to history or the future) and try to have things both ways.

Truth be told, the resurrection of the dead is not a rational proposition and never will be, it is logically, reasonably and scientifically impossible and thus is, by definition, totally irrational. There is nothing rational about the central premise of Christianity, where a man who is actually God’s son is born of a virgin woman to save the world from sin, and you did not acquire this belief through rational means either. No, according to Scripture, the means used are irrational in terms of material reality and from a normal human logical perspective.

Faith, according to Jesus in his conversation with Nicodemus, originates from an immaterial spiritual source and does not follow our own rules of logic and reason:

Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” “How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” “How can this be?” Nicodemus asked. “You are Israel’s teacher,” said Jesus, “and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? (John 3:3‭-‬12 NIV)

Nicodemus is being entirely rational and rightly perplexed. Jesus presents a riddle, he tells Nicodemus he “must be born again” (in reference to a spiritual second birth) but then tells him the Spirit is like the wind and goes wherever it pleases. However, earlier in the passage Jesus does tie the work of the Spirit to being “born of water” or Baptism.

So, does entering the kingdom start as something rational—as the product of a human choice to believe something they’ve been told—or does it originate from a source inexplicable as the wind and as involuntary as our physical birth?

For years I believed what I was taught, that Christianity started as an intellectual acceptance of a particular proposition, that one should recite the “sinner’s prayer” (often in a moment of emotional upheaval) and later, upon their confession of faith, would be Baptized. There was no reason for me to question this indoctrination, it made sense to me, I mean how else does someone change except they make a deliberate choice? And how else do we make a choice besides through the faculties of logic and reason?

Unfortunately for me (and others from my fundamentalist/Evangelical background), that’s not what the Gospels tell us. For example, when Peter reveals the identity of Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” he is told directly, “this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:16‭-‬17) If the true identity of Jesus was revealed to Peter through normal or rational means, why do we expect anything different for ourselves?

Or, explain why the unborn John the Baptist “leaped” in the womb when his mother Elizabeth first encountered Mary who held the incarnate Logos within her own body as we read at the beginning of St Luke’s Gospel—Was that response a rational choice, this leap of joy due to John’s careful study of the available evidence and coming to a reasonable conclusion? Of course not! The unborn do not have the freedom or cognitive ability to weigh the evidence and make a rational choice.

This assumption that Christian faith is something of rational origin simply does not comport with what we see recorded in Scripture nor does the idea that conversion is the product of an adult choice to believe. It goes completely contrary to what Jesus said about those who would and would not enter the kingdom:

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Luke 18:16; NIV)

We believe we are motivated through rational means of the mind, that is a foundational assumption of modern thought, and have turned Christianity into something it was never intended to be: merely an intellectual proposition. But this is wrong, the human mind is never described as the prime mover, the choice to follow Jesus is never said to be an adult decision or even something born of human will. Yes, certainly we are to participants in our own salvation or St Paul would not urge Christians to “work out” their salvation with due seriousness in Philippians 2:12, but there is something about it all that goes beyond all human rationality and this is a truth not hidden in Scripture.

A Fundamentally Flawed Perspective of Faith

Many Protestant fundamentalists seem to see themselves as a fusion of rationality with faith, they paint themselves as objective and their religion as something a reasonable person should accept but are neither rational nor faithful. No, they are compromised and inconsistent. They do not strictly follow the scientific method, having arrived at their conclusions well in advance of their studies, nor are they faithful for trying to prove something beyond the realm of science with their extra-Biblical theories. They show, with their actions, that they do not actually comprehend science or the rational nor do they truly accept spiritual and supernatural things.

Fundamentalism is, in essence, the bastard child of modernism and the Protestant religion. Both modernism and fundamentalism are products of the Enlightenment and Age of Reason (so-called) that arose from Roman Catholic Scholasticism. And this Scholasticism, much like modern Protestant fundamentalism, started as a means of “articulating and defending dogma in an increasingly pluralistic context” or, in other words, is an appeal to a person’s intellect and mind rather than their heart or soul. It has since developed into what amounts to a denial of the latter things that becomes completely absurd in the Christian context.

While there is little doubt that the turn towards science and reason has led to the development of technology and understanding of the physical world, we can be thankful for modern medicine based in experimentation for extending our life, this shift has done absolutely nothing for spiritual well-being or our pre-rational human needs. A gaze into the night sky through a telescope, for example, could be awe-inspiring and yet it can’t answer those existential questions of meaning and purpose. And, unfortunately, rather than stick to the means of love or the “greater things” that Jesus promised to the faithful, fundamentalists try to compete (albeit fail miserably) with their secular counterparts in the realm of science and reason.

Fundamentalists, as Protestants, have put all of their eggs in the Bible basket and also—as knee-jerk conservatives—cling to an untenable version of literalism that puts their religious dogma in direct conflict with modern scientific observation. But, as an end around to their paradigm being made obsolete, they turn to pseudoscience and apologetics that barely keep their own children let alone convince anyone outside of their circles. They have no choice, they’ve painted themselves into a corner, they believe that the Bible must be completely reliable, but in the same way as a scientific textbook rather than reliable for spiritual truths, and try to rationalize around the many obvious problems with that perspective.

Meanwhile, while insisting on a young Earth and six days literal days of Creation despite the mountain evidence to the contrary, these same fundamentalists become dismissive when speaking of things like sacraments. This, unfortunately, is a tradition that dates back around five hundred years to a man named Huldrych Zwingli and others who with him lowered the status of such things as Baptism and Communion to mere symbols—reasoning that things of spiritual import originate in the mind, as intellectual acceptance, and with this completely reasoned away possibilities beyond their rational capabilities.

The difference between a fundamentalist and an irreligious secularist is that one has taken their logic the full way to a reasonable conclusion while the other thinks they can have it both ways—accepting the irrational over the rational when it suits them and their personal agenda. Then, simultaneously, rejecting what they cannot comprehend, like their secular counterparts, simply because it goes against their own experience and cannot be scientifically proven. They take Jesus literally only when it is convenient for them or when it makes sense them from their own rational perspective and then reject literalism when it goes against their own religious indoctrination.

Here are some cases to consider…

1) What Saves, Preaching or Baptism?

While writing this blog I ran across an article, “The Sacrament of Preaching,” that addressed a glaring blindspot of many in the Protestant fundamentalist world, and amongst Revivalists and Evangelicals in particular, and it shows in what is emphasized in their tradition. In the church that I grew up in, for example, the order of the service centered on the preaching, often an affair intended to provoke, guilt-trip or convict. There’s a reason why Evangelical churches tend to have venues like lecture halls and that’s because preaching, an appeal to the mind or emotions, is perceived as the primary means of bringing salvation to the lost.

There is little doubt that preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ is important.

After all, didn’t St Paul tell us as much?

How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? (Romans 10:14 NIV)

Yet that passage is in the context of a lament about those who have heard and yet did not accept the message of the Gospel, here is that missing context:

But not all the Israelites accepted the good news. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed our message?” Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. But I ask: Did they not hear? Of course they did: “Their voice has gone out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Again I ask: Did Israel not understand? First, Moses says, “I will make you envious by those who are not a nation; I will make you angry by a nation that has no understanding.” And Isaiah boldly says, “I was found by those who did not seek me; I revealed myself to those who did not ask for me.” But concerning Israel he says, “All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and obstinate people.” I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Don’t you know what Scripture says in the passage about Elijah—how he appealed to God against Israel: “Lord, they have killed your prophets and torn down your altars; I am the only one left, and they are trying to kill me”? And what was God’s answer to him? “I have reserved for myself seven thousand who have not bowed the knee to Baal.” So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace. And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace. What then? What the people of Israel sought so earnestly they did not obtain. The elect among them did, but the others were hardened, as it is written: “God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that could not see and ears that could not hear, to this very day.” (Romans 10:16-21,11:1‭-‬8 NIV)

If preaching saved in and of itself, then why didn’t the people who heard simply believe? Why did others, according to the quote of Isaiah in the passage above, believe through revelation despite not seeking it and never having been preached to?

St Paul makes it clear that it is only through the grace of God, not by preaching or through human understanding, that anyone is saved.

It is a rationalist’s delusion that preaching is the only way that someone can possibly be saved. Unfortunately, that is an idea that has been pounded into Protestant heads for centuries now and this comes at the expense of the other means of grace used by God and described in Scripture. In fact, many ‘great’ Revivalist preachers, in contradiction to Scripture and the reality that preaching is as physical a means as any other sacrament, basically mocked the idea that anything besides means of the mind could bring someone to salvation.

But it is St Peter whom they mock, who clearly likens Baptism to the waters surrounding Noah’s ark in 1 Peter 3:21, “this water symbolizes baptism that now saves you also—not the removal of dirt from the body but the pledge of a clear conscience toward God.” Like king Naaman having to dip in the river Jordan seven times to be healed, we are also told that Baptism washes sins away, brings forgiveness and new life (Acts 2:38, 22:16, Col. 2:11-12), which is to make these acts as much of a means of salvation as accepting the words spoken by a man about Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem here is the soteriology of fundamentalist “Evangelicals” who typically portray salvation as a once and done event. This confusion is the result of salvation being thought of something in the future only, as in salvation from death, and not also salvation from sin in the present. But Scripture describes salvation both in terms of having been saved (Titus 3:4-5), also in being saved (2 Cor. 2:15) and will be saved (Rom 5:9-10) which suggests something a little different from the “born again” sinner’s prayer form of salvation preached by some.

In other words, our salvation is not this moment or that experience, our salvation is rather a continuing work of God’s grace that comes to us through preaching, revelation, Baptism, the prayers of the faithful, and the many other ways that the work of the Holy Spirit is made manifest. In a sense, nobody is saved through the visible means themselves, nevertheless, these things are the necessary physical expressions of the spiritual work of grace and thus inseparable. Yes, the prime mover is always God and yet there is always evidence of this moving in hearts that takes physical form.

2) Communion, True Presence or Mere Symbolism?

It is very strange, a year or so ago a fundamentalist friend, a sort of logically minded sort, got very emotional and angry when I refused to back down from taking Jesus at his word. Mind you, as far as I know, this is a man who would not question Ken Ham’s interpretation of the Genesis account nor the resurrection of the dead and yet ended up blocking me for suggesting that the words of Jesus could be understood without needing to be rationalized away their literal meaning or any additional explanation.

The discussion was about partaking of the body and blood of Jesus Christ (or Holy Communion) and how this was one of the sacraments downplayed and reinvented as ordinances by Anabaptists under the Zwinglian influence. But the curious part was how a rationally minded guy would get so emotionally bent out of shape over simply taking Jesus at face value or as a child would. He insisted, despite Biblical description completely to contrary to his position, that there was no sacramental value to Holy Communion, that it was merely symbolic and to say otherwise was ridiculous. In his mind, Jesus had to be speaking metaphorically and there was no convincing him otherwise.

This is what Jesus said:

I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.” From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. “You do not want to leave too, do you?” Jesus asked the Twelve. (John 6:51‭-‬67 NIV)

Many of the rational folks in the crowd evidently had enough hearing Jesus double-down on this bizarre-sounding claim. Had Jesus been speaking figuratively why would he have let so many walk away without stopping them and saying with a chuckle, “Oh, you guys think I’m being literal! Come on now, it’s all just a big metaphor!” But Jesus did not. When the eyebrows raised and murmurs began, he repeated himself all the more emphatically and lets the chips fall as they may rather than back down from this “hard teaching” and, rather than explain his words as being anything but literal. he even asked the disciples if they were going to abandon him as well.

If it weren’t clear enough in John, this is the account of the “Last Supper” and first partaking of Holy Communion:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will not drink from this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29 NIV)

Is this mere symbolism?

Again, the words do not hint to metaphor. No, they are words of substance as much as his command, “Lazarus, come forth!” was received by dead flesh causing it to reanimate and Lazarus to be resurrected. I mean, if you can’t take Jesus at his word as far as his body and blood, why believe that God could speak anything into existence—let alone literally form mankind out of dust as is claimed in the Genesis creation narrative?

From a perspective of human logic and understanding, one of those events is no more rational than the others, a rotting corpse does not come back to life, our flesh is not the same as dust, and bread is bread is bread. Again, there is nothing rational about the claims foundational to Christianity and it is rather odd that anyone would insist otherwise. I mean, at very least, one might want to consider the serious physical and spiritual consequences of partaking casually of what is supposedly only a symbol:

So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves. That is why many among you are weak and sick, and a number of you have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 11:27‭-‬30 NIV)

It is interesting that many from my own Protestant roots take the first half of that chapter concerning the veiling of women quite literally, not once expressing doubt of the spiritual significance of a piece of cloth being draped on a woman’s head, and then have their eyes glaze over when the mystical significance of Holy Communion is discussed in the latter part of the chapter quoted above. You would think that the same sects that require women to cover their heads all of their waking hours would want to partake of the body and blood more than once or twice a year, and yet they strain on one while swallowing the other.

Anyhow, is it any wonder we are weak and not seeing the promises of “greater things” (John 14:12) fulfilled in us when we are too ‘rational’ to take Jesus seriously about his own body and blood?

Rational or Faithful, the Choice is Yours!

Obviously, we are given an ability to use logic and reason. We should not waste or neglect this rational ability in the name of faith either. However, it would be wise to realize the limits of our rationality and at least entertain the possibility that there are things of true substance beyond what our minds are able to comprehend. One may want to consider that God, being God, does not need to be rational according to our own rules.

In fact, even for a complete non-believer, at the edge of reality as we know it there is a realm where things do not act accordingly to our rational intuitions based in time and space. For those who have gone down the rabbit hole of Quantum Mechanics, it is quite clear that matter does not behave in the manner would expect it to and becomes irrational from a normal human perspective. The discoveries of the past century have basically turned the concreteness of the physical world, as we know it, into a mere wave of probabilities and a place where particles may very well pop into and out of existence.

So, in short, this is absolutely the wrong time in history to double down on rationalism at the expense of transcending spiritual truth. This idea that things must make rational sense, from a human perspective, is to undermine the very substance that faith rests on, one committed to that might as well end the farce and go the full way to denying everything outside of the realm of material science. However, a person who goes that route is truly only lacking in the humility to know their own limitations. Your inability to wrap your head around something does not make it any less true.

In a time when secular scientists are even beginning to see the end of their own abilities to comprehend, many fundamentalists are still stuck in a watered down modernist paradigm they’ve inherited and rely on a horribly convoluted/inconsistent/selective rationalism rather than simply accept Jesus at his word. In their insistence on their fundamentals and understanding of things, they are like one who has traded his birthright for a bowl of stew—are you still stuck in a rationalist’s delusion, unknowingly governed by emotions or confirmation bias, and missing out on true spiritual sustenance?

Mennonite Ordinances and Anabaptist Disregard for Sacraments

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A good friend of mine, a Mennonite, was quite upset with a particular social media provocateur (who self-identifies as marginally Mennonite) and his attack on Holy Communion—which he described as being “basically symbolic cannibalism” and “a man-made ritual” that “can be left on the shelf with no deleterious consequences.”

Then he goes on to say:

“I urge all liberal-minded Mennonites to just stop eating Jesus’s flesh and drinking his blood. It holds no salvific power. There’s nothing magical or mystical about it. Nor does it earn brownie points with God. Further, it’s a major turn-off to people outside the church bubble (for those who care about how the church is perceived by outsiders).”

Most Mennonites, even the mainstream ‘liberal’ types, would reject this as profane and ignorant babble. It is an attack on the very foundation of Christian practice and makes me question if this individual is truly concerned with winning people “outside the church bubble” or the future of the church. His religious ideology, having myself sampled some of his writing, seems to be: Nothing is sacred.

What is interesting about this individual is their claim to be an Anabaptist radical. This claim might rankle conservative Mennonites (especially those who see themselves as the true owners of Anabaptist identity) and yet these words spoken against sacraments are truly quite consistent with the words of a feisty Dutch Anabaptist widow (recorded in Martyr’s Mirror) in response to a question about Holy Unction. This is what she said: “Oil is good for salad, or to oil your shoes with.”

I guess nobody told her “Christ” means anointed one?

Whatever the case, most modern Mennonites do not take such a cavalier attitude towards the sacred and are a bit more Orthodox than their radical roots. In fact, Mennonites more formally reintroduced sacraments (albeit in different description) by their acceptance of the “seven ordinances” listed by Daniel Kauffman 125 years ago: Baptism with water, Communion, Footwashing, Prayer Head-Veiling for the Women, greeting with the Holy Kiss, anointing with Oil for the Recovering of the Sick and Marriage.

Kauffman’s ordinances represent a reversal of the Anabaptist woman’s hubris. He obviously saw the use of oil beyond the application to shoes and salads. But, through his use of different language and by his additions and subtractions (Women’s Head-Veils, Holy Kiss, Footwashing gave in place of Chrismation, Confession, Ordination) from the original listing of seven sacraments, he still maintained a deliberate distance from the established tradition of the Church.

What are sacraments?

Sacraments, simply put, are the “sacred mysteries” of the church. It is also important to note that Orthodox Christians, while they do recognize the seven sacraments listed by Roman Catholic, do not believe the sacraments are limited to just the seven listed and see everything the church does as a sacramental, according to to the OCA website: “All of life becomes a sacrament in Christ who fills life itself with the Spirit of God.”

“Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them.” (John 6:56 NIV)

Of the sacraments, Communion (called the “Holy Eucharist” (the word ‘eucharist” means thanksgiving) is the “sacrament of sacraments” for Orthodox Christians and the center of Church life.

Holy Eucharist is simply taking Jesus at his word:

And [Jesus] took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you. (Luke 22:19-20 NIV)

Jesus clearly calls the bread his body and describes the cup as being the “new covenant” in his blood.

It is interesting that many Protestant fundamentalists—who pride themselves in being Biblical literalists, and modern self-identifying Anabaptists—who insist that they take Jesus at his word more than others do, come to passages like that above, then suddenly start to hem-and-haw and try to explain around what is plainly said.

Perhaps their discomfort is the same as is described in the following account:

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, it is not Moses who has given you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is the bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.”

Then Jesus declared, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never go hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. But as I told you, you have seen me and still you do not believe. All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all those he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day.”

At this the Jews there began to grumble about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.” They said, “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I came down from heaven’?”

“Stop grumbling among yourselves,” Jesus answered. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard the Father and learned from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. Very truly I tell you, the one who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which anyone may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.

Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” He said this while teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

On hearing it, many of his disciples said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before! The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life. Yet there are some of you who do not believe.” For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him. He went on to say, “This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled them.”

From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. (John 6:32-66)

With this, Jesus went from being an interesting teacher to being some kind of mystical weirdo and possible lunatic. It is also little wonder that pagans brought accusations of child sacrifice and cannibalism against early Christians. (Sorry, Charlie, it takes no creativity whatsoever to agree with sacrilege that dates the 2nd century AD and it is not a big surprise if this “hard teaching” continues to turn people back from outside the Christian bubble.) Not everyone can believe this claim then nor do all believe now. But that is what Jesus said and is what the faithful have taught for two millennia. The bread and wine encapsulate the sacred mystery of human relationship with the life-giving Spirit and this practice of Holy Communion is a necessary part of the Church together being the incarnation of Christ.

Human knowledge and personal ideals cloud spiritual discernment.

The presumption of absolute knowledge, which is the cardinal sin of the rational spirit, is therefore prima facie equivalent to rejection of the hero—to rejection of Christ, of the Word of God, of the (divine) process that mediates between order and chaos. (“Maps of Meaning,” Jordan B. Peterson)

Unbelief takes many forms. Not everyone leaves the fold when faced with something that seems irrational to them. We know Judas remained on the margins despite his disillusionment with Jesus and his doubts eventually led to betrayal. We also know Peter’s faith seemed primarily a delusion about an earthly kingdom where he would be at the side of an important political leader and the unwillingness of Peter to accept the ultimate sacrifice (and of his personal ideals) led to denial and a sharp rebuke from Jesus:

From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns. (Matthew 16:21‭-‬23 NIV)

The suffering and death of Jesus was something Peter couldn’t reconcile with his own ideals. It was a horrible ending to his hopes that would need to be fiercely resisted. Peter treats Jesus like I would a friend who is depressed and needed a pep-talk. Unwittingly he used the same reasoning that had tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Jesus faced a hard choice, he needed to be courageous, focused on his mission, and face death head-on—but Peter was encouraging him to take the easy way out in the same way Satan did earlier.

Peter was guided by his personal ideals and Judas by his human rationality—both men failed to understand the divine mystery unfolding before them—both presumed incorrectly and neglected possibilities that went outside of their own established knowledge.

The whole Gospel narrative is centered on Jesus dying on the cross and conquering death. From a rational standpoint, why couldn’t God just have forgiven our sins and granted us eternal life without sending an icon of himself in the person of Jesus? Surely God can identify with his creation without having to go through a physical manifestation for himself, right?

Was it symbolic?

Was it necessary for our salvation?

Perhaps both and more.

But, whatever the case, we don’t know why there needed to be an “image of God” (Colossians 1:15) or why our salvation is tied to Jesus having the experience of a very literal physical death. All we know is that this going through the motions was important to Jesus and therefore we should not be surprised when our faith requires our participation in rituals that we do not understand. We go through the motions of Baptism and Communion, not because of anything we can prove through human logic and reasoning, but simply because we believe in Jesus and accept a reality bigger than ourselves.

Saying something is *only* symbolic undermines the reason for doing it. One way to rationalize around sacraments is to divide the sacred from the symbol. That is to say, some attack the idea of sacraments by declaring the ritual part of them to be “only symbolic” and deny any actual value in the going through the motions. If that were true, then we should take the advice of provocateur and cease all activities that might make outsiders feel uncomfortable. I mean, if a practice is only symbolic and our ultimate goal is to win converts, why not?

Everything in our life can be deconstructed or explained away as meaningless. Why go to work when everything we accomplish will eventually vanish into dust? Why stay faithful to marriage knowing that sooner or later the end will come and the commitment is forgotten? All of the joy and purpose a person finds in life, depending on perspective, can be reduced to electrochemical activity in the brain and lacking in any true substance beyond that. Reason and logic are useful in debates, but they do not provide an antidote for feelings about the futility of the human experience nor answer the question of why to live.

To say a sacrament is only a symbol is like saying a baby is only a colony of cells or math is just numbers and nothing more. Our lack of understanding the significance of something doesn’t make it any less necessary, valuable or sacred—it only makes us ignorant and unwilling to transcend our own knowledge. From a rational perspective, does being dunked or drizzled in water do anything besides make someone different degrees of wet? Why bother to Baptize, take Communion or do anything if it is only symbolic? If salvation is not at stake and if there is no spiritual healing or real benefit, why even bother to go through the motions?

In Scripture, healing is often tied to physical objects and absurd actions. It is one of those curious patterns throughout the books of the Bible. People are saved from ailments and forgiven by God through various rituals. Like that time when the Israelites were complaining about basically everything, then started to get bitten by venomous snakes, and begged for help:

The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived. (Numbers 21:8‭-‬9 NIV)

There is also the story of Namaan, in 2 Kings 5:1-19, who had leprosy and to be healed he was told to do something that makes no sense:

Elisha sent a messenger to say to him, “Go, wash yourself seven times in the Jordan, and your flesh will be restored and you will be cleansed.” But Naaman went away angry and said, “I thought that he would surely come out to me and stand and call on the name of the Lord his God, wave his hand over the spot and cure me of my leprosy. Are not Abana and Pharpar, the rivers of Damascus, better than all the waters of Israel? Couldn’t I wash in them and be cleansed?” So he turned and went off in a rage. Naaman’s servants went to him and said, “My father, if the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it? How much more, then, when he tells you, ‘Wash and be cleansed’!” So he went down and dipped himself in the Jordan seven times, as the man of God had told him, and his flesh was restored and became clean like that of a young boy. (2 Kings 5:10‭-‬14 NIV)

Both of those Old Testament cases required “skin in the game” and tied an individual’s healing or salvation to their performing a specific act. There is no rational explanation as to why someone would be healed of leprosy by dipping in a particular river nor why looking at a brass object would cure a person of anything and yet that is what we read.

So what about the New Testament?

This same pattern of healing through odd and seemingly unrelated acts continues. We read how Jesus mixed spit with dirt to heal someone’s blindness (John 9) and how a woman’s touching of his garment healed her:

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment. (Matthew 9:20‭-‬22 NIV)

Note: Jesus didn’t tell her she was silly for believing that touching his clothes would heal her or otherwise correct her action. No, she is commended for her faith and immediately healed. And, this pattern of healing through actions—through laying on of hands and involvement of objects—did not end with Jesus either. We read about it in the book of Acts as well:

God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that even handkerchiefs and aprons that had touched him were taken to the sick, and their illnesses were cured and the evil spirits left them. (Acts 19:11‭-‬12 NIV)

Perhaps we are more sophisticated than they were and thus can dispense with this kind of sacramentalism?

Truly, if there is no spiritual value to it, why should we even bother going through the motions of Baptism, Communion, etc?

We can try to turn church life into a totally rational experience and do away with all the mystical nonsense. We can re-label sacred mysteries—call them symbols, ordinances, ceremonies, signs or whatever. We can minimalize the sacraments and continue to water down their significance, condition ourselves in a way that will make the keeping of these practices optional, downplay partaking of the body and blood, do it only twice a year—eventually stop attending services altogether because it is irrational.

A church without sacraments is not a church.

The complaint of Protestants and Anabaptists was not completely invalid. Roman Catholicism had blurred the lines between sacrament and their own institutions and systems. Unfortunately, this led to an overreaction that did not always distinguish well between what was corrupted and the sacred mysteries themselves. The end result of this “reformation” has been disastrous disunity and disintegration of the church—which is not a sign of spiritual life.

One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve entered into Orthodoxy is the strong emphasis on church unity and incarnation. The emphasis is on the special spiritual connection between all Christians (past, present, and future) through partaking of the sacred mysteries together. It is, in fact, through sacraments that the church becomes necessary in the life of the individual. Baptism, Communion, Chrismation, Confession, Ordination, anointing with oil and Marriage are things we do together as a church and underscore the need for God, the things he has instituted and each other.

If the only point of sacraments were only to push against our own human rationality (which is often faulty and is always finite) and seek what is greater, then there is great value in them.

Sacraments bring us together, they give us a common identity and point us to truth beyond our own understanding. In the various examples of miraculous healing in Scripture there was often no logical connection between the action taken (or required) and the result. They didn’t know how it worked, they simply had faith, obeyed and were healed. Perhaps the only way to gain spiritual understanding is to let go, to stop depending on our own limited knowledge and start to depend on something that is greater?

Perhaps it is to counter the heresy of Gnosticism, both ancient and modern?

Whatever the case, to try to rationally explain a sacred mystery entirely misses the point. Furthermore, there is no need to separate or distinguish the healing God does in our lives from the sacraments themselves. We know that the thief on the cross was saved just for saying “remember me” and his faith in Jesus. But that doesn’t mean our own faith won’t require us to sell all we have like the rich young ruler or dip in a muddy river like Naaman. It doesn’t mean we can replace sacraments with our mere mental assent to a proposition and be healed or saved from our sins either.

The words of Jesus are useless to those who do not have faith and, likewise, sacraments are of no benefit to those who do not believe in them. The church should welcome all who wish to repent of their sins and participate in the sacred mysteries. But it does not seem at all reasonable or rational for the church to cater to those who do not hope to transcend themselves, their own experience and knowledge.

In the end, one can call sacraments by any other name and still have a church—but a church without sacraments is really only a social club and not a church.