Last week, I wrote about two tempting primrose paths in thinking about the sacraments. If you didn’t read that one, I’d encourage you to go back and start there.
Between the Superhero and the Deist imaginations, I’d like to sketch out what I think we mean when we speak of the sacramental imagination. It has things in common with both of them – and reacts to both of them in the contemporary world. What makes it possible at all is the fundamental adherence to radical monotheism that Christianity inherits from Judaism. These implications took a long time to work out in both Judaism and Christianity, and so you can find lots of places (liturgically, scripturally, etc.) in which they aren’t evenly applied.
God as Creator
In Radical Monotheism, God is one and truly the creator (that is, he creates ex nihilo, and doesn’t merely re-arrange preexistent matter like most of the ancient gods). We have to consider God to be truly other from the creation. We call this “the creator–creation distinction” and it is honestly the hardest concept to grasp that I have to teach in my classes. (If you’d like to read more about this idea, I wrote a piece for Pray Tell a while back).
God therefore interacts with the world as creator. Not in a distant past (like some versions of deism) but as the eternal “ground of being” that which holds all other things in being all the time. But not as a cause among causes. Because that would break up the distinction and make God a part of the system (i.e. of the creation). This sets up both what we call “the problem of immanence & transcendence” and its solution:
If transcendence doesn’t mean “far away” or “distant” or “high-up” then the problem is not one of reconciling opposites, but of talking about different kinds of things. In a sense, for monotheists, God can be immanent because he is transcendent. Zeus can be in one place and time at once. You have to get his attention. God, as creator, is present to all of time and space eternally.
And this is where sacramentality comes into play. If God is present to all times and places as creator, then on some level, the problem of transcendence is a problem for us. How do we know this ground of being, how do we discern the benevolent action of a God who is not Zeus?
Here there are some resonances with the deist imagination, if sacraments are fundamentally for us, as the old dictum says, sacramenta sunt propter homines — sacraments are for humans. So they are about communication to us, but they are also more than that. Aristotle wrote that “that which is received is received according to the mode of the receiver.” Thinking about the sacraments, this means that anything that we receive from God in the sacraments must be receivable by us. But it’s not merely about receiving information. The sacraments accomplish what they signify. They change us by changing our relationships to God and each other. To use the traditional language, they are communications of grace.
The Sacramental Imagination
So, what is the sacramental imagination? It is the recognition that because we have experienced the absolutely transcendent, eternal, monotheistic creator God to be active in and through the world in ways that we recognize, that not only is that possible, it should be expected. This isn’t about power (like the superhero imagination) or just about beauty (like the deist imagination). Fundamentally, it’s about relationship. Humans are brought into new relationships with each other and with God who created us for relationship.
When Christians imagine the fulfilling of the world, they tend towards images of perfect cities, worlds where even the animals don’t eat meat because there is no deadly competition of that kind. This hope is a hope in a new creation. A world made better.
Because God’s relationship to the world is as creator, such a world would have to be a gift. A gift that changes us and our way of being in the world. That is what we call grace —the unearned relationship that changes the way things are. And grace, since it is not a thing is not a technology. The Eucharist is not Thor’s hammer. It is an invitation and a creation and a mediation of relationship with God into which we are invited.
An Example: Baptism
Baptism is an efficacious sign in water. Any water. Not water from the lost fountain of youth, or the place where Thor crossed the river after being bitten by Fenrir. And because of that, the Christian is invited to receive the entirety of the world, all people, all places, all things, even, even especially, that which isn’t beautiful or immediately powerful, as a mediation of relationship with the creator. When the Ethiopian Eunuch hears, he says, “Look, there is water. What is to prevent my being baptized?” This water, any water, is a sign of God’s grace. And a sign that makes real what it signifies.
The sacramental imagination then, invites us to approach the world looking for such moments. The places where we receive as gifts those things that we cannot do on our own and which are signs of God’s ongoing work of recreating the world.
This is not something that we control, and when the credits roll, we don’t need to sit around and wait for the post-credits scene with the ominous music, for God is not an Avenger.