(and how to resurrect it)
“the doctrine of transubstantiation, in its Tridentine form, is truly the collapse, or rather the suicide, of sacramental theology” – Alexander Schmemann.
To Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann, Western culture formally lost its ability to experience and understand worship in the middle ages, when it severed the unity between “symbol” and reality, instead of affirming their unity as the Church Fathers had done.
This, to Schmemann, had truly world-shaping consequences, via a surprising chain of causes. Its immediate effect, though, was a transformation of sacramental theology: by alienating “symbol” (that is, what in a post-Peircean world is called signification) from reality, it altered the nature and understanding of worship from being an act in which God is made really present to people via the action of symbol, to one in which God is nonsymbolically but really present in a sacrament.
But this relatively marginal shift (from a modern secular perspective) had the epoch-defining effect of making way for secularism. It did so as follows: it caused the sacraments to be thought of as a unique type of thing – the only part of reality in which God is bodily present – which, to the same extent as it elevated the sacraments to an exclusive domain of the sacred, marginalised and secularised everything else. No longer was there a means by which the whole world was caught up into God, and no longer did it share with the sacraments a teleological nature whose perfection or fulfilment lies in embodying God.
The specific cause of this trouble, as Schmemann understands it, is that theologians of the middle ages focused on mechanism at the expense of perspective:
“[In the misguided scholastic period,] the causality linking the institution [of a sacrament by Christ] to “signum” [the sacrament’s means of functioning] to “res” [the sacrament’s bringing its object into real presence] is viewed as extrinsic and formal, not as intrinsic and revealing. Rather than revealing through fulfilment, it guarantees the reality of the sacrament’s effect. Even if, as in the case of the Eucharist, the sign is completely identified with reality, it is experienced in terms of the sign’s annihilation rather than those of fulfilment. In this sense the doctrine of transubstantiation, in its Tridentine form, is truly the collapse, or rather the suicide, of sacramental theology.”
– Schmemann, A, “Sacrament and Symbol”, in For the Life of the World, p. 144.
This is where the role of signs gets interesting, and doubly so. Firstly, it’s clear that Schmemann requires real signification (i.e. that signs are not necessarily in one’s mind) in order to rehabilitate the experience of worship and the understanding of sacramentality, yet he appears not to have read the likes of Poinsot and Peirce on the topic, which would equip him with the means to achieve this. Secondly, Schmemann – mistakenly in my view – identifies the causal mode of sign action, extrinsic formal causality, as the heart of the problem, when in my view it’s precisely this that grounds the phenomenon of embodiment essential to the sacraments.
Schmemann’s project anchors my view on why signs are worth looking at, by identifying their significance to the history of Christianity and to the development of indigenous Western culture in general. He is certainly right about the effect of the alienation of signification from reality. The modern era is a tidal wave of nominalism and secularism. Signs have indeed been largely banished to the peripheries of intellectual discourse. What passes for “worship” today is a confused mess of merely subjective symbol-making, capitalist aspirational marketing, and a sort of squishy “charismatic” aura of feeling to be enveloped by (largely in the form of emotive musical clichés). I think that a recovery of “signum,” in the form of (a) a clear model of sign action, (b) the central role of semiosis in the sacraments, and (c) the pervading reality of semiosis, would make for a potent remedy to the above, and would recover what Schmemann hopes for – an understanding (and practice) of worship as a fulfilment of the world. As such, Schmemann’s project of rehabilitating the sacraments and sacramental theology is one I heartily support.
But I believe that the vindication of Schmemann’s project would require more than just an account of how the Church fathers thought, and why their approach avoids certain difficulties. It would require an account of how the sacramentality that the Church Fathers speak of vaguely and in terms of mystery really functions – and the account would, ideally, transcend their antinomical holding together of “symbol” and “reality” by providing a positive mechanism which is rationally coherent and empirically identifiable in the world. This is precisely what I believe an account of sign action can provide – and it is on the topic of “mechanism” that I believe it is necessary to depart from Schmemann’s understanding in order to support his own project.
While Schmemann is right that the effect of distinguishing “symbol” from reality has been to alienate signs from reality and to secularise the world, he is mistaken to identify the loss of the understanding of sacraments as “intrinsic and revealing” with the causality of signs as extrinsic and formal. The mistake, I think, lies at least partly in a misperception of how a theory of mechanism functions in accounts of experience. For example, let’s say I believe that when you see a glass of water in front of you, it is really and directly present to you. You might ask me why I believe that, to which I reply “because when you see the glass, it’s the result of a process by which light waves bounce off it, reach your eyes, after which you perceive its shape, colour, etc. and end up with an experience of the glass.”
To this you reply, “but that’s not a direct or immediate experience at all. That’s a mediated, indirect experience, because it’s mediated by my sensory and perceptual processes.”
To this I’d reply, “well, by “directly present” it doesn’t mean that no process or mechanism is involved, it means that the actual glass is really present, and not some sort of simulation or illusion. If you experience the real glass, it’s through a mechanism. After all, the experience has to happen somehow, right? So don’t let the presence of a mechanism confuse you as to the reality of the object of your experience or the fact that it’s really present to you.”
In the same way, I think Schmemann misconstrues the mechanism involved in sign action as an alienating effect, when in fact the opposite is the case. Signs function to bring (at least an aspect of) the nature of an object into being insofar as it can become present through a sign-vehicle. This is an explanation of the mechanism by which an object becomes present to us; it is not thereby an account of how we are alienated from the object, but of how it is present to us. In other words, the “mechanism” of sign action is precisely the means by which the object is revealed. Furthermore, if a revealing of any sort is to occur, this could not be by means of the revealed object only, but only through the presence of some intermediary sign, since, being empirical creatures composed of mechanisms and processes, we are not the kind of thing that experiences anything perfectly or without mediation.
As such, it is precisely by the extrinsic, separate object being experienced in (i.e. intrinsically to) the being of a sign-vehicle that the object is revealed. This is the case for all experience and not just the experience of sacraments, since the mechanism is one of sign action, and sign action is common to all experience at the very least. Furthermore, my particular theory of sign action is that it obtains not only for all experience, but also outside experience, applying to any way in which anything at all has an effect or determines an attribute of anything else. Under such a theory, Schmemann’s notion that the entire world is of a piece with sacramentality may be vindicated, since everything in reality operates by the same principle, namely one in which things embody other things.
The account may go further still, by undergirding Schmemann’s notion that the world finds its fulfilment in embodying God, due to the fact that sign action possesses an incipient normativity, which I will relate briefly in three stages. The first stage is that the extent to which a sign-vehicle faithfully represents its object reduces to the extent that its attributes can support its signifying the whole nature of the object. The second stage is that the world, as nothing but a web of signs, represents its creator faithfully to the extent that it embodies God fully. The third stage is any entity that comes to function as a sign-vehicle (and every entity does) does so by a “kenotic” change in which the nature and process that it has as a thing in itself is abandoned, modified, or, one might say, transfigured in the being it acquires when coming to function as a sign-vehicle that signifies an object. To be “kenotic,” though, is itself to signify God, who is kenotic in his very nature. In this way, the world, as a web of signs, is most deeply and fully a sign of God purely by being signs. As such, the world is one great “sacrament” in Schmemann’s sense, having its true nature as a sign of God and thus finding its perfection (and in this sense, fulfilment) in God.