Magic and Meal: Miracle and Covenant

May 28, 2011

“Bring a miracle and request a table. Those you heal must accept you into their homes….The deliberate conjunction of magic and meal,  miracle and table, free compassion and open commensality,  was a challenge launched not just at Judaism’s strictest purity regulations,…but at civilization’s eternal inclination to draw lines, invoke boundaries, establish hierarchies, and maintain discriminations…. Those distinctions were hardly even attacked in theory; they were simply ignored in practice.” — John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus.

In a post earlier this month, I wrote about Crossan’s interpretation of Jesus’ advocacy of a “brokerless Kingdom” that drew on the inexhaustible, easily accessible resource of the Holy Spirit. Crossan suggests that we have inverted Jesus’ order: seeking support of Jesus’ servants so that they might perform miracles of healing. By doing things in that order, we have created a “brokered Kingdom”, which misses the radical nature of what Jesus taught and imitates instead the “Kingdoms of this world.”

In this post, I want to follow up on Crossan’s interpretation of what Jesus sought from those recipients of miracles in response: commensality.

In sociology, which is from where Crossan is approaching the concept, commensality is all about the significance of food sharing, and that significance is enormous. Some evolutionary biologists have even proposed that humans evolved upright posture in order to have free hands to carry and share food (see this abstact). Whether that’s true or not, food sharing is as fundamental to human social groups as is grooming to other primate species. Crossan notes on page 341, quoting Lee Edward Klosinski, that:

“…sharing food is a transaction which involves a series of mutual obligations and which initiates an interconnected complex of mutuality and reciprocity. Also, the ability of food to symbolize these relationships, as well as define group boundaries, surfaced as one of its unique properties.”

Crossan further stresses on the same page that:

“…commensality is not almsgiving; almsgiving is not commensality. Generous almsgiving may even be conscience’s last great refuge against the terror of open commensality.”

John baptized. Jesus is not recorded spending much time doing so. I do not imply that Jesus opposed baptism, obviously, but I do suggest that whereas John may have seen his preparatory role as symbolizing one’s birthright into the kingdom, Jesus seemed far more interested in breaking down the barriers of inequality within the dawning kingdom itself. And if we are to be faithful, perhaps we need, like Jesus, to be relatively more concerned with eliminating the barriers among those already inside the Kingdom than in increasing entry into the Kingdom.

I suggested in the earlier post linked above that Crossan’s interpretation translates into terms with which the Restoration tradition is comfortable: apostasy, for example, corresponds to the artificial limiting of the free flow of the Spirit for the benefit of the religious establishment. To what, then, would the notion of commensality correspond?

I suggest that commensality can be seen in Restoration terminology as “covenant” — perhaps even as the essence of the “new covenant”.  Commensality is obvious, of course, in the sharing of the Last Supper, reenacted in the sharing of food and drink in probably every Christian denomination in one form or another. Christ brings the miracle of the Atonement, and we pledge to keep the commandments which He has given us through a symbolic meal — that we may have His Spirit to be with us. In other words, it involves keeping that healing resource of miracle continually accessible.

But the same process of covenant in human relations is also apparent in the other ordinances within the community. God brings the miracle of birth, and the holding of a child becomes the symbol of the covenant of parenthood. God brings the miracle of sexual love, and it is symbolized by a public acknowledgement of livelong (in some cases, beyond lifelong) commitment to partnership as family. A blessing of healing is symbolized by a touch and results in a covenant both to forgive sins and to sin no more between God and the healed.

The most basic human interactions are elevated to symbols of covenant, if Crossan’s logic is to be followed to its conclusion, because those symbols don’t require brokering by specialists either. There is simply no Miracle Working 101 (or even graduate level Miracle Working 541) available to add to your transcript at any Christian seminary. Priesthood is simply the basket in which the manna is transported; it doesn’t make the manna form.

Commensality implies an egalitarian relationship that is not imposed at the top of society by institutions of government or church. Rather it is an egalitarianism that is granted by the One who could be King, but who has covenanted to be our Friend. Our response to miracle is a covenant to be friends with all who have been beneficiaries of the miracle and are willing to share covenants with us.

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14 Responses to Magic and Meal: Miracle and Covenant

  1. LDS Anarchist on May 28, 2011 at 4:56 PM

    Egalitarianism. What a novel idea.

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  2. mh on May 28, 2011 at 6:02 PM

    firetag, do you find crossan,s idea of ‘brokerless kingdom’ appealing?

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  3. FireTag on May 28, 2011 at 10:11 PM

    MH:

    One of the earliest posts I did here on Wheat and Tares

    http://www.wheatandtares.org/2010/10/23/middle-day-saints-or-church-mortality/

    addressed the faith struggles I’ve had over the decline of my own church. Gradually during that struggle, I became powerfully aware that if my church was to continue to have any relevance to what God was doing, it had to see itself as supporters of the missions of its individual members — to create prophetic people who serve inside or outside the church — rather than seeing them as supporters of the institution.

    I could show that we were pre-adapted to fulfill such a role from the First Vision, which, after all, began with one teenage boy asking God what he should do with his life and expecting a personal answer. But my understanding of the NT, much of which, Crossan shows, is already two or three layers deep with later theological interpretations, didn’t reassure me that what I was emphasizing was more than a temporary expediency related to my denomination’s situation and time in history.

    Crossan has strongly interested me now, because he argues that when we strip away the two or three layers and get down as close as possible to NT bedrock, what we find is direct connection between the individual and divinity without theological or institutional intermediaries to give us our callings. It becomes not just an issue for my denomination, but a more universal basis for understanding our relationship to Christ and to the church.

    So I’m zoned in on this right now.

    LDS Anarchist:

    If the concept of “brokerless Kingdom” is correct, and it has been buried under layers even in the NT, then the temptation for a husband to become a broker even within the family must be strong and needs to be carefully guarded against.

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  4. Mike S on May 29, 2011 at 11:18 PM

    I like this post.

    I think the concept is interesting. Take the sacrament, for example. It is common in societies all over the world to go out “for a drink”. It’s a chance to socialize or lend an ear or whatever. It just doesn’t seem the same to go out “for a soda”.

    When the sacrament was implemented, it makes sense, therefore, that Christ used WINE. When the sacrament was revealed to the Nephites, he also used wine. It was used for the sacrament for the weekly meeting of the apostles in the temple until the 1900’s. It makes a lot of sense. The Word of Wisdom, as revealed to JS, also suggests that wine is to be used. This all makes sense in the social context.

    It therefore seems strange that we have changed it.

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  5. Justin on May 30, 2011 at 5:17 AM

    It therefore seems strange that we have changed it.

    Not when you take into account why it was changed. I wrote a post on starting a tradition of tribal rituals a while back.

    In it, I discussed the power of communal meals as a ritual that connects believers in Christ to a common morphic field — and how the Catholic church and now the LDS church have moved to control the communal meal. I wrote:

    Because communal meals are more intimate [the sharing of food] and occur more frequently than other rituals — they carry with them great power to direct and connect the mind. Thus, religions, states, and corporations seek control over them, to use them to concentrate power within their respective hierarchies.

    Further

    The Church likewise would not permit individual tribes within a congregation to utilize “the Lord’s House or Church for their tribal worship services.

    Church leaders hold full authority over the Church buildings [which power has been given them by the keys of the church] — and they use that power to provide a morsel of bread and a thimble of water to the congregations.

    Further, they structure meetings according to the commandments of men [assigning talks, lessons, musical numbers, etc. in advance] so as to remove any chance of the Spirit manifesting herself spontaneously.

    This is done to keep the members in a spiritually-starved state — so they must continue to come back and feed at the Church.

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  6. Mike S on May 30, 2011 at 9:06 AM

    Justin:

    I like the concept you presented in #5

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  7. Jared on May 30, 2011 at 10:14 AM

    Interesting read. Thanks for posting

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  8. FireTag on May 30, 2011 at 12:58 PM

    Justin:

    I agree with a lot of what you say in 5, but I’m not sure I can translate “morphic field” into anything in either my religious or scientific world-view. In fact, the more mysterious we make the ritual process, the more we need shamans and wizards to broker the ritual, and that, if Crossan is correct, precisely what Jesus was trying to get us away from by placing the rituals in the context of the most normal of human activities.

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  9. Justin on May 30, 2011 at 1:24 PM

    FireTag:

    Admittedly, “morphic field” is not my term, and the man who coined the term would probably not sign on to the formulation that I have made of his original idea — nor I to his.

    The concept of “morphic fields” does not make our rituals more mysterious to the point that we would need shamans and wizards to broker the ritual.

    To me, it has opened up my perspective to perceive the ritual in all human activity. And so — I agree that Jesus was trying to … [place] the rituals in the context of the most normal of human activities.

    I was asked by a commenter on a post I had written at the LDSA blog about my use of the term “morphic field”.

    In short:

    If you can imagine — the realm of mental activity [thoughts, ideas, etc.] has a literal existence, in the same way that this physical world does. In this material world — human bodies exist and interact with each other. In the mental world — minds exist and interact with each other. In the former, chairs exist — in the latter, the idea of chairs. Etc.

    There is a common space of imagination — just like you have your own personal house in this world, but share a common street with your neighbors. A morphic field is the common “neighborhood” that your own personal mental space ["mind-house"] shares with other people.

    A thought creates a field that is not bound by physical space. Such a shared mental field is set-up by the repetition of similar acts or thoughts [i.e. rituals]. Information can be “uploaded” into the field and — more interestingly, can be “downloaded” from the collective field into individual minds.

    If two people are following the same trail of thought, then they are walking a common pathway — or connected to a common morphic field. Further, just like a trail in the forest — the more a certain path is walked, the easier it gets for others to do the same.

    When Jesus said,

    “Do this in remembrance of me,”

    He established a morphic field that we all connect to when the ordinance is done according to the same pattern.

    The same is likewise true for all rituals of the gospel — in fact, the same is true for all rituals.

    A placebo effect can be generated even if subjects know they are taking a sugar pill. This is b/c the ritual of taking a pill every morning connects a person to the associated morphic field — and can, by the ritual alone, see some improvement.

    Likewise, Paul warned the Corinthian church that their failure to administer the sacrament meal in the worthy/appropriate manner was the reason there were many sick and dying among them. There is a healing effect associated with the sacrament ritual — but it must be reenacted according to the pattern given by the Lord in order for us to be connected to the proper morphic field. [And the same is true for the other ordinances of the gospel].

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  10. FireTag on May 30, 2011 at 2:52 PM

    Justin:

    Interesting explanation, and I do think that there is a “physical” analogue for consciousness, but I don’t think you’re seeing the criticism I’m raising.

    If getting the ritual wrong destroys the effectiveness of the ritual, then I really do need brokers to get the rituals right. If I really have to understand all of the biochemical processes my body has to go through to heal a cut in order for the cut to heal, then I’m dependent on the Doctor for EVERYTHING.

    I’m suggesting that Jesus was teaching healing (physical and spiritual) was so readily available we didn’t need to see specialists standing between us and Him for the care of our daily lives.

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  11. Justin on May 30, 2011 at 3:02 PM

    To me, the idea of “brokers” is not necessitated by bringing up the importance [or integralness/necessity] ritual — but when I read “brokers”, I thought of the presumed need for another specific class of special people to do the ritual to me.

    Maybe I don’t see the criticism you are raising. Though I see ritual as essential — I don’t see a specific class of administrators of ritual as being essential. The correct pattern for ritual in contained in the scriptures, which have been communal accepted as binding.

    Does the POV you address in this post require that one no longer hold certain ritual activities to be essential — in addition to rejecting the need for a priestly class to administer the rituals to a body of believers?

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  12. FireTag on May 30, 2011 at 4:05 PM

    Justin:

    I do think that rituals are necessary, but I suspect the form of the ritual is QUITE culturally variable. LDS use water; CofChrist in America use grape juice; in some places we use coconut milk. They symbolize covenant, I think, universally, but have to drive home the point of the covenant or they lose the effectiveness as symbols.

    Crossan makes the point that there was originally a ritual Jesus commanded of his disciples when people DID NOT choose to make covenant — shaking off the dust from their feet. Crossan, I think, is suggesting that as nothing more than an acknowledgement, not a condemnation. The condemnation was added later to reemphasize institutional importance.

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  13. Frump on May 31, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    Firetag:

    “I do think that rituals are necessary, but I suspect the form of the ritual is QUITE culturally variable”

    That reminds me of a guy I just met a couple weeks back. How I met him is irrelevant, but I ended up giving the guy a ride somewhere (~1 hour drive) and we chatted about his past/present/future. He was a former computer tech guy who quit after 23 someodd years to pursue a new life. About a year into his new life, he started dabbling in music as a way of healing people, which led to where he is now: a Shaman. He doesn’t call himself that, but the people who come to see him for treatment call him that, so that’s what he rolls with.

    He mentioned how people frequently ask him to perform a “ceremony” for this or that event. One event – a wedding – someone asked him to do a Native American ritual for the wedding. He did, only he did it spontaneously without any preset notions on what to do. It turned out quite lovely, apparently, with many people asking how he learned to do it and how often he did it… his response?

    “That’s the first time I’ve ever done it.”

    Your statement reminded me of that because what he did was heartfelt and spontaneous, and didn’t need any forms/barriers on what could/shouldn’t be done.

    Perhaps that is why it doesn’t necessarily matter what we do, so long as there is an effectiveness and/or specific intent we’re pursuing…

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  14. FireTag on May 31, 2011 at 3:35 PM

    My daughter performed a wedding a few weeks ago in which she incorporated a sand ceremony — a layered and then unlayered pouring together of different colored sands to represent the lives of the bride and groom — that she patterned after something from Navaho ceremonies. Neither of the couple were Navaho.

    “They shall preside over the services as led by the Spirit”. Seems I remember that from somewhere. :D

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