The naysayers among us may be right: We Homo sapiens may indeed be on the verge of destroying our planet and ourselves over the long run, but we remain singular creatures, at least, in one sense.
And why is that? What special trait do we hold over our hominin cousins? I would argue it is because we exist within what I’ve come to call a Noncorporeal Human Exoskeleton — essentially, a network of culture, language, religious beliefs and technology that, among other things, not only provides us with a large measure of physical comfort and even psychological succor but also functions as a kind of second cerebral cortex.
Our Unique Exoskeleton
Previous hominin species very likely developed their own exoskeletons, though nothing that compares to what our forebears achieved.
One could describe this as exoskeleton in many ways. It functions as a kind of intangible amniotic fluid, because, in a manner of speaking, we, like a human fetus, are not only encased in it but also depend on it for our survival. It could also be regarded as a kind of cultural womb in which all of the elements are intricately joined.
These analogies could be extended considerably further, but I am assuming that by now you, the reader, have acquired at least a serviceable knowledge of the concept.
It’s also important to understand that our network — our exoskeleton — undergoes constant change. Imagine standing on a foundation of bricks that are constantly being swapped out or replaced entirely.
The elements comprising our exoskeleton are undergoing similar change — constant repositioning and replacement. And shouldn’t that be expected of a networked in which all of the disparate parts are so closely connected? Here’s another way of expressing it: All the elements of our exoskeleton are bound in a network and are contingent on the binding of other elements.
Over the course of time, as the constant shifting and replacement ensues through this network, significant change follows.
Sometimes this change can be relatively rapid and extremely disruptive. And this applies to all facets of the exoskeleton, whether it happens to be culture, religion, politics or technology.
I was reminded of this fact recently reading Fatal Discourse: Erasmus, Luther and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing. As the title implies, the book explores the feud that eventually engendered between Martin Luther and moderate reformer Desiderius Erasmus.
As Massing relates in the book, Luther’s theological epiphany regarding his relationship with God significantly affected the manner in which the elements of the Christian faith are bound together, at least, within many of the sundry variations of contemporary Protestantism.
One of the more remarkable examples of how this binding was drastically altered is reflected in Protestant eucharistic traditions. The Eucharist continues to carry immense significance within the Catholic faith, though significantly less within its Protestant counterparts.
One could make the strong case that Luther’s theological epiphany was almost entirely responsible for this dramatic shift in network binding. And this is not surprising, considering that Luther’s theological epiphany centered around the nature of his relationship with God.
This represented a drastic alteration of previous thinking. Luther had been raised and educated in an ecclesiastical system that regarded the church as the primary means through which one achieved and sustained salvation. And this was secured through a series of sacraments that not only included the Eucharist.
Luther challenged this through his new view of grace, namely grace received from God through faith in the atoning power of Jesus Christ. Little did he know, initially, at least, that this new doctrine ultimately would work as a solvent of many longstanding Christian practices.
Luther’s doctrine of grace also worked to drive a stake in the heart of indulgencies, which has stoked much of the anger that culminated in the Reformation. Even more significant, the newfound emphasis on sola fideism (the doctrine of faith alone) resulted in the Eucharist no longer being viewed among many Protestants as an end in itself, which, of course, is the nature of a sacrament, but merely as a means of enhancing the individual believer’s understanding of the role of faith as the basis of Salvation.
This sweeping doctrinal innovation was expressed in many ways. In a relatively short time, Protestant church architecture began to reflect this new doctrinal emphasis. The pulpit, a symbol of the preaching of the Gospel, replaced the Communion table as the focal point in many Protestant churches.
Other traditional Catholic sacraments were downgraded or eliminated altogether. Within the more radical Protestant churches, Communion ceased being treated as a sacrament at all and regarded instead as an ordinance. Indeed, some radical Protestant traditions rejected the Real Presence doctrine altogether, viewing Communion simply as a visual means of memorializing Jesus’ atoning sacrifice.
Luther, ironically, strove to maintain a higher standard for the Eucharist, holding to a slightly revised doctrine of the Real Presence known a consubstantiation, which holds that that the flesh and blood of Christ existed alongside the consecrated bread and wine.
The Ebionite View of the Common Meal
Ironically, Luther’s intransigence regarding his modified Eucharistic doctrine resulted in the sundering of Protestant unity, one that took centuries to heal. And it must be stressed that the Protestant Reformation was not the first time that the Christian Common Meal underwent a significant shift in network binding.
Some 1,500 years earlier, the Ebionite followers of Jesus regarded the last supper of the Messiah not as a sacramental meal at all but rather as messianic banquet signifying the post-apocalyptic meal that would occur within the future kingdom of God.
Scholar James Tabor, who specializes in early Christian origins, cites a passage in Luke that occurs immediately before a verse that portrays the meal in classic Pauline terms.
“And he said to them, “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, “Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:19-21)
However, the other significant branch of Christianity, led by Paul, viewed the last meal in an entirely different light, borrowing significantly from predominantly Greek thinking predominant in the eastern half of the Mediterranean Basin, where the bulk of Paul’s ministry was conducted.
Paul asks in Corinthians, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 10:16).
Tabor also contends that this Pauline interpretation of the last meal is an expression of theophagy, “eating the body of one’s god,” a practice derived from Greek rather than from Judaic religious traditions. He cites a Greek account written approximately during Paul’s time about a spell involving the consumption of a ritually consecrated cup of wine representing the blood of Osiris. Consuming this consecrated wine purportedly enabled one to participate in the spiritual power of the love Osiris held for his consort, Isis.
Why have I gone to the trouble to embark on this long and rather tedious exploration of Eucharistic history? First, to underscore that all facets of our human exoskeleton undergo incremental change as ideas and practice “meet, mate and morph” with other ideas and practices. Consequently, the network binding that characterizes our exoskeleton undergoes constant change, though, in most case, these changes occur slowly, painstakingly slowly, in most cases.
But there are periods of disruption, when shifts in network binding occurs comparatively rapidly. Luther’s crisis of faith is an example of one such disruptive event, causing a radical shift in the network binding of the Christian faith’s sacramental structure.
And Luther never could have anticipated just how disruptive this shift would be.