Who Are We Inviting to Our Table?, Part 3

Previous two posts:

Part 1

Part 2
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In Unclean, Richard Beck explores the psychological basis behind purity and exclusion, and looks at texts in the New Testament in which Jesus and Paul look to transcend these mechanisms.  What then does this mean for the Eucharist?

First off, Matthew 9 and 1 Corinthians 11 (and other, similar texts) should always prompt us to ask the question--who are the marginalized, the tax collectors and sinners, of our day?  Who are the people that our instincts tell us that we should be keeping out?  Because the psychological research Beck references alerts us to the fact that all of us have an in-born tendency to look to police boundaries and practice exclusion on that basis--what theologian Miroslav Volf calls the "will to purity."  We are all under the influence of this gravitational pull, and Jesus and Paul make it clear that we have to try to fight that pull and undertake a "will to embrace."  These two notions are in necessary tension, and we have to be alert to the ways in which the "will to purity" can be a multi-faceted, morphing phenomenon.  Just when you have dealt with one manifestation of the will to purity (like refusing to eat with Gentiles, or the poor), another category of purity will crop up.  So, we have to be constantly scrutinizing every exclusion we seek to make, interrogating ourselves to make sure that we are not creating yet another category of tax collector.

Second, religious communities (and any kind of community, really) must always be aware of the potential for what Beck calls "purity collapse."  Purity collapse is a scenario under which purity-driven concerns begin to completely dominate the life of the community, overwhelming any other consideration.  All of us have probably experienced purity collapse on a micro scale--a group of friends or other acquaintances who became isolated and divided into "us" and "them."  We also see it on a terrifying macro scale, in the form of isolated cults and ethnic cleansing.  But between those two poles, we see all sorts of dysfunctional group behavior--paranoia, busy-bodyness, suspicion, cliques.  Religious communities can become very toxic in a state of purity collapse.

Third, Beck argues that one dimension of the Eucharist is that it acts as a regulator on the role of purity in a religious community.  Beck argues that the Eucharistic service is "designed" to press all of our disgust levers (core disgust, sociomoral disgust, even another dimension Beck discussed that I haven't mentioned yet, which is death disgust), while at the same time calling us to work through them and toward hospitality and the "will to embrace."  In other words, the Eucharist forces us to transgress our normal purity reactions, as a way of conditioning us to control our normal purity reactions.  In that way, it is sort of like classical conditioning for the treatment of phobias--you expose yourself to thing you are afraid of enough times, and pretty soon you won't have that fear any more.

Finally, this regulator role gives us a way to benchmark proposed exclusions to the Eucharistic table.
 The more tightly we constrain the number of people who get to partake in the Eucharist, the less the partakers are being confronted in their sociomoral and other disgust vectors.  Consequently, the more tightly we constrain the number of people who get to partake in the Eucharist, the less effective the Eucharist is as a purity regulator.  It follows, then, that if Christian communities start to drift toward purity collapse, a solution would be to expand the pool of folks who are participating in the Eucharist, which will reinforce the purity regulation function of the Eucharist and tamp down the will to purity.  Or, to say it another way, if we identify in the Christian community a bias or prejudice or exclusion directed a certain group, perhaps our first attempt at a solution to the problem should be to invite them up for Communion.

Let's go back to what originally started this series--whether divorced and remarried people should be allowed to receive Communion.  What can we say about this question in light of Beck's ideas?  First, all of the emphasis thus far has been placed on the divorced and remarried people--are they properly situated in order to be entitled to come forward to receive Communion?  Beck would have us ask a different question--what is the impact on us, those who are going up to receive Communion, stemming from keeping these folks from participating?  Are we being as welcoming and hospitable as we should be?  Or are we drifting toward purity collapse?

There is a notion in Catholicism that the Eucharist is something that belongs to a specially selected, chosen few--the "insiders," if you will.  I certainly had that thought when I made my First Communion--I was now part of this exclusive (albeit rather large) club.  That's a problematic vision of the Eucharist, as it is on the path to purity collapse--if the club is exclusive, then you want to make sure it stays exclusive, you start policing boundaries, and things have a tendency to spiral from there.

So, I would frame the question like this.  Are Catholics, especially the most faithful, as welcoming to people in tough marital situations in all other contexts beside the Eucharist as they should be?  Or are they narrow, moralizing, and judgmental about people who may have made bad decisions in love, or who were once trapped in abusive situations, or are the victims of the bad behavior of others?  If the answer to those questions is "no" and "yes," respectively, then we need to admit the divorced and remarried to Communion.  Not so much because they need it (though, they probably do), but because we need to participate in a Eucharist with them present.  Judgmental, purity based attitudes are an indication that we have constricted the Eucharistic table to the point that we are not allowing it to perform its purity regulation function, at least in this space.  It's not doing for us, the insiders, what it is supposed to be doing.

The natural progression of this line of thought is that we shouldn't exclude anyone from the Eucharistic table.  My own thought has moved in that direction, toward truly open Communion policies.  But even if one is not willing to fully embrace such a policy, I think this purity dimension to thinking about the Eucharist gets us out of our natural tendency to use Communion as a weapon against "the Other," whoever the Other happen to be in our particular circumstances.  Who we are inviting to our table is not really about "the Other"; it's about ourselves.

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