Mahāyāna theology is an approach to thinking about the Christian faith within the philosophical context of the great Mahāyāna Buddhist thinkers: philosophers of emptiness such as Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, and Candrakīrti in the Mādhyamika tradition; and philosophers of consciousness such as Maitreya, Asaçga,Vasubandhu, Sthiramati, Paramārtha, and Hsūan-tsang in theYogācāra tradition. The advantage of employing Mahāyāna philosophy in the doing of Christian theology is that this philosophical tradition developed with the dual purpose of supporting and encouraging faith and practice while eliminating absolutist claims for metaphysically fixed and unalterable ideas.
Mahāyāna is deconstructive without any of the aloofness that modern French philosophers apparently feel they must adopt vis-à-vis theology and the Church. Just as Plato did for the Fathers of the early church and Aristotle did for Aquinas, Mahāyāna opens avenues of thought and questioning for contemporary theologians that will gift our cultures with the grace of new theological insight into the meaning of Christ's presence to and among human beings.
And so I would like to do some theology here, demonstrating how a Mahāyāna thinker like myself might envisage the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.
The Real Presence of Christ
The theology of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist has had a long and fascinating development. For the first eight centuries, the issue did not arise with any doctrinal insistence.1 Christians were content to see Christ's presence in the performance of the Eucharistic rite as a medicine of immortality that would heal their souls and embody for them the reality of the risen Christ. It was only later, in the condemnation of the theologian Ratramnus2 and the development of the doctrine of transubstantiation, that the classical formulation took shape.3 That doctrine was expressed in philosophic terms that were then current, concepts that were accepted as clear and valid frameworks for thinking.
Medieval theologians, especially the great St. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth [End Page 89] century, had just rediscovered Aristotle and gloried in the subtle intricacies and vast overviews that this "new" learning provided them.4 They philosophized by seeking insight into and defining the very act of existence itself, discussing the "essences," or "substances" of things as the underlying realities that we encounter in our life and in our faith. In this view, Christ "subsists"—that is, he really exists—as the substance of the bread and wine in the Eucharist. This is the philosophic view that is stressed even today in the Roman Catholic Church. Modern Catholic theologian Bernard Cooke explains the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist as follows:
Christ bespeaks in the action of the Mass the presence of his own risen body beneath the appearance of food and drink. He effects this by changing the inner reality (the "substance") of the bread and wine into his risen humanity. This is the unique change that the Church has for centuries called transubstantiation—the change of the substance of the bread into the substance of Christ's risen body. Before the transubstantiation in the Mass, the inner reality (the substance) of the bread and wine is what sustains the external appearances in existence. These appearances tell us of the presence of the inner reality of bread and wine (which itself is not visible). After the transubstantiation, the risen humanity of Christ is what sustains these external appearances in existence. Consequently, they now tell us of the presence of Christ.5
The disputes about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist hinged precisely on this issue—what is the inner reality of the sacrament? Another scholar of these arguments, Francis Clarke, writes:
All the Eucharistic controversies . . . hinge upon one question: What is the substance of the sacrament? "If we did once agree in that, the whole controversy [concerning the sacrifice] would soon be at an end," for the answer to that question decides "whether Christ's body be there offered indeed unto the heavenly Father by the priest or no" (from Bishop Ridley, Brief Declaration of the Lord's Supper; Works...