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  • Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World
  • M. Bennet Smith
Regina Mara Schwartz. Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008. Pp. xiii + 187.

The Reformation project of dismantling the Catholic sacraments created, for Protestants of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a persistent sense that God had gone out of the world and that his presence could no longer be clearly felt. The resulting psychological and spiritual desire for that presence is the subject of Regina Mara Schwartz’s Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism. This book explores a major shift in the early modern period, the end of a time in which communion with God was assured by sacred institutions. For Schwartz, the various ways that loss of the divine presence manifested itself are tied to the word “communion”: community, communication, and the rite of the Eucharist—Holy Communion. It is the exploration of theories [End Page 252] of communion that provides the framework for Schwartz’s discussion of sacramental poetics.

The Eucharist was one of the earliest Christian rites, a practice that for believers from the first century forwards was virtually coextensive with Christianity itself. The pre-Reformation doctrine of the Eucharist assured Christians of the presence of God in the world and afforded direct access to him for all who participated in the rite. Reformation theologians focused their attacks on the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that during the Eucharist the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the actual body and blood of Christ. Though they disagreed about how exactly Christ was present during Communion, Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin agreed that the quasi-magical theory of transubstantiation unfairly concentrated power in the hands of the priests who performed the rite. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, they argued, access to God was mediated by the institutional forces that controlled the Eucharist and offered the body of Christ to believers. But transubstantiation also came under attack because it represented a medieval, mystical, quasi-magical view of God’s interaction with man, one out of step with the rise of science and rationalism during the early modern period.

Although Reformation theologians rejected transubstantiation, they retained the practice of communion, substituting theories that emphasized Christ’s presence or the metaphorical embodiment of the bread and wine rather than the literal transformation of substance. Thus a form of magic became transformed into a theory of signification. Schwartz’s focus is on the psychological and spiritual void felt by those who rejected transubstantiation. The book constitutes a meditation on the perennial flight of God from the world, for, as Schwartz notes, the gods are always leaving us, and human history is a chronicle of coming to terms with that absence.

Though Schwartz investigates the turn away from the sacred, she also challenges assumptions about that transition and argues that, rather than disappearing, the mystical and the sacred became incorporated into secular culture. Instead of abolishing the Eucharist, Reformers created various theories to account for divine presence during communion. Meanwhile, in early modern poetic texts the body of Christ appears again and again. In Shakespeare, for instance, Schwartz finds an engagement with the loss of justice felt by those who could no longer access God’s presence through transubstantiation. The Eucharist constitutes a spectacle, a kind of theater of divine presence, and in the Protestant world, Schwartz argues, a collective craving for justice was played out, literally, in the theater. In Shakespeare’s Othello Schwartz finds evidence of this desire in the spectacle of sacrifice: is the death of Desdemona [End Page 253] a sacrifice or a murder? Othello brings up the doctrinal questions of the era (without necessarily answering them) and engages what Schwartz calls “sacramental justice,” the idea that God’s intervention and presence in the world can mediate and protect against injustice. Here, as in the other three case studies from this book that explore poetic engagement of the sacred, provocative questions tend to be investigated with originality and attention to the historical realities and aesthetic possibilities of the texts.

Schwartz then turns to Milton, who addresses questions of divine...


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pp. 252-255
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