Summary of Symbol or Substance? A Dialogue on the Eucharist with C.S. Lewis, Billy Graham, and J.R.R. Tolkien by Peter Kreeft

In this imaginary dialogue, Kreeft picks 3 of the most famous, loved, and respected representatives of each of the 3 main Christian theological traditions or churches in the English speaking world:

  1. Billy Graham – the most famous modern Protestant evangelist
  2. C.S. Lewis – the most famous modern Anglican Christian writer
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien – the most famous and popular modern Roman Catholic writer

The dialogue centres on the Eucharist, which was the most passionate issue in the great divide of the Reformation, both between Catholics and Protestants and even among different Protestants.

Peter Kreeft’s Introductory Remarks About The Book:

“And naturally so, since the issue was nothing less than whether Roman Catholics and “high Anglicans” or “Anglo-Catholics” were committing idolatry in bowing to bread and worshipping wine, adoring a symbol that they mistook for the God it symbolized; or whether Protestants were rejecting God’s greatest gift, the most perfect, most intimate, most powerful, and most complete union with their Lord that was possible in this life, and reducing the substance, the “real thing”, to a mere symbol and/or a subjective experience” (9).

“This is not a scholarly book. The pages of scholarship and theological argument about the Eucharist that have been published in the last five hundred years are long enough to reach to the moon if put end to end and heavy enough to sink a battleship if stacked top to bottom” (12).

“I think there is also a very fair and honest way for any Christian to test the very specific and astonishing Catholic claim that Christ is really present in the consecrated Host, wholly and personally and literally, Body and Blood, soul and divinity, hiding there behind the appearances of bread and wine… The way is very simple: God into a Catholic church some time when no one is present to embarrass you or distract you, and pray: “Jesus, is that really You there in that little box on the altar under that red sanctuary lamp? If it is, oh, please, please draw me there. Feed me with Your Body and Blood, as You promised to do. If it is not You but only a symbol, then please, please do not draw me to this error. You are my only absolute; I want only to go wherever You are and not wherever You are not. The last two things I want to do are to commit idolatry and worship what is not You or to refuse to worship You where You really are. I do not want either to exalt the symbol into the substance or to reduce the substance to a symbol.” Put the burden of your uncertainty on His shoulders, and let Him do the heavy lifting. If you object to that method, I think you should first of all be reevaluating, not your Eucharistic theology, but your basic Christianity, your courage, and your honesty” (15-16).

Here are some of my favourite quotes from the book:

“TOLKIEN: You are missing out on the most total and complete and perfect union with Christ that is given to man in this world, in this life. If I may dare to use the image that the great mystics use, beginning with the Song of Songs, your Protestant religion is like a marriage without intercourse. Religion is a kind of spiritual marriage between God and man, and the Eucharist is spiritual union between the two spouses, a union of bodies as well as souls, though of course it’s not sexual and biological” (47).

“GRAHAM: Our faith makes Him really present in our souls. What more do you think we need? LEWIS: That’s no the question. The question is: What more did He think we needed? What more did He give us? GRAHAM: And you claim that He gave us more than faith alone could give us? LEWIS: In one sense, no, because faith gives us Him, and nothing can be added to Him. But in another sense, yes, because we are bodies as well as souls, so He provided for both. The body can’t have faith, but the body can have His Body. GRAHAM: But only for the sake of strengthening our faith. LEWIS: Yes… I see His presence in us as including our bodies as well as our souls and as including His Body as well as His soul. I believe that since He made us with bodies as well as souls, He wants to make Himself present also in our bodies and present by His Body” (63-6).

LEWIS: the real objective presence of Our Lord in the Sacrament invites us to stop putting our faith in our faith and simply put it in Him, in complete self-forgetfulness and adoration (65)

LEWIS: Holy Communion is one of the ways in which He gets His salvation to us. He is like water to a man dying of thirst (He calls Himself the “living water”), and the sacraments are like hoses, and our reception is like drinking the water from the hose” (111).

LEWIS: “If the Church’s claims about the Eucharist are false, and Protestantism is true, then the Catholic Church, the pre-Protestant church, both Roman and Anglican and Eastern Orthodox, is the most arrogant and idolatrous and blasphemous church in the world. GRAHAM: Well, that’s very harsh! LEWIS: Indeed. That is exactly my point. You can’t soften the either/or” (158-9).

GRAHAM: Then you must be a Catholic because you want something in addition to HIm. TOLKIEN: No, I’m a Catholic because I want all of Him, more of Him, including all the things He gave us, which include a Church and sacraments. They’re not additions to Him; they ARE Him. The Church is His Body. And so is the Host in the Sacrament” (196).

TOLKIEN: “Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament. . . . There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves on earth, and more than that: Death. By the divine paradox, that which ends life, and demands the surrender of all, and yet by the taste—or foretaste—of which alone can what you seek in your earthly relationships (love, faithfulness, joy) be maintained, or take on that complexion of reality, of eternal endurance, which every man’s heart desires.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), pp. 53-54)

TOLKIEN: “The only cure for sagging or fainting faith is Communion. Though always itself, perfect and complete and inviolate, the Blessed Sacrament does not operate completely and once for all in any of us. Like the act of Faith it must be continuous and grow by exercise. Frequency is of the highest effect. Seven times a week is more nourishing than seven times at intervals. Also I can recommend this as an exercise (alas! only too easy to find opportunity for): make your Communion in circumstances that affront your taste. Choose a snuffling or gabbling priest or a proud and vulgar friar; and a church full of the usual bourgeois crowd, ill-behaved children—from those who yell to those products of Catholic schools who the moment the tabernacle is opened sit back and yawn—open-necked and dirty youths, women in trousers and often with hair both unkempt and uncovered. Go to Communion with them (and pray for them). It will be just the same (or better than that) as a mass said beautifully by a visibly holy man, and shared by a few devout and decorous people. It could not be worse than the mess of the feeding of the Five Thousand—after which our Lord propounded the feeding that was to come.” (The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, (New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000), pp. 338-39).

TOLKIEN: I will tell you. It is a blood transfusion. It is the exact reverse of Dracula. GRAHAM: Dracula? TOLKIEN: Yes. Dracula is like the devil, or like the Antichrist. He takes your blood, your life, your identity, out of you and into himself. So you lose your humanity, forever. Christ is the opposite of the Antichrist. He gives you His blood, His life, He shares His very identity with you, so that Saint Paul can say: “I live, nevertheless not I but Christ lives in me” (216-7).

LEWIS: “Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbour is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbour he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat—the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself, is truly hidden” (C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001), pp.46-47).

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