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Book Review: Symbol & Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology by Michael G. Lawler

Lawler, G. Michael.  Symbol and Sacrament: A Contemporary Sacramental Theology.  Omaha, Nebraska: Creighton University Press, 1995.  293 pp.

Two foundational principles guide our author in his exploration of sacramental theology in his book Symbol and Sacrament.  First, Lawler has a practical edge faithful to the ancient maxim that Sacramentum propter hominem (sacraments are for people).  This helps inform his approach to the subject matter with insights from the anthropological investigation of ritual (which involves a synthesis of psychology, sociology and semiotics).  Second, the author encapsulates the richness of his synthetic approach with his categorization of sacraments as prophetic symbols, successfully recontextualizing relevant findings of the modern science within a thoroughly Catholic framework.  Lawler first grounds his sacramental theory solidly on both a sophisticated knowledge of semiotics (that challenges modern assumptions about what is “real”) and a historically sensitive theological framework, he then addresses each sacrament individually with a view to practical concerns without shying away from controversy.

On the basis of contemporary symbolic analysis, Lawler claims that every genuine human symbol goes beyond a mere one-to-one signification (as with simple signs) to actually concretize the reality they signify, or “make concretely present what they symbolize” (22).[1]  Lawler makes the following transition: If this is true of human symbols in general, it is also true of prophetic symbols in particular, which are meant to be provocative—that is, to effect a change or response of the whole person (not just the intellect).  In fact, “the most clear-cut result” of symbols is that they move people to “action and reaction” (13).

A symbol and its meaning are related correlatively and are so organically connected that they “coexist for a human interpreter, or neither really exists at all” (17).  Symbols do not convey their meaning in a simplistic way, however, and this is the case for at least two reasons.  First, the meaning of symbols, unlike simple signs, is multivalent.  There is a certain effervescent ambiguity in the meaning of symbols; their meaning is at the same time mysterious and yet revealed in a concrete way through the symbol.  These meanings are related to the symbols “only through the thoughts, the feelings, the actions and the reactions of [people]” (16).  Science disinterestedly asks and answers only questions of so-called “facts” (which really turn out to be theory-laden rather than bear facts); symbols, on the other hand, ask and answer questions about meaning that can be expected to excite not only the intellect, but “arouse desires and feelings,” powerfully speaking to the whole human (intellect, will, emotions, imagination, etc.)—not merely a person’s intellect (18).

The author warns that this “subjective dynamism” by no means necessitates that true knowledge cannot be mediated through symbols (19).  In fact, the author argues that “these subjective elements vitiate the objectivity of the meaning” (27).  In a courageous polemic against the dominance of Western epistemological reductionism, Lawler defends symbol as “a way of knowing” that may be counter-intuitive to the indoctrinated Western mind that is prejudiced against any form of knowledge that is not Cartesian (i.e. clear, objective, scientific, etc.).  “If such a personal approach to knowledge seems strange,” writes Lawler with wit, “it is only because the dominant Western scientific paradigm of knowledge has judged rational, clear, and distinct, objective knowledge to be all there is to knowledge” (19).  He borrows Maeterlinck’s contrast between the brain’s “Western lobe, the seat of reason and science,” and the brain’s “Eastern lobe, the seat of intuition and symbol” (20).  The goal of the Western-lobe is a meager one: to increase knowledge; the goal of the Eastern-lobe is more ambitious: “to deepen the personality of the knower” (26).  Symbols do lead to abstract conceptions and determinate ideas—meanings that clustering around the “ideological” pole of meaning—but they are grasped “personally and socially” through meanings that cluster around the oretic pole (15, 22).  This starts the book’s eloquent presentation off with an epistemological bite that immediately both overcomes the “classical dichotomy” between objective knowledge and religious symbols while challenging the presumptions of Western prejudice.  This makes the treatment more appealing and relevant to the book’s Western audience.

The author makes many other distinctions concerning symbols before moving on to sacraments: symbol is a subunit of the larger category of ritual (which is a symbolic act); religious symbols are public symbols whose meaning “belongs” primarily to communities and secondarily to individuals; religious symbols only mediate powerful realities to those who “live into” them and thus have “the necessary disposition” to make them effective, etc. (25).  In the end, symbol gets defined as a verb rather than a noun: “Symboling is a specifically human process in which meanings and realities, intellectual, emotional and personal, are proclaimed, made explicit and celebrated in representation in a sensible reality within a specific perspective” (16).

Sacraments are religious symbolic rituals.  The author approaches the biblical witness with an admirable realism by not trying to eisegetically “find” the full Catholic teaching on the sacraments (or even the designation of them) in Scripture.  After surveying the patristic witness (especially Augustine’s major contribution of defining sacraments as a “sacred signs” that are efficacious), our author believes the quest for a normative definition ended with Peter Lombard who defined a sacrament as “a sign of the grace of God and the form of invisible grace in such a way that it is its image and its cause” (33).  In an attempt to exonerate the scholastic views of the sacraments from the mechanistic caricature, the author points out that the scholastics did not view the sacraments as efficacious in themselves even if they effected sanctification by virtue of the reality they signified—personal acts of God in Christ (34).  On the one hand, Trent clearly viewed the sacraments’ efficacy as depending upon the one’s receiving the sacrament so as to not “place an obstacle” to its efficacy (which for an adult included personal intent), yet on the other hand the author laments that “the role of personal faith in its efficacy suffered detriment” in a reaction against the Reformation (37).  The Council of Florence, however, balances this with a more positive affirmation that demands for the recipient of a sacrament to have a “disposition of self-surrendering faith” (40).

Our author clarifies the nature of causality in the sacraments with regard to grace: the sacraments contain God’s presence (uncreated grace) and thus as a byproduct, they result in the transformation of the worthy participant (created grace).  After defining the grace of sacraments as primarily nothing other than God himself (and only secondarily in terms of created grace) the author complains that “it is no longer possible adequately to describe grace in impersonal terms like create quality, accident, habitus” (56). (This appears to be a cheap shot against scholastic theology, but why should it not be appropriate to have descriptors for both kinds of grace rather than just one?)  The author’s concern is to steer us away from a mechanical understanding of causality in the sacraments and toward a deeply personal understanding of the sacraments so that we end up concluding that to relate to God through sacraments means, more or less, to relate to God personally.

After providing such a well-argued foundation for understanding the sacraments, our author proceeds to treat each sacrament with a similar command of his sources and practical sensitivity.  He gives a concise and satisfying overview of certain relevant Scriptural passages along with the patristic witnesses (especially Augustine), scholastic contributions (especially Aquinas), and more recent insights from theologians such as Rahner and Schillebeeckx.  These overviews have the practical intent to help the reader better understand the sacraments so that she can enjoy them more fully.  The strength of his presentation lies in his command of sources (his ability to so concisely review historical developments and incorporate modern insights), his bold challenge to modern assumptions about “knowing,” his facing controversial questions with gusto,[2] and his practical considerations.  Lawler’s contribution, although written almost two decades ago, is still a very helpful and stimulating introduction to Sacramental theology.


[1] For example, a man may have deep love for a woman without her even being aware of it, but when he writes her love letters, holds her hand and whispers in her ear “I love you,” or unites his body to hers in the act of sexual union, his love is not merely symbolized in and through such actions, for in some sense his love for her consists in these symbolic acts.  Thus, although his love is not exhausted by such symbolic acts, these love rituals are his love for her in concrete form. The author also speaks of symbols as “participating” in the reality to which they point (23).

[2] For example, I found particularly enlightening his scuffle with French Dominican Paul Laurent Carle over whether the word transubstantiation is indispensible for expressing the Catholic perspective of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist (122 ff.).

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