Blogging Through Chauvet’s ‘Symbol and Sacrament’

First published in 1987 in French as Symbole et Sacrement: Un relecture sacramentelle de l’existence chrétienneLouis-Marie Chauvet’s Symbol and Sacrament was one of the first thinkers to think through what the linguistic turn might mean for the area of sacramental theology. A French Catholic theologian, Chauvet’s work on the subject is packed with scintillating insight, whether theological, philosophical, or biblical. His influence can be traced in many subsequent writers on the subject.

I was first introduced to his work by my friend, Ben Kautzer and read through the lengthy Symbol and Sacrament volume a year ago. I decided that over the Christmas period I would start to blog a detailed summary of Chauvet’s book, both for the purpose of refreshing my memory on the subject, and to introduce others to his work.

Symbol and Sacrament is forbidding in its length, and may not be the most accessible for those unacquainted with phenomenology, and philosophers such as Martin Heidegger. Hopefully the following series will provide a useful summary for those who would not otherwise read Symbol and Sacrament itself. If you find my summary helpful, perhaps you might also appreciate Chauvet’s own The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body, in which his principle insights are presented at a more easily digestible length.

Chauvet begins by remarking upon the fact that an appreciation of the diversity of the sacraments and the heterogeneity of the elements comprising the realm of ‘sacramentality’ has led to a movement away from the traditional preoccupation with the question of the ‘sacraments in general’ (1). What Chauvet seeks to provide is a ‘foundational theology of sacramentality’ with the sacraments as ‘symbolic figures allowing us entrance into, and empowerment to live out, the (arch-)sacramentality which is the very essence of Christian existence’ (2). The sacraments unite the figurative and the pragmatic orders: ‘whatever we are permitted to see there is given to us precisely that we may simultaneously live it.’ The sacraments are thus at once both revelation and empowerment.

In seeking to maintain the revelation and empowerment of the sacraments, the Scholastics framed them in terms of the categories of ‘sign’ and ‘cause’. Chauvet argues for a fundamental shift in our framing of the sacraments, favouring the terms of language and symbol over cause and instrument. This shift represents a challenge to the metaphysical presuppositions that ground dominant traditional approaches to the sacraments. Chauvet’s theological articulation of the place of the sacraments rests upon a philosophical position that underlies it.

Chauvet’s case begins with an establishment of this philosophical ground, before situating the sacraments within the symbolic order of the Church. The sacraments are

one element among others in this vast and yet coherent psychic structure which all together makes up Christian identity … a series of connections between Scripture (the level of cognition), sacrament (the level of thanksgiving), and ethics (the level of action). (3)

The sacraments have a unique and essential place and function, which cannot be substituted for by anything else.

Underlying this entire approach to the sacraments is ‘a particular understanding of the relations between God and humankind.’ The fact that God communicates his grace through the sacraments raises the question of what sort of God they imply, a God who ‘takes flesh in the sacraments’ and ‘through them … reaches into the very corporality of believers.’

Symbol and Sacrament Posts:
Chapter 1: Onto-Theology in Classical Sacramental Theology
Chapter 2:I: Heidegger and the Overcoming of Metaphysics
Chapter 2:II: Theology After Heidegger
Chapter 3: Subjects and Mediation
Chapter 4:I: Symbol and Sign
Chapter 4:II: Language and the Body
Chapter 5: The Structure of Christian Identity
Chapter 6: Scripture and Sacrament
Chapter 7: Sacrament and Ethics

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