I have no wish here to describe or evaluate what various Emergence churches are saying and doing and thinking about when it comes to the Sacraments, which for most Protestants has always been limited to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper — and not always called sacraments. Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism differ both on number and theology of what sacraments mean and do. It is well known that many are dabbling with other sacraments, and exploring (this is why Emergence is a conversation) what role they might play in faith.
Instead, what I’d like to toss on the table is the spectrum from the Aesthetic to the Sacramental, and this in part comes from my always insightful colleague, Greg Clark (Philosophy prof).
Let us say there is a spectrum from the left to the right (and this is not about politics or theology). At the far left is the view that various acts (I’ll call them sacamentals) are Aesthetics and on the far right is the view that various acts are Effective Sacramentals.
At the left of this spectrum individual acts — like the Lord’ Supper, saying the Creeds, lighting candles, burning incense, wearing vestments, dressing up the building in the colors of the Church Calendar — are experienced for their beauty, for their form, for their color, for their taste, for their perspective, for the sheer splendor of their spectacle. All good Sacraments are at least this.
In the middle is what I shall call Aesthetic Sacramentals, where individual acts — again the same list — are experienced and understood both for their form and for the message they mediate to those who see them and know them and experience them.
And, at the right — please forgive what can only be called unfortunate language — are what I want to call Effective Sacramentals, where individuals acts may or may not be experienced for their form, may or may not be experienced for their beauty, but which are transforming events in that the person who sees them, knows them, touches them, experiences them, sees through them into the mysteries of God, moves because of them into a deeper love of God and others, and who therefore is being restored to be a genuine Eikon of God. (I say “may or may not” because sometimes the mysterious takes us unaware, as when a sacramental suddenly takes us beyond what we were expecting.)
Clearly, I side with Effective Sacramentals (who wouldn’t?), and I do not mean that someone cannot experience both the sheer beauty of the form as well as the person-shaping essence, nor do I want to suggest that form and substance here can be easily distinguished. Nor do I want to suggest that we can always conjure up transforming sacramentals into Effective Sacramentals — the Spirit blows where it wants and, like the Pevensie children, we can’t always control whether or not the Wardrobe door will permit us entry into Narnia.
What I do mean is that sacramentals are more than aesthetics though they are aesthetics. Some in our day are attracted to the sacramental as an aesthetic and confuse the aesthetic with the effective sacramental, but the lack of a genuine transformation is apparent. And, on top of this, the theology inherent in the sacramental is entirely missed.
What we are in need of is a genuine and fresh re-visiting of what a biblical sacramental theology might look like in our day — and not just as a “theology” but as a theology turned into an effective sacrament.