Thursday, April 30, 2009

It's Just Food!

I have been reading Stephen Hough's Cadenza blog (on the London Telegraph Web site) with great interest. He has provided me with some very useful insights into the work practices of a performing musician, but recently he has taken on the question of what a touring performer is to do when there is a threat of pandemic. Today, however, he raised the bar from matters of world travel to the more personal profession of faith. His observation was actually a reflection on the last major medical crisis, the SARS threat of 2003. Here is the key sentence from his post:

One item reported there [in Toronto] at the time caught my attention: the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto had banned the reception of Holy Communion under both kinds [wafer and wine] in all its churches to help prevent the spread of the disease.

This struck me as a fascinating instance of a head-on collision between the respective worlds of the literal and the figurative. The very concept of Communion is one of sharing, not just of the wafer and wine but also of the physical space in which one receives the Host in the company of one's fellow Catholics. This is symbolism of the highest order. Meanwhile, in a physical world having to confront the spread of a poorly understood disease, the first precaution towards the transmission of infection is the limitation of sharing as much as is practically possible. Thus, the highest Catholic authorities of Toronto basically acknowledged that the Communion rite really did involve eating and drinking ordinary food, rather than the body and blood of Christ. (Since the New Testament is "just literature" for me, my reading of the source text is that Jesus was knowingly speaking figuratively at the Last Supper, basically riffing his own embellishments on the ritual of the Passover Seder in yet another, frustrated as usual, effort to keep his disciples on message!)

A key element in my ongoing criticism of faith-based thinking is the extent to which faith impedes our ability to interpret a semiotic sign in any reading other than the most literal one. Where health is concerned, I tend to regard the basic precepts of Christian Science (which I recently discovered had been accepted by Sergei Prokofiev) as the reductio ad absurdum of such faith-based thinking. Were it to be simply a question of personal conviction, then I would be willing to grant each individual his/her own choice of life style. Where pandemic is concerned, however, we are talking about public health on a global scale, which raises the painful question of what one does when one's faith may be detrimental to others. In many ways we see a similar conflict taking place over policy decisions about the environmental crisis. However, where issues like global warming are concerned, we see catastrophe ahead at a distance of years; we now face the possibility that swine flu may be on our doorstep before this day has ended.

The problem is that the very concept of the public good has been so subordinated to the concept of individual liberties, not just by the abuses of the Bush Administration but by the rampant culture of globalization, that we no longer live in a culture that can respond to a health crisis of pandemic scale. In the context of faith-based thinking, this may not be the sort of "whimper" that the "Reverend" Thomas Stearns Eliot had in mind. However, stagnation of action towards the public good in the face of crisis certainly has a whimpering quality to it.

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