Dialectical Anatomy of the Eucharist

An Étude in Phenomenology

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Donald Wallenfang
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , May
     318 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


A theology professor once told me that theologians are intellectuals who wish they could be poets. I always liked that description; it remains an accurate description of me and many theologians I know. So I must admit that when reading Dialectical Anatomy of the Eucharist: An Etude in Phenomenology by Donald Wallenfang, I experienced an initial moment of envy that has since turned into admiration and gratitude. The closing pages of chapter 5 (212-14) and chapter 6 (243-44) contain courageous poetry written by the author. While I will address the considerable scholarly contribution contained in the rest of the text, I want to begin this review by holding these pages up as some of the more edifying pages of theology I have read in recent years. Some theologians, apparently, move beyond wishing to risking poetry. 

After a brief foreword penned by one of the book’s main interlocutors, Jean-Luc Marion, Wallenfang offers a prelude in which he states that, “Dialectical Anatomy of the Eucharist is the product of a theologian doing philosophy with all the feebleness and risk this entails” (xxxi). This is crucial to understanding the way the book proceeds. This is primarily a philosophy text (i.e., a study in phenomenology) that uses the phenomenality of the Eucharist as the occasion for constructing and applying a phenomenological method: the trilectic of testimony.

The book proceeds in six chapters. In the first chapter, Wallenfang lays the theoretical groundwork for his study. He begins by explicating the dialectic between manifestation and proclamation. The point of this chapter is to show that the dialectic of manifestation and proclamation will be a fruitful method for examining and describing the meaning of the Eucharist. “To summarize the Christian sacramental dialectic, for Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, manifestation is the saturating dynamism of the Eucharist, whereas for Protestantism [and Judaism], kerygma deflects any potentially idolatrous apparition” (34). The chapter ends with a brief description of the trilectic of testimony which “acknowledges the prominent and active role of testimony within the dialectic—testimony as that which makes the dialectic generative, dynamic, cohesive and unified” (45). 

In chapters 2 and 3, Wallenfang summarizes the phenomenological approaches of Jean-Luc Marion, Paul Ricoeur, and Emmanuel Levinas (chapter 3). The genealogy of Marion’s thought is traced with special attention being given (no pun intended) to the work of Husserl and Heidegger. In the end, Marion’s insistence on givenness and adoration results in an apophatic theology that emphasizes the manifestation pole of Wallenfang’s trilectic. Ricoeur and Levinas, on the other hand, represent the proclamation pole. Ricoeur’s emphasis on the symbolic/metaphoric nature of proclamation results in a preoccupation with the linguistic-symbolic construction of (proclaimed and attested) kataphatic theology. Further, Levinas’s emphasis on the primacy of ethical responsibility to the Other results in the attestation of ethical activity.

In chapters 4 and 5, the trilectic of testimony is applied to the phenomenon of the Eucharist to describe the Eucharist’s meaning. Relying on the thought of Marion, the Eucharist is described as operating according to the logic of the Cross in which Christ is manifest as silent and crucified. Relying on the thought of Ricoeur and Levinas, the Eucharist is described as operating according to a logic of unity in diversity. “By framing the phenomenality of the Eucharist according to the trilectic of testimony, a distance ensues that allows people of divergent belief sets to talk about a religious phenomenon” (172). Finally, the trilectic reveals that the Eucharist is a conversation, a “prosopic intercourse.” Rather than a one-sided and overwhelming gift given to a purely passive recipient, the Eucharist is the gift of conversation that provokes each person’s unique participation in the event of the conversation. “In other words, the Eucharist recognizes that each person has a gift to bring to the table of the world” (237).

The final chapter “suggest[s] a methodological dialectic between phenomenology and metaphysics” (xxxvi). Here, Wallenfang is able to perform the trilectic in a way that overcomes phenomenology’s tendency to always remain descriptive, non-evaluative. This final chapter evaluates as truth the three meanings of the Eucharist described in chapters 4 and 5. So although I said above that this work is primarily a philosophical text, it is certainly also a work of theology that emerges most fruitfully from the author’s willingness to apply the phenomenological method of the trilectic of testimony to his own experience of the Eucharist. 

This book will be most welcome by theologians who want an introduction to the philosophical thought of thinkers like Heidegger, Husserl, Marion, Ricoeur, and Levinas. These figures are demanding, and Wallenfang provides masterful summaries and comparisons, as well as a constructive application of their thought to religious phenomena. Perhaps most importantly, this book provides a sustained application of a quite original method in phenomenology: the trilectic of testimony that culminates in transcendental reflection. As such, it is a valuable contribution to the debate between phenomenologists and metaphysicians. This work is truly a performance of a dialectic insofar as it provides space for thinkers from each camp to recognize their concerns as being addressed carefully and not quickly explained away.

Let me conclude this review with a concern that is borne of my preoccupation with the relationship between liturgical theology and ritual studies. First, I am aware that no book can accomplish everything. My concern is not meant to highlight a trajectory that would have made the book better. Rather, I want to suggest a further application that might, in a future project, add depth to Wallenfang’s phenomenological study. Chapter 5 begins with a concern: the trilectic of testimony “risks reducing the Eucharist to the abstract and theoretical, in essence disembodying the Eucharist and thereby negating its most fundamental attribute” (183). Throughout the text Wallenfang repeatedly says that he is analyzing the phenomenality of the Eucharist. However, in the end, I think this book provides an analysis of the phenomenality of eucharistic mystagogy. From the standpoint of a liturgical theologian, this book seems to use “the Eucharist” to denote a select series of traditional concepts that are used to describe centuries of diverse experience of ritual participation. This is opposed to using “the Eucharist” to denote an experience of a particular ritual practice or rubric. As a liturgical theologian, I was left with the worry that, in this text, the Eucharist’s fundamental attribute of embodiment was bracketed from the phenomenality of the Eucharist. I am left wanting an analysis of the phenomenality of the embodied Eucharist: the space, the assembly, the gestures, the vestments, the music, the time, the poetry, the tastes, the postures, the wine, and the bread. 

In the end, this book is an impressive work of philosophy and an impressive work of theology. It is my hope that Wallenfang continues to provide us with further analysis of the Eucharist and the other sacraments of the Christian faith.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David Farina Turnbloom is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at the University of Portland.

Date of Review: 
September 6, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Donald Wallenfang, Emmanuel Mary of the Cross, is a Secular Discalced Carmelite and associate professor of theology at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. He is the author of Human and Divine Being: A Study on the Theological Anthropology of Edith Stein and Dialectical Anatomy of the Eucharist: An Etude in Phenomenology (Cascade, 2017).


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