Whenever I read the standard critiques of Christianity and Culture, socio-political religious identities or cultural-linguistic formation, I find it helpful to return to Aquinas’s take on the sacraments. Leaning more toward the sacramental realist side of things, without necessarily jettisoning questions of linguistic identity (a la Wittgenstein, McCabe, Hauerwas, et. al.), I find that a better conversation soon begins.

Aquinas asks about the “necessity” of the sacraments. Quoting St. Augustine he writes, “it is impossible to keep people together in one religious denomination, whether true or false, unless they are united by means of visible signs or sacraments” (3.61.1). No group can exist without the use of common symbols or signs and religion is no exception. This all seems relatively straightforward and lends itself to the arguments made by the proponents of cultural-linguistic formation.

But there’s more. Sacraments are signs of the new creation, which is to say that they are just as much actions as they are symbols (McCabe). According to Aquinas, they are “aids to salvation in the shape of bodily and perceptible signs.” God gives us sacramental signs because of our nature as embodied linguistic beings and because “God gives grace to human beings in a way that is that is suitable to them.” Anthropology, linguistics, grace and most importantly, the social nature of salvation, all come to together in Aquinas’s sacramental theology. Philosophical and theological realism come together to meet Wittgenstein.

Frederick Bauershmidt’s commentary on the Summa provides a perfect summary: “God provides us with sacraments because he does not expect us to live like angels. We are bodily creatures, and so God reaches out to us a bodily way. Here we see again Aquinas’s view that ‘grace perfects nature.’ Human beings are by nature embodied creatures who know through their senses. In acting upon us, grace does not need to override our embodied nature” (Holy Teaching, 256, n. 11). I don’t think it’s too far of a leap to say that the essence of grace is a new form of sociality. Not solely because it is in our nature to be social, but because the nature of grace is social formation once sacramentally derived.

Perhaps, then, “culture” isn’t the best category, or maybe it’s simply a by-gone category, by which to begin these conversations. Perhaps the question of sacramental sociality is the better question. What does the event of Christ look like when it is parsed here and now? What does grace look like when it happens before and to us each week in the reality of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine?

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