Saturday, April 27, 2013

Where Have all the Epics Gone, Long Time Passing?

       I often ask my students why the 20th century, and now the 21st, produced no great epic poems.  I have yet to receive an answer, any answer.  After 30 years of such questioning, I suspect I never will.
       So here, in pedagogical desperation, I do what I seldom do:  I give them the answer they never gave me.  It is not my own; it comes from Russell Kirk, as does so much that explains what’s wrong with the world.
       Great literature, Kirk insists in his “English Letters in an Age of Boredom,” habitually hovers around four enduring themes:  religion, heroism, love, and human variety.
       But, he says, (1) a society, like ours, which has lost its religious convictions and its piety, denies itself the first theme.  (2) A society that denigrates true greatness denies itself the second.  Think about them what you wish, girl-smitten vampires are not heroes.  (3) A society that takes love for nothing more than carnal gratification denies itself the third.  (4) A society that conceives of humans as little more than accidental, soulless, interchangeable, cogs in a mechanistic nexus denies itself the fourth.  “The springs of the imagination thus are dried up,” Kirk pronounces truly, tragically, and finally.  In that springless desert, not even satire can flourish or long exist, for with the loss of the great themes and imagination comes the loss even of mockery.
       There, in one paragraph, is why great literature died in our hands.  We stopped believing the right things.  We stopped asking the right questions.  In our hands, the perennial issues and the perennial questions to which they gave rise all died.  We have the opposite of a Midas touch.  What we handle turns not to gold, or even to garbage, but to ghosts.
       You can expect nothing else from the culture of death.
       No cure for it can be found, save the Word of Life, which we meticulously have banned from the public square, the academy, the laboratory, and the arena.
       Wyndham Lewis, it turns out, despite his pessimism and complaints, was too optimistic.  He thought human reason might save us.  He never asked what, or Who, might save reason.
       Lewis forgot that while we human creatures are capable of reason, because of our selfish desires and unruly appetites, we are rarely ever reasonable.  Thinking is hard work; thinking rationally harder still.  We are not at all well suited, by birth or by habit, either to hard work or to thinking, much less to both.
       Kirk could have gone on, could have continued his litany of epic killers.  Had he done so, he might have included impatience, the sort bred from years spent planted squarely before a television set, years during which we acquired the habits and rhythms of sitcoms and soap operas – thereby inexorably acquiring a taste only for problems that can be raised and solved in 30 minutes minus commercials, problems like a torn prom dress or backing your dad’s car into a tree.  For us, if it can’t be handled in 22 minutes, it’s too long and too difficult.  Reduced to those shrunken dimensions, Milton’s epic panoply (or Dante’s) becomes a mere screenplay, a script, replete with artificial laugh lines, clichés, and crudities, wherein inane anatomical utterances replace eloquence and wherein scatological shock replaces beauty, truth, and goodness, things far more difficult to conceive, write, produce, and to communicate than garish, slapstick stunts and juvenile vulgarity.  For shrunken sensibilities like ours, the word “epic” means two hours of TV watching for three nights in row.  On any or all of those three nights, thinking is optional, hardly required.
       That shrunken sensibility stands behind what I hear too often from my students.  For example, while discussing Beowulf in an English literature survey course, and the fact that while sometimes you slay the monster, in the end the monster slays you, I asked Jen, a most delightful sorority girl, what monsters she faced.  She said:  “Every day, when I get up, I don’t know what clothes to wear.”
       Somewhere in the 20th century, the scope of battle shrunk; the monsters withered; and so, apparently, did we.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

My Best Moments

       Even in my best moments, I sin.
       When I praise God, I do it mostly for things He has given me.  My praise is not so much rooted in his character but in his giving me what I want.  In such instances, my real god is not God Himself, but my own ease and pleasure.  He gets my praise for catering to me, which reduces Him to little more or else than a means to my ends, a mechanism, a utensil, an instrument.
       At the beginning of his Institutes, Calvin righty insisted that real wisdom consists of two things, knowledge of God and knowledge of myself.  In my sinful prayers they both emerge.  I learn that, at my best, I am wicked.  I learn too of God’s infinite descent and mercy, which graciously accepts praise even on that fetid basis.      

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

What Jesus Really Promised about the Church and Truth (John 16: 12, 13)

            According to Roman Catholic interpreters, the verses noted above mean that the Holy Spirit will lead the apostles and their successors into much more truth than Jesus has yet given them. That undisclosed truth they could not bear, or could not profitably receive.  The sort of truth intended here, they say, includes doctrines not yet fully developed, like those concerning Mary -- doctrines that articulate her perpetual virginity, her immaculate conception, and her bodily ascension into Heaven.  They also include doctrines more fully articulated later by the church in its ecumenical councils, like the doctrine of the Trinity and those centered on the incarnation.
            Additionally, according to the Roman Catholics with whom I have debated, (and for the rest of this paragraph I employ their own words) apostolic succession is clearly indicated in these verses because (a) the doctrines noted above were not fully articulated during the apostles' lives, and, more importantly, because (b) those doctrines had not been challenged, and therefore did not need to be defended by the apostles, which is what "you cannot bear it now" (v. 12) means.  Therefore, being led by the Spirit into "all truth" is a promise and a privilege intended by Jesus not simply for his apostles, but also for their successors when those truths are revealed later.  Most of the information to be imparted in the future would not have been relevant to the apostles, whose theology was unassailable while they were alive.  In their absence, the Holy Spirit will lead their successors into "all truth" (v. 13).  This passage, therefore, is a guarantor both of apostolic succession and of the RCC's supernaturally endued reliability in matters of faith and morals because the Holy Spirit Himself is utterly reliable. 
            On the contrary, it seems to me that in this passage Jesus intends nothing of the sort asserted by my Catholic colleagues in their interpretation, as a careful examination of the passage in which these verses occur will demonstrate.
            In verse 1, Jesus tells his disciples that the rather chilling things He has told them so far (15:18ff) were told them so that they might not stumble when the difficulties He mentioned actually begin.  He is forewarning them so that they might be better prepared for their coming troubles.  Those coming troubles include persecution by their fellow Jewish countrymen, who will think that by harassing the Christians they are doing God's work (v. 2; Cf. Acts 8: 1ff.).  By forewarning his followers, Jesus is giving them information they could look back upon later with profit (v.4).
            His own task, He tells them, is to return to the One who had sent Him, a fact that left them deeply sorrowful (vv. 5, 6).  In order to assuage that sorrow, Jesus explains to them that his departure, far from being a deprivation, is indeed a great benefit because it makes possible the coming of the Comforter (v. 7), whose own task is twofold -- one task in reference to the world at large, and one task in reference to the apostles themselves.  Regarding the world, the Comforter will reprove (that is, convict, convince, or persuade) it about sin, righteousness, and judgment (vv. 8-11).  Regarding the apostles, Jesus has many more things to tell them, but because of their weaknesses and burdens, He delays his telling (v. 12), which will be carried out in His absence by the Holy Spirit (v. 13), Who will lead them into all the truth that Jesus wants to tell them now but that they could not bear at the moment, truth pertaining to their coming troubles, as the context makes clear.  They are to face great sorrow, the details of which are not yet given to them, except this:  While the world cheers the apostles will weep and wail, much like a woman in labor (vv. 20, 21).  But when it is over, they are destined for great and enduring joy (v. 22). 
            Nothing at all in this passage is either spoken or implied by Jesus about apostolic succession or about Roman Catholic infallibility in matters of faith and morals.  Only the most egregious and self-serving eisegesis insists otherwise.
            Jesus is not assuring His apostles (1) that all that they and their unmentioned successors will believe in the future pertaining to faith and morals is going to be true, or (2) that all the things they and their unmentioned successors believe in the future will be the result of the Spirit's leading, or (3) that all they and their unmentioned successors believe in the future will glorify Christ, something that characterizes things truly revealed by the Spirit (v. 14).   Instead, when the apostles comprehend some currently unbearable truth about their coming travail -- truth that glorifies Christ -- it will be because the Holy Spirit has led them to it.  All such truth comes from the Spirit, and, hence, from Christ Himself.  The "all" (v. 13) that describes the truth they are yet to receive is not universally inclusive, but is truth of a specific sort, truth pertaining to their coming troubles, truth that glorifies Christ after He has departed.  Jesus is not promising them and their unmentioned successors that they will learn literally "all" truth about faith and morals, much less that they will learn literally "all" truth whatever.  He says no such thing.  They are not here promised the truth about exactly how many grains of sand lie on all the beaches in the Caribbean, or about how to clone dinosaurs for breakfast food, or how to master cold fusion.  Nor is He saying that all they and their unmentioned successors teach in the future on faith and morals will be true.  He has in mind truth of a particular sort and for a particular purpose, to which He has been alluding continuously all the way back into the previous chapter, truth about the apostles' coming ordeals, truth that they were in no condition to receive at that moment.
            The text does not say, for example, that all that Peter or his alleged successors teach on matters of faith and morals will be true and will be given to him or to them by the Spirit.  Such things are simply not in view in this passage.  Nor does it say that Peter and the apostles will even have successors, much less anything about the reliability of their future teachings.
            If John 16:13 meant that after the Spirit was given to the apostles they would teach all truth and only truth, then Jesus would be flatly mistaken because after receiving the Spirit Peter, for example, sometimes lived and taught in ways that denied the very gospel itself -- clearly a serious fall from "all truth" on the chief apostle's part.  Sometimes Peter did not believe, teach, or act according to the truth, much less all of it, and was not being led by the Spirit into unbearable truths when he did so.  Following him can -- and did -- lead Christians away from the truth and away from the gospel.  
            Nor do these verses designate the RCC as the infallible arbiter of future theological disputes, such as occurred later in the various ecumenical councils.  That reading of the text is baseless, tendentious, and anachronistic.
            God Himself, not the RCC, will resolve all discrepancies -- theological and otherwise -- though it seems as if He has left their full and final resolution until the end of time.  Short of that, the issues that sometimes vex us probably will not be resolved.  I do not identify God's resolution of those discrepancies with the decisions made about them by the RCC.  Nor does this passage in John.
            To make my point from a different direction: The truth that comes from the Holy Spirit is truth that glorifies Christ (v. 14), not truth that glorifies one group of those that follow Him over all others.  Therefore, I doubt that the self-glorifying claims of the RCC on this point are the truths that Jesus has here in view.
            Nevertheless, Roman Catholics with whom I have discussed this passage assert that apostolic succession and infallibility are, to quote them, "clearly indicated."  But I deny that something is "clearly indicated" that is neither mentioned nor even hinted at, especially if that something is allegedly three or four centuries in the future, as are the ecumenical councils to which my Catholic friends say Jesus is alluding.  If such infallibility truly were "clearly indicated" here, that clear indication would be something more specific, like the mention of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the messiah in Micah (5: 2) centuries before the fact, or like a virgin conceiving a child, as is perhaps predicted in Isaiah (7: 14).  But even that unclear and debatable prediction in Isaiah is exceedingly more "clearly indicated" than the things that Catholics claim to find in these verses.  Indeed, if ecumenical councils and their decisions are present here in John 16, along with apostolic succession and doctrinal and moral infallibility, that fact is not clear at all.  Furthermore, I strongly deny the Catholic assertion that the notion of "unbearableness" in verse 12 means anything like "irrelevant to the apostles," as if Jesus were cryptically referring to Marian and Trinitarian issues that had not yet emerged.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Is John 6 about the eucharist?

         As one of the chief Biblical sources for believing that the actual body and blood of Christ are literally, physically, present in the Eucharist, Roman Catholics (and others) often cite John 6: 22 ff., commonly known as the Bread of Life discourse.  To do so, however, seems to me to ignore the context of Jesus' words and to misunderstand his meaning, as the following explanation will demonstrate.  The text is not Eucharistic.
         I invite, indeed strongly encourage, you to read each portion of the text identified before reading the explanation offered below.

Context and setting (22-25)   

         Geographically, this conversation between Jesus and those around Him occurred primarily, though not exclusively, in the synagogue of Capernaum (v. 59).  Those to whom He spoke were a mixed audience that included his disciples and other followers, his Jewish opponents, and countless unbelieving hangers on, eager to fill their bellies.  Nearly all had seen Him multiply fish and bread in order to feed 5,000 hungry persons at once (John 6: 1-15).  Many of them followed Him to Capernaum to get more free food, if they could, apparently missing the profound theological significance of the miracle they had witnessed and from which they had benefited.
         They did not understand that just as their forebears had been fed by the God-sent manna (also not Eucharistic) from Heaven centuries earlier in order to sustain their lives while they sojourned in the wilderness, even so had God now sent his Son from Heaven in order to feed their souls while on their sojourn through the wilderness of life in a fallen world.  By feeding the crowd with miraculously multiplied fish and bread, Jesus was demonstrating that He was to his audience (and to the world) something like what the manna was to the ancient Israelites.  But his audience did not understand the point, so many of them followed Him to Capernaum not for spiritual sustenance from God, which He came to supply, but simply for more food.  Some among them apparently had an inkling that his miracle showed he was the Messiah, but they wanted more proof.
         The context for this discourse, then, is not the Passover meal, during which Jesus instituted for his small band of disciples the ritual breaking of bread and the drinking of wine, by which they were to remember Him until He returned (Matt. 26: 26 ff.).  While near in time (v. 4), the Passover meal is still seven chapters away -- seven chapters.  The discussion here between Jesus and this mixed multitude is something quite different from the Last Supper and his exclusive instructions to his few followers.  To read this discussion as if Jesus were speaking of a distinctly Christian sacrament to a largely unbelieving Jewish crowd, and obliquely introducing to them without any explanation the concept of transubstantiation, is blatantly to disregard both the textual context and the audience, who first address Jesus, not about the Passover meal, but about how He managed to get to Capernaum without taking the last boat available, the one in which his disciples had departed (v. 25).

Jesus' first statement (26, 27)
         As is sometimes the case with Jesus, He does not answer the question posed to Him, but instead goes directly to the issue at hand, in this case the crowd's shallow motivation for following Him to Capernaum:  the food.  In order to meet them where their minds and hearts actually were at that moment, Jesus employs metaphorical language about food and advises them to work for the food that does not perish, food unlike the ancient manna or the recent fish and bread, both of which eventually rot.  Rather than physical food that perishes, He directs them toward a very different kind of food, a food that lasts, and that yields eternal life.  Physical food is not the sort of food He has in mind in this regard, and physical eating is not what He recommends, though that is the sort of food and consumption they now seek.  The soul nourishment He has in mind was something that He, the Son of Man, had been appointed and approved ("sealed") to give them by God Himself.  That nourishment of soul is not subject to decay the way physical food is.  Jesus is clearly distinguishing between physical food and food for the soul, and focusing their attention on the latter. 
         The metaphor of eating and drinking that Jesus employs here was common enough among ancient Jewish teachers and writers, and normally stood for appropriation -- in this case appropriating Jesus.

The people speak (28)
         The people respond to Jesus' admonition to work for the imperishable food that yields eternal life by asking Him what works they ought to perform in order to get this imperishable food.  Though we might well understand that their question was sincere, in light of what follows it was ill-conceived and misguided.

Jesus' second statement (29)
         As directly as possible, Jesus tells them that, in order to have eternal life, they must believe -- not eat and drink -- believe.  No mention, metaphorical or otherwise, is made here of food or of eating.  Believing in the One Whom God sent is the key that unlocks the door to eternal life, not the mastication of body or swallowing of blood.  Jesus is plainly and simply instructing them to move their attention away from food to something far more important and enduring, namely the well being of their souls through faith in Him.  Physical food and physical eating are simply not in view here.  Faith, not food; believing, not eating; is the issue

The people speak (30, 31)
         Perhaps some of his listeners understood that His point pertained to faith and not to eating because, in response to his instruction that they believe in Him, they asked him for additional signs as a basis for their belief -- as if the healings (v. 2) and the feeding of the 5,000 (v. 11-14) they had recently witnessed somehow were not enough. Others, just as apparently, still thought He was talking about normal food and drink.  To them, He responds.

Jesus' third statement (32, 33)
         As He did in verse 26, Jesus responds to the people on his own basis, not theirs.  Though they are thinking still about the physical food from Heaven that sustained their ancestors in the wilderness, He responds by directing them to the metaphorical bread that comes from God and that gives eternal life to the world -- and not merely to the Israelites in the desert.  Surely his reference to bread here is a figure of speech, for no combination of flour, salt, herbs and yeast yields eternal life for the world.  Bakers create many wonderful things in their ovens, but salvation is not one of them.  By speaking this way, Jesus is trying to move his listeners away from their crassly self-indulgent and materialistic view of the Messiah and his reign.  He tells them about a higher, a more ideal (so to speak) kind of bread.  He wants them to know that the manna from Heaven was prophetic, or indicative, or predictive, of the Incarnation, of Him and his entry into the world so that by faith the world  might be saved.

The people speak (34)
         His reference to the bread that gives eternal life evokes from them a strong and direct response, even demand:  "Give us this bread always!"
         It is difficult to know for certain if they understand to what Jesus is referring, but it seems that they do not.  They do not ask for help to aid their belief in Him.  They ask for a bread that is to be given, not a day at a time, or only for a while (as was the manna), or for a one-time feast of fish and bread such as they just experienced from the power and largesse of Christ.  They ask instead for bread to be given them always, apparently thinking that if they were given it  -- and were given it always -- it would yield eternal life for them simply because the giving of that physical bread continued.
Jesus fourth statement (35-40)
         Again, Jesus makes plain for them that the bread He has in mind is figurative bread, not literal bread, and that He Himself is the bread of which He speaks.  He tells them that they must come to Him and believe in Him because He is the bread of life.  If they believe in Him, they will not hunger and they will not thirst.  Again, in keeping with the figurative language He has been using, the eating and drinking to which He refers are not physical.  They are used in reference to believing.  Neither are the hunger and thirst they assuage physical.  He is not saying that if they believe in Him they will never again need to eat or drink, which would be the case if He were speaking of literal bread.  Of course they will grow physically hungry and thirsty again.  One does not cease to be physically hungry or physically thirsty simply because one is now a believer.  That is not the sort of eating and drinking, or the sort of hunger and thirst, He has in mind.  But, if they believe in Him, they will find enduring spiritual satisfaction because faith in Him is nourishment for the soul.  Once they turn to Him in faith, once they believe, their souls will have found the food on which their souls were meant to feed, food that yields not mere physical satisfaction, but eternal life.  They already had eaten physical food on the other side of the lake.  But that sort of eating did not keep them physically satisfied.  Nor did it redeem them.  The sort of satisfaction Jesus has in mind does not emerge from literal eating and drinking, but from believing.  Believing in Him, He boldly states, is the very will of God.  Because it is, if they believe in Him, God will deliver them on the day of resurrection. 

The people speak (41, 42)
         Jesus' insistence that He came down from Heaven stirs up dissent and debate among them because they know that He comes from Nazareth.  They know his parents.  Knowing his parents and his hometown, they figure they know and understand his origins.  They do not.

Jesus' fifth statement (43-51)
In order to put right the false objections they entertained about his Heavenly origins, Jesus reminds those who have been drawn to Him that they were drawn to Him by the very will and power of God, and He quotes from the Scriptures to that effect.   Once again He urges them to believe in Him because belief (not eating) is the path to eternal life (v. 47).  In explanation of his admonition to believe in Him, he reiterates the analogy He employed earlier by telling them again that, just as their ancestors ate manna in the wilderness, they themselves should eat his flesh and drink his blood -- startling and graphic language that compares the Israelites eating manna in the wilderness with his audience believing in Him.  That is, just as the ancient Israelites ate manna in the wilderness and thereby found sustenance for their bodies, they themselves should believe in Him and find sustenance for their souls -- eternal life -- a process that He graphically and memorably figures forth as eating his body and drinking his blood, a figure of speech He explicitly employed earlier (v. 35) when He clearly and overtly identified believing in Him with eternal life itself.  His point here is to urge them onward to belief, not urge them literally to gnaw on his body and to drink his blood.  In other words, because their minds seem so firmly fixed on the pursuit of physical food, He makes a shockingly graphic reference to physical food, and to eating and drinking it, as a verbal means by which to catch their attention, and thereby to re-direct their thoughts from food for their bodies to food for their souls, namely the eternal life that is the blessed consequence of believing in Him.  So that they, in their craving for food and drink, might turn to Him in faith, He refers to Himself as food and to believing in Him as eating and drinking.
Notice carefully that in verses 35, 40, and 47 Jesus clearly indicates that believing in Him yields eternal life.  When, therefore, He indicates in other verses that eating his flesh and drinking his blood also yield eternal life, He clearly is drawing a connection between believing, on the one hand, and what He calls eating and drinking, on the other.  In this figure of speech, the latter symbolizes the former, not the other way round.  The believing is literal; the eating and drinking of his actual body and blood are not.  To take his words literally, as if He were linking their eternal salvation to some kind of grotesque cannibalistic ritual, is abhorrent.  To imagine that He is directing them literally to feast on his body and to drink his blood is a notion any ancient Jew would have found both wicked and disgusting -- and clearly against the quite specific injunction of God Himself against any such practice (Gen. 9:4).  That is not what Jesus intends.
By calling Himself "the living bread" in v. 51, He puts beyond all doubt that his language here is metaphorical.  Babies and goats, for example, are alive. Loaves of bread in an oven or stored in plastic bags on a grocery store shelf are not.  Wafers, crackers and loaves are not alive.  Jesus is referring to Himself as the living bread, and his use of the word “bread” here is unquestionably metaphorical.  Bread is not alive.  Jesus is.  He cannot be speaking literally about Himself as "living bread."  He is a man, not a loaf.  Bread is not alive; He is.  It must be a metaphor.  It cannot be literal.  Nor, in keeping with his non-literal language, does He mean for us literally to eat His body and drink his blood.  Chewing Him up and swallowing Him down are not what He has in mind.   

The people speak (52)
         Still not properly understanding Jesus' metaphorical language, the crowd was shocked and grew deeply puzzled: How could they possibly eat his body or drink his blood?   It was unthinkable.  Had they understood his words in the non-literal way in which He meant them, their befuddlement and disgust would have quickly disappeared.  Their befuddlement is rooted in their misunderstanding Jesus as speaking literally. 

Jesus' sixth statement (53-59)
         Jesus continues to press home the startling metaphor He is employing, apparently intending by its cannibalistic absurdity to shock His hearers out of their preoccupation with physical food and with physical eating and drinking.  So He repeats and amplifies His point, which is expressed in the aorist tense (v. 53), which denotes a once-for-all action, a grammatical choice thoroughly unsuited to the repeated participation required in the RC Eucharist, were the Roman reading here to be followed.

The disciples speak (60)
         Some of Jesus' disciples were among those who mistakenly thought He was speaking literally.  Because they did, they too found His words deeply offensive, and (as one translation aptly puts it) "hard to stomach."  Because of their misunderstanding, and the shock and offense to which it led, He provides His own explanation of the teaching He has just articulated.

Jesus' seventh statement (61-67)
         As He sometimes does after He speaks figuratively and non-literally (cp. for example, Luke 8: 11ff), Jesus explains carefully to His disciples exactly what He meant.  He tells them that He is not speaking about actual flesh.  He tells them that the flesh yields no benefit, none.  As in the King James translation, "the flesh profits nothing."  The word "nothing" could hardly be more absolute.  Any benefit He has been talking about up until now is not related to flesh or to eating it.  Flesh profits nothing.  By contrast, what He has been talking about up until now yields unimaginable profit -- namely eternal life.  If  flesh profits nothing, and if what He has been talking about yields the unimaginable profit and benefit of eternal life, then He cannot have been talking about flesh.  By explaining Himself in this way, Jesus was correcting the error of some of his disciples, an error they shared with the crowds that also had mistook his meaning by interpreting Him literally.  His words are spiritual, He tells them, and it is His words, His message, that brings eternal life, and which He puts forward for their acceptance and beleif, not his flesh and blood for their physical consumption.  Those fleshly things profit nothing, He insists.
         The RCC, it seems to me, falls into the exact error Jesus worked so carefully to correct throughout this discussion.  The RCC insists that Jesus is speaking literally about eating human flesh and drinking human blood, and that He is doing so in agreement with their transubstantiationist view of the Eucharist.  But you could hardly insist that Jesus is telling you to eat His flesh and drink His blood in order to obtain salvation if He tells you that the flesh you eat profits precisely nothing.  Salvation is very far from nothing.  If the RCC is intent upon understanding Jesus literally, then the word "nothing" ought to be literally understood as well.  In short, by misreading Him as they do, Catholics are ripping the Bread of Life discourse out of its historical setting and planting it foursquare into the upper room and the Passover, and by doing so they thereby insist that Jesus was, without any overt explanation at all, incorporating for a disparate Jewish audience in Capernaum the Greek philosophical notions we call "substance" and "accidents," as well as the distinctions between them.   No one in Capernaum at that moment -- not Jesus, not his disciples, not his Jewish opponents, and not the food-seeking multitude -- says anything explicitly about the Passover meal or about the Eucharist, much less about the later RC doctrine of transubstantiation or any of its theological corollaries and Greek philosophical underpinnings.  By insisting what it does, the RCC is reading enormous amounts of its own theology back into the text.  As the next few verses indicate, Peter, whom they follow, does not. 

Peter speaks (68-70)
         While some of Jesus' followers left Him at that time, Peter did not.  Once Peter heard and understood Jesus' explanation of the connection between eternal life and believing in Him, he stood firm.  Indeed, rather than following the deserters, Peter rose to the theological and spiritual profundity of which he is sometimes so capable.  Though others might go away, Peter knows that the words -- not the flesh -- of eternal life come from Jesus because Jesus is the Son of the living God.  In John 6, Jesus Himself makes plain repeatedly and
 precisely how He expects people to obtain the gift of 
eternal life -- by believing.  Peter gets it: 
"we believe," Peter says, not "we eat, drink, or swallow" (v. 69). 

Salvation is appropriated by faith, by belief, not by the
 gastro-intestinal system.  The eating and drinking are 
figurative of belief.  Belief is not figurative of
 chewing, drinking, or swallowing.
         What we have in the bread is symbolic of his flesh.  The flesh He gave for the world was real.  It was crucified and has ascended into Heaven, which is where it remains until now, and will remain until the Second Coming.  That flesh is not on earth.  We know where that flesh is.  We know where his body now resides.  His disciples themselves told us so.  They watched it ascend to Heaven.  They told us about the event.  They told us exactly where his body now is.  It is not where some traditions insist it is.
         Perhaps long exposure has inured us to how shocking the Roman way of interpreting Jesus really is.  In order to feel it again, we ought to interpret a parallel passage from the same text.  In John 15: 5, Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branches." 
I quote the words of a Catholic fellow discussant words regarding John 6 here:  "No matter how much you deny it, those words are unambiguous.  They are clear, direct statements and *by definition* are not the [sic] figures of speech."  If I applied his bold words and bolder hermeneutic to the passage in John 15, then Jesus' words are both literal and true, and the only reason that He and all Christians don't appear to have bark for skin and leaves for hair is because while the substance of both His body and ours has changed from body to bush and from hair to leaf, we still look like we did before because the accidents remain the same.  Despite all appearances to the contrary, Jesus really is a vine and we really are branches.  He really is a door (John 10: 7, 9); He really is a shepherd, and, by extension, we really are sheep (John 10: 7-16).  The only reason He doesn't look like a door and we don't look like sheep is because, while the substances have changed, the accidents have not.  It's a miracle.  How we can have the substance of branch and of sheep simultaneously must be a miracle too.