Recognizing the Other in Liturgical Acts: Religious Pluralism and Eucharist

[1] A major difficulty facing contemporary life is the misrecognition of persons. This is the social pathology whereby we can improperly recognize the religious other and thereby do violence to another.1 Misrecognition denotes a variety of processes. In general, it marks the way that a person can ignore another, treat a person as a thing (‘it’ rather than ‘thou’), or fail to attend to the other’s differences, particularity, and self-representation. Misrecognition goes beyond simple insult, social status, or loss of dignity. I do not merely misrecognize another when I succumb to prejudice. It does not simply mean that I have failed to discern you properly, as if I fail to possess the proper aesthetic judgment to appreciate the turn of shade in a painting. If I cannot come to some understanding of Mark Rothko’s Seagram Mural Sketch (1959) or fail to perceive the complexities of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972), presumably those shades and colors are still somewhere in the painting or film for more sensitive viewers to discover. Yet, if I fail to recognize you, I have done you injury and denied you the respect and autonomy you are owed. Misrecognition means that there is a failing in my approach to the other, my self-understanding as well as my stance towards you. Misrecognition calls for a reevaluation of oneself as well as the other because it pertains not merely to oneself or the other. It also demands attention to the relationship that in some way mutually determines both oneself and another.2
Recognizing the Other in Liturgical Acts: Religious Pluralism and Eucharist by Gregory Walter

[2] Such an analysis is important since Christians have frequently, despite heroic efforts, misrecognized others. For instance, the inclusive practice of considering many members of non-Christian traditions as anonymous Christians has long been received with suspicion by non-Christian communities who reject being recognized as Christians.3 Christians have treated others as members of the same religion, of slight variations on their own themes, or even have claimed them as anonymously Christian if they exhibit high moral integrity and the gift of love. Yet, many non-Christian communities do not wish to be Christian in any sense, even anonymously so! This failure to recognize others has led to many difficulties in religious relationships as well as having an enormous effect on Christianity itself. Jesus’ saying about the splinter in the eye evokes the dynamics of misrecognition well (Matthew 7:4). We must attend to ourselves before others.

[3] Yet Theodor Adorno expanded Jesus’ saying in an important way: “The splinter in your eye is the best magnifying glass.”4 In this modification, he recommends that the consideration of a pathology leads to the discovery of what is needful. Attention to a social wound can open the possibility of its healing. By following out this error of misrecognition, we can discover an important ethical resource in the Eucharist. The Eucharist, central to Christian faith and life, can itself be warped by misrecognition. It can be treated as “our” meal, creating a social body that resembles a closed family rather than an open and porous community assembled under the sign of Jesus’ death and promise. Many rightly expect the Eucharist to function as a kind of hospitality but in situations of pluralism we must note that Christians have too often played the host, retaining the power that a host does. By returning to the founding gesture of a promise given by Jesus in the midst of betrayal the Eucharist can operate both as a liturgical and ethical act. By so doing, Christians not only can faithfully act within a religiously plural world but aslo can confront and repair their own history, a necessary part of the Christian legacy today.

The Limits of Hospitality
[4] Eucharistic hospitality cannot function as a way forward for a religiously plural society, even as it remains an imperative for inter-Christian relationships. Unless the practice of hospitality is examined and corrected, it will reduplicate patterns of patronage, trade on the idea of possessing a space that one can offer, and warp the Eucharist out of the shape given to it in its founding act. Another way must be found. Many do not want Christians to recognize them as the neighbor since such an act of misrecognition forces the neighbor to participate in some sense in the Christian map of the world. Christian charity can appear with a “catch” unwelcome to its recipients. Witness the many difficulties that Christian aid agencies have encountered, even when they follow the Red Cross charter to avoid any political or religious acts. Communities and countries throughout the two-thirds world have resisted or worried about the sudden presence of Christian aid workers on their shores. It may seem like a colonial act or the prelude to evangelism.

[5] This problem also appears in the giving of aid itself, an act parallel to the offer of hospitality. The act of donation seems to require one person to be the patron and the other to be the recipient. Therefore, development aid in many recent disasters throughout the world seems to bear the Christian stigmas of evangelism and subordination, regardless of the truth of the matter.5 This is especially important since Christian mission has been predominantly exercised as service in the contemporary era, replacing many other approaches dominant in the Nineteenth Century. The act of aid or hospitality seems free from religious commitments and so can appear to be an act separate from the rich acts of the liturgy. Yet because misrecognition has and continues to occur in acts of service by Christians, the relationship between ethical act and liturgical act bears investigation. Acts of love may not be repeated in the same manner as a liturgical act but they are deeply related.6 Though much needs to be done to understand the complexities of Christian mission and service in the contemporary world, we will examine a fruitful way to relate liturgy and ethical act in this essay by foregrounding the dimension of promise in the midst of betrayal.

[6] These important concerns abound in our contemporary situation of religious and cultural pluralism. A common imperative laid at the foot of church communities is that Christians should exercise hospitality in ever greater and newer ways. Because we rightly desire space for free interaction and unburdened and unforced exchange, one could approach the problem of charity to the neighbor by creating a kind of soft patronage, one that accepts the implacability of the patron-client relationship while trying to modify it. Yet hospitality seems to always require host as patron and guest as client.

[7] This solution would invoke a benevolent patronage — but patronage it would still be.7 In short, it seems to require that the client confess “I must entrust to someone else what I cannot do for myself.”8 Repeated acts of patronage can mold the giver into the perpetual patron, the constant giver that thrusts the other into the constant sense of reception and client-hood. This would perpetuate the recognition of the other as recipient and never as an equal partner in exchange. The Christian would always determine not only what he or she receives from the guest but also how that exchange occurs. There is no room in this relationship for the chancy or the surprise since the donor will have the grip on the situation. This will not permit an important shift in social dynamics needed in the current situation of pluralism: to allow religious persons to represent themselves and engage freely with one another.

[8] Beyond the exercise of hospitality, many ethical theories which draw breath from the Eucharist have value but have significant limitations when reflecting on them in light of pluralism. For instance, Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff rightly argue in their rich examination of the Eucharist that the activity of offering thanks and praise enables a kind of agency, one that lends dignity and a relative autonomy to the individual.9 Their conception of the ethical significance of the Eucharist corresponds to the process of recognition—giving thanks is more than a supplement to the liturgical celebration. If the liturgy is to be complete, there must be thanks. Despite its merits in developing the value and agency of individual Christians, such a theory has significance only when the participants are themselves willing to act in the Eucharist as it has generally been understood — a gift from God, shared among others. In this situation, efforts at Eucharistic hospitality can perpetuate misrecognition of non-Christians by inviting them to commune even if the social situation Christians intend replicates the Eucharist in another form, perhaps that of a dialogue. In this sense, hospitality requires a dominion, a space that the host commands in order to welcome another into the area that the host rules. Hospitality in this sense duplicates the idea that Christians manage a home of their own to which they invite others. Thus, Christians could in this situation also manage to organize the act of hospitality so that they give and never receive. Thus, we can conclude from this proposal that the Eucharist can have moral force for Christians and if it is to have significance for misrecognition and invisibility, another start must be made. If we take the Eucharist as something that is our act to undertake done in our space, we duplicate the dynamics of patronage in both dialogue, in service, or in Eucharist.10 In order to clear the table for reconstructing liturgical acts as ethical acts, we must return again to the founding of the Eucharist.

Eucharist as Promise
[9] The narratives that found the Eucharist see it, among its other features, as a meal of promise. To invoke promise requires attention to the analysis of gift exchange undertaken by anthropologists. Some liturgical theologians have already found Marcel Mauss’ investigation of gift exchange useful for elucidating the nature of this sacrament.11 We extend this form of analysis by considering the specific character of the meal as promise.

[10] Thinking how the Eucharist is an exchange of gifts corresponds to much of our conceptuality of God’s acts. Attributing to God the role of giver, however, implies several important problems. In thinking of God as a giver, two forks obtain. The first has God and human beings in a community of exchange. There, God gives grace, forgives sin, or offers peace to which one must respond in kind, if not in some smaller, more appropriate way (since one cannot be as gracious as God). In the second alternative, any kind of reciprocity between God and the world is denied since God only gives and never receives anything back. Here, God is a unilateral giver.12 Thus, between these two broadly sketched alternatives lies a vast middle ground of debate about the nature of gifts and the obligations that attend them.

[11] A promise, however, is a sub-species of gift, a peculiar kind of gift.13 Examining a liturgical act within the dimensions of a gift economy leads to an important discovery: when a liturgical act is a promissory act, it is both utterly gratuitous and requires a response in order for it to have weight. A promise is a doubled and extended gift. Thus, a promise travels some distance down both the unilateral and the reciprocal gift. When we trust the promise, we act within the field created by the promise even though the promise has not yet arrived. Property law has frequently exhibited this when we treat the act of possessing the keys to be the act of possessing the house.

[12] Though we receive the promise in an entirely unilateral sense — God promises for God’s own reasons — the promise requires in a certain sense human reciprocal response in order to be a promise and not an empty gesture. The one promising needs trust, or more famously, “faith and promise belong together.”14 God hands over God’s name, staking God’s honor on the promise. We do not treat a promise as a foregone conclusion, a sure thing, nor as a single part of a continuous arc of gift, counter-gift, and return. Rather, we act within it. This action never goes beyond the Eucharist even though it may occur, seemingly, “after” the liturgical act. Because the liturgical act of giving Jesus’ body and blood is itself a foretaste of another feast not yet here, acting within the Eucharistic promise is never after it even if the liturgy has concluded. But we need to consider the character of this act in conjunction with recognition.

Recognition and Eucharist
[13] As an act of promise, the Eucharist is an act of recognition. Thus, it can address the needs of misrecognition and human invisibility. Axel Honneth defines recognition as follows: “To recognize someone is to perceive in his or her person a value quality that motivates us intrinsically to no longer behave egocentrically, but rather in accordance with the intentions, desires, and needs of that person. This makes clear that recognitional behavior must represent a moral act, because it lets itself be determined by the value of other persons.”15 This means that acts of recognition that attempt to inscribe someone into a map alien to that person can be in turn rejected or identified as a description that restricts one’s ability to speak for him or herself. If the Eucharist offers a regime of recognition, it will do so with respect to its original offer of community within a dispersed community, exposing the failures and betrayal of its members for the sake of the promise of reconciliation.

[14] When we consider the Eucharist as a meal of betrayal, we should resist attempts to use it as a domestic act or for it to be a possession of the Christian community. It treats and offers community, it develops hope and forgiveness, but it always recognizes that it is offered by the Jesus, the one betrayed by his followers, followers who still betray him and others at the same time. Thus, the Eucharist is always a locus of judgment and exposure of failure. To be sure, it is a meal of joy but only within truthful discovery of oneself. Facing the promise Jesus offers in the Eucharist, in his body and blood, is to face the recognition of the Christian church’s shortcomings, failures, and violence. Christians can draw courage to confess and explore the ways they have damaged because the Eucharist is a site that welcomes the exposure of all sorts of faithlessness. In that exposure, Jesus promises forgiveness and healing, sharing it freely.

[15] The Eucharist is a moment where promise indeed holds out forgiveness as a future reality but it also demands that Christians take responsibility for their misrecognition of others. Every Christian community needs to recognize its own shortcomings and failures in its own way, its own locale, and its own histories. The specific failures of Christian communities in the misrecognition of others, its failure to respect religious freedoms, its lack of courage to learn from others, or even to simply live indifferently among other religious communities, all this is exposed in the Eucharist.16 And there Christians can gain strength to face their pasts. Thus, in the complex situation of service, whether it is aid during a crisis or the ordinary grace of offering assistance, Christians can realize that their acts do carry weight and they may be the victims of their own misperception. Thus, service can never be divorced from the process of discussion, exchange, and learning from one another.

[16] The second important liturgical act of the Eucharist stems from its location because it forms a people who expect, receive, and give even if those chains of giving are broken. Again, the Eucharist occurs as a meal of betrayal. It is celebrated in a middling place, a loaned room, a cobbled-together list of participants. Just as the Last Supper itself had no properly defined host or boundaries, Christians need not worry about securing themselves a home. Sovereignty often corresponds to rule of a territory and when the Eucharist’s topology reflects a kind of ad hoc locale, it resists the ordinary sense of owning a place, of ruling a place, of forcing Christians to be an owner of the land while others are without or trespassers.17 The idiom of hospitality may take on a new key where one not only leaves the place one once occupied, but also sought out new lands, not in order to extend one’s homeland, but to discover new vistas as a guest of others, tutored by them, and awaiting the surprising. One does this yet within the promise offered in the Eucharist, a way to engage in recognition that is an equal exchange.18

[17] In our conception of the liturgical act as ethical act, no divide obtains between the seemingly more personal or domestic acts of repentance and remembrance and service to others. The first is not the private face of Christian life; the other is not the only act of a Christian “out in public.” No wall exists between the essential act of sharing bread between human beings and the distribution of bread to the baptized in the Eucharist. Christians may gain the strength to sail to new seas, realizing that they nowhere have a home. May the Eucharist free them from the demands of patronage and hospitality to take mission as an opportunity to receive, to learn, and to repent even as the serve their neighbor with desperately needed food, aid, or goods.


1. Discussion of recognition received a decisive new start with Charles Taylor, “The Politics of Recognition” in Multiculturalism and “The Politics of Recognition”, ed. Amy Gutmann (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992), 25–74. A watershed debate occurred over Nancy Fraser’s essay “Redistribution or Recognition?” in Adding Insult to Injury: Nancy Fraser Debates her Critics (New York: Verso, 2008) as well as between Fraser and Axel Honneth in Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, Recognition or Redistribution? A Political-Philosophical Exchange (New York: Verso, 2003). All of these contributions and incisive essays stem from reworking the legacy of G. W. F. Hegel in the present day. For an account of Hegel’s achievement, see Axel Honneth, The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, trans. Joel Anderson (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 1996). Our proposal deserves expansion and criticism from the adoption of the Hegelian legacy of recognition in its psychoanalytic key by Alain Badiou and Slavoj Zizek, whose relevant works to our question are Alain Badiou: Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, trans. Peter Hallward (New York: Verso, 2002) and Slavoj Zizek, “Neighbors and Other Monsters: A Plea for Ethical Violence” in Kenneth Reinhard, Eric L. Santner, and Slavoj Zizek, The Neighbor: Three Inquiries in Political Theology (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 134–190. Their approaches tend to treat Christianity as exemplifying whatever “religion” might be, an approach that glosses over the important differences between various religions. But see the efforts of Zizek to take up Islam in his new preface to Slavoj Zizek, The Fragile Absolute: Or, Why the Chrstian Legacy is Worth Fighting For, 2nd Edition (New York: Verso, 2009).

2. See further discussion of misrecognition and moral reflection in Axel Honneth, Das Ich im Wir – Studien zur Anerkennungstheorie (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 2010).

3. Karl Rahner did not intend in his exploration of the idea that Christians use this theory in dialogue. He intended it only as a matter for discussion among Christians.

4. Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, trans. E. F. N. Jephcott (New York: Verso, 2005), 50.

5. Laura C. Thaut, “The Role of Faith in Christian Faith-Based Humanitarian Agencies: Constructing the Taxonomy,” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 20 (2009) 319–350.

6. Our conception of the relationship of liturgical and ethical acts owes much to Graham Ward’s fruitful arguments. See Graham Ward, Cultural Transformation and Religious Practice (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005) and Graham Ward, “A Christian Act: Politics and Liturgical Practice” in Liturgy, Time, and the Politics of Redemption, eds. Randi Rashkover and C. C. Pecknold (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 29–49.

7. Jacques Derrida devotes considerable effort to develop a hospitality that does not suffer from the patron-client relationship in many of his later writings. He hopes for a pure hospitality “without conditions” which occurs without planning and invitation. This hospitality is a pure openness to the stranger, to the surprise and uncalculated visit. For the most part, his efforts point out the failures of cosmopolitanism and hospitality rather than pointing out a successful way forward. Perhaps the best summary of these efforts is Jacques Derrida, “Une Hospitalité à L’Infini” in Manifeste pour l’Hospitalité, eds. Micheal Wieviorka and Mohammed Seffahi (Grigny: Paroles D’Aube, 1999) 97–106. Edith Wyschogrod provides a useful overview and criticism of Derrida. See Edith Wyschogrod, “Autochthony and Welcome: Discourses of Exile in Levinas and Derrida,” Journal of Philosophy and Scripture 1 (2003) 36–42. On Levinas’ own contribution to thought on hospitality, see D. J. Gauthier, “Levinas and the Politics of Hospitality,” History of Political Thought 28 (2007) 158–180.

8. From a discussion of the pathologies of patron-client relationships in Howard F. Stein, “A Note on Patron-Client Theory,” Ethos 12 (1984) 30–36.

9. Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread and Resurrection (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007).

10. See the extensive criticisms of Eucharistic ethics in Mark Godin, “The Sacrament is Always There: Towards a Eucharistic Ethic,” Theology & Sexuality 14 (2007) 53–62; Bernd Wannenwetsch, Political Worship, trans. Margaret Kohl (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 41–57.

11. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Reason for Form and Exchange in Archaic Societies, trans. W. D. Halls (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990). For an exposition of the Eucharist using the anthropological category of gift, see David N. Power, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (New York: Herder & Herder, 1999) 274–310.

12. For another attempt to develop an ethics of the gift in theology, see Oswald Bayer, “Ethik der Gabe” in Die Gabe: Ein “Urwort” der Theologie?, ed. Veronika Hoffmann (Frankfurt am Main: Otto Lembeck, 2009) 99–124.

13. This analysis is further developed in conjunction with political theology in my forthcoming article, Gregory Walter, “Critique and Promise in Paul Tillich’s Political Theology: Engaging Giorgio Agamben on Sovereignty and Possiblity,” Journal of Religion 90 (2010).

14. Martin Luther, Lectures on Romans (1515/1516) in WA 56, 45.15f.

15. Axel Honneth, “Recognition as Ideology” in Recognition and Power: Axel Honneth and the Tradition of Critical Social Theory, eds. Bert van den Brink and David Owen (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 337. Honneth also puts it clearly that “[Recognition] thus means that the addressee is equipped with as much moral authority over one’s person as one knows oneself to have in being obligated to carry out or abstain from certain classes of actions” in Axel Honneth, “Invisibility: On the Epistemology of ‘Recognition'” in Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, Supplementary Volumes 75 (2001) 122.

16. Our proposal expands upon Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s fragment, “Guilt, Justification, Renewal” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, trans. Reinhard Krauss, Charles C. West, and Douglas W. Stott, eds. Ilse Tödt, Heinz Tödt, Ernst Feil, and Clifford Green (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 134–145.

17. On the coincidence of sovereignty and the control of territory, see Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, trans. David Macey (New York: Picador, 2003) and Giorgo Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life, trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998).

18. Paul Ricoeur’s specific contribution to the dynamics of mutual recognition is to link the act of exchange and gift to that of mutual recognition. See Paul Ricoeur, The Course of Recognition, trans. David Pellauer (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2005) 241–246.

Gregory Walter

Gregory Walter is Harold H. Ditmanson Professor of Religion, St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.