Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Body and the Self

Steve Blakemore had some very reasonable questions regarding my last post on the resurrection. Since this questions offer me the opportunity to clarify some ideas that are important to me I will respond in a new post. Thanks to Steve then for taking the time to investigate my reasoning.

First, Steve asks why I "think it unlikely that St. Paul did not envision a real physical resurrection?" While it is unlikely that this particular debate will ever reach a point where everyone agrees, I can only offer my two cents. First, the immediate problem I see is the assumption that we can agree on what a "real physical resurrection" would mean, not to mention know what St. Paul would mean with such a phrase. Both the terms "real" and "physical" are modern concepts. My point is that even if one would attest that Paul did in fact believe in a real physical resurrection, one would still have to address what this means. I guess my interpretation is an attempt to address that question.

I have of course some reasons to argue as I do. Ancient culture tended to use the word body in a variety of symbolical ways. The best example is probably Plato who sharply separated the human being in body and soul. However a closer examination shows that Plato is not so much talking about body and soul as we post-Descartes understands them, but as symbols of to ways to live: according to the body and according to the soul. (There is a great study on Plato's Phaedo by Illham Dillman. Very hard to find though). It is rather similar to Paul's dichotomy between spirit and flesh. Ideas like these are very widespread in the literature of the time, which makes it plausible to believe Paul to was using the body in a symbolical way.

Further, the NT seems to stress the discontinuity with the present body in the descriptions of the body after resurrection. In 1 Cor 15 Paul says: "All flesh is not the same: Men have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another. There are also heavenly bodies and there are earthly bodies; but the splendor of the heavenly bodies is one kind, and the splendor of the earthly bodies is another."And: "Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable." Finally he talks of a spiritual body which unless understood symbolically must be some kind of insolvable paradox.

The descriptions of Jesus body after the resurrection point in the same direction: the disciples did not recognize him, he moved through closed doors etc. There is also continuity: Jesu body still carried the marks of his suffering - maybe a symbol of how this aspect of Jesus life was a genuine part of his person, and thus survived death. But Jesus case is special, because he was not a sinner before death.

In other words what Paul calls the renewal of the body, is, I would argue, this process in which the person becomes "new again", by the removal of those aspect of the personality that are not genuine.

Steve also points out that the talk of "self" is modern and is at risk of anachronism. Obviously this risk is always present in any reading of an ancient text. With the word self I understand not only the conscious "I" of a person but also what we today call the subconscious. I think this term is useful, because the biblical symbols (body, soul, spirit) have very different connotations today than they had when Paul used them. This is extremely complex an area, and, yeah, there is always a risk of anachronism involved. But one does not avoid that risk by using the same words as the bible. Rather, I think the risk is greater if one uses biblical terms without defining them.

Finally, Steve felt my "focus on release from negative influences and being one's 'true self'" might lead to gnosticism. I think I steer clear of gnosticism by emphasizing that we can only understand what our true self really is after death, i.e. there is no true gnosis in this life; and by stressing that what I consider negative parts of the personality that will be discarded in resurrection is not the body in its materiality, but those elements that have become part of the personality because of lack of responsibility over one's person. I.e. I do not believe that there is a pure eternal soul that needs to be purified from material elements, but that a persons self is continously formed by genuine and false aspects, based on the choices the individual makes in freedom.

For further clarification see my post on sin.

1 comment:

byron said...

Patrik, I appreciate your posts on this topic (and sorry for posting above on death before I'd read these on the resurrection). One thought...

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul discusses the 'Spiritual body' (penumatikos soma) and 'soulish (not 'physical', as many English translations unfortunately have: psychikos soma) body'. That we presently have a soulish body means that the physicality of the spiritual body is as problematic as that of the soulish one. The -ikos ending on adjectives generally (thought I admit, not always) refers to the driving-force or guiding principle rather than the material. So Paul is not talk about soul vs spirit as the 'material' out of which 'body' is made (like a wooden or a metallic boat), but what keeps us going: our life, or God's Spirit (like the difference between a sail boat and a steam boat - not what they're made from, but what drives them).
I agree that all our terms are thoroughly confused, and that Descartes has a lot to answer for in muddying the waters. I also agree that the resurrection must never be thought of as mere revivification of a corpse. But unless the same body (empty tomb!) is taken, restored and transformed, has God abandoned his creation?

Love to hear your thoughts. I found N. T. Wright's discussion of these matters in The Resurrection of the Son of God very stimulating.