As I said to some protesting classmates recently, my late wife Mary was my life … there is no one on this whole green earth who could be more personally invested in looking forward to a reunion, person to person, after death, than I am. Might it be true? Would that it were! I’m not insisting that it’s not. I’m just suggesting a broader perspective … one that might even help us to be open to a deeper generosity.
The very early Hellenic christians believed in a personal immortality which they expressed as “the resurrection of the body.” Resurrection, for them, was a special gift of God given only to the mystēs who were incorporated into the mysteries of Jesus. But Jesus was from very early on ho christos, the Christ, whom “John” would soon identify as the Stoics’ Logos, for Philo the Hebrew God’s Wisdom and Word. Christ even in “Paul’s” 1st century Colossians was already “the first-born of all creation; in him all things were created … . He is before all things and in him all things hold together … ” There was a larger picture being painted here, a cosmic vision, the individual was part of the universe by being incorporated into Christ as Logos.
Immortality was a act of divine power overcoming death which was the natural destiny of all life. Immortality was a a special gift earned by Christ, the Logos. No one had a right to it. It belonged only to the gods. There was no natural immortality. Natural immortality was a Platonic theory, a logical deduction from the existence of a world of “spirits,” that slowly displaced the older christian vision as it became clear that Jesus’ imminent return bringing the transformation of all creation, was not going to materialize. But the Platonic doctrine was pure philosophy, “science.” The earliest apologists resisted it because it rendered the resurrection superfluous. It finally did take over precisely because it was considered indisputable, “scientifically” true … and when it did, the resurrection of the body along with cosmic transformation, receded into the background. The individual “soul” became the new focus of christian hopes, and its immortality was severed from the collective and cosmic implications of salvation through the Logos.
The immortality of the individual soul was “science,” not a special gift. It is significant that as science the “doctrine” did not have to be “defined.” It was not until the 16th century (1513) when the very existence of spirits was no longer a “scientific” given, that it was made an article of faith. But to take an element of ancient science … which had actually displaced original belief in the resurrection of the body … and now make it an article of “faith,” created two major problems: (1) it now raised the platonic theory of the existence of “spirits” to the level of “dogma,” canonizing metaphysical dualism; and (2) it put the irrelevance of the resurrection of the body on a dogmatic basis ― it permanently made the orginal kerygma irrelevant and rendered the whole idea of physical resurrection unimportant. The article remained in the text of the apostle’s creed, but it had no significance. The “resurrection of the body,” in the formation we were given prior to Vatican II, was an unecessary icing on the cake. We mouthed it in the creed, but no one paid any attention to it. It was your “soul” you needed to save.
Now the “resurrection of the body” is significant for more than individual immortality. It represents a profound recognition of the primacy of matter in our make-up. Its inclusion in the earliest creeds indicate that apostolic christianity recognized that there is no “person” without the body, and that there seems to have been some controversy being resolved here, probably a residue of docetism. If the body isn’t saved, then I’m not saved. And of course to recognize the metaphysical indispensability of matter immediately has universal implications, because everything is made of matter. Paul’s poetic evocation of a transformed “risen” cosmos in Romans and the Apocalyptic vision of a “new heaven and a new earth,” like the imagery of the Logos cited above, propose a belief that not only sweeps Densinger clean of individualist and dualist historical deviations like the “immortal soul,” but dovetails with the cosmic awareness that has emerged with the post-modern mind. And it is this universal cosmic dimension of material energy as it explores the possibilities of being and well-being through evolution and emergence, especially now with a purposive humankind on the scene that is steering a very large, transcendently collective and universally inclusive project. Is it legitimate to ask where it is going …? Why should we expect it will ever end …?
Might personal immortality be possible? Maybe, as the ancient christians seem to have believed it, as part of a transforming cosmic event. … but not as a product of the Platonic-Cartesian dualist individualism that has made us all schizoid ― body haters and death-deniers. The human individual is integral with the whole of material creation. That is what is involved in the belief of the “resurrection of the body.”
With regard to this question, a reader of An Unknown God pointed out to me that the phrase “resurrection of the body” is found in the Apostle’s Creed. The Nicean creed, in contrast, as amended at Chalcedon in 381, has a different phrase: i.e., “the resurrection from the dead.” Historians agree that the core of the apostles’ creed came from a very early Roman creed of the 1st or 2nd century. The conceptual transition represented by these two different phrases corresponds to the period of time it took for Platonism and its various schools to completely dominate mediterranean christian thought. This parallels the philosophical anomalies surrounding the re-interpretation of the traditionally subordinate Logos (Colossian’s “first-born of all creation”) to become homoousios patri at the Council of Nicaea. It was part of the ultimate ascendency of Platonic thinking across all christian categories, and that included a schizoid anti-somatic, anti-sexual bias so prominent in Tertullian, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose.
Death and dying
The “drive to survive” is the primary manifestation of matter’s energy, existence, in every life form that we see (and which I am inclined to extrapolate “backwards” into the non-living elements that compose it). I am a hylozoist. I think matter is alive. I tend to think it has to be, because otherwise life would have to be coming from somewhere else … and I don’t believe there is anywhere or anything else. We simply do not know the mechanisms that the “mystery of matter” uses to pull its rabbits out of the hat.
The denial of death is the flip-side of the drive to survive. It only becomes a “problem,” (i.e., leads to “hubris” and despair) when death is considered outside of its integral place in the natural cycling that is the characteristic of material existence as a totality. Using scholastic language you could say: existence resides primarily in the totality, secondarily in the individual. Death is one of the principal ways every individual contributes to the recycling that produces evolution and emergence, and whatever other stunning creativities our primitive radar has yet to pick up.
We see very little right now. And if we reduce “reality” to what we can see, we end up with a very flat, very boring world of mechanism without mystery. One can surrender one’s life to a mystery, but not to a mechanism. The denial of death gives rise to “evil” (Ernest Becker’s thesis in Escape from Evil) only when death no longer has meaning. Then one is driven to extremes, ironically murder and suicide, to deny it by feigning control over it. The loss of belief in “spirit” as a separate genus of being, which was the inevitable result of the modern and scientific mind-set, had the side-effect of flattening life to the one-dimension of what “matter” in that skewed dispensation was thought to be ― a passive mechanism. Who could afford to die? It is precisely by recognizing that “matter” is not mechanism, but rather a mysterious energy whose boundaries and limits (if there are any) are light years beyond the horizons our limited sciences have set for us, that we begin to recapture the sense of awe in which people have lived from time immemorial. But now without mystification and terror. Without ghosts and goblins. Without “original sin,” divine wrath and plenary indulgences. (And without hating the bodies we were born with). One can live … but also one can die, when it’s time. There is nothing pathological in wanting to live, but it is painfully sad when an organism refuses to accept that it is an organism, part of the larger totality of material energy, an individual deriving its existence and “place” from the whole. We serve the whole also by dying and offering our “stuff,” and our “space” for use by future organisms … just as our own life was a gift of countless earlier organisms whose living and dying made a place for us (both birthed us and fed us). Only a sense of the mystery of matter can allow us to surrender to the cycles of love and generosity that dying is part of. The fact that we need this, makes what might appear to be a logical circularity, in fact, compelling.