Eternal Flesh: The Resurrection of the Body
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Discourse 27.1 (2005) 67-83

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Eternal Flesh:

The Resurrection of the Body

The majesty! what did she mean?
Breathe, arch and original Breath.
Is it love in her of the being as her lover had been?
Breathe, body of lovely Death.
—Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Wreck of the Deutschland"

The Baltimore catechism—the canonical question-and-answer catechism of the Catholic church, bane of thousands of children in the days when memorization was both expected and valued—asks in Lesson 14, question 176, "What is meant by 'the resurrection of the body'?" And the answer is given: "By 'the resurrection of the body' is meant that at the end of the world the bodies of all men will rise from the earth and be united again to their souls, nevermore to be separated" (Vol. 3, Lesson 14).

Here we find, with typical catechismic succinctness, one of the most intriguingly odd of Christian notions. The resurrection of the body is declared doctrine in Augustine's Enchiridion, where he writes, "Now, as to the resurrection of the body, [. . .] that the bodies of all men—both those who have been born and those who shall be born, both those who have died and those who shall die—shall be raised again, no Christian ought to have the shadow of a [End Page 67] doubt" (chap. 84). Tertullian is likewise emphatic, opening his work on "The Resurrection of the Flesh" by declaring, "The resurrection of the dead is the Christian's trust. By it we are believers." He emphasizes that this is not a resurrection of discorporate souls: "I wish to impress this on your attention, with a view to your knowing, that whatever God has at all proposed or promised to man, is due not to the soul simply, but to the flesh also [. . .]" (Chap. 5). The resurrection of the body appears in the Apostles' Creed explicitly ("I believe in [. . .] the resurrection of the body"), as well as in the Athanasian ("At his coming all people shall rise bodily to give an account of their own deeds"), and in the Nicene Creed by traditional interpretation ("We look for the resurrection of the dead"). Dogmatically, risen bodies are to be characterized by "identity, entirety, and immorality" (Maas). That is, the risen bodies of good and bad alike are their own; they are whole; they do not die again.

As with many of the counterintuitive claims of Christianity, there is, I think, something more here than meets the mind's eye upon first reading. I recently suggested that one might read the resurrected body of Christ in the fourth gospel as hinting toward eternal life, not in the sense of endurance, but in the sense in which life laid out horizontally in time is also vertically intensified in eternity—that we might read the stories of Christ's corporeality as stories of eternity's breakthrough into time, as an invocation of eternal life (2004, 25–47). Here, I would like to suggest something of the same for other bodies, and for this doctrine of a more general bodily resurrection: that it tells us a story of eternity, indeed of eternal spiritedness, in the flesh. Despite Christological debates, those views of eternity that might allow us to see it as perpendicular to and intersecting with time have been on the whole singularly disinterested in embodiment—whether simply indifferent to it or downright hostile, they tend to see the body as either a burden or a distraction from a higher truth. The idea of the resurrected human body is generally, if vaguely, modeled upon that of the resurrected body of Christ, so it seems legitimate to ask if the human material spirit might likewise be read as eternal. (Thus, I am not reading resurrection as the occupation of a later portion of the time line, but as an image of life in eternity, a distinction upon which I shall elaborate below.) In trying to explore material spirit as the resurrected body, the body fully spirit and the spirit fully incarnate, I want to focus upon the time of...