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  • Carnal Eternity
  • Richard Kearney


Let me begin with Karmen MacKendrick on eternal flesh. Already in the opening chapter of Fragmentation and Memory (2008) entitled “The One and the Many,” MacKendrick makes a strong case for what she calls the “decidedly corporeal foundations” of Christianity.1 Over and against the Gnostic strains that came to dominate so much of the mainstream [End Page 422] Christian tradition, MacKendrick reminds us that there is an “eternity to corporeality” if we read the corporeal “not as dead matter but as flesh already in complex relation with the word” (23). This is the basic hypothesis that underlies what I would call her “carnal hermeneutics of Christianity” throughout the rest of the book.2

One of MacKendrick’s most audacious insights, in my view, is the idea of a radical opening up of ourselves through flesh. But careful—not just any flesh but the flesh of bodies broken open by something (or some time) bigger than ourselves. In this carnal rupturing there is a twisting and disrupting of linear time, exposing us to “another time” outside yet within time: what she terms the eternity of the flesh. This leads directly and logically to what I consider to be one of MacKendrick’s most important notions: the eternal time of resurrection as repetition and return—what we might call ana-time, that is, a time after time that comes back to the beginning before time, but time nonetheless. (The Oxford English Dictionary definition of ana is a movement “back, up, again, anew, in space or time.”)3

The promise of the resurrected body is a reminder that corporeal afterlife is in fact ana-life. It is more-life, again-life: the after returning back to this life anew, but this time at another degree of intensity and depth. This is a time of ceaseless birthing, again and again, re-natally. Otherwise put, the time of ana-theism is the overabundance of life in this life, just as the invisible is in the visible (Merleau-Ponty) or the infinite is in the finite (Levinas). MacKendrick would add, no doubt, as the incorporeal (spirit) is in the corporeal (body)—which is another way of saying incarnation: word in flesh. So we are talking here about an eternal surplus within temporal passing that refuses to pass away but keeps bubbling up again and again like Eckhart’s ebulutio or Hildegaarde de Bingen’s irrepressible veriditas. MacKendrick does not cite the latter mystic (a feminist sister soul avant la lettre), but she does cite Lou Andreas-Salomé to good effect: “The afterlife (survivance) no longer means death and the return of the specter, but the surviving of an excess of life which resists annihilation” (112).

This is no reductive materialism (eliminative or positivist). It is, rather, a mysticism of matter that inscribes itself in a long Christian countertradition stretching from Gregory of Nyssa through the medieval mystics to Teilhard de Chardin. At the beginning of Fragmentation and Memory, MacKendrick approvingly invokes Nyssa’s claim that because the immaterial soul is already incarnate in all the multiple atoms of our bodies, bodily [End Page 423] resurrection is an extension of this Word-in-Flesh phenomenon. “There is,” writes Gregory, “nothing to hinder the soul’s presence in the body’s atoms, whether fused in union or decomposed in dissolution” (114). When Christ says, accordingly, that he comes to bring life and to bring it “more abundantly” this hyperabundance—promised to all people and things, to all fragments of the universe no matter how multilocated and spread out—he does not mean eternal life “after” death but eternal life in this life: a life so transfigured by vital intensification that it defies the finality and annihilation of death. See, for example, the Song of Songs claim that “love is as strong as death” or the sacramental belief that Christ’s host-body is available in the multiple hosts of multiple altars throughout the world. The notion of one-as-many (the title of MacKendrick’s opening reflection) is powerfully celebrated by Gerard Manley Hopkins in the final verse of “When Kingfishers catch fire”:

Christ plays in ten thousand places Lovely in eyes...