I am reporting on and interacting with Carolyn Walker Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336.
She brings out two practices of the church that motivated thought about the resurrection of the body up to 400 C.E. They are Asceticism the Relic Cult.
Asceticism valued bodily deprivation, the monastic life, and especially fasting and sexual abstinence. In connection with the resurrection some reasoned that in the resurrection the body no longer participates in eating and metabolism or mating and reproduction, therefore fasting and chastity now prepare us for the resurrected state.
This reasoning considers the risen body to be quite different from this body, a non-biological and perhaps non-gendered body.
Relics were the material remains of a saint. People strongly believed that these remains occasioned miracles and healings. For instance, when Augustine was a bishop the supposed remains of St. Stephen brought about many healings with Augustine’s approval.
But notice that there needed to be a strong continuity between the remains of the saint and the person who had lived. The dissolution of death cannot have changed the identity of the remains.
So asceticism implies discontinuity and the veneration of relics implies continuity.
Origen of Alexandria had applied a philosophical idea of flux to the human body:
“This fluctuating mass of matter cannot rise, he argues, it is not even the same from one day to the next. And even if the bits of flesh present at the moment of death could survive, why would God arbitrarily decide to reanimate those bits as opposed to all the others that have flowed through the body from childhood to old age (p. 65)?
This seems to threaten the identity of the body that rises with the body that died. But Origen had an answer. From Platonic and Stoic philosophy, he got the idea that there is a form or principle that gives continuity amidst growth and change. Hesitantly, Bynum says that this is a bit like the genetic code (p. 66).
She likes that Origen is able to pick up the Pauline idea of the dead body as seed and the resurrection as growth into something different from 1 Corinthians 15. However, the early church did not follow Origen. In fact, it often disputed and condemned him. It also sometimes misunderstood him.
Another North African bishop, St. Augustine, returned to the idea of the resurrection as the reassembling of the atoms of the deceased. This was partly for pastoral reasons. Augustine and his flock had trouble with the idea of change. The easiest way to reassure and comfort the bereaved was to hold that they would be reunited with the exact loved one they had lost.
But also Augustine’s acceptance of relics played into this. The bones of a saint had to be identical with the saint who had died and with the saint who would be raised. Augustine ended up having much more influence on later thinking than did Origen.
I get Bynum’s appreciation of Origen. I had to read him in graduate school, and I too found some of his ideas daring and challenging. But there were some reasons that he was so controversial.
It is said that he castrated himself. He probably didn’t do so literally, but his thinking moved in that direction. He was an extreme ascetic and thought that sexual relations betrayed the non-sexual resurrection body.
Also, he had a completely unbiblical dualism between body and soul. He thought body and soul were separate creations and that the soul preexisted the body.
I think Bynum likes the idea of the body being raised without gender. This would bring to fruition the idea that in Christ there is no male or female. But societies often put not just women, but everybody, in their place. Think of the five relationships of Confucian ethics: ruler-subject, father-son, elder brother-younger brother, husband-wife, and friend-friend. Would parental, sibling, and marital connections disappear completely in the age to come? I am not sure that a more egalitarian and less hierarchical state requires us to lose our gender identities entirely. Maybe it does. Origen’s thought is open to the possibility.