Bynum-out-of-body experience

For today’s post on Carolyn Walker Bynum’s The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336, I need to mention three ideas from popular Catholic eschatology from about 1200 on.

First, there was Purgatory. After you died you existed as a soul separated from your body. If you were destined for salvation, you were purified by an experience of pain and torment. Both preachers and theologians describe this pain in physical, bodily terms. So there appeared a contradiction. You had a bodily experience, even though you didn’t have a body.

Second, pretty much everybody believed in ghosts. In your state as a soul separated from your body, you could appear to people on earth. This gave rise to talk of a sort of body that was appropriate to ghosts.

Third, there was the Visio Dei. Once you had completed purification in Purgatory, you reached the ultimate goal, which was the state of eternally seeing the glory of God (based on Jesus‘ beatitude: “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God”).

This was a static state. Once you reached the Visio Dei you no longer developed, grew, or evolved. You were at peace, free from all change or process. So there was a problem with the resurrection of the body. Wasn’t this a change? And what could it add to the Visio Dei?

In 1331 pope John XXII tried to straighten this out. He claimed that the full vision of Christ would not happen until the resurrection the body and the Last Judgement. This caused a major theological controversy. On his deathbed, John modified his view, saying, “the holy souls see God and the divine essence face to face and as clearly as their condition as souls separated from their bodies allows” (p. 285).

After that, theologians–in very technical ways–gave the soul the capacity to have bodily experiences. Popular preachers and visionaries actually gave the soul a kind of body. The modern, academic term for this is the“somatomorphic soul”.

All this sets the stage for Dante. Bynum discusses his vision at the end of her book. I will deal with that in my next Bynum post.

My sense is that Bynum sees a lot of incoherence caused by a bias that these thinkers had against processes like fertility, decay, and just change.

Early in the book she mentioned Oscar Cullman, who made a big deal out of the difference between Greek thought and Hebrew thought. But she doesn’t make much of this.

I would think that once you start talking like the Greeks and speak of the soul as one component of a person, you have destined yourself for some of these problems.

The Greeks would say that you have a soul. It is a component. In the tradition of Plato, the soul finds itself imprisoned in the body. Our goal is to be freed of the chains of the body. So, it is no wonder that way of thinking has a problem with the resurrection of the body.

For the Hebrews, you didn’t have a soul You were a soul. “YHWH God formed the man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). Soul is another word for self. Pychosomatic unity is what we call this notion today. The contemporary, scientific view is closer to the Hebrew than the Greek.

Today we also have a physics that says matter is a form of energy. Particle physics lets us see even light as something material. So the idea of body can include things that the ancients would have excluded. It can be much more dynamic than they allowed. This is why some of their ideas seem superstitions and even bizarre to me.

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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