Monday, March 19, 2012

Hot Sticky Life

This is not a blog about hell, that topic's been done to death...

But there is a flip-side to the discussion and it's about life. Absolute life.

Remember when we were kids, playing all day on long summer days, until the sun went down? Remember our hot sticky bodies, and how they ran and ran and hid and ran again, and never felt they could or would ever stop?

A child's body is programmed to exponential growth. It is flush with healthy cells dividing and redividing, pumping out growth all over the body and on a nonstop basis. I think this is one reason death so often comes as a shock to children. It literally does not fit with their body-world and has to be explained to them.

The news can be devastating. This is why we invent comforting tales like, "Don't worry Grandma is in Heaven, looking down on us, smiling and happy."

On a recent visit to the family dermatologist (don't worry, only a minor problem!) the doctor was eager to talk about his specialism. He said contemporary research showed there were lots of stem cells in the adult body, capable in principle of providing fresh growth for all the body's organs. But they remained inactive, while the aging, defective and dead cells accumulated. Preventing aging, he said, could simply be a matter of "taking out the garbage."

Whether this is true or not it sheds light on the unrelenting medical interest in curing us of...death.

Is this a theological concern? Does it perhaps derive its roots from the Hebrew and New Testament notion of life?

The Book of Wisdom tells us "God created us for incorruption....but through the devil's [the adversary's] envy death entered the world" (2:3-24). Jesus said, "I came that they may have life and have it to the full." (John 10:10). If Christ overcomes the devil (the adversary) then he fulfills God's created project of life....

Western Christians are not used to thinking about this human body-existence as one day over-brimming with life. Rather we have the default thinking from which the Grandma story above derives: a two-tiered cosmos with some other heavenly space above this one constituted by a totally other, nonmaterial, purely "spiritual" existence--that's where we will find "life"...


I say "yuk" really for three reasons. First, it is contradicted at multiple points by the biblical vision of life: e.g., the Lord who "formed the earth and made it...didn't create it a waste, [but] ... formed it to be inhabited," (Isaiah 45:18). Second, the mental construct of that perfect world above can only be created by negative pairing and opposition, "spiritual" against "material," "heaven" against "earth." Essentially it's a mental trick and a perverse one. Thirdly and simply, it goes against our first fresh instinct that life should live and not die. It contradicts those hot sticky bodies filled with fun and hope and joy. After that primordial child-time any concept of death is going to be a contradiction to the body-self, and I don't think a good Creator would make that sensed contradiction a false sense!

The very first systematic theologian of Christianity was a man named Origen who lived and taught in Alexandria, Egypt, in the early part of the third century. His thought was framed in the Greek philosophical world, especially Middle Platonism. Despite the formally eternal, other-worldly horizon of this thought (again think Grandma's heaven...) Origen was a superb biblical exegete and sought in all things to be faithful to scripture. That meant he maintained the truth of resurrection (which is absurd in Platonism). But more even than that he believed in the final restoration or return of all things to God (apokatastasis), including even the devil! In which case of course hell itself must be non-eternal. In fact Origen held to the medicinal or restorative character of all spiritual suffering including that of the "damned." As he put it, "Each sinner kindles his own fire...," and God achieves nothing by force or imposition, but by discipline, persuasion, instruction.

What a tragedy that the horizon of salvation thinking in the West would not be Origen's redemptive, scriptural and holistic vision, rather Augustine's narrow, legalistic and punitive one! I think we can reasonably ignore Origen's Greek metaphysical framework and re-read him in a materially grounded, culture-and-body process (one in which all the violence of human relationships is undone and overcome). But it is much more difficult to separate Augustine's concept of individual election from an other-worldly framework. A private legal decree by God can never be known in any final real or historical way, so the matter of who is saved must, by definition, find its answer in another world. This world, this earth, goes by the by.

It's telling that one of the figures who tried to get Origen's view condemned in the East was the Emperor Justinian: from the absolute state's perspective if you get rid of absolute punishment how can you possibly endure? Augustine's theology fits the interests of the state much better. But now people are less and less willing to be coerced either by God or by the state, but they are open to being persuaded by life and its immanent meaning.

In which case Origen's affirmation of life as absolute may be due for revival. Perhaps we should be thinking of taking out the theological garbage as well as the biological! 

Tony Bartlett, T&P Theologian-in-Residence