Monday, 29 August 2011

It's Getting Heretical in Here

What follows is my response to this, in keeping with my now long-established tradition of stealing his ideas and reusing them for my own gain. This week's number shows Pope Gregory the Great (who we met last week) slightly earlier in his life before he became pope, laying down the liturgical law for St. Eutychius.

Now Eutychius was, by this point, one of the most prominent members of the Eastern Church; he'd led what would later come to be considered as the Fifth Ecumenical Council, and was Patriarch of Constantinople, an important enough man to mess with the Emperor and escape with his head. However, Eutychius did not subscribe to the doctrine of bodily resurrection, believing instead that the soul after resurrection would become "less than air", which caused him some problems with Gregory, whom as we have already discovered took all this religion stuff pretty seriously.

Now bodily resurrection, unfortunate similarities to zombieism and all, is a central tenet of the church, mentioned regularly in the earliest surviving Christian writings, like those of St. Ignatius of Antioch, writing at the turn of the first century AD (and in whose work we see the first mention of the words 'catholic church', incidentally). The reason that it was mentioned so often in these texts is that it was the bone of contention for so many of the early heresies, and the surviving writings of the period are mostly epistles from the church fathers to leaders, expounding the understanding of the church and written directly in opposition to heresy. Many views on the nature of the resurrection arose, some of which would reappear again and again in the history of the early church, so much so that bodily resurrection became a part of the Apostles Creed, the statement of faith that churches around the world still use today. As such, I've been familiar with the words for a long time, but bodily resurrection for the masses really gets to me, and one of the reasons that I put off my confirmation for so long was that I, like Eutychius, have some problems with it.

The concept of universal bodily resurrection is based primarily on the biblical resurrection of Jesus, who the gospels tell us physically rose, such that his feet could be touched from a venerating prostrate position, he could break bread and eat with the disciples, and even have his physical wounds poked and prodded by my ever-doubtful namesake (with whom I have always felt a strange kinship). Resurrection was taught by the Jews, many of the prophets talked about the dead rising from the Earth, Jesus supports this himself, and early church leaders like Ignatius and Paul held this to mean actual physical bodily resurrection like that demonstrated by Jesus, but that interpretation just doesn't sit nicely for me (I'm a fan of metaphor and Jesus seems to have been as well, what with all the parables). The primary gospel support for the position that there are actual physical bodies in heaven comes from Matthew 22 (and its equivalents in Mark and Luke), when Jesus is arguing with the Sadduccees, in which he states that risen humans will be like the angels. Now as far as my memory serves me, there is no mention in the bible of an angel physically interacting with the material world, they appear to be purely spiritual beings, as fearsome as they may be (correct me if I'm wrong, out there, the comments thread is open).

EDIT: I've never pretended to a good biblical knowledge. A reader has reminded me of the angels that ate with Lot and destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Enquiries are ongoing.

Thus, I'm with Eutychius, not Gregory, in thinking that a non-physical resurrection seems more in keeping with the teachings of Jesus that a physical one. Which at least means it'll all be a little less confusing since we won't have to go around sorting out all the bits and pieces which have decayed, or cremated, or scattered, and a non-physical existence is still "life", if Doctor Who has taught me anything. In the sixth century I may have been a heretic, but the advice I was given when I brought this up as a reason for my unconfirmed status could be approximated as "well, if that's all that's stopping you...". To my mind, the nature of resurrection is an unknowable mystery. I'm ok with that, and don't need to worry about whether I'll be buried with my feet to the East or feel bad about donating my organs to science or medicine, because I don't think that having my body in one piece is required for redemption.

Either way, Gregory knew where he stood (or sat, anyway, because of the gout), and he sure was convincing in his argument, as he managed to convince the Emperor to gather together and destroy all the works of Eutychius; who is reputed to have recanted of his heretical beliefs on his deathbed with the quote from the ever-poetic Job "I confess that in this flesh we shall rise again" , which at least allowed his disciples a chance to save face and assured him a place in the echelon of recognised saints.

And leaves me in a bit of a pickle without a Church father to trot out in support of my little heresy. Poop. Then again, being protestant I'm part of a great big heresy anyway, so what's one more?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This may not be a prize-winning theological suggestion, but I've never understood why people have trouble with the idea of physical resurrection. Surely the fact that God can make dead people alive at all is the extraordinary thing, and the how is his business. I mean, I've no idea exactly what 'life' is anyway, and how it can be returned to something that's lost it. So, surely, God recreating a physical body he made in the first place can't be too difficult no matter how dismembered or corrupted it is. Similarly I cannot begin to understand why he might want to make physical bodies with eternal life - I mean, what made him want to create a physical world in the first place? I do think, however, that he is surprisingly interested in and committed to the physical. I don't think he's a Greek in his preference for spirit over body :)