Monday, March 31, 2008

Why Matter Matters

Jesus showed the apostles real hands and a real side. He really ate with his disciples; he really walked with Cleopas; he really conversed with people, using a real tongue. Jesus really reclined at supper, and with real hands he took bread, blessed and broke it, and offered it to them…Don’t let yourselves be deceived into thinking that Jesus ate with out teeth, walked without feet, broke bread without hands, spoke without a tongue, or showed a side that had no ribs.

—Saint Jerome

The Christian story, from the beginning of the narrative in Genesis to its dramatic climax in Revelation, is an earthy story, a fleshy story that celebrates materiality, laments its perversion by human sin, and eagerly awaits its ultimate glorification in the resurrection life. Creation may not be exhausted by material creation (angels are created and they're not material), but it is the material world whose creation is chronicled in the opening pages of Genesis and whose tale of glory and disgrace, near total collapse and full restoration is told throughout the bible.

The story of creation, by the way, is not merely a story of Divine production or origination either. It is a story of Divine delight, delight in the material world brought into being by the Word. Indeed the creational refrain “It is good!” echoes through the pages of Genesis and beyond.

The doctrine of the incarnation, the taking on of flesh by the second person of the Trinity, signals God’s re-affirmation of embodiment and creation. So too the Ascension. The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity, his taking on of flesh, was neither momentary nor provisional. God’s persistent “Yes!” to embodiment reverberates into eternity in the resurrection, exaltation, and glorification of the embodied Christ. The humanity of Christ, his embodied nature, is not shed in the New Jerusalem. It is taken up, exalted and glorified.

Remember too that the most prominent image used in Scripture for what awaits us in the hereafter is that of a great banquet, nothing short of a Eucharistic feast of carnal delight. And not a whiff of disembodied or ghostly existence is to be found anywhere in that image.

If you want to know what it means to be human, what it means to live a full-orbed and flourishing human life, look to the embodied Christ. What you will discover there is exactly what sober-minded theologians have been telling us all along: that an authentic human existence consists in a fully embodied life rightly lived in relation to God, to neighbor, and to the rest of the terrestrial world.

Now I’m on record as saying that we human beings are wholly material beings, lacking immaterial parts such as an immaterial soul. And I believe that a world-affirming, material-affirming view of our nature has concrete, practical implications. For example, a recognition of the fact that God’s kingdom has come to us in the embodied Christ helps us to avoid misconceiving our eternal destiny vertically, as “up in the heavens.” Instead it encourages us to reconceive the kingdom of God horizontally, as here and now, even if its eventual fulfillment lies in a future—an embodied future—that we anxiously await and actively anticipate.

Second, wrapped as we are in flesh and bones, and embodied in ever-expanding circles of social relations— family, neighborhood, community and world, materialist-friendly views of human nature make good sense of the urgency and importance of our call to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and to pursue this-worldly justice. Why? Because the fact that we are material beings highlights the fact that starvation, want, and physical impoverishment are kingdom concerns. The world of bullfrogs and butterflies, of economic systems and environmental hazards, the world of sex and love, of loneliness and connection, the world of factory farms and consumer goods—in short, the fully, physical world that both depresses and delights us, is precisely the world that matters to God. It is this world that God is restoring. Contrary to the sacred hymn, this world is our home. It is broken, disfigured, and dis-eased to be sure, but it matters to us. It matters to us because we are created for it in all of its physicality.

A materialist-friendly view of human nature also serves to protect us against turning our longings for a new day into longings for a disembodied existence in some far off and distant heaven. Like the prophets of long ago, whose longings were for this world finally to be as God intends—a world where lions lie down with lambs and swords are beaten into plowshares, where the hungry are fed and the broken hearted are lifted up—a materialist view of human nature can encourage us to eagerly long for and actively anticipate this embodied future that only God can realize. The way of Christ incarnate offers us this future. What it offers us is a new way to be human.

And, I might add, this future, this new way of being human, is one of the siren songs of emergent faith. And it’s a hopeful song, too. Those tired of singing the old world-desping, body-desping, social justice-rejecting, polarity-producing songs of our forebears, find this sort of song refresing, inspiring and deeply resonant.

But wait (I can hear the naysayer say), this sort of view denies that we’ve been made in God’s image. How can we have been made in God’s image if we’re not immaterial souls? Well, there are many ways that we human beings image God, and none requires that we be immaterial. We image God when we care for creation and contribute to the terrestrial flourishing of the created order. Indeed, this is what the Bible means when it speaks of our having been given “dominion.” To have dominion is to care for others, including non-human “others” like ocean and stream, octopus and salamander; to have dominion is to tend to the well being of all the earth.

We also image God when we live in loving relation to other human beings and invest ourselves in their flourishing and well-being. God is a Trinity, so it should come as no surprise that we image God in social and not just private ways. The tenor of the relation between the three persons of the Trinity is one of a harmonious and free exchange of love and joy. Engaging in acts of mercy, hospitality, love, kindness, and so on is to act like God. In fact, we image God best when we image Jesus, who welcomed the outcast, fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, hated evil, and delighted in doing the work of the Father. We also image God in our suffering. God is love. To love is to open oneself up to suffering. And suffering love is God-love. When we lay down our lives for our friends, and yes, our enemies, too, we image God, who laid down his life for us in Jesus.

God is a society of three; so, that we bear God’s image in social ways ought not to surprise us. Moreover, it is hard to imagine how we might image God in the ways I’ve just described if we are isolated atoms or immaterial souls. In short, there is nothing in the doctrine of the imago Dei, rightly understood, that entails we are immaterial souls.

Skin and bone is what we are. Holy skin and bone. And what we've been set apart for is anticipating that new humanity, that new society of wholeness and flourishing. There's work to be done. And those of us called to that work get impatient when we're told that first we've got to figure out the right positions on a host of theological and philosophical-theological doctrines and issues. I don't think so. Not that I don't enjoy exploring philosophical-theological issues and doctrines (some of them anyway, some of the time). But I don't enjoy the social paralysis that endless debate oftentimes produces. And it's that paralysis that emergent types also loathe.

Okay, ‘nuff said. Tony Jones and The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier is coming up…..


bethany said...

you don't know me, but we have friends in common. I wanted to tell you that I loved this post, and it came at a good time. I'm currently taking a seminar in my rhetoric grad program about material rhetorics, and working out on my own how to (within orthodoxy-ish at least) make our understandings of christianity more material. I think this is an important project, and I'm glad to see someone is ahead of me on the philosophical end, anyway.

Keith DeRose said...

I've been wondering what you'd say about "body-friendly dualism"? This is dualism in that it takes the soul (or whatever one calls it) to be really distinct from the body (& something that can exist w/o a body), but it's body-friendly in that, so far as seeing the body as a "prison house," it sees the human soul as being made to be united with a human body, and as only thriving & doing what's it's meant to do when it is united with a body. So, though the soul can exist w/o a body, that's not what it's for. It would seem that such a "body-friendly dualism" would have at least many of the theological advantages you claim for your view. As far as theological concerns go, this form of dualism would seem to be pretty much on the same team as you, united together against "prison-house dualism." This would leave the decision between body-friendly dualism & a view like yours to be decided on philosophical grounds, I suppose. (And I guess most philosophers would see these considerations as favoring you.)

Kevin Corcoran said...


Thanks for visiting! Where are you in grad school? And who are our mutual friends? (Just curious.)


I'm favorably disposed to body-friendly dualisms. I like Hasker's emergent dualism most. I have some philosophical objections to it, as I do to various other so-called integrative forms of dualism and to more traditional Cartesian dualism as well. But, let's face it, there's no view, materialist or dualist, that doesn't come without a philosophical cost. In any case, I think you're right, with respect to the sorts of theological concerns I have my eye on here, the Hasker-Zimmerman sort of emergent dualism is definitely body-friendly. And I suspect they'd be happy if we were both on the same theological team.

Stephen Krogh said...

I heard about a body-friendly dualist who spent colossal amounts of time writing both about the physical human body and its capacities and the immaterial human soul and its capacities. As I recall, his view, up until the point that death enters the picture, is thoroughly materialistic. His prodigious body of writing is eclipsed, so I am told, only by his humility, saintliness (some would call him angelic), and perhaps his girth. Is it that he could be the body-friendly dualist for whom we all long? Well, this can be answered in two ways....

Kevin Corcoran said...


(-: No; for some, whose body of writing is not nearly as prodigious and whose intellect is eclipsed in its smallness only by his physical stature, has been known to say that the view to whch you refer makes no sense. Perhaps the body-friendly view for which all (dualists) long is that of Hasker.

Luv ya! (-:

bethany said...

I'm at UGA now. I believe that we both know Joyce Dunlap. I'm an '05 Calvin grad, so I'm fairly well connected still.

Jack said...

I dont know what part of your post to tackle first! You know that I disagree with you about us being wholly material, and my evidence for this is the intermediate state. I know you are familiar with NT Wright's recent book because you quoted it earlier in this blog I believe. And he is clearly not a materialist.

This is a quote from him, "Our culture is very interested in life after death, but the New Testament is much more interested in what I've called the life after life after death — in the ultimate resurrection into the new heavens and the new Earth. Jesus' resurrection marks the beginning of a restoration that he will complete upon his return. Part of this will be the resurrection of all the dead, who will "awake," be embodied and participate in the renewal. John Polkinghorne, a physicist and a priest, has put it this way: "God will download our software onto his hardware until the time he gives us new hardware to run the software again for ourselves." That gets to two things nicely: that the period after death is a period when we are in God's presence but not active in our own bodies, and also that the more important transformation will be when we are again embodied and administering Christ's kingdom. "

I want to know what your response to this is. And, it is clear, I think that Wright is not talking about a spiritual body here in the intermediate state, but a disembodied existence where our "software" is residing prior to being downloaded into our spiritual, perfected, eternal bodies.

Kevin Corcoran said...


As you know, I'm very fond of N.T. Wright (and of Polkinghorne for that matter). However, I have to disagree with him (them) here. Now before I say what I think is wrong w/what he (they) say, let me make clear that even if I were a dualist I'd still strongly disagree with him (them) on this point. (And so should you I think.)

Whatever it is you are you are surely an individual. If you are to enjoy an intermediate state of existence, then some individual must enjoy that state.

The problem with the "software" analogy is that "software" or "computer programs" are what we philosophers call "universals". Universals can be in many places at once (colors are universals, for example, and red can be in that apple, in that shirt and in that ball). Likewise, Mozzilla Fire Fox can be run on the hardware of my computer, your computer and lots more besides. Individuals, on the other hand, cannot turn up in multiple places (simultaneously).

So "you" are nothing like a piece of "software" that can be "downloaded" onto God's hardware (whatever that might mean) until God gets new hardware to run the software that is yourself. (If you were, we'd also have to worry about there being many of you. And don't you think that one of you is enough?)

Maybe Wright (and Polkinghorne) wouldn't want to say that you are a universal, but that your memories and psychology are what is downloaded onto God's hardware (whatever that might mean) until he fashions new hardware to download those memories and such on. But, if that's what he (they) meant, you shouldn't be too excited about that. And the reason is that you are supposed to enjoy an intermediate state but you are not a memory or collection of memories. Again, you are an individual thing and not a memory or collection of memories.

So, while I am inclined to agree with you that we enjoy an intermediate state, I find the story Wright and Polkinghorne tell to be philosophically deeply problematic.

Jack said...

That was just an analogy Polkinghorne used. He knows, of course, that the human soul is really nothing like software. The point he was making has nothing to do with "universals", but was just an illustration that we are of two parts, the physical self, (the brain the body,) and the spiritual self, (the "soul", the mind or whathave you,) and that these two parts can exist separate from each other. You disagree with that philosophically, but Wright and Polkinghorne think that the bible teaches dualism, and I agree with them.

I dont understand how you agree in an intermediate state without accepting dualism in some form. If you agree that there is an intermediate state, what form does that take? If you think that we have physical bodies now, and we will have physical bodies after the resurrection, what body will we have in the intermediate state?

Kevin Corcoran said...


Oh, that was his point? Hmmmm. Why didn't he just say that then? Whatever....You can read the last chapter of my book to see why I think the view I hold can be squared with what the bible teaches. You won't be persuaded, of course, and that's okay. But, to your question re: how I can hold to an intermediate state. Like this: since I believe you can't exist w/o your body existing (since I think you are essentially constituted by your body) I believe your body will exist in an intermediate-but-not-yet-glorified state b/w death and resurrection. And that's how I hold to an intermediate state.

Look, for all I know, this is whack. But, as I've said in many places, it seems to me I'm a physical object. Am I? The best I can do is say "it sure seem so" and then I can try to make sense out of that claim.

Notice too that I was very careful in (most of) of the post to speak of "materiaist-friendly" views. That was intentional so as to make room for dualist views that are "body-friendly".

Jack said...

I am sorry for appearing dense, but what does "I believe your body will exist in an intermediate-but-not-yet-glorified state b/w death and resurrection. And that's how I hold to an intermediate state..." mean?

The last time I was at a funeral, the body was there, well a preserved corpse was there, and it was nowhere near a state between our current physical bodies here and our future perfected bodies.

Oh wait, no, the last funeral I went to the poor guy was cremated, so, I guess since his body actually was dust, he has no hope then right? ;)

Dont get me wrong, I dont believe that the body that went into the grave is the same body that is going to be resurrected. But I have to ask you, after someone dies, where do they go immmediately? What do they look like? Are there two bodies at the same time? I know you talk about this in your book, I have read your book, but this is a point I would like you to elaborate on.

Kevin Corcoran said...


I don't want to go on too long about this here, since I do devote an entire chapter to resurrection in the book. So, let me just say this, and say it briefly. What gets left behind after an ordinary death is not a body. It's a heap of dead cell-stuff. What got burned to ashes after the guy's death you talk about was also not a body. It too was a heap of dead cell-stuff. That stuff was at one time caught up in the life of an organism, a body. After death that stuff is no longer caught up in the life of an organism. (If there is an intermediate state, as I accept, some other "stuff" is caught up in the life of that organism but it and the organism are no longer among us here.)

Where do people go when they die? I have no idea. I don't have an address for them. They "go" wherever it is departed saints are said to "go". Where do you think souls go when a body dies? "Where" is that?

Look, we see through a glass darkly under ordinary conditions such as we experience in our daily lives. Surely then we see through a glass very nearly impenetrable when it comes to thinking about life after death and resurrection. Don't think for a minute that these matters are less opaque or mysterious for dualists than they are for materialists. They're not.

Jack said...

Fair enough, so I will not post anymore about this here after this. And, Kevin, I am not sure how far apart we really are, I guess you would call me a body friendly dualist. As you know I think that we can never exist apart from a body.

And since you admit to an intermediate state, you agree that there are three types of bodies, what we have now, what we will have after we are resurrected which is going to be like Christ's after his resurrection, and an intermediate type.

The difference as I see it, is that I agree with Polkinghorne in that there is some fundamental "person-ness", or "being-ness" that is transferred somehow from one body to another. I do not know if that includes memories, or personality, but it is this spiritual thing (for lack of a better term) that is the Imago Dei, in my opinion.

You said that there is nothing about the proper understanding of Imago Dei that entails a dualistic view. I would contend that there is nothing about the philosophy of mind, and no scientific or clinical evidence that entails a materialistic view of persons.

Kevin Corcoran said...


You say,

I would contend that there is nothing about the philosophy of mind, and no scientific or clinical evidence that entails a materialistic view of persons.

Agreed. I do think there is scientific and clinical evidence that makes certain sorts of dualism (Cartesian, for example) very difficult to maintain. But none that I know of that logically entails materialism. Right.


Anonymous said...

Just to throw something else into the NT Wright mix, I was fortunate enough to hear a number of his lectures as he worked through ideas for his tome on "The Resurrection of the Son of God."

His views/understanding may have shifted since then but in the lectures he was very cautious about laying out mechanisms or definitive answers on the transition between current bodies and "resurrection bodies" and the heaven/earth of now and the heaven/earth to come. In light of that I'd be very cautious about ascribing too much to any quotes he might have given on the subject.

Kevin Corcoran said...


Good point. I think it's fine (even fun, like doing crossword puzzles or playing basketball are fun) to speculate as to how things might go, given certain assumptions (like that we're material beings); but, and it's very big BUT, whatever we put forward must be done so with a very generous amount humility and caution since, really, we have no idea how it's going to go.

So thanks for the reminder.