Sunday, April 12, 2020
The lesson of the Resurrection
The lesson of the Resurrection is that the significance of our bodily life and its sufferings should be neither overstated nor understated. It is to see the middle ground between materialism and Platonism. In our decadent sensualist age, the anti-materialist message is perhaps the more obvious one. The secularist can see no fate worse than unfulfilled earthly ambitions, unhappy marriages, unpaid bills, poor health, and the deathbed. And no greater good than the avoidance of such things. Woody Allen captures the mindset well: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it’s all over much too soon.”
This is pathetic. Whether your hero is Socrates, St. Polycarp, or that glorious mashup of both, St. Justin Martyr, you know that there is no one so blind as he who cannot see the perpetuity beyond our three score and ten. Death ends only our time in the waiting room. Some waiting rooms are excruciatingly boring and uncomfortable. Some are so filled with entertainments that you’re disappointed when it’s time to leave. Either way, they’re just waiting rooms, and so is this life.
But that is not because we have immortal souls, and it is not because worldly things don’t matter. To be sure, we do have immortal souls, and worldly things don’t matter in themselves. But an immortal soul is not a person, full stop. It is the remnant of a person, and the loss of its body is a grave injury rather than a liberation. And the soul’s perpetual port-mortem character is determined by what we did and what we suffered in this life.
This is where the anti-Platonic message comes in. We are embodied by nature rather than by accident. The soul is not whole without the flesh. Nor is it destined to be purged of all traces of the individual that lived and breathed and suffered and died, like the impersonal atman of Hinduism. The lesson of the Resurrection is not that death is not the end of your soul. It is that death is not the end of you as an embodied individual. And it tells us, not that the sufferings of this life will be forgotten, but that they will be redeemed. A perpetual good will be drawn out of a finite harm, like wine out of water.
The resurrected Christ carries his wounds perpetually, as trophies, Aquinas tells us. They are like the scar that an athlete wouldn’t dream of correcting through cosmetic surgery, lest he be deprived of a reminder of what he has earned. Similarly, the lesson of the Resurrection is that the broken heart you suffer now, the smashing of your worldly hopes, the pain of a loved one’s death or of your own failing body – the memory of all of that will, after death, be like one of Christ’s wounds. It will take on a radically different character, and indeed be seen for what it always truly was, part of the purging and perfecting of a spiritual athlete.
For those who love God, anyway. For there is a frightful flip side of the Resurrection, insofar as the wicked no less than the righteous have their bodies restored to them, and their characters too are perpetually set by what they set their hearts on in this life. The memory of their illicit pleasures, of their attachment to mammon, of their lust for fame and power, will ache like a perpetual hangover, an unending reminder of their stupidity and shortsightedness. “Assuredly, they have their reward.”
That is a reward more to be feared than death. But death is indeed frightful. I love and honor Socrates, as any philosopher should. But his death, noble as it was, was not the death of a man who knew death for what it really is. To be sure, his partial truth is far closer to the whole truth than the partial truth of the materialist. Better by far to be a pagan of the Platonist stripe than that sad, contemptible thing Nietzsche called the “Last Man,” the comfort-seeking individualist of liberal secular modernity.
Still, judging from the Phaedo, you’d think that death is essentially a matter of falling asleep during a philosophical conversation with friends. But the reality of death is better captured in other images – of St. Ignatius of Antioch in the teeth of the lions, or St. Polycarp in the flames.
And yet, amazingly, they met these ghastly ends in a manner no less sanguine than that of Socrates. The Last Man tells us: “Death is horrible, so fear it!” Socrates tells us: “Death is not horrible, so don’t fear it!” Christianity tells us: “Death is horrible – but don’t fear it!”