The Garb of Being
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The Garb of Being

Embodiment and the Pursuit of Holiness in Late Ancient Christianity

Georgia Frank, Susan Holman, Andrew Jacobs, Georgia Frank, Susan Holman, Andrew Jacobs

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eBook - ePub

The Garb of Being

Embodiment and the Pursuit of Holiness in Late Ancient Christianity

Georgia Frank, Susan Holman, Andrew Jacobs, Georgia Frank, Susan Holman, Andrew Jacobs

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This collection explores how the body became a touchstone for late antique religious practice and imagination. When we read the stories and testimonies of late ancient Christians, what different types of bodies stand before us? How do we understand the range of bodily experiences—solitary and social, private and public—that clothed ancient Christians? How can bodily experience help us explore matters of gender, religious identity, class, and ethnicity? The Garb of Being investigates these questions through stories from the Eastern Christian world of antiquity: monks and martyrs, families and congregations, and textual bodies.Contributors include S. Abrams Rebillard, T. Arentzen, S. P. Brock, R. S. Falcasantos, C. M. Furey, S. H. Griffith, R. Krawiec, B. McNary-Zak, J.-N. Mellon Saint-Laurent, C. T. Schroeder, A. P. Urbano, F. M. Young

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Year
2019
ISBN
9780823287031
PART I: MAKING BODIES
BODY AND SOUL
UNION IN CREATION, REUNION AT RESURRECTION
Frances Young
Symeon Stylites practiced a healthy regime, with his vegetarian diet and constant prostrations”: something like that was the surprising and insightful comment I remember hearing from one of my graduate students many years ago. It foreshadowed the direction of Susan Ashbrook Harvey’s research interests, in asceticism, the body, and the senses, a pursuit which bore spectacular results in her remarkable book Scenting Salvation.1
At approximately the same time as Susan was studying in Birmingham, I was working on two anthropological treatises of the fourth century: Gregory of Nyssa’s De opificio hominis and Nemesius’s De natura hominis. My principal interest then was to observe the influence of scripture on the way they each approached the question of human nature. To my surprise the work of both challenged the accepted view that patristic body-soul dualism undermined the psychosomatic unity of the human person found in the biblical material. Since those years there has been an explosion of interest in the body, in early Christian studies provoked by Peter Brown’s The Body and Society2 and in religious studies more generally by feminist theology. My purpose here is not to review that material but to return to the issue of body-soul integration and to show how arguments about creation and resurrection in the second century ensured that by the fourth century even those Christian thinkers with the most leanings toward Neoplatonism would espouse the view that the union of soul with body was constitutive of the human being as a creature among creatures, and so a necessary aspect of the reconstitution of the human person at the resurrection.
Soul-body dualism is often treated as the default anthropological position in antiquity. That would at first sight seem to be confirmed by Nemesius’s treatise, On the Nature of Humankind,3 which opens by affirming that most leading thinkers “have asserted that humankind is composed of a rational soul and body,” a point restated at the end of the exordium: “the common saying has it that humankind consists of soul and body.”4 Early on he mentions Plato’s version of this dualism: “Plato seems not to regard humankind as a twofold being of soul and body, but a soul that makes use of such and such a body.” Plato concentrates all attention on the soul, and there is general consent, Nemesius admits, that the body is only an instrument employed by soul—the evidence being the body’s passivity when the soul is separated from it in death. It soon becomes clear, however, that for Nemesius the union of soul and body is what makes humankind what it is. Placing humankind on the border between the phenomenal and the intelligible, on the grounds that humans have much in common with animals yet are rational, he points out that this indicates the unity of creation and so proves that the whole universe is the creation of one God. He draws out the continuity of the inanimate, the vegetative, the animal, and the rational orders of creation, one shading into another, mentioning the authority of Aristotle for this but also showing how it justifies the order of the Mosaic account of creation and appealing to other scripture texts to confirm the point that humanity is on the borderline between the rational and the irrational, the mortal and the immortal—indeed, not merely the crucial link in the hierarchy of created orders of being but a mikros kosmos, bearing an image of the whole creation in its own nature. This setting of humankind in the context of creation as a whole ensures the primacy of the union as constitutive of what a human being is.
Here, then, is no simple dualism, and the rest of the treatise confirms this, as Nemesius explores bodily composition out of the four elements, the composite nature of the soul itself, and the complex relation between soul and body. Following for the most part the medical philosopher Galen, he explores the influence of the elements which constitute the body on a person’s temperament, acknowledging that emotion is the driving force of human action. His physiological statements also presuppose the intimate union of soul and body: “Whatever movement takes place by the operation of nerves and muscles involves the intervention of soul, and is accomplished by an act of will” (26.43).
Soul also provides the energeia in respiration: panting and sobbing accompany moments of great grief, and soul keeps respiration going during sleep. In his discussion of sense perception and dreams the physical and the psychic are again intimately woven together. Indeed, “a living creature is composed of soul and body: the body is not a living creature by itself, nor is the soul, but body and soul together” (33.49). What Nemesis describes, I suggest, makes the soul the equivalent in our terms of the central nervous system.
The manner of the soul’s union with the body, however, is a matter not easily resolved (see 3.20–22). Being itself incorporeal, the soul is yet present in every part of the body, giving it life and movement, while also being transcendent, that is, not confined to some portion of space—dreams provide the classic instance. So the union is a puzzle because there are no satisfactory analogies. Normally, what comes together to form a single entity is made completely one only if the constituents undergo change. Having ruled out juxtaposition and mixture, Nemesius speaks of the soul putting on the body and being united with it through “sympathy.” Intelligibles, he suggests, can unite with things adapted to receive them and remain unconfused while in union. He makes explicit the implicit Christological analogy, turning it on its head in the sense that Christology is used to explain the anthropological puzzle rather than vice versa.
Moral choice is the principal interest of this largely philosophical treatise, focusing as it does on the importance of rationality being in control of behavior, despite behavior being affected by bodily temperament, upbringing, and habit. Human potential for immortality through the proper exercise of free will is really its theme. It utilizes the options canvassed by philosophers to explore the way in which the very nature of humankind makes such choice possible and, for the most part, hardly seems distinctively Christian. Yet what is notable is the way in which it adopts certain specific options precisely because they cohere with the view that human beings are integrally part of a created order called into being from nothing by God’s creative Word. Humankind was created as a complex unity at the cusp of created orders of being and has two “choice prerogatives”: human bodies alone, though mortal, are immortalized, a privilege of the body for the soul’s sake; and only human beings can repent and gain forgiveness, the soul’s privilege on account of the body (angels do not have the same distractions as embodied human beings have). So, just as “the soul has this other privilege for the body’s sake, which is infirm and troubled by many passions,” so “peculiar to humankind and unique,” enjoyed “alone among living creatures,” is “for its body to rise again after death and enter on immortality” (1.7). Thus, despite huge debts to the legacies of philosophy, it turns out that creation and resurrection, though barely mentioned, in fact shape Nemesius’s conclusion that the body-soul union is fundamental both to what a human being is and to what human life is all about under the providence of God.
The connection between creation and resurrection is a striking feature of texts which most probably belong to the second century. This, along with its profound implications for Christian understanding of the nature of humankind, is something I observed when asked to offer a paper on early Christian eschatology.5 A treatise on resurrection attributed to the apologist Athenagoras is particularly pertinent.6 Demanding that those with doubts about the resurrection should not put their opinions forward without critical investigation, the author immediately raises the issue of creation: either they must ascribe the creation of human beings to no cause, or, “if they ascribe the cause of existing things to God,” they should “examine closely the presupposition of this doctrine” (2.2). If they do, they will be able to show that the resurrection doctrine is untrustworthy only “if they can show that God, either is not able or is unwilling to knit together again dead bodies … and restore them, so as to constitute the very men they once were” (2.3). He goes on to argue that “it is impossible for God … to be ignorant of the nature of our bodies”:
before the particular formation of individual things, God knew the nature of the elements yet to be created from which bodies arise; and he knew the parts of the elements from which he planned to select in order to form the human body. (2.5)
So God has the requisite knowledge; he also has the requisite power:
the creation of our bodies shows that God’s power suffices for their resurrection. For if, when he first gave them form, he made the bodies of men and their principal constituents from nothing, he will just as easily raise them up again after their dissolution, howsoever it may have taken place. For this is equally possible for him. (3.1)
To shape shapeless matter or give life to what is lifeless demonstrates a power “which can also unite what has been dissolved, can raise up what has fallen, can restore the dead to life, and can change the corruptible into incorruption” (3.2). Indeed, such a Creator God can overcome the difficulties of reconstituting bodies torn apart and devoured by animals or drowned in shipwrecks and become food for fish or even cannibalized (3–4). Indeed, the resurrection of decomposed bodies is not only possible for the Creator but willed by him and worthy of him (11.1).
The author proceeds to argue for resurrection on the basis of God’s purpose in creating humankind (12.1–5) and for reconstitution as a composite union of soul and body (12.8–13.1–2): “The reason, then, for man’s creation guarantees his eternal survival, and his survival guarantees resurrection, without...

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