Somewhere a priest is preparing for a funeral. All the Christian clergy, priest, pastor, minister, whatever, as well as some rabbis, are called upon to address our topic, the resurrection of the body. It is a central article of faith, about which there is surprisingly little controversy in Christendom. Let us imagine, however, that it is a Catholic priest. That simplifies things. The pronoun is “he” without reservation, the doctrines and rules of the Roman Catholic Church are well-defined and easy to look up. Also, a Catholic priest need not confront the problem of the damned, the unrepentant, the apostate. The Catholic Church doesn’t allow funeral masses for such persons.
Still, he can’t get around the fact that even repentant sinners carry with them a lot of negative baggage to the grave. Our priest, given the Catholic tradition of encouraging detailed and specific Confession, knows this well. Let’s say (and why not?) that the person to be buried was truly despicable and without redeeming characteristics... perhaps a lawyer? What if even family and “friends” (the business acquaintances who will collect the proceeds of a lavish “key man” insurance policy) were hard pressed to say anything good about the old bastard. The truth in such case would be more aptly called a “kaka-logy” than a “eu-logy”. Thus we can discern the wisdom of the Church in barring eulogy from the celebration of the Mass. Otherwise, the priest would have to be conspicuously silent about the deceased, or lie his ass off, in most funerals. Instead, he meets with friends and family of the deceased, to console and counsel, but he need not concern himself much with the story of the dead person’s life, because the Church forbids the priest from giving a “eulogy” as part of the funeral Mass. The priest is instead directed to present a “homily” as part of the Mass. “Eulogy”, literally, a good story about the dead, looks to the past and the particular, whereas a funeral “homily” is a sermon about the future of eternal life, promised by the Gospels, for all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
The Church recognizes the psychological need for and value of eulogy in the grieving process, but directs that it be given by someone other than the priest and at some other time than the funeral Mass, say, at the burial or wake. Priests can and do incorporate a bit a biography in the homily, but as a means towards making a point, as Cardinal Ratzinger did in his “Follow Me!” homily for Pope John Paul II. The point was not to praise the late Pope but to bury him, and direct the attention of the assembled thousands present and billions attentive toward the lives of Peter and Jesus, and to the benevolent influence of the saints, especially Mary.
While the priest’s task is thus guided by firm rules, giving the funeral homily still isn’t easy. No one living knows what happens when you die, and yet that is what the priest must explain. He believes what has been “revealed” in the Scriptures, but what is revealed is rather obscure. As Paul says, "For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known." 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV). Various clever attempts have been made to tease out of the Scriptures clues as to the characteristics of the resurrected body. Some remarks of Paul, the activities of the risen Jesus in Acts, and Jesus’ reply to a sharp question by some Sadducees, all provide fertile ground for speculation. From the stories about Jesus following his resurrection, for example, there is speculation that the risen body can appear and disappear, walk through walls, travel at great speeds, and so forth.
The Church accepts this Scriptural exegesis of the characteristics of the Risen Body, but it draws a sharp line between these few clues and the sort of pernicious superstition that hovers about the afterlife: necromancy, sorcery, divination, “spirit mediums”, and all the hocus pocus that charlatans and frauds pretend to use to communicate with or take power from the dead. Given all the powers of the Risen Body, one wonders why we haven’t heard more from the dead, just as Jesus’ disciples were able to see Jesus, even eat with him and do some Bible Study. Protestants insist that the resurrection of the body is a future event, which takes place with the “Second Coming” of Jesus, the Apocalypse (Revelation) and the Judgment. Until then, only God acts in the world, and maybe some angels. Catholicism is more nuanced. There is a “particular” judgment immediately after death (the souls of the dead go to their reward and punishment without delay). After that, some of the saints can make miraculous appearances. Whenever such a miraculous appearance is alleged, however, the Church subjects it to intense scrutiny and skepticism, due to the scruples mentioned above about superstition.
Our priest has to confront the fact that a lot of the enthusiastic poetry about the afterlife is two thousand years old and ludicrously anachronistic. To put it bluntly, in heaven there is no beer, or sex, and the early Christians’ idea of a good time seems pretty hokey, even hellish. Dressing in white robes, playing harps and singing hymns to all eternity may have seemed to them like a never-ending rave, where the glow sticks never go out, you don’t need MDMA because PLUR rules, and you can dance and dance and never stop ... but at this point it’s the stuff of comedy, like the jokes Mark Twain allows his demonic alter ego to make in Letters to Earth: they can’t stand more than an hour and fifteen minutes of Church in this life, yet they imagine that Heaven is a never-ending church service?
The fact is, Christians don’t know what Heaven is like and don’t need to know. The doctrine of “the resurrection of the body” affirms that there is something right and good and (at least potentially) perfect in this mode of existence: as individuals in separate bodies in the midst of this world created for them. It may not seem so to us, at this late stage, with two thousand years of asceticism and body-hating and oppression of Womankind. It becomes clear, though, when we delve into the archeology of the doctrine, consider the myths that held sway before and alongside the Christian myth.
Let’s say it’s spring wherever our priest is, and the shoots of crocus, iris or daffodil are poking up from the soil moist with melting snow. If we wish to be completely obvious about our theme here, let there be baby bunnies romping in the cemetery. The roots of belief in resurrection are staggeringly old. As soon as humankind (or proto-humans) had the mental capacity to notice, remember and talk about patterns in nature, the seasons, the cycle of growth, death and renewal of plants and animals, connections were made. How precisely these were conceptualized long ago is difficult to say. Before the Neolithic revolution in technology, when agriculture, ceramics and art were developed, the clues are sparse and mute. Once these crafts were developed, grave goods included things like mother-figurines: stones carved with exaggerated female features. One clue, though, is ubiquitous and much older than these artifacts: everywhere humans went they buried their dead with red ocher. Red ocher is a pigment derived from a naturally occurring clay-silicate containing iron oxide, called hematite. The clay was sometimes used as it was found, in shades ranging from yellow to blood-red, but often heat-processed to bring out the blood-red color. The technique of firing the clay to make it red became widespread 30-40,000 years ago (that is, part of the Neolithic revolution) but recent discoveries at Qafzeh show that in some cases it was known 100,000 years ago.
Qafzeh is a group of burial sites for children in a cave in Mt. Qafzeh in Israel. Work on the site has revealed hematite scored to make powder, and hearths where that powder was fired and transformed into pigment. This in itself is nothing new, but the age of the evidence, 100,000 CE, blurs accepted distinctions between Neolithic and Paleolithic, and between the Neanderthal and early homo sapiens species. In the Qafzeh region, the preparation of red ocher apparently was discontinued and the art was lost, and was not rediscovered until relatively recently (13,000 years ago). For the purposes of the inquiry into archaic religion, however, it shows that the mental capacity for a deliberate approach to death predates civilization, technological systems and even the establishment of homo sapiens as the dominant and sole surviving hominid species.
The significance of burying the dead with red ocher is open to a variety of interpretations, but clearly, deliberately making use of the iron present in both clay and blood to make a blood-red pigment cannot be ignored. Mircea Eliade speculates: "Belief in a survival after death seems to be demonstrated, from the earliest times, by use of red ocher as a ritual substitute for blood, hence as a symbol of life." A History of Religious Ideas (1978) vol. 1, at 9.
“History” as such begins with writing, and for Western Civilization, writing began in Sumer. From the oldest cuneiform tablets we know the names of the Sumerian gods, and the rituals and stories associated with them. Clearly, by the time they were eventually recorded in clay with the triangular imprints of a stick, the stories were already complex and multi-layered and thus very , very old.
Religious myths in the polytheistic Middle East all had two layers: an old layer of cosmic forces and grand abstractions, gods of “Earth” and “Sky” and “Ocean”, and a newer layer in which the gods were recognizably human. So it was with the Sumerians. The old gods were venerated and given primacy of place, but not well understood or well-loved. The Sumerians loved the grandchildren of the old gods, and one goddess of above all others: Inanna. When the Akkadians take over they call her Ishtar, the Egyptians call her Isis, and she is also recognizable as Astarte, Aphrodite and Venus. In her Sumerian form she was the goddess of both love and war, and also had a Promethian aspect: it was said that Inanna had stolen all the arts and crafts of civilization from the old gods, and gave them to the artisans of her favored city, Erech. Inanna seems to me a personification of city life, which for the Sumerians was a bold new life-style, in contrast to the semi-agricultural, semi-nomadic life style of the Neolithic village. Gathering together in cities gave the Sumerians new opportunities in love and life --and in making war on their neighbors-- which New Stone Age villagers could only dimly imagine, much as we can try to imagine what life after the Singularity will be like, when all the data and computation power which humanity can generate is linked into one hyper-connected and self-aware mass.
The story of “Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld” was repeated over and over by the civilizations which followed the Sumerians, each with their own distinctive twists and variations of the narrative. One can detect the theme of “myth to explain why there are seasons” in the Greek story of Persephone, or Aphrodite and Adonis, the Egyptians’ tales about Isis and Osiris and Horus and Seth, or the Babylonian myth of Ishtar and Tammuz. Until rather recently, though, we didn’t have the Sumerian version, until the clay tablets relating it were discovered and translated in 1963. It turns out to have some unique features.
The old gods gave Inanna dominion over the living, and dominion over the dead to Inanna’s sister Ereshkigal. One imagines the old gods did this reluctantly, knowing Inanna’s exuberance knew no boundaries, and indeed, it somehow got into Inanna’s head that she should visit her sister in the Underworld, with the implication that Inanna sought to be the goddess of both the living and the dead.
In the meantime, however, Inanna had fallen in love with a mortal man, a shepherd by trade, who had distinguished himself by becoming king over one of the Sumerian cities. His name was Dumuzi. The stories of their love affair become the model for all such stories, including the Song of Solomon. Indeed, in his Babylonian form, “Tammuz”, he makes an appearance in the Holy Bible, though as one might expect, only when a prophet is criticizing a ritual practice, popular among women throughout the Middle East, of bewailing his annual “death”.
Back to Inanna’s journey, however: the guardians of the Underworld insist that there is only one way in, a ritual of passing gates. At each gate, Inanna must give some item of clothing, jewelry or make-up (each one representing some godly power) until finally she appears before her sister Ereshkigal, naked and powerless. Ereshkigal rightly suspects Inanna’s plan to take over her dominion, and moreover is jealous that Inanna is permitted to visit the Underworld, which Ereshkigal can never leave. She instantly kills Inanna and hangs her dead body on a hook. Word of this reaches the old gods and they intervene by sending Inanna’s servant with the "bread of life” and the "water of life”. The guardians of the underworld object and assert the rule that no one who has died may leave the Underworld. A compromise is reached where Inanna will be permitted to leave if sends a suitable replacement soul to the Underworld, and demons are sent with Inanna to make sure that happens.
Inanna travels and considers and rejects various replacements until she returns to her home city of Erech and finds her lover, Dumuzi, sitting on her throne. He is apparently enjoying himself in her absence, and this pisses off Inanna. She chooses Dumuzi as her replacement in hell. As a result of the heiros gamos (divine marriage) between Inanna and Dumuzi, however, Dumuzi had obtained the powers of a fertility god: making plants grow and animals and people bear children. When Dumuzi is taken to the underworld, a perpetual winter ensues and no children are born. This situation is intolerable and so the old gods also allow Dumuzi to use a replacement (as it turns out, his sister, who loves him so much she volunteers). Thus, for the part of the year in which Dumuzi is in the underworld, we have winter. Every year, women “mourn” the (temporary) death of Dumuzi with ritual involving much weeping. Hence the scene decried as an “abomination” by the prophet Ezekiel:
“Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the LORD's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.” Ezekiel 8:14
All the civilizations built on and after Sumer apparently found this original version of the story somewhat scandalous. They edit out the transgression of the Inanna and Dumuzi (Inanna trying to take over her sister’s turf, and Dumuzi usurping Inanna’s throne) by changing the story. In all the later versions, the Beloved Man is mortal and dies, and this provides the motivation for the Goddess to invade the underworld and retrieve her lover. The Greeks even switch the genders of the protagonists, making the Beloved a female, as in the story of Eurydice, the beloved of Orpheus, or eliminate the love-story entirely, as in the myth of Persephone, who is wooed by several gods but has taken no lover when she is abducted by Hades.
The ancient Hebrews, for their part, retain an echo of the original “transgression” in their story of mankind’s ancestors, Adam and Eve, in the second chapter of Genesis. The monotheistic Hebrews, however, stripped out the divinity of any character other than their one Lord God Yaweh (worshipping Eve as a goddess would be an “abomination”, no doubt) as well as all of Inanna’s civilized qualities, her patronage of art and science, the exuberance of love and war. Thus, montheism deprived Western Civilization of a divine personification of its own communal activities. (That such a personification is necessary can be seen from the rise of nationalism and the deification of the State, the worship of “God and Country” ... but this is a topic for some other essay.)
The annual cycles of the seasons, how dormant plants and animals re-emerge from apparent death, the way human communities regenerate themselves through reproduction and revolution, and so forth ... regardless of Church dogma and sometimes in spite of it, Christians rely on the polytheistic heritage by celebrating Easter in springtime and by making use of pagan symbols such as eggs and bunnies. Right-wing preachers of the more flamboyantly “literal” sects decry this as an “abomination” just like the Jewish prophets of old, and insist that story of the resurrection of Jesus should be enough for anyone.
I suppose for some people it is, but I am either too logical, or not “logical” enough for that sort of argumentation. There were in Corinth, the crossroads of Greece, certain Christians (perhaps former Jews of the sect of the Sadducees) who denied the resurrection of the dead and advocated an Epicurean approach to life, summed up by Paul as “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” I Cor. 15:32. Paul rebukes these people in his First Letter to the Corinthians, insisting that the resurrection of the dead is essential to both Christian soteriology (“savior talk”) and eschatology (“hope talk”). Paul puts it bluntly: “If Christ be not raised, then your faith is in vain, and you are still in your sins.” I Corinthian 15:17.
If I were a Corinthian, perhaps a Platonist raised to admire the nobility of Socrates, who faced death bravely and even cheerfully with a faith that his true nature was an immortal soul, this would stink of fraud and confusion. For Socrates, Plato and all the Greeks after them until they became Christians, be they Gnostic, Neoplatonic, Stoic or Epicurean, this world is a dismal shadowy place and our best hope is that we should be permitted to leave it and return to the realm of light from which we came. Such a one might reply to Paul that his argument is not much better than a tautology: if no one, not even Jesus, has been raised from the dead, then no one ever will be. Even if I accept that Jesus was a god and could raise himself from the dead, I fail to see how this proves that I, too, will rise again. If I accept the Gospels at face value, Jesus never proclaimed himself “God” or “Messiah” , and instructed his disciples to keep the matter of his divinity a secret, and admonished people he had healed not to tell anyone about the miracle.
Paul leads me to believe that Jesus’ identity could not be fully revealed until the completion of his mission, “the fullness of time”, when his death and resurrection accomplish the Atonement for all the sins of the World. (One also gets the impression that Jesus left the task of proclaiming the Gospel to certain persons: namely Peter and Paul). In any event, it is certainly true that for Paul, Jesus is the Messiah and the Son of God. Unless we are all Sons of God, possessing god-like superpowers like the ability to raise ourselves from the dead, like Jesus, then the apparent syllogistic force of Paul’s argument to the Corinthians falls flat. Our faith in eternal life could well be in vain even if Jesus did rise from the dead: what if God loved Jesus but not us? What if Jesus is God but we aren’t? Paul, of course, elsewhere supplies these missing premises and preaches God’s grace, that is, that God loves us and so will freely lend his superpowers to us, including eternal life, if we accept Jesus as our Savior.
All of which would strike the Corinthian as beside the point: assuming we could return to this world, why would we want to? What is it about this mode of existence that Paul’s God loves? I would hope that my imaginary priest would find the words to address this.