Glies Fraser bravely tackled immortality in the Church Times ten days ago, and I’ve been musing on what he said. His argument is that Christian faith and Biblical witness is about resurrection, not immortality. We die, and it is only by God’s grace that death is defeated and we are resurrected.
Fraser says that popular spirituality clings to the immortality of the soul – as in modern mourners’ hope that the deceased ‘Uncle Bob is looking down on them from above’. That, he says, is about clinging to life and denying the reality of death, rather than proclaiming the power of God’s life that can defeat death.
It’s the sensitive point at which Hebrew thought confronts Greek philosophy about the immortality of the soul, and there has been an uneasy shifting around it for centuries. One of the things that Greek thought does is introduce a much sharper divide between body and soul than you find in Hebrew thought. And this has produced distortions in Christian thought about the body that we are only just recovering from.
What interests me is how Christian theology is going to come to terms with modern physics – especially of the indestructability of matter. If the atoms that make up our body survive our death, ‘who’ are they? And who is the ‘me’ that might be resurrected? According to Fraser, this is exactly the kind of concern which the theologian William Temple would have discounted: “Temple starts with God, and remains wholly indifferent to the question what will become of his own future existence.” OK, but what became of the atoms that were Jesus’ own body on earth?
Some novelists seem fascinated by this question of death and atoms – Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials envisages atoms of loved ones meeting again after death and never being parted; Ursula le Guin, in the later books of the Earthsea series, is also fascinated by how death should not be avoided but rather claimed – and she also envisages the dead being reunited thereafter.
And meanwhile, clergy use a variety of words and models and expressions of hope in funerals, struggling to retain Biblical integrity with the pastoral urge to make spiritual contact with people for whom the personal grief is at the forefront, and the theology too complex or unfamiliar to grasp.
So it’s quite a relief to turn to perfecting the recipe for Resurrection Puffs, ahead of our children’s Easter Crafts morning. You take a marshmallow (Jesus), dip him in oil (anointing), then in cinnamon sugar (the spices), wrap him in puff pastry, sealing the edges tightly (the linen cloths), and bake him in the oven (tomb) until it is risen and golden. Sprinkle with sugar (Easter dawn) and look inside the pastry – the marshmallow will have disappeared!