Maybe it’s some strange alignment of the heavenly bodies, maybe it’s divine providence, or maybe I’m just a bit weird, but for some reason a lot of my reading and entertainment lately has touched on the nature of the soul, the body, and the resurrection. You can probably blame Gregory of Nyssa. I reread his treatise on the topic a few weeks ago, and it may have enlivened my mind to the topic, so that I’m seeing the resurrection everywhere.
Whatever the cause, I find this sort of theological and cultural exploration very fruitful. So, without further ado, here’s a symphony on the soul and the body, a little patristics blended with two television shows and a video game franchise, followed by some thoughts about reflecting on culture.
Reincarnation and the suitability of the body? The Originals
I don’t know about you, but when I come home after work, I’m in the mood for something pretty mindless. And, whatever else might be said about the CW’s The Originals (a spin-off of the more annoying Vampire Diaries), it never fails to deliver what I’m looking for to unwind: sappy, soap-opera level dialogue, terrible actors, surprisingly good special effects, the latest indie music, and a heavy dose of weird mythology. My interest in vampire literature and media stems from my pre-Christian fascination with tales of immortality, but what grabbed my attention throughout the second season of The Originals was its focus on the persistent potential for a kind of reincarnation.
Death is rarely final in the show; old enemies resurface, usually in their original bodies, sometimes in new ones. One thing seems constant: with their memories and personality intact, dead characters reappear in a body that suits them, sometimes chosen by them, sometimes for them. No one returns as a houseplant or a hummingbird. No one returns in a differently sexed body (although age and race seem not to matter). No one loses their self in the transition to a new body.
Some of these points will seem familiar to anyone aware of the Christian tradition’s understanding of resurrection. Here is how Gregory of Nyssa puts it, as he refutes reincarnation or “the transmigration of souls”:
When people say that the same soul now becomes rational and intelligent through being wrapped in our kind of a body, and again burrows with the serpents, or flocks with the birds, or carries burdens, or devours flesh, or lives under water, or even migrates to the insensate beings, taking root and growing into a tree, and sprouting branches … it is just as if they judged everything to be the same and the nature of all beings to be one. (On the Soul and the Resurrection 8)
Setting aside other paranormal peculiarities of The Originals, it gets at least one thing right: the soul of man is not identical with that of beasts or plants, nor is it simply some featureless principle of life, like an electric current ready to flow into any receptacle.
Indeed, even the show’s peculiar unwillingness to let old enemies lie is a sort of affirmation similar to Gregory: the soul is not unconcerned about its body. When it dies, the soul
that has once been united in some ineffable manner to the compound of the elements [of the body] also remains forever with those elements with which it was mixed, without being in any way separated from the union which happened to it once and for all (On the Soul and Resurrection 2; compare ch. 5)
Gregory’s treatise raises the idea that, even if all the parts of the body were dispersed across the world, due to fire, sword, or decay, the soul would be present to every one of the body’s particles. The union is that strong, and the soul is not deterred by distance. It attends to its body.
The body affects the soul? 3rd Rock from the Sun
This classic comedy of 1996-2001 came to Netflix UK recently, and my wife and I have hardly let a day pass without watching an episode or two. The premise of the show is that four aliens have come to Earth on a fact-finding mission to learn about human experience and culture. To do so, they take on stereotypical “Earth bodies” for small-town Ohio: one is the elderly father, another the son; one the screwy uncle, another a stay-at-home aunt. Part of the show’s genius is the characters’ attempt to fit in, making all sorts of mistakes.
A curious thing happens, though. The characters are supposedly “purple tubes” inserted into body after body during their various missions, but their time on Earth starts to change them. They experience human emotion, and they take on characteristics demanded by their bodies and social positions. A lot of these center on sex and gender, which the aliens do not have. The “aunt,” Sally, especially struggles to work out how to be a woman, sometimes challenging arbitrary stereotypes, but affirming others out of her sense of what is natural.
It seems the soul (or the purple tube, in this case) cannot fail to be affected by the body and its experiences. Once again, let us return to Gregory. He seems to vacillate on whether the emotions are part of the soul or the body, indeed, whether certain emotions may be purified or replaced by others through spiritual practice — eros becoming caritas, for instance (On the Resurrection and the Soul 3). But he is sure of one thing: the soul is changed by the body; it can become more or less fleshly, more or less vicious, in the same way that someone dwelling “in evil-smelling places” cannot easily be rid of their stench. This, in itself, is why the reformation of humankind does not come without struggle and pain. Gregory brings out an incredible image: the purification of the human person is like drawing someone out of a collapsed building. The person being rescued may be pinned down by rocks or pierced through by wooden beams.
They will be all mangled and torn and will suffer … as the debris and the nails lacerate them because of the force of those who pull them out — some such experience I think will happen to the soul, when the divine power, by its love for mankind, draws its own out from the irrational and material debris.
The soul can be purified by its experiences in the body, but it is also shaped and wounded by them.
The soul affects the body? Infinity Blade
In this gallery of pop culture, I find the Infinity Blade series the most interesting. It started as an addictive, award-winning action game in the sci-fi/fantasy genre for the iPhone and iPad, but grew to include two further games and two novellas by fantasy author Brian Sanderson. The main characters have been transformed to become “Deathless,” that is, superhuman versions of themselves, marked by greater physical capabilities and an ability to reincarnate or heal themselves.
For the theologian in me (and not just the nerdy kid), the version of immortality in the series is the most interesting point: characters become Deathless by having their souls modified. After this modification, it is their soul that grants immortality to their body, that ensures it will constantly repair itself and remain at the peak of youth and health. If they cannot return to their original body (say, if it is incinerated), it is also the character of their soul that guarantees reincarnation for them, unlike the eternal death of other humans. Deathless souls will seek out another suitable vessel, often a cloned version of their original body, which then becomes immortal upon union.
The series is riddled by unanswered questions about memory, identity, redemption, and even the cyclical character of history. The element of Christian teaching that seems to come through most clearly, however, is the idea of the persistence of the soul’s identity despite change. Infinity Blade suggests that the body may be made impervious, new, superhuman, without destroying the identity of the individual. One of the characters reflects that he is as different from his old self as a seed is from an oak tree or even a great building made from a forest of trees.
This is a perennial problem for theologies of the resurrection, and the seed is a perennial image. It comes up for Gregory. He is quite firm, at least in On the Soul and the Resurrection, that the soul returns to the same body, even to the same elements it knew before. It is like a restored sculpture or painting. For God, he says, returning the soul to the body is as easy as a painter recalling how they first made an image with their materials: the colors involved, their chiaroscuro, their arrangement into a proper form. “God knows how they were.”
The bodies of the saints must be the same, so that it is the same people who return:
What is the resurrection to me, if instead of me someone else will return to life? How would I myself recognize myself, seeing in myself that which is not myself? I would not truly be myself, if I were not in all respects the same as myself. (On the Soul and the Resurrection 10)
He thinks we must even look like ourselves, with similar hair, features, skin color, and so on. But the changes also are crucial, like the difference between a grain of wheat and the stalk or ear it produces.
While remaining in itself, the seed becomes an ear of grain, which differs completely from its former self in size, beauty, variety, and form. In the same manner, the human nature also …. As if ripening into an ear, it changes into incorruptibility, glory, honor, power, and every kind of perfection. (ibid.)
What do The Originals, 3rd Rock from the Sun, and Infinity Blade have in common? Gregory of Nyssa’s On the Soul and the Resurrection, it turns out.
Well, sort of. Christian doctrine differs considerably from the rampant speculation on the human person that characterizes contemporary pop culture; these particular examples were mostly a useful springboard. But I am constantly amazed at the way Christian or sub-Christian ideas pop up in novels, movies, video games, comic books, and other forms of entertainment. We should expect no less. Divine truth has a way of revealing itself in the most surprising of places. The seed of the Gospel has been sown into the whole creation. And, of course, our message has been around for a while; our culture is haunted by it.
Still, I never cease to be amazed at how many convoluted positions on embodiment and the soul are present in the kind of stuff that Western culture keeps creating and that our congregations, our children, and our friends keep consuming (much as we do). As St. Augustine said about heresy, it’s a testament to the incredible gifts God has given to human reason.
What this may imply, however, is a persistent need to identify and name such heresies (or surprising manifestations of the Gospel) when we come across them. It’s easy to be led astray in the soup of weird ideas. We need not have an overly combative stance — embarrassing as it is, I’m not sure I need to reform my bizarre taste — but we do need to prepare ourselves and the whole Christian flock for and with this kind of cultural analysis. To paraphrase a bit of Scripture somewhat irresponsibly (Titus 1:15): to the theological, all things are theological.
Everything we encounter can become an exercise of the theological imagination, if we’re prepared for it.