For it must be looked upon as borrowed by the other person
June 13, 2019 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Medieval Christian theologians were OBSESSED with the cannibal baby question: if our bodies are resurrected in the Last Judgment, what happens if we were eaten? (CW: cannibalism, including medieval images of same.)

(Threadreader for the Twitter averse)

Strange Notions explores the idea in greater depth:
In the eighteenth century Voltaire, cheeky as always, gleefully described such a problem when he proposed the following situation. He asked that we imagine a French soldier who has traveled to Quebec and finds himself lost in the woods far away from his station. Starving, he does the unthinkable: he kills and eats a native Iroquois whom he meets in the forest. One man has eaten another, but the problem is even greater than we realize. For Voltaire goes on to tell us, “The Iroquois had fed on Jesuits for two or three months, and a great part of his body [i.e., the Iroquois's body] had become Jesuit”
Medieval preoccupations about cannibalism may seem quaint, but an analogous argument is still very much an issue regarding organ donation in religions that believe in resurrection.

Twitter thread source materials:

St Augustine’s City of God, Vol II

St Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles
posted by chappell, ambrose (40 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
what happens if we were eaten?

[more inside]
posted by mattdidthat at 11:07 AM on June 13 [67 favorites]


Damn. I'm gonna need to remember this next time someone accuses anyone else of having too much time on their hands. Because someone who has the energy to expend this much intellectual effort on this problem is, like, floating sixty feet above the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.
posted by egypturnash at 11:12 AM on June 13 [17 favorites]


Because someone who has the energy to expend this much intellectual effort on this problem is, like, floating sixty feet above the peak of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

Well, some people seem to think it is a very serious business:

The resurrection of the body is an essential Christian doctrine, as the apostle Paul declares: “[I]f the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished” (1 Cor. 15:13–18).
posted by thelonius at 11:16 AM on June 13 [6 favorites]


Hi I'm on MedievalFilter and I could overthink a plate of beings
posted by cortex at 11:17 AM on June 13 [79 favorites]


Mostly it's what happens when people don't have netflix and such.
posted by Drastic at 11:17 AM on June 13 [6 favorites]


So much anxiety about this and yet they did it every Sunday...

(but really I do wonder how transubstantiation was tangled up in this issue)
posted by sallybrown at 11:21 AM on June 13 [7 favorites]


I was kind of hoping for Renaissance images of little teeny cannibal babies eating people. Sort of like World War Z, but....Muppety!
posted by xingcat at 11:24 AM on June 13 [11 favorites]


People are eaten by worms, which are eaten by birds, which are eaten by people. We are all the eaten and the eaters. But if you can make yourself believe in a god that can make a universe and everything in it, you can believe in a god that can sort these things out.
posted by pracowity at 11:27 AM on June 13 [10 favorites]




Best of the web. I mean this sincerely.
posted by thivaia at 11:34 AM on June 13 [9 favorites]


Clicking around, thinking about jokes about charnel houses, people and their jars of powdered mummy, and I end up at this Smithsonian article: The Gruesome History of Eating Corpses as Medicine
posted by turkeybrain at 11:37 AM on June 13 [3 favorites]


Mostly it's what happens when people don't have netflix and such.

If they have Netflix, they argue endlessly about what’s getting cooked in a dreamed-of Hannibal reboot.
posted by GenjiandProust at 11:45 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]


this is where atheist-bordering-on-ontological-nihilist me talks about his favorite living christian (now that fred rogers and johnny cash are no longer with us), and about how that guy approaches faith.

so anyway, every year on the saturday before easter, fred clark (better known as slacktivist) posts this beautiful little sermon. here are some key bits, that are relevant to the quote from corinthians that thelonius quotes upthread, and ultimately relevant to the original article:
There are some things we can know on this Saturday. Jesus is dead, to begin with, dead and buried. He said the world was upside-down and needed a revolution to turn it right-way-round and so he was executed for disturbing the peace. He came and said love was greater than power, and so power killed him.

And now it’s Saturday and Jesus is dead and we’re all going to die and everything I’ve told you about him turns out to be in vain and everything I’ve staked my life on turns out to be in vain. Our faith is futile and we’re still hopeless in our sins. Jesus is dead and we are of all people most to be pitied.

That last paragraph is a paraphrase from St. Paul. What he actually says there, in his letter to the Christians in Corinth, is “if …” What he says, specifically, is:
If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead …
But that’s Sunday language and Sunday certainty and it doesn’t make much sense here on Saturday. Here on Saturday, we can hope it’s true and we may even try to believe it’s true, but we can’t know “in fact” one way or another. Not now. Not on Saturday.
the medieval christian european world was one wherein atheism was unheard of — if there were any atheists at all, they certainly knew better than to write anything down — and wherein the crucifixion and resurrection were immediately real, just as real as the king and his crown, just as real as the stars in the sky, just as real as the pope on his throne, just as real as the demons that made people sicken or go mad, just as real as distant constantinople, just as real as the roman ruins that littered the landscape. we live in a saturday world by saturday logic; they lived in a sunday world by sunday logic.

here in our saturday world, we are interested in interrogating the absurdities present in what we know to be true — the strange and irreconcilable truths of quantum physics and general relativity, the vertigo-inducing knowledge that the universe is vastly large and vastly old, too large and old for us to ever fit it into our little minds, and not least of all the grim truth that we all live a while and then die. and in their sunday world, they were just as interested in interrogating the sunday facts that they knew to be true — the fact that god became a man, the fact that he was crucified, the fact that he was resurrected, and the concomitant fact that we humans would be resurrected in turn. and so driven by the same impulse that drives us to postulate mad things like string theory and dark matter and dark energy in order to explain the puzzles and paradoxes of our saturday world, they tried to solve the puzzles and paradoxes of their sunday world by thinking very hard about the parts that didn't seem to make sense — things like what it meant for our carnal bodies to be resurrected when those bodies had passed into and through other bodies.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 11:56 AM on June 13 [79 favorites]


I quite liked this manner of presentation (and I generally like this use of twitter, unlike most of the others I've encountered), but at the same time, I feel ambivalent about the flippant tone (these silly ancient people obsessing about ridiculous minutiae). If you can come up with a scenario in which physical resurrection is impossible, you've destabilized the whole theological edifice, and this seems to me (a non-Christian person not from the Middle Ages) to be a huge problem. Those famously ridiculous scholastic exercises about angels and pins and the like all seem to me to belong to the same basic project of making sure that what people discovered about the universe was not in contradiction with the unassailable theological foundations, because if they were, you were opening the door (sorry for all the stupid architecture metaphors) to the collapse of the whole lifeworld.
posted by a certain Sysoi Pafnut'evich at 12:06 PM on June 13 [4 favorites]


i think it goes deeper than that. it’s not like we ourselves try to reconcile quantum mechanics and general relativity because we don’t want the edifice of contemporary science to come tumbling down. we do it because we know that the insights granted through knowledge of quantum mechanics are real insights, we know that the insights granted through knowledge of general relativity are real insights, and we know that general relativity and quantum mechanics appear totally irreconcilable. and we want to, well, figure out what’s up with that.

likewise, the medievals knew that the resurrection was real, real as real can be. there was no risk that the edifice of faith would be brought down by its internal paradoxes, any more than there’s a risk that the edifice of contemporary science will be brought down by its internal paradoxes. they just wanted to know what was up with things. they wanted to know how the confusing parts worked.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:16 PM on June 13 [22 favorites]


If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. … If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

In a very peculiar way, St Paul was invoking what we would call cognitive dissonance to 'prove' resurrection of the body and that Christ was resurrected.
posted by jamjam at 12:21 PM on June 13 [5 favorites]


To be fair, we haven't always had the excellent educational resources we do today.
posted by sjswitzer at 12:26 PM on June 13


What's interesting to me here is that this question presents a very different, I think, view of body/soul/identity than the common one today. I think today when people picture an afterlife, they aren't really imagining their physical bodies like they've got now up tap-dancing on clouds or being tortured in pits. Rather, sort of a projection of their soul, which might for our purposes carry the same appearance as our physical bodies and allow for sensory perception, would be what lives on. Moreover, that soul projection, whatever you want to call it, would be closer to what you would consider You than your physical body would be.

But the obsession with this question implies a deep understanding of the flesh being the individual, and if that flesh can be transferred, borrowed, stolen and subsumed, what is going to happen with it at the final accounting? And maybe I'm completely off-base here, but I don't think so, because they seemed to have found the "Don't worry, God's got this and He'll make up for whatever's missing because He's God" explanation deeply unsatisfying.
posted by Navelgazer at 12:38 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


Rather, sort of a projection of their soul, which might for our purposes carry the same appearance as our physical bodies and allow for sensory perception, would be what lives on.

This is what was the case in Divine Comedy; I think one of the spirits in Purgatory explains it to the poets. But there is also a doctrine there that this is provisional, and the resurrection of the body bit will happen at closing time.
posted by thelonius at 12:50 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


well and dante was more of an early modern kinda guy than he was a medieval.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 12:58 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


It always amazes me that theologians arguing for a tri-omni God never seem to take the obvious answer of: a miracle will sort this out.

We see much the same sort of theological angels on the head of a pin wrangling among Creatonists and the way they try to contort themselves to pretend that the Genesis creation myth and flood myth need to have a scientific explanation. So they invent vapor canopies and other bizarre explanations for the question of how there was enough water to flood rather than just saying "it was a miracle".

I suspect that in part it's the same sort of urge to explain and be clever that we see with various fandoms. The discussion about whether a Star Destroyer or the Enterprise would win in a fight, or whether Wolverine could beat Batman in a fight, or whatever seems to have much the same sort of intellectual purpose as the medieval discussions of resurrection and cannibalism. They aren't really trying to solve a problem, they're just enjoying the discussion. Which is totally fine.

But with the religious stuff the fun discussion part overlays kind of oddly in my mind with the supposedly taking religion seriously part, and of course the fact that there's a clear short circuit to the whole problem by simply invoking God.
posted by sotonohito at 1:14 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]


there's a clear short circuit to the whole problem by simply invoking God

How my Catholic education squared Genesis etc with a rigorous scientific curriculum. We learned all the facts about the Big Bang, evolution, and everything else that gets banned in evangelical education, and then reminded that somehow in all of that, even if we had no hint of it, God was at work behind the scenes working in mysterious ways. Yes, evolution is real, and yes, God is real.
posted by sallybrown at 1:39 PM on June 13 [6 favorites]


Here's how a real historian tackles the issue: with respect for the past, and empathy, and a willingness to take the imaginative leap into an unfamiliar belief system:
For Augustine, there was no easy escape from the horrors of consumption and putrefaction. Not for him the solution of Athenagoras or Justin Martyr, of Methodius, or of his own contemporary Zeno of Verona -- the denial, that is, that decay really dissolves, that digestion really consumes. Augustine held that cannibalism is the most difficult objection of all to resurrection, but he absolutely refused to deny that nutrition and excretion really process flesh.

Nonetheless Augustine insisted that resurrection is the reassemblage of bits. His lovely and psychologically perceptive treatise on the care of the dead reassured people that concern for cadavers is a natural and pious human instinct but that we need not fear: no destruction, digestion or dissolution can really destroy the body. Augustine repeatedly asserted that God would reforge or recast or recollect in heaven (or in hell) the bits that constituted the person in life.
Medieval theologians understood, better than we do, that we are our bodies. That's an insight we are only slowly rediscovering after several centuries of Cartesian dualism, and that many of us still prefer not to think about too closely.
posted by verstegan at 1:40 PM on June 13 [15 favorites]


God is sick and tired of having to spend all of His 7th level spell slots casting Regenerate to put the flesh vapor back together so if you would PLEASE just be a little more CAREFUL about not eating people that would be MUCH APPRECIATED, amen.
posted by allegedly at 1:40 PM on June 13 [14 favorites]


People still got buried though, and I'm sure they knew that buried bodies end up as bones eventually. So obviously the ressurection can happen with just bones as a basis, which means that as long as cannibals *don't eat the bones* we should be all good.

Really though, is the reward for living 90 years of pious life that, when ressurrected, you have to be 90 forever? If you died as a toddler, well, you better enjoy toddling for eternity? I never thought "ressurrected" meant you got your old body back, obviously it's worms now, just that your soul got a new body, maybe made from whatever remains of your old body could be disentangled, ideally around the age of 25. Even god couldn't take all the atoms and re-assemble them into your original body, because some of those body atoms became worm poop, which became plants, which become a cow which got eaten by a new person and became part of their body and.... first come first served or just most religious gets dibs?

Maybe I prefer the skeleton rising idea though, where everyone becomes their walking skeleton.
posted by stillnocturnal at 1:41 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


>People are eaten by worms

But are we really? As the microorganisms within your body start breaking you down and you leak out the bottom of your coffin, what eats that stuff? Nematodes or other soil organisms? Wouldn't your carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen then be more likely to become plant food? Or just fall into the soil microbial ecosystem and loop around down there, rather than ending up in a bird?

I mean, it's one thing if it's a sky burial, or you're just left out in a field somewhere for the fly and beetle larvae. But buried in the ground? Hmm.
posted by PandaMomentum at 1:41 PM on June 13


t'ain't no sin to take off your skin and dance around in your bones
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:46 PM on June 13 [9 favorites]


Times like there I’m glad I’m going to be cremated. I don’t want to be eaten by worms or by baby cannibals.
posted by greermahoney at 2:25 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


I agree. Plus I had to spend way too much time kneeling in church. God can take the time to gather me from the winds and piece me back together ash by ash. (Hope I don’t get hit by lightning tonight for this one.)
posted by sallybrown at 2:34 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


Wouldn't your carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen then be more likely to become plant food? Or just fall into the soil microbial ecosystem and loop around down there, rather than ending up in a bird?

All the carbon and nitrogen and sulfur in every bird -- and cow, and mouse, and snake, and person -- came from a plant, growing in the soil or the sea. The plants and microbes can't hang on to all of it.

Huh, I can't find a decent beginners' explanation of what stable isotope analysis tells us about nutrient flow. It's the basis of some of the jolly archaeology recently about establishing early human diet from tiny bits of plaque on teeth, etc.
posted by clew at 3:04 PM on June 13 [4 favorites]


if our bodies are resurrected in the Last Judgment, what happens if we were eaten?

The more I think about it, the more I'm convinced that the answer is something like "God gets this phone-booth time-machine from George Carlin, and His way of resurrecting people is traveling back to before they died and bringing them back to the Last Judgment, so God can pass Mr. Ryan's history class."
posted by 23skidoo at 3:06 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


The weird thing in the obsession with this is that the early Christians knew that (a) bodies putrefy after death and are eventually skeleetonized, and (b) that people's bodies can lose bits during life which then become no longer part of them as a person (feces and urine can be dismissed easily as pure waste, fit to be expelled from the body, but that's less explicable for, say, blood or amputated body parts). It's not even clear to me what Augustine (or any of the other early Church authorities) thought happened to amputated body parrts during the resurrection: if someone's toe was amputated early in life, and they were accustomed to its absence, would they be reunited with their toe in the Last Judgment? It's really not clear to me why the Church didn't decide that our fresh new bodies would be created from scratch where necessary on the frame of whatever was left of our old bodies.

FWIW, it's standard Jewish thought, going back to the legends of the sages, that bodily resurrection will be built around a bone called luz, typically identified with the first cervical vertebra. There's no sort of accompanying notion that the soul is housed there or anything, simply the belief that it's one of the most indestructable elements of the human body and thus, when some small fragment of the body is needed as the basis for regeneration, this small and hard bone will be the template.
posted by jackbishop at 3:57 PM on June 13 [7 favorites]


likewise, the medievals knew that the resurrection was real, real as real can be. there was no risk that the edifice of faith would be brought down by its internal paradoxes, any more than there’s a risk that the edifice of contemporary science will be brought down by its internal paradoxes. they just wanted to know what was up with things. they wanted to know how the confusing parts worked.

Ada Palmer wrote on her blog about why Scholasticism is the way it is, which definitely helped me understand. A couple other factors:

- Everything that exists in the world is because of God, so studying God is the logical way to understand absolutely anything else that you might be interested in
- The stakes for getting it wrong are really really high

So Scholastic scholars write about religion and God in great detail, including a huge profusion of proofs of the existence of God, and writing attacking other proofs. There was no dispute that God existed, but this was a convenient way to test whether your system of reasoning worked. If you could show how a particular proof of God didn't work, that was very useful because it showed how that reasoning didn't work, and would help keep yourself and others out of error if you tried to use the same reasoning elsewhere. You want to make sure the logic works before you try it on something trickier than the fact that God exists, because you really don't want to get anything wrong.

Reasoning about how resurrection works is one of those places where you might use your new logic skills once you've determined whether they can be relied on or not.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:52 PM on June 13 [16 favorites]


Equally fascinating in light of the alleged basis for excommunication for non-human allographs. (Similar: it's surprising just how old this medical technique is!)
posted by ptfe at 4:54 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


tragically, this is fake news.
posted by supermedusa at 5:05 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]




anyone out there who hasn’t read everything ada palmer has ever written,1 please go read everything ada palmer has written. she is so good at grippingly (but responsibly) portraying what it is like to live in radically different times and therefore think in radically different ways.


1: okay you can safely skip her book on early modern responses to lucretius, which i think was originally her dissertation and which is useful to specialists but which because of its genre is kind of dry.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 5:23 PM on June 13 [2 favorites]


where did the medieval theologians land on breastfeeding? act of cannibalism or consumption of excreta?
posted by um at 7:24 PM on June 13


I wonder how much our freedom from this particular obsession comes from our bone deep awareness that we are made of little spheres which will maintain their pristine identities through all eternity barring encounters with radioactivity or extreme gravitational fields.

Not only that, but the spheres are identical from person to person, and once one of them is separated from you, it cannot possibly maintain any feature which marks it as having been part of you, whereas medieval people may have assumed, I think naturally, that any piece of them, no matter how tiny -- and it would be interesting to know whether they thought matter was infinitely divisible -- would be essentially them forever.
posted by jamjam at 11:09 PM on June 13 [1 favorite]


where did the medieval theologians land on breastfeeding?

Vampirism.
posted by pracowity at 10:37 AM on June 14


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