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Cloning inspires new talk about the soul

NCR Staff

When talk in the news magazines turned earlier this month to the ethics of cloning -- not just sheep, but possibly human beings -- the compelling question for some journalists was the nature of "soul." The discussion found its way into millions of households through such unexpected vehicles as The New York Times and Time magazine.

Suddenly soul in the popular press was no longer an adjective modifying music or food. It was a noun again -- an ancient concept turning out in new dress. Perhaps soul -- the essence of the human person, that indefinable element that makes each of us unique and capable of transcendence -- is reducible to DNA. Maybe souls can be cloned.

Geneticists (the new experts on soul?) were quick to say no. Even identical twins, who share DNA, are clearly distinct persons with different personalities, different likes and dislikes, despite their common genes.

Here at NCR, we quoted Griffin Trotter, physician and professor of ethics at St. Louis University's Center for Health Care Ethics, who said, "Two people with the same genetic code would have a different soul -- or, if you don't like that word, whatever it is that makes them an individual." Jesuit Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald, a geneticist from Chicago, said, "The notion of a disembodied soul is outdated in most Christian theology."

Lurking around the edges of the national debate was an ancient religious mystery: What is the nature of the afterlife? We noted, "Many theologians today -- drawing on both modern biblical theology and scientific knowledge of the human brain -- understand soul as a dimension of human development, rejecting the ancient notion of soul as something 'infused' from outside. For today's biblical scholar, salvation means resurrection of a body that incorporates a soul rather than immortality of a separated soul."

Spurred on by readers who wanted to know more, and in keeping with the Easter season, it seemed appropriate to delve a little deeper into the history and place of resurrection theology in Catholic thought.

It may seem elementary to say that Christians believe in resurrection of the body -- after all, don't we say something like that every Sunday in the Creed? But it isn't always so clear. Plato's notion of an immortal soul -- a soul that separates from the mortal body at death -- has long infected Christian thought.

Greek philosophers and Hebrew prophets were talking about an afterlife several centuries before the birth of Jesus -- but from markedly different perspectives. The dualist Plato found it hard to comprehend that spirit could be bound to flesh, reasoning that such entrapment violated the very nature of spirit. He concluded that souls became imprisoned in bodies as a result of some sin committed in a previous life. Once the body died, the soul was set free to exist immortally. The matter-hating Gnostics of the second century of the Christian era took up this idea with a vengeance -- and were declared heretics by the church.

Aristotle got closer to what would become the Christian view in his insistence that there is a fundamental unity to body and soul in the human person. He wasn't a dualist, and he argued that the soul died with the body.

Bodily resurrection

Meanwhile, even before Plato, Hebrew prophets had alluded to a bodily resurrection. For example, both Ezekiel and Isaiah used resurrection imagery as metaphor for hope in the restoration of Israel. Ezekiel wrote in his vision of dry bones coming to life, "Then you shall know that I am the Lord when I open your graves and have you rise from them" (37:12). In the fifth century B.C., Isaiah wrote, "Your dead shall live, their corpses arise" (26:19).

Such vague poetic imagery had evolved into a more specific belief in a personal resurrection by the time of Daniel. "Many of those who sleep in earth's dust shall awake, some to eternal life, some to shame and eternal confusion," he wrote in the second century BCE. Biblical scholars say that belief in resurrection was widespread in the apocalyptic atmosphere of the first century BCE.

Jesus was born into that era -- and the scriptures present him as a proponent of resurrection as well as the Resurrected One. When the Sadducees, disbelievers in resurrection, challenged Jesus, asking to whom the woman with seven husbands would be married in the afterlife, Jesus admonished them that it constitutes a new sort of existence. "When people rise from the dead [notice he didn't say souls] they neither marry nor are given in marriage but live like angels in heaven," he said.

When Paul began evangelizing among the Greeks, he had to contend with the body/soul dualism of Plato. As a Hebrew, Paul believed that body and soul, or spirit, were parts of an indivisible whole. He insisted that life beyond death -- though different from the life we know -- is still an integrated life, involving a resurrected body, a whole person.

"Tell me," he asked the Corinthians (15:12), "if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how is it that some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? .... If the dead are not raised, then Christ was not raised; and if Christ was not raised, your faith is worthless." Paul reminds the Corinthians of all the appearances Jesus had made since his death: to Cephas, to the Twelve, to 500 people "most of whom are still alive," and to James. Paul concludes, "Last of all, he was seen by me."

In other words, the result of the resurrection for Jesus was not some disembodied soul floating around in space but a recognizable form -- although not as recognizable as before his death. While the gospels disagree on exactly where and to whom the post-resurrection Jesus appeared, a pattern emerges. Jesus shows himself when disciples are gathered in one place, when they are worried about something. As on the road to Emmaus, when it took several hours -- until Jesus broke bread -- for the disciples to recognize the person before them as Jesus, his identity is nearly always concealed until some gesture or phrase gives him away.

Whatever soul is, it was clearly there with Jesus' transformed body. Also, the post-resurrection Jesus does things he hadn't done formerly. For example, he enters through a locked door on a visit to the disciples gathered in the upper room (John 20:19).

It is these post-resurrection stories about Jesus that form the basis of Christian beliefs about the afterlife. Christ's resurrection is the model for ours. Paul told the Romans (8:11), "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you." And he told the Philippians (3:21), "He will give a new form to this lowly body of ours and remake it according to the pattern of his glorified body."

New possibilities

Paul is talking about something clearly beyond human experience here, although he is drawing on the biblical accounts of the resurrected Jesus and affirming the goodness of creation. Generally, death in biblical thought is transition into a new life and new possibilities -- a spiritual existence somehow involving the whole humanness of the person who died. Though it bears some relation to a person's body in life (irrespective of whether it was destroyed through cremation or some form of violent death), it is not a corporal existence as we know it on earth.

A problem develops, though, because in the New Testament, resurrection of the body is associated with the Parousia, or Second Coming of Christ in glory. That leaves a gap between an individual's death and the end of time. To close the gap, the church, in its "both-and" mode, has borrowed from Plato, teaching that the soul separates from the body at death, and is reunited with the body on "the last day." In fact, historical time stops at death -- and the "gap," existing outside historical time and space, may be no gap at all. Surprisingly, no church council has pronounced definitively on the resurrection, despite its place at the core of Christian faith.

In Christian teaching, eternal life is not due to some property intrinsic to the soul but is regarded as entirely a gift of God.

"I am the resurrection and the life," Jesus declared to Martha in the story in John's Gospel about the raising of Lazarus.

Still, the Platonic notion of soul hung around in the early church. Many of the early Christian patriarchs found Greek ideals congenial, and some had a hard time separating their Plato from their Paul. Confusion continued through the early Middle Ages, extending into the writings of the early Scholastics. It wasn't until the high Middle Ages -- around the 13th century -- that the Aristotelian concept of a more unified soul and body took hold in the teachings of St. Thomas Aquinas, which gave philosophical underpinnings to the biblical teaching. But the confusion didn't disappear, and talk of an immortal soul separated from a body after death gained prominence again in the 16th century in the work of Rene Descartes.

Franciscan Fr. Bernard Marthaler writes in The Creed (Twenty-Third Publications, 1993), "In contrasting physical and spiritual, soul and body, popular Catholic works tend to propagate ideas that are closer to Cartesian philosophy than the Christian theology."

Worth worrying about

If all this sounds as if it's not worth worrying about, one historian impressively argues otherwise. In The Resurrection of the Body in Western Christianity, 200-1336 (Columbia University Press, 1995) Caroline Walker Bynum writes that Christianity's strongly defended, if somewhat confused, teaching that body is crucial to self "is a concept of sublime courage and optimism. It locates redemption there where ultimate horror also resides -- in pain, mutilation, death and decay." Christian thinkers through the ages may have failed to provide plausible answers to all the questions, but especially today, when bodies are subject to so many forms of medical manipulation, "it is hard to feel they got the problem wrong," she writes.

Jesuit Fr. Gerald O'Collins, writing in What Are They Saying About the Resurrection? (Paulist Press, 1978) suggested that modern science may provide some new perspectives on resurrection -- for example by relating it to the enormous energy that physics has shown to be present in matter or the continuity of genetic structures.

For now, the cloned sheep Dolly may have renewed the questions, but she provides no new solutions. The "how" of resurrection remains a mystery. But the biblical teaching is clear: Body and soul go together, not just for now, but for all time.

National Catholic Reporter, March 28, 1997