Material Continuity

The resurrection of the body is an essential doctrine of Christian faith. I have written elsewhere that it should be emphasized more prominently in modern Christian formation and discourse. So I was happy to read the following treatment of the subject by an intelligent, thoughtful, and engaging theologian of my acquaintance. The Rev Canon Victor Lee Austin was formerly theologian-in-residence at my parish church in New York and now serves in that capacity for the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. In a post to his online Diary last month, Austin addresses material continuity in relation to John 21.

It begins with Simon Peter saying he’s going fishing. Altogether, seven disciples are there in the boat. They spend a fruitless night fishing, then a word from (the unrecognized) Jesus results in a miraculously great haul of fish. On shore, they have a meal with Jesus, whom they now recognize. Along with the fish, the meal includes bread.

What’s going on here? I think we are being shown that, after the resurrection, life continues. To put it more precisely: we are shown that the life after resurrection is in continuity with the life before. Earlier, the disciples were fishermen. Earlier, they saw miraculous signs that Jesus did. Earlier, they had meals with Jesus, including a meal in which bread and fish were multiplied. This now, in John 21, is their old life continuing with their Lord who is, now, with them from the far side of death.

I used to think otherwise. I used to think that the resurrected body was a completely new thing, discontinuous from the body I now have. But along the way one of my teachers told me that Aquinas insists on material continuity. Aquinas says the resurrected body must be continuous with the mortal body I now have. Obviously my body will be changed, but it will also be the same.

Why is this important? Imagine a forged copy of a Rembrandt painting. In this forgery, the canvas is made to be the same as a canvas that Rembrandt might have used (for instance, if you performed carbon-14 dating on it, it would go back to the correct century). The paint would be the same as his, the brushstrokes would be perfect imitations, everything about it would say: this was made by Rembrandt. But in fact, it is a contemporary forgery done with such skill that it is indistinguishable from an original.

Why then would we call it a forgery? Because it lacks material continuity with Rembrandt. In fact, it is not a painting he did.

Similarly: if you or I are given new bodies that have no connection with the bodies we now have, there is a serious question about whether our identity has survived. If we believe that the body is an essential part of being human, then it matters that the resurrection body be in material continuity with our mortal body.

How do you know that the cat that comes out from behind the sofa is the same cat as the one who you saw go behind the sofa a minute ago? You know it because it’s the same body.

The 21st chapter of John, it seems to me, wants to show us what material continuity means: that each of us will have a personal story with connections and continuities from our life now to our life in the resurrection. If we are fisherfolk now, for instance, that will be part of our identity then.

In the resurrection, nothing that is real will be lost.


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