DAVID KRONEMYER: The theological climate of Virgil’s time was bleak. The official Roman religion was the tepid, uninspired worship of Augustus as a “living God.” In fact, Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid as a kind of commemorative poem, in his honor. As a stoic, Virgil disdained the human body, and this concept is reflected throughout the Aeneid. “He could not understand how any soul that had once gained the Elysian fields could ever wish to ‘return to the sluggish fellowship of the body.’ ‘Poor mortals that we are, our brightest days of life are ever the first to fly; on creeps disease and the gloom of age, and suffering sweeps us off, and the ruthless cruelty of death,’” Smiley 674. It must have been a pretty boring time.
If Virgil is at all representative of the prevailing temperament, it’s not hard to see how refreshing it must have been for someone to come along – Jesus – and proclaim that he, a living person with a body, in fact was God, or, at least, God’s son. Regardless of who (or what) he is, or how he is defined, “God” is who (or what) provides ontological structure and definition to the world. From a Heideggerian perspective, for Western culture, at least, God (or the concept of God) is one of the key components of the “background” or the “clearing” that makes it possible for people, things, and ideas to show up and make sense.
Jesus, therefore, correctly can be regarded as God’s ontic counterpart (“ontic” being a Heidegger word meaning the instantiation, realization, inculcation – or, fittingly, incarnation – of the ontological).
The author of the Gospel of John understood this. “The Word was God,” John 1:1; and, “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us,” John 1:14. In other words, Jesus is the flesh-and-blood counterpart of God. Jesus’ bodily nature is emphasized elsewhere throughout the New Testament. He suffered bodily torment when he was crucified; he even experiences that most-human of emotions, doubt, in his last moments on the cross, when he asks, “My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, Matthew 27:46.
John continues, Jesus is not the only one who is embodied. “[T]he hour is coming in which all who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth,” John 5:28-29. In other words, as set forth in the Nicene Creed, Christians “look for the resurrection of the dead,” i.e., the physical, corporeal re-embodiment of the deceased.
Another example is the Liturgy of the Eucharist. “Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except ye eat the flesh of the Son of man, and drink his blood, ye have no life in you,” John 6:53. Had we not been humans with bodies, there might have been some other way to partake of Christ’s divinity. But because we are, we must eat and drink for sustenance, which therefore becomes a highly appropriate transmission-mechanism.
Dante is John’s direct descendant. In the Divine Comedy, everybody has a body – those in torment, or those exalted in heaven. All endure various punishments, or repose in various pleasures – some of each being most peculiar indeed. It takes a body, however, to experience pleasure or pain, and Dante’s overriding theme therefore is one of embodied Christianity.
As against John – Dante, we might set up Paul, who understood the role of Christ’s body somewhat less. For example, consider Colossians 3:5-8: “Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.”
This reads like a veritable Puritan injunction. In his eagerness to proseltyse against inappropriate behavior (or, at least, behavior he perceived as such), Paul creates a slippery slope. Because not everything “belonging to our earthly nature” is bad, nor did Jesus so intimate. He could not possibly have done so, because, if he had, he would have been the personal self-contradiction. Because he himself was the living embodiment of God’s “earthly nature.”
Aligned with Paul is St. Augustine. “There seethed all around me a cauldron of lawless loves. I loved not yet, yet I loved to love, and out of a deep-seated want, I hated myself for wanting not. I sought what I might love, in love with loving, and I hated safety … To love then, and to be beloved, was sweet to me; but more, when I obtained to enjoy the person I loved. I defiled, therefore, the spring of friendship with the filth of concupiscence, and I beclouded its brightness with the hell of lustfulness,” Augustine, Book Three, Chapter 1.
To me, this sounds pretty much like one of Dante’s sinners, not an interpreter of Christendom. I’m not suggesting we consign St. Augustine to the inferno. Rather, in the Pauline tradition, he has an incomplete and misleading perspective of what embodied Christianity means.
Augustine, St., Confessions (398).
Smiley, C., “Vergil, His Philosophic Background and His Relation to Christianity,” 26 The Classical Journal 660 (Jun. 1931).