The Afterlife of Desire – By Heidi Marx-Wolf

Heidi Marx-Wolf on Taylor Petrey’s Resurrecting Parts

Taylor G. Petrey, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference, Routledge, 2016, 124pp., $140
Taylor G. Petrey, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference, Routledge, 2016, 124pp., $140
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Augustine believed that Adam and Eve would have indeed had sex in Paradise had they been afforded the opportunity. When I report this to my students, I never fail to be taken aback by their down cast eyes and blushes, since I know they are regularly exposed to the most explicit portrayals of desire and sexuality as avid consumers of all kinds of media. I continue to explain that the main difference between Adam’s paradisiacal congress and his fallen coitus was that in Eden he would have had full control over his entire body (here I raise my rigid arm high above my head for effect, which predictably elicits more blushing). After expulsion, Adam’s involuntary erections were but a sign of a far greater existential predicament, namely that of the disordered will. I can only speculate that discussing Adam and Eve’s primordial “coitus interruptus” as a result of the Fall is a bit like thinking about one’s parents engaged in similar acts. My aim in discussing these kinds of theological questions with students is to make them aware of how boldly and unflinchingly Christians engaged with the difficult problems that emerged from their reflection on the many bodies that populated the theological landscape of the first few centuries CE.

Despite the general impression that early Christians sought transcendence from the body and its desires and frequently undertook ascetic practices aimed at diminishing the hold of the flesh on the spirit, a couple of decades of exciting scholarship, a great deal of it informed by Foucault’s revolutionary work, The History of Sexuality, has done much to highlight just how central the body was to early Christian thought and practice. In his now-classic work, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity, Peter Brown attempted to de-familiarize the late ancient body for modern readers, challenging the Freudian view that ancient Christians were just sexually repressed. “Instead of a modern debate about whether or not sex was good,” Brown writes, “we are listening to a debate (carried out in the silent depths of a long extinct Christianity), as to what meaning the body might come to bear, to different groups at different times, in different regions, and in different social milieus.” What is evident from the burgeoning scholarship on early Christian understandings of the body, gender, sexual difference, and sexuality is that there was not just one body that could bear multiple meanings, and hence needed to be theorized. Rather there were many bodies, all of which were subjected to the intense scrutiny and creative speculations of early Christian writers. There was the body of Christ, in utero, post-birth, and post-resurrection. There was the body of his mother Mary, prior to conception and post-birth (was she still a virgin?). There were the bodies of Adam and Eve, in Paradise, and after their expulsion. And then there were the bodies of ordinary and extraordinary (that is, holy) Christians, male and female, whatever that difference might mean, again before birth, in mortal life, in death (as relics), and post-resurrection. In addition to all of these human bodies, Christians were also interested in the bodies of other spiritual beings such as demons and angels (although they were more subtle or aetheric than ours, these spirits did in fact have bodies). All of these bodies were interrelated in multiple ways, both in terms of their materiality and in terms of their meanings. As a result, some of the questions Christians asked about them were remarkably complex and often alarming for both contemporaries and modern readers.

In his wonderful new book, Resurrecting Parts: Early Christians on Desire, Reproduction, and Sexual Difference, Taylor G. Petrey explores one such body in second- and early third-century discourse, namely the resurrected body. Prior to Petrey’s intervention, scholars had restricted their focus to the early Christian debates about whether or not the body and spirit would both be resurrected. Some of these studies attempted to identify a proto-orthodox position on the resurrection of the flesh, which obscured “serious disagreement within this ‘camp’ especially with respect to how its advocates understood the flesh’s relationship to gender and sexual desire.” Petrey focuses attention precisely at these points of difference in order to highlight how very unstable and polysemous early Christian flesh really was, whether mortal or resurrected. He does so by offering a careful, erudite reading of five sources: Pseudo Justin Martyr’s On the Resurrection, Athenagoras’s treatise of the same title, the Treatise on the Resurrection from the Nag Hammadi Corpus, Irenaeus’s Against Heresies, and various works of Tertullian. In spite of the fact that all five agree that sexual difference will be preserved in the resurrection, considering it is essential to being human, and all excise sexual desire and function from afterlife existence, thereby making these contingent to our mortal existence, the differences between these texts are remarkable and warrant the attention Petrey gives them.

Let us trace a few of the differences Petrey excavates in these texts. Pseudo-Justin argues for the resurrection of the flesh by affirming the resurrection of the genitals. He does this by pointing to the way in which the cessation of sexual desire and reproduction in the case of the Christian virgin “demonstrates that flesh and genitals need not be used for reproduction.” He then uses this as the basis for promoting a Christian sexual ethics that favors celibacy. In the case of the Nag Hammadi Treatise on the Resurrection, flesh is itself illusory and characterized, ontologically-speaking, by lack or deficiency. The author nonetheless retains the view found in Pseudo-Justin, that gender difference is essential to afterlife existence. How does the author eliminate flesh and yet keep genitals? By arguing for a formal or morphological continuity between human beings in this life and the next. Hence, when fleshy substance is jettisoned in the resurrection, “something more rarefied ascends in the place of the body,” something that retains the shape of the human being nonetheless. In his On the Resurrection, Athenagoras also agrees with the previous two texts that sexual difference, that is, genitals, will persist in the afterlife, but absent sexual desire and function. The differences between his work and the others are, however, of much greater interest than the similarities. Athenagoras argues for the resurrection of the flesh on the basis of a judicial understanding of eschatology. Humans need post-resurrection bodies in order to experience divine punishment. Furthermore, fear of bodily judgment is the path to virtue, the path that produces truly ethical subjects in this life. The other fascinating peculiarity of Athenagoras’s account is the way in which he defines flesh itself. The problem of the body in this life for him is not sexual desire in particular but change in general. Athenagoras searches for a flesh that is stable and unchanging. He explains changes in the body as the result of the humors (blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile) and their qualities (hot, cold, wet, and dry). Here he is drawing on ancient medical understandings that hearken back to the Hippocratic corpus (fifth to fourth centuries BCE) and form the basis of Galen’s writings ( second century CE). In an innovation on this medical model, Athenagoras argues that there must be two kinds of flesh: durable flesh and contingent flesh. The former will be resurrected, the latter will not. Contingent flesh is created as a result of the changes engendered by the humors and their effects on the body, including all mutations based on the concoction of food, which creates fleshy substances such as fat and semen. Athenagoras uses this distinction between durable and contingent flesh also to deal with one of the more intriguing and bizarre problems pertaining to the resurrection of the flesh, namely the problem of “chain consumption,” the accidental (or perhaps even purposive in the case of cannibalism) consumption of human flesh by another human, usually via an intermediate animal. As it turns out, human flesh, at least of the durable variety, is indigestible to humans and other animals and is simply expelled in the process of digestion, leaving it intact for the resurrection.

Resurrecting Parts makes a key contribution to scholarship on the body, gender and sexual difference, and sexuality in early Christianity. Although it is thoroughly researched and carefully argued, it is unfussy, clearly and elegantly written (the chapter on Irenaeus is slightly less so) and devoid of unnecessary jargon (no small feat for a book on these topics, especially one which takes its departure from the theoretical framework of Judith Butler’s work). It is a slim volume but effective in its brevity. Petrey brings to our attention with incisive clarity and subtlety one of the most important early Christian bodies, namely the resurrected body, in all of its complexity, messiness, and contentiousness. Although all five of the texts he discusses advance the view that humans will be resurrected with genitals that no longer desire or serve any reproductive function, he shows that each author promotes a very different ethical and social agenda with this position. In this respect, Petrey makes a larger point about how scholars of early Christianity approach their sources. He demonstrates that superficial or apparent consensus among early Christians, which in previous scholarship has often led to the uncritical assumption that early theologians held to some sort of monolithic orthodox doctrinal position on any number of important questions, should always elicit more careful interrogation. In addition to the objective praise I offer to Petrey on his excellent study, I also wish to thank him for providing me with one more ancient body with which to make my students blush!