Recent breakthroughs in brain research have led scientists, philosophers, and theologians to ask in new ways the old question, “Who am I?” Where or what is my identity? What makes me me and not someone else?
Answers to such questions may seem commonsensical. But given that memories can be lost (as often happens when we age) or altered (as pharmaceutical research has demonstrated), it can’t be true that I am what I remember myself to be. My identity does not appear to depend upon my memory of myself. If it did, that would mean that “I” can be lost as my memories disappear.
Stroke or aneurism can radically alter personality, leading a daughter to mourn the death of a still-living mother and having to become acquainted with a woman in her mother’s body who is nothing like the woman who raised her. Less dramatically, we change over time as we grow, mature, have new experiences. These experiences build up new connections in our brains, causing us to perceive ourselves and the world differently, causing us to become, in quite important ways, different people than we once were. So, it seems clear that as brain chemistry and neural structures in the brain shift, either because of normal growth and development or due to trauma, so does our personality. Our personality, then, can’t constitute our unique identity.
Perhaps our soul or our spirit is the source of our identity. Culturally, it seems almost unquestionable that we all have an immaterial self (a soul or spirit) that lives in our bodies, experiences the world, and is released at death, going on to an afterlife, either in bliss (heaven) or suffering (purgatory or hell). This soul is often thought to give us our identity, to be the real “us,” deep inside our bodies.
The problem with this picture is that science and philosophy don’t really support it. And actually, theology doesn’t really support it, either. Biblical images of life after death don’t seem to have much to do with disembodied spirits floating “up” to heaven. The overwhelming majority of the passages dealing with this subject speak instead of resurrection. Bodily resurrection.
Bodies matter to God. Why should this be surprising? God created the entire cosmos and pronounced it very good, including our material selves. Christians believe that God became incarnate in a human body, and that God loved, suffered, died, and resurrected in that body. Biblically speaking, we don’t have “spirits” that at death slough off this useless skin and leave it behind like a butterfly abandons a cocoon. In fact, the early church considered this idea — which was, in fact, rather prominent in the Hellenistic world of the first Christians — a heresy, precisely because it demeaned the body.
Instead, according to the apostle Paul, who spent more time writing on this subject than any other scriptural author, we must understand that bodies matter because matter matters. Christians, Paul pointed out, in accordance with some of their Jewish forebears, wait in expectation of the general resurrection of all the dead. It is at this general resurrection, Paul writes, that our “perishable bodies” are raised as “spiritual bodies.” Paul uncharacteristically stumbles all over himself in an attempt to say something intelligible about what a “spiritual body” is, finally admitting that this is impossible. He says he simply does not know and cannot articulate how this miraculous bodily transformation takes place. It is a great mystery. But he fiercely claims it to be true. Why?
Because of the example of Jesus’ resurrection body. Jesus was not raised as a ghost but as a body, a body that ate, could be touched, and bore wounds from its earthly existence. Yet, this was not just any old body. It was transformed. It appeared and disappeared. And it was not immediately recognizable as Jesus. One of his closest friends mistook him for a gardener! It is only when this resurrected Jesus interacted with those to whom he appeared that he was perceived as who he was. The resurrected Jesus was recognized by others not by his appearance but according to the way he related to those around him. His identity, his selfhood, was a mysterious combination of his bodily existence and his characteristic way of relating to those around him. Who he was was revealed by how he was. It was the totality of his entire life story, everything he did and that happened to him in his body — raised, transformed, and extended on into eternity — that made him recognizable to others.
So, if it is true, as the scriptures claim, that Jesus’ resurrection is the first resurrection of the general resurrection of all the dead that will happen on “the last day,” then what we have in the resurrection appearances of Jesus recorded in the gospels is a portrait of what it is that human identity consists of. It is not a function of our brain chemistry or neural architecture. It is not what we remember of ourselves. It is not even what is remembered of us by others. And it is certainly not a spirit or soul trapped in an expendable envelope of flesh cast aside at death, drifting to and fro for eternity.
It is a living, embodied, corporeal manifestation of our story, of everything we have done and that’s been done to us, remembered, raised, and transformed by God, ushered into eternity. Describing how this is so with any exactitude is, as Paul grasped, virtually impossible. But we have a glimpse of it in the resurrection of Jesus, pioneer of the resurrection life that awaits all of us. It seems to agree with what we are learning and thinking about the inseparability of our selves and our bodies and about the fact that our identities are narratives to be told, not substances to be grasped. We are, quite simply, our story. We are the story of everything that we did and that happened to us in and as this body, over time and change, whether we remember it or not, whether others remember it or not.
Every human story is beautiful, complex, and of inestimable worth. Every human being — body and spirit together — is marked by the joys and pains of life, and is destined to be remembered, resurrected, and transformed in the love of God.
Scott MacDougall received his M.A. in theology from the General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in 2007. At Fordham, he is a Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Fellow (2010–2011) in the Department of Theology, currently at work on a dissertation entitled More Than Communion: Toward an Eschatological Ecclesiology.
His dissertation seeks to expand the general ideas of communion ecclesiology (understood broadly), by suggesting they often pay insufficient attention to eschatology, which has deleterious effects on the church’s theological imagination of itself and, so, on its practice. The constructive position he advances is developed in conversation with case studies of the ecclesiologies of John Milbank and John Zizioulas, which are analyzed in their eschatological, relational, and practical dimensions.
As a Teaching Fellow, his approach to the core course “Faith and Critical Reason” is to examine topics in Christian systematic theology as they appear in contemporary debates and conflicts over the relationship of faith to science, politics, culture, and social action. These are explored with reference to current issues, demonstrating the real-world effects of (examined and unexamined) religious positions in the public sphere and why thinking critically about theology matters urgently for people of faith. In 2011, he was named by Fordham’s Graduate Student Association as the Graduate Teaching Fellow of the Year in the School of Arts and Sciences.