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Anthrophagy and the doctrine of resurrection

March 11, 2012

From the Los Angeles Review of Books, a review by Steven Shapin (Harvard) of  Cătălin Avramescu’s An Intellectual History of Cannibalism (Princeton 2009, I have not read this book):

While the cannibal was a prize specimen for theories of the state and human nature, he also posed a grave problem for doctrines of Christian salvation. Supposing that a wolf tore off a strip of your flesh and ate it: What were the consequences for the Christian doctrine of resurrection, when the “dead shall be raised incorruptible”? We are promised that we shall be raised entire, but how can God distinguish, disentangle, and accurately reassemble the bits of human flesh that have become the flesh of beasts? These were difficulties enough, but they were nothing compared to the problems posed by cannibalism for the Christian promise of resurrection. In order to save the doctrine of physical resurrection, “an entire arsenal of theological and philosophical concepts” was mobilized against the cannibal. A starving man eats the flesh of another, whereupon the flesh of the eaten is transformed into that of the eater. At the Resurrection, how will the bodies of each be made whole and rise up entire? If this problem could not be satisfactorily addressed, one Church Father wrote, critics could rightly “draw the conclusion that the resurrection cannot take place, because it is not possible for two men to be resurrected with the same flesh at the same time.”

Solutions to this problem exercised some of the greatest theological, philosophical, and scientific minds of the period from early Christianity to the Enlightenment. One response was just to deny the existence of cannibalism completely, since, if the practice didn’t exist, there was no special difficulty for the doctrine of resurrection. Supposing, however, that reports of cannibalism were true, the trouble it made for the resurrection of the body might be dealt with by invoking God’s absolute power: Just because we can’t see how species of flesh could be sorted out, that did not mean that God couldn’t do it. But that seemed to some a dodge too far, and theories of the digestion and assimilation of foodstuffs were then enlisted. You could deny that what cannibals, or man-eating beasts, took into their guts ever became part of their own substance, and thus there was no disentangling to do. Not everything that was eaten was nourishing, and Divine Providence had intended only certain foods to be transmutable into certain sorts of flesh.

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