Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Hair and Nails

When my wife and I take car trips, I usually read to her while she drives. Poor Nancy! I have to keep up with my plan, even if we’re on vacation. So sometimes she gets C. S. Lewis or some history from Will Durant. But sometimes I have to throw in a few minutes a day of something, let’s say, drier. A couple of years ago, I read some Thomas Aquinas to her, three of four articles a day; it’s a little hard to follow just listening to, but she enjoyed it in small doses. We hit the road this past Wednesday, and I thought Thomas might work again. So I peeked ahead to see what would come up: Will hair and nails rise in the resurrection? *sigh* It seemed too silly out of context. So she heard Jane Austen instead (and loved it).

Now why does it matter to Aquinas whether hair and nails will rise in the human resurrection? The positive answer is that Jesus said (as reported by Luke), “Not a hair of your head will perish.” With all his Aristotelian categories and scholastic dialectic, Aquinas was to a great extent just trying to make sense of the Bible. Some followers of Jesus die from persecution, and all clearly die one way or another; so Jesus’s statement, Aquinas reasons, must refer to the glorified body of resurrected believers.

But for the scholastic philosopher, there’s always the negative side to examine, as well. What good reason might a Christian have for not believing that the resurrected body will have hair? My first, admittedly very shallow, thought is that the image of the Blessed walking around in Heaven with no hair or nails is too ludicrous to think about, let alone argue for. But thirteenth-century philosophers don’t bother writing about a tenet unless they see some good reason to doubt it. At the end of the world, bodies will be raised to life. But hair and nails are dead; they have no feelings. In Aquinas’s more precise terms, they do not participate in sensitive soul. So it seems perhaps that the terms of resurrection don’t apply to hair and nails. Yet Jesus said that they do. (Well, OK, he didn’t say anything about nails.) What is a good Christian supposed to do with this apparent contradiction? How can he answer a scoffer? Aquinas’s speculative answer (and he admits all through this section that scholars have differing opinions on a lot of issues regarding the nature of the resurrected body) points out that hair and nails serve as part of the complete design of humanity since they provide protection. No, we won’t need that protection in Heaven, but God’s loving providence will always be on display.

The Dominican philosopher has plenty more questions about the resurrection. Will angels participate? (Yes, they will gather the remains.) Will each person get the same bodily material back? (Yes. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a re-surrection.) Will urine and “dregs” be part of the glorified body? (No, the bowels will be filled with “excellent humors.”) Will all be the same age? (Yes, young and old will all appear in their prime, about 30.) Will wounds remain? (Yes and No. Martyrs’ scars will remain as badges of glory, but missing limbs – and, one would hope, heads – will be restored.) And, of course, The Biggie: If every person’s body will rise, what about cannibals? Food becomes part of the body, so whose body will last Tuesday’s dinner join in the resurrection? Aquinas points out that the particular matter of any individual’s body ebbs and flows (he could have had no good idea of the extent to which elemental particles come and go over the course of a lifetime, but still, he understand that the biceps is like a city whose residents move in and out while still remaining the same city), so we just have to trust God to work out the details. Yes, it’s a God-of-the-gaps answer. But considering that he uses it to help his readers see a more realistic, more complex view of the way life and nutrition work, his God of the gaps is actually on the side of science.

Kant is coming up during the time of the trip home. I wouldn’t even think of reading it to Nancy.

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