Our Fleshly and Our Spiritual Bodies According to David Bentley Hart

Our Fleshly and Our Spiritual Bodies According to David Bentley Hart

Dear reader, I have transcribed below a good bit that David Bentley Hart had to say recently about spiritual versus fleshly bodies in an interview with Larry Chapp from October 10, 2022. These points by Hart (that he has made many times and in many ways) are extremely confusing to people. Therefore, I’ve put together a brief introduction at the top here to Hart’s thoughts on this topic (including various other things that Hart has shared related to these points).

David Bentley Hart maintains that all created “spirit” is a kind of “element” with “extension” and “consistency” that is more substantial than any kind of matter, and that our current material and fleshly bodies are being transfigured, along with the entire cosmos, into eternal spiritual bodies capable of enjoying a life of perfect union with God (a perfect union that will never stop growing greater because of God’s own infinite life). Hart also believes that these spiritual bodies—made of this more substantial element with its own indestructible extension and consistency—are still entirely capable of eating as well as of conceiving and bearing children. The material or fleshly existence that is true of our current insubstantial and contingent life should be distinguished from the most substantive physicality and corporeality that is true of spirits. We receive fleshly bodies in order that we might die and gain the capacity to live eternally in our spiritual bodies.

To be clear, Hart is not making any claims about the afterlife. When he speaks of angels having children or eating food, Hart most clearly considers these kinds of physical activities to be entirely reasonable as realities attributed to pure spirits within any age:

It’s always been understood that higher levels of corporeality or higher levels of the scale of being are capable of assimilating at all lower levels. There’s plenty of evidence from scripture that angels can eat, and they can assimilate gross earthly [bodies]. [From the Larry Chapp interview segment transcribed below.]

It was a central tenet of the most influential angelology [in the time of Jesus Christ and Paul], derived as it was from the Noachic books of the intertestamental period, that angels had actually sired children—the monstrous nefilim—on human women. [From this article.]

All of this is profoundly counter-intuitive for modern people to conceptualize because we have all internalized a Cartesian dualism in which only matter is at all substantive while spirit and mind are entirely without extension or consistency. Hart demands, however, that we must regain a pre-Cartesian capacity to see where “neither ‘spirit’ nor ‘soul’ was anything quite like a Cartesian ‘mental substance.’” Instead of this default Cartesian dualism, says Hart:

One must cease to think that only the material body possesses extension in any sense; one must learn not to treat words like ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘mind’ as interchangeable terms for one and the same thing; and one must most emphatically not think of soul or spirit or mind as necessarily incorporeal in the absolute sense of lacking all extension or consistency. [From behind his Substack subscription paywall here.]

These points come up in conversations with Hart about the resurrected body of Jesus Christ, our own resurrections (as understood by Paul in particular), and the nature of reality in general (metaphysical materialism versus idealism).

Regarding our own resurrected bodies, it should be noted that Hart does not think that this has only to do with some future state (in a temporal sequence according to the dictates of fallen time). Our own resurrection life and our life in the spirit starts now, in this life, and it is supposed to be mediated by our material and fleshly bodies (albeit imperfectly). This eternal resurrection reality was also true of Jesus Christ, of course, as was seen most vividly with his transfiguration on Mount Tabor before his earthly emergence from the tomb. While Hart does not often make this explicit, it is obvious that the sacramental understanding of the Eastern church is in view here (the “sacraments” being, of course, the Latin term for what is called the “mysteries” in Greek). As Alexander Schmemann says in For the Life of the World (originally titled The World as Sacrament), the true nature of all matter is to mediate the presence of God to us. When Schmemann is describing how the priest blesses the waters at Theophany (the church’s liturgical participation in Christ’s baptism), he writes:

The same act of blessing [the waters] may mean the revelation of the true “nature” and “destiny” of water, and thus of the world—it may be the epiphany and the fulfillment of their “sacramentality.” By being restored through the blessing to its proper function, the “holy water” is revealed as the true, full, adequate water, and matter becomes again means of communion with and knowledge of God.

It is not, therefore, that matter (or the world of our five senses) is evil and must, by nature, separate us from the life of spirit. Instead, matter is incomplete and must, by nature, point toward and give way to spirit (and the world of our noetic sight). As Hart notes in the transcribed interview below, our flesh-bodies and our soul-bodies are both vehicles that carry our spirit-bodies to birth and full maturation. As both Proclus (a pagan neoplatonist) and Dionysius the Areopagite (a Christian neoplatonist) make clear in their writings, matter is not evil and our nous synthesizes (without rejecting) the five senses of our flesh in order to see the deeper and more substantial realities of spirit. In this lifetime, our material or fleshly bodies can be good and blessed servants of our spiritual bodies (which we will only fully realize after the death of both our flesh-body and our soul-body according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15).

Icon of the Feast of the Transfiguration located on the upper back wall at St. George Orthodox Church in Trumbull, Connecticut.

Before getting into the fascinating material transcribed from the recent conversation with Larry Chapp from October 10, 2022 that is the main point of this post, I think that a few other comments from Hart will be helpful that speak explicitly about the nature of the cosmos as it is in its fully redeemed state (i.e. Hart’s vision of the entire cosmos as an eternal spiritual reality that we just cannot fully or easily see right now).

First, from an interview with journalist and author Robert Wright (from “The Wright Show” podcast and also posted to MeaningofLife.tv on YouTube Feb 26, 2020):

Hart: The eschatology of the whole Bible, …Jewish and Christian alike, is this worldly. The kingdom of heaven just means the kingdom of the heavenly places or the transcendent places, the places on high. If you had the cosmology of the time, it would mean the kingdom literally either of the Empyrean above the sphere of the fixed stars or Primum Mobile or the kingdom that encompassed everything above the sphere of the moon. It just means the divine place. …When the kingdom of the heavens or of heaven comes to earth, it is to transform earth so all of the language of redemption in the New Testament is of a new heaven, a new sky literally, a new earth. And all the animals are there rejoicing, and there is plant life and animal life and human life. It’s a communal, a cosmic restoration in which the glory of God now pervades everything. In the eastern Christian tradition, which has a certain pronounced mystical tendencies even at the center of dogmatic life, a very popular image is to say that the end of creation is for creation to become like the burning bush—pervaded by the glory of God but not consumed.

…The first showing of God to Moses is in the form of a burning bush, a bush that is not consumed by the flames. …This was the vision of the purpose of creation in the New Testament or the early church. It’s not that human spirits are wafted away to an ethereal paradise, but rather that the whole cosmos—well it’s right there in Paul, chapter eight of Romans, that all of creation is groaning in anticipation of the glory that will be revealed or Revelation, I saw a new heaven and a new earth. It’s not about a heaven elsewhere.

Robert Wright: …Do you have a conception of what the afterlife might be like?

Hart: No. I have none. No. Even the dogmatic pronouncements on this are worthless. It’s part of Catholic doctrine, for instance, that there is such a thing as immediate judgment. …I think all of that should be just judiciously ignored.

Second, Hart speaking in an interview posted October 15, 2021 to the Love Unrelenting YouTube channel:

The Bible doesn’t give you imagery of some other place than this world. In the Old Testament, the New Testament, in the Prophets, in Paul—the only image of salvation that there is, is cosmic. It’s always not just human beings praising God but all the animals of the land and the sea. It’s a restored creation. It has a new Jerusalem in it—that imagery of a purified Jerusalem descending to earth. There is no notion of going to some ethereal heaven apart from the rest of creation.

The imagery is of a renewed world, a renewed cosmos in which everything—mineral, vegetable, animal, human—is present. The ground of all nature is personal presence. That’s more original than everything else. I think that is a reality that one can confirm in experience not just through some sort of set of metaphysical commitments.

It’s clear that, when you interact with animals, you’re interacting with personal beings. I don’t give a damn how offensive that is to anyone in the tradition. You are dealing with creatures that have consciousness, that have identity, that have (to some degree) personality, so they are spiritual beings. Any attempt to deny that is simply based on a rather childish fixation on a notion of what constitutes proper human dignity. The notion that they are somehow excluded from the universal dispensation of a new creation seems to me, self-evidently, a rather squalid picture of things. Those who have owned a dog know who that dog is—unlike every other dog in many ways—that he or she has little idiosyncrasies or habits …you know if this dog is excessively timid. You are, in all of nature, always confronted with a kind of personal presence. I tend to think that here [Sergei] Bulgakov is right: all of nature, all of creation, is in its inmost essence always already personal. Its destiny can’t be the destiny of a machine that merely collapses into dust at the end of its utility. Apokatastasis literally means restoration of all things, and all things would seem to include all things.

In the Jewish and Christian belief of the age, in fact, there really appears to have been nothing similar to the fully incorporeal angels of later scholastic tradition—certainly nothing like the angels of Thomism, for example, who are pure form devoid of prime matter and therefore each its own unique species.

One of the first places where Hart wrote about the substantive nature of spiritual reality at some length was in this Church Life Journal article (“The Spiritual Was More Substantial Than the Material for the Ancients”) that I have already cite above with regard to the ability of angels to have physical intercourse and to procreate:

In fact, it was a central tenet of the most influential angelology of the age, derived as it was from the Noachic books of the intertestamental period, that angels had actually sired children—the monstrous nefilim—on human women. It is even arguable that no school of pagan thought, early or late, perhaps not even Platonism, really had a perfectly clear concept of any substance without extension. For Plotinus, for instance, “soul” was “incorporeal,” but not in the way we might assume; while the soul in Plotinus’s system was not susceptible of “material” magnitude, and hence could contain all forms without spatial extension (Enneads 2.4.11), it was still “incorporeal” only in the sense that it possessed so subtle a nature that it could wholly permeate material bodies without displacing their discrete material constituents (Enneads 4.7.82). Neither “spirit” nor “soul” was anything quite like a Cartesian “mental substance.” Each, no less than “flesh and blood,” was thought of as a kind of element. “Spirit,” for instance, in certain antique schools of natural philosophy and medicine, could be defined as that subtle influence or ichor that pervades the veins and passages of a living body and, among other things, endows it with sense perception—by filling, for instance, the nerves or porous passages between eye and brain. For many persons, in fact, this vital influence was literally “physically” continuous with the “wind” that fills the world and the “breath” that swells our chests. This is almost unimaginable for us, of course.

Hart has also commented on this a few times with his subscription newsletter, which I have cited above, already, from here. I am repeating this citation again because it generated a number of questions that Hart answered in the comments, and I want to highlight two of his answers:

One must cease to think that only the material body possesses extension in any sense; one must learn not to treat words like ‘soul,’ ‘spirit,’ and ‘mind’ as interchangeable terms for one and the same thing; and one must most emphatically not think of soul or spirit or mind as necessarily incorporeal in the absolute sense of lacking all extension or consistency.

Question 1 (from yours truly): “In learning to think of soul or spirit or mind as corporeal in some sense and as possessing some “extension or consistency,” how do we relate this to our modern scientific cosmology and our understanding of material elements? We cannot, it seems, join Paul in the concept of spirit as a living and imperishable element.”

Answer 1 from Hart: “Can’t we? There are all sorts of things in Paul that cannot be directly retained, but that one seems unproblematic.”

Question 2: “Could you expand on that? What other topography could there be if the spirit isn’t some incorporeal element in another realm but is a mercurial physical entity in this world? Weren’t Paul and ancient thinkers just plain wrong about their cosmology? Or am I not seeing things correctly?”

Answer 2 from Hart: “Don’t be absurd, sir. They may have been wrong about the exact relation between the spiritual and the physical, or between spiritual and physical ascent, but they certainly weren’t wrong in believing that spirit can go where flesh and blood cannot. That’s simply the universal experience of humankind.”

“And, anyway, I’m enough of an idealist that I am not even willing to grant that the physical constitution of the universe as we know it is anything other than the way our consciousness today constructs it. Perhaps if we saw things differently the causeway between the spiritual and physical worlds would not be so closed off.”

With all of this introductory material in place, here is my transcription from the related portion of the interview with David Bentley Hart by Larry Chapp on Oct 10, 2022 (starting at 53:40):

David Hart: [Rod Dreher] was using the word gnostic to mean just about everything. He was calling the desire of Elon Musk or whoever, maybe it’s the PayPal guy, to create an eternal life for themselves by downloading their consciousness into computers as a sort of gnostic desire to get to exist without… Which is absolutely not… I mean, the whole pathos of gnosticism is the desire to escape false worlds into the light of divine reality to be set free from bondage to illusion.

Also, he seemed to think it was just obvious that Christians have always believed in the redemption of the flesh, and I’m thinking, well, you’ve certainly never read Paul if you think that. In I Corinthians 15, he’s quite clear that the body of the resurrection is entirely devoid of flesh and blood. It’s a body made of spirit. So if you see that in the gnostics when they talk about flesh and blood… I mean, I’m not making this up, I saw a scholar, I mean, not a scholar but someone online, quoting what he took to be the most damning evidence of gnostic heterodoxy as being “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of heaven.” He literally didn’t realize that was a quote from Paul. Or the notion that the gnostics, you know, I’ve seen this said: that Irenaeus criticized the gnostics for believing that salvation came by way of gnosis and that this is the point of his treatise. Of course, he never says anything of the sort. First of all, he points out that many of them have a sacramental life and devotional [practices]. He just says that their gnosis is a false gnosis and that the real knowledge that saves, that will set you free, is the one that he believes that he gets from the apostolic tradition.

I’m not particularly interested in defending something called gnosticism in the abstract. What I would say about these schools is that they were exotic departures from a what was a developing but nevertheless very diverse and even diffuse tradition of scripture and worship and confession that would lead into and become develop into the Nicene Church of later centuries, but that …these schools very much, before that, are genuinely engaged in working within a vision of reality that they believe is their in Paul and in John and part of the Second Temple Jewish inheritance and with colorations from the sort of syncretistic culture that Jews and Pagans and Christians shared in the early centuries. There’s no such thing as gnosticism as such.

Larry Chapp: I wasn’t going to bring this up, but you, in your comments just now, talked about this: a relationship between the flesh and the spirit and the resurrection, and some of my viewers might be saying, wait a minute, what about the resurrection of Christ’s body? What is the relationship, then, between a spiritual body and this flesh and blood that I currently have now?

David Hart: You’re asking me? You understand that I don’t believe that there was one theology of resurrection in the New Testament. I also wrote a series of articles on that. I think the idea of resurrection, in fact, in some cases, like in the gospel of Mark, I don’t think there’s a distinction between the understanding of resurrection and simply ascent into heaven of the soul (in most of the gospel, not talking about the added ending).

I’m sure I’m sure there was an empty tomb narrative there, though, don’t get me wrong, but I’m just saying that I think that there was no single understanding of resurrection, but Paul does tell us what he thinks resurrection is. And for Paul it has absolutely nothing to do with the body revived as flesh and blood and bone. That’s precisely what’s shed in death, and instead he says we’ll be raised in a spiritual body, and for him that means (I think, it’s pretty clear to anyone who’s familiar with the metaphysics at the time) that spirit is an actual kind of element. He doesn’t mean a sort of ghostly or a body that’s impalpable, but he definitely means a body that’s like the body of angels or like the body of the stars. I think also that when Christ is recorded as saying that those who are raised will live like the angels, we should look at what that means because, in the late antique world, well among the pagans, demons and cosmic gods but for the Christians angels and certain elevated souls (and we know this from the book of Daniel) enter into the heavenly places in a new sort of corporeality one that can live beyond the realm of mutability of the sublunary aerial world where there is death and decay in bodies that are deathless and imperishable perishable and capable of existing in the heavenly ethers and the souls of the righteous become stars. They’re angels, and that’s how Paul is thinking about resurrection, not the resuscitation of a corpse in a more durable and I hope better looking form, but a body composed of pneuma.

Larry Chapp: Well, it’s very clear, I mean, the New Testament clearly doesn’t want to portray the resurrected Christ simply a revivified corpse. On the other hand, what do you make, then, of those elements in the New Testament (I’ll stipulate that there might be different views of resurrected life in the New Testament), but clearly one of those views …trends more physicalist. I mean when Christ eats. The resurrected Christ eats and says, “Touch me.”

David Hart: Well, that actually wouldn’t be a problem at all because it’s always been understood that higher levels of corporeality or higher levels of the scale of being are capable of assimilating at all lower levels. So angels can, they knew that, I mean, there’s plenty of evidence from scripture that angels can eat, and they can assimilate gross earthly… I mean, this is true, this goes right through medieval theology, believe it or not, this is an argument, say, between Thomists and Scotists about whether…

Larry Chapp: That’s a very good point. I remember reading an article of yours as well, a long time ago, about how our notions of the distinction between spirit and corporeal reality are a bit skewed. I don’t really remember the full orb of your argument, but remember thinking at the time…

David Hart: Well, we’re Cartesians, you know, I mean, we think like Cartesians. Even Platonists didn’t think that way, really. I would explain why, but for Paul whose thought is also obviously influenced a bit by Stoicism as everyone’s in the first century. You have to understand that the Jewish world that Paul was born into and that he definitely would have been exposed to intellectually in the school of Gamaliel and of the Pharisees was one in which there was a happy exchange of of ideas and visions of reality between the so-called Pagan and the Jewish worlds. It was a Hellenized world for three centuries. This was nothing new, and Jewish thinkers thought like Stoics in some ways quite often or Platonists. Philo of Alexandria is not an anomaly. He’s simply a very impressive specimen of philosophical theologian, but there’s nothing that would have seemed odd or offensive to many of his fellow Jews of the early centuries.

For Paul, he’s working within certain paradigms, and one of them is that spirit is a higher form of corporeality. For instance, the Gospel of John, you know, where spirit is also the wind that blows through this world or the subtle currents of the wind, sort of ethereal, but it also really is, that is the same thing, in some sense, that’s the same element that is the spirit in us and that the divine spirit is still spirit. It’s a pneuma.

You know, we think like Cartesians, but well into the Middle Ages there were questions like: Can angels really eat, or do they just appear to eat? Do they gather a body from mist? So that wouldn’t have been a problem, but in Luke you’re right, Christ, the resurrected Christ, says, “You see that I’m not a pneuma.” (Another use of the word, of course, was ghost or phantom.) “But I have flesh and bone like you.” And yet in Acts, which we believe was written by Luke as well, you have the Pharisees and Sadducees. And Sadducees said they didn’t believe in the resurrection either as angel or spirit, or at least that’s what the Greek seems to say. So I’m not even sure Luke had a consistent notion of what he understood, or alternatively whether the risen Christ is a special case for Luke that’s different from the universal resurrection in which all things will be transformed, we don’t know.

The systematic treatment of what the resurrection body will be is Paul, and it’s his theology, his philosophy. (I doubt it was universally held—although I do believe that it is echoed in the language about resurrection [as] “living like the angels” but put that aside.) We only have Paul, and Paul clearly denies that the resurrection is the salvation of the flesh. He flatly states that flesh and blood cannot be saved. They are, by their nature, elements of mortality. They’re part of our imprisonment and death. So when we we abominate the gnostics for their anti-corporealism, which isn’t what it is, but their rejection flesh, we would have to include Paul in those animadversions.

Larry Chapp: Is his rejection of flesh a rejection of materiality as such or just sarx?

David Hart: No, I mean, again, what is matter? They thought there were different kinds of it. They thought, you know, above the moon there are realms of ether which is rarified, but it’s actually… spirit is in many ways something stronger, mightier, more substantial than flesh even though it can do miraculous things like enter rooms when the doors are locked, appear and disappear. Nonetheless, it’s imperishable. It’s indestructible. It can also do physical things like eat fish or break bread and then disappear. …Again don’t think like a Cartesian. Don’t think it’s either like: materiality means solid, inert, mechanical, dead, matter (there was no such concept) as opposed to a purely disincarnated, utterly incorporeal kind of something less than a vapor.

Larry Chapp: Right. Well, and I agree with that. I was reacting to your comparison of Paul with the gnostics, and that they in a sense both reject the idea that the flesh will be resurrected.

David Hart: And I’ll point out the so-called gnostics, the Valentinians, the Sethians, from what we can tell, they have this notion of a spiritual body. They’re being set free from the flesh and the blood. They will receive a spiritual body which becomes the okhêma, the vehicle, by which they’re able to enter into the heavenly places which, by the way, is what Paul says. He speaks of the distance that separates us from God. He thinks of it both as spiritual but also, in a sense, cosmic, that nothing now, neither height nor depth, can separate us from God.

Larry Chapp: I don’t want to spend all of our last minutes here on this topic, but will Paul then have considered our bodies to be a tomb for the soul, something that we simply have to escape, that materiality.

David Hart: I believe that he felt that the body of flesh and blood is the outer man. When he talks about the outer man and the inner man, that’s literally what he means. He means the outer man is a kind of prison of death from which we need to be liberated. That’s what the resurrection of Christ… that’s why we’re entering into Christ’s resurrection, is that the outer man can be shed, meaning literally the body of flesh and blood and receive a new spiritual body along with Christ in his resurrection and enter into the heavenly places. Yeah, I think he was much more Platonic in that sense. He states it pretty explicitly.

We’ve just been told that, you know, we’ve been taught in so many ways to read over the surface of the Bible because, this actually goes back into the beginning of our conversation, I talked about people who read my book but never seem to see what the argument was because they were committed to seeing something else. Well, the opposite of that is we’re committed to seeing this so we have to start the doctrinal theological tradition that we’re told from a very early age is biblical, apostolic Christianity, without break, without ambiguity, without discontinuity, and that there’s a kind of ethos and vision of reality that’s there from the beginning. It’s really not the case. The first century was a different kind of… The past is a different country. They do things differently there.

Larry Chapp: Well that’s that’s interesting in terms of talking of this overlay because to me the standard interpretation of Paul that I’ve sort of received was that when Paul speaks of flesh in the negative category, and he uses the term sarx, he means the flesh of concupiscence, fallen flesh, the flesh of this…

David Hart: I’m sorry, I keep interrupting. That’s a way of trying to rationalize when, clearly, that’s not what he’s saying because again we have 1 Corinthians 15. The whole discourse is what the nature of resurrection is, and he makes it clear what he means by flesh. It turns out that by flesh he means flesh. And this is just consistent throughout his theology that the outer man, the flesh, is one kind of okhêma, one kind of vehicle, one that traps us in this household of death, slaves to death, and that we’ve been saved because Christ has overcome the power of death and by his resurrection created a new reality, a spiritual body that is an okhêma that that can preserve us from mortality and mutability, and flesh and blood.

The New International Version in its earlier editions (and the New International Version is the Bible in much the same way, I like to say, as “West Side Story” is “Romeo and Juliet”), they would translate it, sarx, as “sinful nature” or something like that, and no, that’s not what he means. Paul is the first century Hellenistic Jewish thinker who is talking about the glorious message of the gospel, for him, in part is that we’re going to be set free from mortal flesh, from flesh, from blood which is an outer man that traps the inner man and that wants, that has a kind of will of its own, that desires one thing whereas the spirit within us desires another. And notice something else. In Paul’s language, fifty percent of the time, when he uses the word “spirit,” the translator feels that he or she has to decide, is he talking about the divine spirit or the human spirit. Well, the point is, at times, that’s a distinction that doesn’t occur to him. Spirit is the breath of God in us. So the divine spirit’s already in us, and there’s a new outpouring of the spirit. You see this in Irenaeus as well. He doesn’t have any concept of the spirit within us as being in some sense separate from the divine spirit. Then again, so when we abominate the gnostics for supposedly believing that there’s an inherent divinity in us, again, so does Paul. And so of course does the best mystical and metaphysical traditions of Christian thought.

Larry Chapp: Hence, your latest book You are Gods.

David Hart: Yeah, which, by the way, asserts nothing, except in the tone, it asserts nothing that you couldn’t get from Maximus the Confessor, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Gregory of Nyssa, with a lot of Nicholas of Cusa to throw in, but that’s doesn’t make doctrinal differences.