Every body is religious

05328151425 eyesA few years ago I was in Czech Republic to witness the baptism of a dear friend. We went to Kutna Hora, home to the beautiful Sv. Barbory (Saint Barbara) Cathedral, one of the most famous Gothic churches in Europe. From Jan Svankmajer’s film, I knew of an ossuary nearby that I wanted to visit. Hana repeatedly told me that I shouldn’t go, but I insisted.

She was probably right. A chapel made out of creative arrangements of the bones of 40,000 humans is, it seems, not for the weak. Finding out that it was made in the late 19th century, instead of 500 years earlier, only made it worse. It provoked in me a deeper appreciation for more private cemeteries and resting places.

I thought of this experience when reading Denver Post writer Eric Gorski’s interesting piece on an exhibition of human bodies that is touring the country. I enjoy reading Gorski because he takes the time to understand the nuances of religious issues. So many religion reporters think that they can explain complex religious issues by talking to people on opposite sides of an issue. Gorski tries to explain issues by differentiating seemingly similar views.

He looks at an exhibition in which corpses have their skin removed to show muscles and nerves. The corpses are put in bizarre positions, too, like swinging a baseball bat:

The exhibit raises questions about the existence of a creator, when life begins and the afterlife. Displaying actual cadavers — a sight usually reserved for medical students — also raises ethical and religious issues.

He talks to various religious leaders about their concerns, finding most clerics to be generally supportive. However, two of his Muslim sources disagree about whether the exhibit is okay. I found the following quote from the executive director of the Colorado Southern Baptist General Convention to be very interesting:

“The body is a beautiful miracle — a major proof of the creator,” [Mark] Edlund said. “In a cadaver there is no soul, no spirit. I see no Christian ethics involved.”

bodyworksI am sure this is the view of Southern Baptists, but I just thought it was fascinating. Think of how the spread of Christianity — with its central belief in the resurrection of the body — led to major changes in the way people dealt with the human body after death. The early Christians would have universally disapproved of such treatment of the human form. They strenuously advocated burial of the human body — contrary to many customs of the time. Obviously things have changed drastically in Christianity — with many churches supporting the cremation that early Christians worked so hard to eradicate. I am certain that some scholars or religious leaders who represent the historic Christian position could have been found, but the wide variety of belief mentioned in Gorski’s piece was interesting. I also appreciated that he found out a bit about the religious views of the exhibit’s creator:

As for the man behind it all, [Dr. Gunther] von Hagens told Colorado reporters last week he was baptized a Protestant behind the Iron Curtain in East Germany and did not see the inside of a church for 17 years.

Von Hagens describes his belief system now as largely agnostic.

Does the master anatomist believe in an afterlife? Did souls once dwell in his ballet dancer, his soccer player, his man at leisure?

“I think my brain is not constructed to answer those questions,” he said.

Too many reporters would listen to an agnostic such as von Hagens and deem his religious views unworthy of mention. But it’s important when writing about one source’s religious motivation to seek out information about everyone’s religious motivation.

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  • Brian

    It’s interesting to me that the Southern Baptist executive director and the text of the Gorski interview conceive the soul and body as separable and differently valued entities. An oddly gnostic assumption, as if the body were the yellow banana skin to be peeled away and discarded, leaving the soft white interior for our enjoyment. I hear this all the time, even from my medical students, whom I though might have a grander notion of the body’s dignity.

    I don’t know what to make of Gorski’s exhibition. As the varying religious responses show, there’s more than one way to skin this cadaver. In my pediatric practice, I’m reminded daily that the body is a marvelous work of art, but art rather different than the advertising and so-called beauty industries would have us believe. I suppose that’s why I find Breughel’s earthy peasants more to my taste than idealized Italian Renaissance demigods.

    The Greek psyche, with all its Platonic baggage, fits nicely into any system which starves the body until it is no more than the soul’s container. After Descartes, of course, the polarities become body and mind, and following La Mettrie, the body is no longer a container but a machine, upon which the mind exercises its disembodied will.

    The Hebrew nephesh is a much earthier word, not so easily dissected from the flesh. Wendell Berry, who knows a thing or two about bodies and the earth, has a wonderful passage in his essay, “Christianity and the Survival of Creation”:

    “The crucial test is probably Genesis 2:7, which gives the process by which Adam was created: “the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life: and man became a living soul.” My mind, like most people’s, has been deeply influenced by dualism, and I can see how dualistic minds deal with this verse. They conclude that the formula for man-making is: man = body + soul. But that conclusion cannot be derived, except by violence, from Genesis 2:7, which is not dualistic. The formula given in Genesis is not man = body + soul; the formula there is soul = dust + breath. According to this verse, God did not make a body and put a soul into it, like a letter into an envelope. He formed man of dust; by breathing his breath into it, he made the dust live. Insofar as it lived, it was a soul. The dust, formed as man and made to live, did not embody a soul; it became a soul. “Soul” here refers to the whole creature. Humanity is thus presented to us, in Adam, not as a creature of two discrete parts temporarily glued together, but as a single mystery.”

    I’ll continue to ponder the bodies Gorski shows us. I suppose that’s what the artist had in mind.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    William R Maples, Ph.D in his book, “Dead Men Do Tell Tales,” stressed to his classes the dignity of each human corpse the class worked on. He did not allow his students to insert cigarettes into mouths or in any way demean or belittle any corpse.

    There is a sense of beauty in the human body. But is it appropriate to display skinned cadavers? I believe this lacks taste and does not give due respect.

    As for proper disposal of remains, the proper way has always been up for debate. When I was younger it seemed many unbelievers preferred cremation to dare God to put them back together, thus pastors would preach it is unChristian to be cremated. But what if the local area has a shortage of land? Or underground burial, such as in New Orlleans, is impracticle? Jews and Muslims also consider proper to bury the dead (within 24 among the Muslims). Yet even here the rites do not follow through if the deceased is deemed an infidel.

    A final question I have is, did the deceased or their relatives agree to this exhibit? Or did the artist simply get unclaimed corpses from the local morgue? That aspect didn’t seem to be addressed (or I missed it).


  • Keefhalek

    Just want to say that I finally ‘got’ the title of the article. Duh. Slow today.

  • Maureen

    The nephesh information is very interesting. I can see now where St. Thomas Aquinas got his idea that all animals and material objects have souls of a minor sort, but that only human souls are “strong” enough to have an afterlife.

    (Disclaimer: I am not a Thomist, nor do I play one on the Internet. This is all hearsay, which I may have misunderstood.)

    Whether or not you are religious, abuse of a corpse is illegal. Somebody should have prosecuted these yahoos long ago.

  • http://www.orthodoxytoday.org Fr. Hans Jacobse

    I saw a program about this (plasticized bodies) on television a few weeks ago. It disturbed me, but it took a couple of days to sort it all out. My conclusion: this process of plasticized mumification is the work of a mind like Jeffrey Dahlmer’s.

    There is something morbidly fascinating about the destruction of orderly things. We slow down at traffic accidents for example, to take in the measure of disorder as we pass by. The difference between the exhibit and a traffic accident however, is that the exhibit is not random but planned.

    Stripping the body of its skin and adjusting it into stylized poses exhibits an idealization of the body that crosses over into idolization. The body is all in all here. The corruptible is made permanent. The suggestion exists that if we could take it all in, if all the processes of the body could be comprehended and subsumed by the observer, then the power once possessed by the plasticized form could be harnessed and contained, and perhaps even appropriated. Put another way, there is a cannibalistic impulse at work here.

    Of course, because the forms are displayed in a museum, these base ideas have now found sanction.

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