Thursday, September 05, 2013

'Christoplatonism' and Modern Funeral Liturgies

In my article for the Colson Center titled, 'Raised a Spiritual Body', I pointed out that because the doctrine of bodily resurrection has so often been sidestepped for a Platonic doctrine of the soul’s immortality, and because it is often assumed that we will enjoy immortality in a disembodied state, Christian thinkers have often assumed that there is something unspiritual about our material existence. Instead of seeing the great antithesis between the spiritual and the material, we fall into the error of seeing the great metaphysical divide being between the spiritual and the material.

This false dualism, which Randy Alcorn calls “Christoplatonism” in his excellent book "Heaven," has had a huge impact on our understanding of death. The notion that the dead are in heaven waiting for their resurrection bodies has largely been eclipsed by the false idea that going to heaven is itself the primary Christian hope. This has had a major impact on Christian funeral liturgies.

In his 2009 publication The Christian Funeral, Thomas Long explored some of the subtle theological shifts that have occurred in Christian funeral rites. He wrote that a “disembodied, quasi-gnostic cluster of customs and ceremonies” now surround the Christian funeral. This network of “quasi-gnostic” customs exists in tension to the more traditional elements which also pervade funeral liturgy. To quote from Long,

“Often today two rival theological understandings battle it out for the soul of the funeral. To put it starkly, on the one hand, there is the gospel. The one who has died is an embodied person, a saint ‘traveling on’ to God, continuing the baptismal journey toward the hope of the resurrection of the body and God’s promise to make all things new. On the other hand, there is a more ‘spiritualized,’ perhaps even gnostic, understanding of death. The body is ‘just a shell,’ and the immortal soul of the deceased has now been released to become a spiritual presence among us, available through inspiration and active memory. In this view, the body, no longer of any use, is disposed of, but the ‘real person’ is now a disembodied spirit. It is therefore not the deceased who is traveling, but the mourners, on an intrapsychic journey from sorrow to stability.”

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