Theoscatology

May 24, 2013 | 19 comments
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We need bodies to become like God. But bodies are organs of passing.

Bodies channel what they can of the world through our narrow walls of flesh and bone. Bodies pass light through our eyes, sounds through our ears, smells through our noses, tastes through our tongues, food through our bowels, air through our lungs, blood through our veins, electricity through our nerves, words through our brains. These things all come and these things all go.

Our bodies borrow their living from the world. For both the eater and the eaten, this borrowing is costly and no matter how much our lungs or brains or bowels manage to sponge, there’s always a remainder. No matter how full we feel, our bowels will move again.

We could draft a taxonomy of theologies in terms of how they deal with these passings and their remainders. A short survey would likely suffice:

Q1. Is shit a regrettable, local, temporary phenomenon? Or is shit eternal?

If my body is an organ of passing, will a resurrected body bring all of this passing – all of this waxing and waning, this wanting and detesting, this flooding and emptying, this endless digesting – to an end?

Is the remainder real? Is it divine?

Take Adam and Eve in the garden. They are told not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. But they eat it. And then, after eating this fruit, they start to feel ashamed and rush to cover their nakedness. They need fig leaves.

It’s common to think their embarrassment has to do with sex. I can see that. But I don’t think that this pivotal revelation (a revelation that followed their having eaten fruit) was mostly about sex. I think it was about shit.

This may be less high drama and more low comedy (such, in truth, is life), but what other kind of revelation would inevitably follow when you’ve eaten too much fruit? Adam and Eve may have rushed to cover their nakedness, but they weren’t covering their sex. They were covering their bladders and sphincters. (Eve’s never wearing a top, after all, in any of those fig-leaf pictures.)

Whether they had been ingesting and digesting and egesting all along in the garden, we don’t know. But if they had been, it seems that they didn’t know what it meant. They didn’t yet know what it meant to be a body. And once they found out, they immediately wished they hadn’t.

Having eaten the fruit, they knew: though they’d chewed it up (and it was delicious), it wasn’t enough and they couldn’t keep it.

This is a hard thing to see. They wanted to run away. They wanted to hide. They didn’t want to face the fact of the passing that their own bodies gave body to. They didn’t want to deal with the dirt that composed them or the dirt expelled from them.

They wished with all their might for that not yet invented but originally sinful thing: a really powerful toilet. They wished for something to flush the truth away.

This edenic fantasy of flight and flushing finds its apotheosis in David Foster Wallace’s quasi-journalistic essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

For seven days and six nights, Wallace carefully traces how all the tiny details of his luxury Caribbean cruise collude to promote the fantasy of a satisfaction that will (finally!) neither pass nor disappoint, producing a satisfaction without remainder.

The sales pitch is simple: on this luxury cruise, with its 11+ meals per day, all of your needs will be met. The meals, the massages, the entertainment, the weather, the pampering, the comfort, the company – all of it – will be, for once, enough.

This fantasy comes to a head in Wallace’s description of cabin 1009′s astonishing toilet:

But all this is still small potatoes compared to 1009’s fascinating and potentially malevolent toilet. A harmonious concordance of elegant form and vigorous function, flanked by rolls of tissue so soft as to be without the usual perforates for tearing, my toilet has above it this sign:

THIS TOILET IS CONNECTED TO A VACUUM SEWAGE SYSTEM. PLEASE DO NOT THROW INTO THE TOILET ANYTHING THAN ORDINARY TOILET WASTE AND TOILET PAPER [SIC]

Yes that’s right a vacuum toilet. And, as with the exhaust fan above, not a lightweight or unambitious vacuum. The toilet’s flush produces a brief but traumatizing sound, a kind of held high-B gargle, as of some gastric disturbance on a cosmic scale. Along with this sound comes a concussive suction so awesomely powerful that it’s both scary and strangely comforting – your waste seems less removed than hurled from you, and hurled with a velocity that lets you feel as though the waste is going to end up someplace so far away from you that it will have become an abstraction . . .  a kind of existential-level sewage treatment. (304-305, ellipsis original)

The fantasy we’re being sold (again and again) is of an “existential-level sewage treatment,” a treatment whose awesomely powerful suction will convincingly comfort us with the sheer concussive force of its shouted denial: there is no passing here!

Now, again, we might critique this kind of idolatry in one of two ways – and the difference hinges on how we respond to that survey question.

On the one hand, we might say that this vacuum sewage system is a false god because only God can actually deliver on the promise of a satisfaction without passing and without remainder.

On the other hand, we might say that this toilet is a false god because God intends us to have (and keep) bodies that, like his, are fundamentally organs of passing.

You’ll have to decide for yourself.

But, in closing, I want to note how that story in the garden ends.

The story begins with God planting a garden and then gathering that garden’s rich and fragrant humus into the shape of a human. Then, with a kiss, he breathes life into it. After eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge and hiding their bodies (from each other and from God), God sorts the mess by commanding Adam to spend the rest of his life growing a garden of his own. Adam needs to be taught a lesson and to learn it he’ll have to spend his life up to his elbows in dirt, the smell of soil always on his hands.

By design, Adam’s job is to spend his life learning what that magic ingredient is that will make his garden grow.

19 Responses to Theoscatology

  1. Adam G. on May 24, 2013 at 4:54 pm

    Why do you assume that Adam and Eve had no other fruit to eat, or no other food for that matter?

    This post is not wholly devoid of its own subject matter.

  2. Jacob on May 24, 2013 at 5:02 pm

    A bunch of us at BCC had a bet regarding the rapidity and the content of an Adam G. comment on this thread. We all won.

  3. Eric on May 24, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Once the body is resurrected (assuming we’re accepting the resurrection in a traditional way where the physical body is perfected and raised) doesn’t it stop being a body of passing? And if it’s perfect, I’m thinking we won’t be defecating. In my mind–a lifelong sufferer of IBS–defecation is inimical to bodily perfection. That’s what I’m counting on, anyway. Defecation (to use a more genteel word) is a temporary expediency for a body that is in a fallen state and is inherently ineffecient in processing food (at least “fallen” food).

  4. Ardis E. Parshall on May 24, 2013 at 6:17 pm

    I need to now read te post itself, but I postponed that to give a rousing cheer for best post title in many a month. Hooray, and ha!

  5. Alison Moore Smith on May 24, 2013 at 6:35 pm

    Jacob, I get a cut of that kitty.

  6. JJ on May 24, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    I can’t hide my disappointment with this post. My understanding is Mr. Miller will be a contributor to the Neal A. Maxwell Institute. I think his lecture on Theoscatology pretty much guarantees I will be sending a donation check to the Interpreter. Pardon the cliché but Elder Maxwell must be rolling in his grave.

    As for David Foster Wallace, I think the Onion captured it best with their story “NASCAR Cancels Remainder of Season Following David Foster Wallace’s Death.”

  7. Adam Miller on May 24, 2013 at 8:10 pm

    The Interpreter is a good a project and I’m glad you’re going to be involved. I hope that project continues to do well.

  8. larryco_ on May 25, 2013 at 7:40 am

    This whole article is a load of crap!…Well, actually it’s not, but somebody had to say that line, didn’t they?

    As a teenager reading the gospel stories I always wondered about why the resurrected Jesus ate with the two on the road to Emmaus and the 11 disciples. Was it to prove that His body was flesh and bones? Was it to show that some things hadn’t really changed, that the same “sociality” that we have here will be with us in the next life? Surely a resurrected body doesn’t get hungry, does it? And then the followup question: what exactly is happening with the food that Jesus has just ingested? Again, I wouldn’t think a glorified body needs nourishment for energy. What the poop is going on here?

    I like the idea of eating for eternity. Much like the Islamic Paradise where you can drink all the wine you desire and never get drunk, I’m psyched about the idea of guilt-free, celestially-delicious Big Macs, sweet-n-sour shrimp, and NY steaks. Oh, wait, those are all meat products. What if there’s no meat consumption in the afterlife? No barbecue ribs?! Well, I ain’t goin’ then!!!

  9. No Sh*t Before the Fall Larry on May 25, 2013 at 3:05 pm

    Hi, we haven’t met, but you will have interacted, perhaps, with my more incorrigible cousin, NDBF Gary. As you know, his pet issue is pre-Fall death, or more accurately, it’s total absence. Mine is pre-Fruit-no-poop. So it looks like we are on the same theoscatocenological page. I like your point about the figs covering bladders and sphincters. I have long thought that they would also make for fairly decent wiping material when humanity’s number ones inevitably took their first number twos (outside the Garden, I presume). I sometimes wonder what passing pure knowledge must have been like during their inaugural bowel movements (once when I posed this question to my totally irreverent aunt, No Fun Before the Fall Sherry, she answered, irreverently, “It was a probably just a pair o’ bums and flaming turd.” She is a real piece of work, but she’s kin.).

    Anyhow, I really liked this post, whatever Adam G. might say.

    –NSBF Larry

  10. Cynthia L. on May 26, 2013 at 10:14 am

    Loved the post. My thoughts are thoroughly provoked. I am turning this idea in my head of our bodies channeling the fallen world through us in many dimensions (sound, light, food). Very interesting stuff.

    I also appreciated NSBF Larry’s comment.

  11. Mephibosheth on May 26, 2013 at 11:45 am

    It is precisely this kind of thinking that leads to ideas of viviparous spirit birth and women eternally pregnant with spirit children and celestial squirrel deities. No thanks. But Orson Pratt would be proud.

  12. dbg on May 27, 2013 at 10:27 am

    Brilliant! Far too often we avoid both logical completeness and the good humor of life’s vicissitudes. On both Miller again for the win!

  13. Allen on May 27, 2013 at 12:44 pm

    From Ezster Spat’s 2008 article, “Late Antique Literary Motifs in Yezidi Oral Tradition: The Yezidi Myth of Adam.”

    “Adam stayed in Paradise for a hundred years, then God said to the Peacock Angel, “go, and bring Adam out of Paradise, so that mankind may be established.” Peacock Angel went to Adam and asked him, “have you eaten from the wheat?” Adam said “no.” The Peacock Angel said “eat from it.” Adam said “I won’t.” So then the Peacock Angel used a trick: He became invisible and threw a grain of wheat into Adam’s mouth, who ate it. Then his stomach became enlarged, and the Peacock Angel took him out of Paradise, for he was not supposed to dirty Paradise with his needs.”

    “Another variant claims that after putting him outside Paradise, the Peacock Angel advised Adam to stick his own finger into his backside, thereby creating an outlet for the cause of his pain. It is also noteworthy that the story of Adam’s eating from the forbidden wheat, which caused his stomach to inflate so that he had to leave Paradise to answer nature’s call, is current among not only Yezidis but Muslims as well. I owe this information to my colleague, Loqman Turgut, a doctoral student at the University of Gottingen, who informed me that his grandmother, from the district of Mardin in southeast Turkey, used to tell two variants of Adam’s expulsion from Paradise: a Quranic version, and a strange one about Adam’s stomach being inflated and a bird opening an outlet in his backside. Diyarbakir Muslims also recount that Adam and Eve refused to eat while they were in Paradise, so that they would not have to go to the toilet. After they broke the commandment, their stomachs inflated, they dirtied Paradise with their need, and as a result were expelled. My informant on this point, who is from Diyarbakir but presently studying in France, did not wish to divulge her name. A young Muslim woman from Duhok (originally from a mountain village near the Turkish border) also repeated this hygienic argument when recounting the Quranic story. Though she was aware that this explanation of natural needs is not to be found in the holy text, she saw it as an integral part of the story, or rather as a commonplace exegesis.”

  14. Adam Miller on May 27, 2013 at 5:30 pm

    Nice. Thanks, Allen. I’ll have to take a look.

  15. Adam G. on May 28, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    I’ve been thinking about this post.

    Besides the unfortunate decision to be frank, forthright, and fearless, by talking barnyard a little, as if civilization were perpetually trapped in the Armory Show, I like the dogged Mormon fleshiness here. I’ve got a lot of mileage in debates with creedal Christians who are genuinely shocked by our doctrine that the Father has flesh by reminding them just how shocking the Incarnation is. Mainstream Christianity teaches believes necessarily implies that God threw bawling fits, peed on his mom, had nocturnal emissions, stank, spittled, wiped green snot from his nose, and had to grunt and strain when his digestion wasn’t working too well. Since mainstream Christianity teaches that eternity is not just endless progression in time but timelessness and/or perpetual participation in all times at once, mainstream Christianity necessarily implies that the God of worlds is always this way, perpetually and intrinsically with diarrhea running down his leg. What’s shocking in Mormonism is usually just an echo of what’s already there in the creedal mainstream waiting to be teased out. We’re Christianity’s cover band, banging away at the old hits that everybody had thought decently hushed up. Compared to that essential Christian belief, or the Mormon fillip that the Father is also fleshly, nothing written here is particularly embarassing, which is perhaps why the post had to strain to squeeze out a little shock value.
    Unfortunately, two of the post’s moves contradic t its theme. There’s ignoring the actual particulars of the Adam and Eve story to make a point. “Of every fruit of the garden thou mayest freely eat,” the scripture says. I can’t square brushing off the particulars that way with an argument that we shouldn’t try to abstract what it means to be fleshly from our concrete experience of the flesh. Second, while I enjoyed the opportunity to think about what it means to have an incorruptible body while still continuing to act and be acted upon in the flesh, the fact is that we don’t know whether eternal bodies defecate or not. Instead of letting theology determine the facts for us, we should find out the facts when we can and let them determine the theology.

    Great title, by the way.

  16. SteveP on May 29, 2013 at 9:14 am

    Love this. And I also feel glad to know there will be a place for resurrected bacteria to fulfill their divine destiny.

  17. MDKI on May 29, 2013 at 10:18 am

    This reminds me of portions of Becker’s _Denial of Death_.

    Those interested in related issues might also want to see Schofer’s chapter on “Elimination” in _Confronting Vulnerability_; and McGinn’s _The Meaning of Disgust_ (and for laughs see this review of McGinn: http://www-personal.umich.edu/~humean/strohmingermcginn.pdf)

  18. Dave on May 29, 2013 at 10:32 am

    Becker stressed, uh, input as much or more than output. I’ll never forget his image of lining up all the living plants and animals a person eats over a lifetime as a measure of the cost the world bears to support one life, our life.

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