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from eden to eternity
22 august 2015
Alastair Minnis calls his project in From Eden to Eternity at once "narrow" and "vast" (19-20). Most of the book consists of a catalog of medieval theological disputations about the Garden of Eden, some of which make "the number of angels who could occupy a pinhead" (118) look substantive. But as Minnis develops his argument, we realize that scholastic philosophers were really debating human nature and the order of the universe. "The schoolmen thought their way back to Eden to discover fundamental truths about humanity" (83).
Or did they? Academic arguments have been known to erupt from the need to have something to argue about. "Scholastic realizations of Eden," Minnis argues,
vacillate between somewhat whimsical speculation about matters which seem to be (at least prima facie) of marginal importance, and uncompromisingly serious engagement with matters believed to constitute the very ground and foundation of human existence in this life and in the next. (220)But whether an intellectual issue is serious or whimsical, academic discussions of it can still be artificially generated for esoteric professional purposes. I guess what I'm asking is whether the legitimately great thinkers that Minnis invokes – Augustine, Aquinas, Bonaventure, Wyclif – perceived a special exigence in the matters they discussed, or whether they were just producing "normal scholarship" on topics that presented a hook for the next publication on their resumé.
In the sense that thought is thought, whatever its intention or motivation, it doesn't matter. Minnis covers, in brilliantly clear and inviting prose, the many medieval theories of the prelapsarian body, Edenic political arrangements, and the future Paradise regained where all things shall be perfect. When he occasionally goes beyond the intra-intricacies of exegesis, and explores political contexts for theological technicalities, we begin to see the "relevance" of the frequently-arid issues under discussion. (Sorry, I went to college in the 1970s. Everything's gotta be "relevant" with me.) Notably urgent for medieval audiences was the extent to which radical movements like the Franciscans were justified in rearranging the fallen world to resemble the unfallen. (And also what happened when those radical movements became, in turn, the establishment, and started to act in distinctly fallen ways.)
While making my way through theological abstrusenesses in the middle of From Eden to Eternity, I heard a faint but perceptible chorus of resonances from 21st-century political issues as undertone to Minnis's exposition. Much of the scholastic intellectual project was a defense of a Western worldview against Muslim interpretations. Augustine, and later Peter Lombard, worried over the eschatological consequences of partial-birth abortion. Skin color after the Resurrection concerned the Church Fathers for some reason. The gendered nature of souls in the paradise to come was another big issue. Aquinas argued (pace Saint Paul, among others) that we will be raised as men and women, not sexless, because gender diversity (in so many, albeit Latin, words) is a desirable outcome (154-55).
Minnis doesn't underline these connections between our political footballs and the schoolmen's intellectual ones, but he doesn't have to: instead, it's a subtle way of reminding readers that just about any theoretical pursuit can turn bitterly practical, even if it may take a few centuries to manifest.
Imaginations of the Garden of Eden fascinate me. I am about to teach John Milton's Paradise Lost for the first time in years, and Minnis's book (which frequently quotes Milton) is a very welcome background: I'd say, essential to understanding the traditional discussions that Milton intervened in. Paradise lost is the origin myth of the Christian West (and of quite a bit of the Middle East, too, though for my purposes and Minnis's that's another story). For two millennia people in Europe and environs have thought about death, depravity, the unfairness of life, the pain of childbirth, the burden of work, the goodness of God – and a few lesser matters, like why the snake doesn't have legs – through the spare outlines of a couple of chapters of Genesis. Adam & Eve must be the most elaborated short story in literary history. People continue to believe in their literal existence, and people continue to wonder in more general terms about why the sins of the parents are so often visited on their offspring.
The literal nature of Genesis was an important part of medieval thought about the story. Minnis quotes a lot of smart men, and not a few smart women, who weren't about to blindly believe in any old just-so story. But they were also deeply impressed by the formidable Augustine, who argued that Genesis was both literal and figural. Time and again, Minnis cites a scholar who read the story of Paradise – both the one that was and the eternal one that will be – in the light of cutting-edge medieval science. (And lest you're tempted to scorn the science of the 13th century, wonder what scientists in the 29th will think of our level of insight.) Aquinas, for instance, adduces up-to-the-medieval-minute understanding of the structure of the human eye to try to understand how resurrected bodies will perceive the beatific vision (198). They may seem slightly mad, but these old guys were not intellectually incurious.
Throughout the book, whether they imagining the original garden or the future perfected one, Minnis shows us schoolmen considering (and policing) the boundaries between humans and animals in ways that prefigure the concerns of Animal Studies today. Do all dogs go to heaven? Some Protestants eventually thought so, but Bonaventure didn't think that Heaven would be big enough. There's also the question of how the bodies of all the critters we've digested could be reassembled for glory. Peter Lombard, following Augustine, was quite concerned about the problem of cannibals in Heaven (148-49). How would you be resurrected if some othe human ate you? What could be resurrected of you if your flesh was made up of other humans? Presumably this was the kind of thing you could apply for a research grant to study in academic year 1145-46. Luckily Senator Proxmire would not appear for another eight hundred years.
Among its other virtues, From Eden to Eternity is a contribution to art history, with beautifully produced plates showing the diversity of graphic interpretations of a better world. The people who made these images are often anonymous, but deserve the same lasting regard as the distinctly-named authors who dominate Minnis's text.
Minnis, Alastair. From Eden to Eternity: Creations of paradise in the later middle ages. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.