Holy Sonnet I: “Thou Hast Made Me, and Shall Thy Work Decay?” by John Donne
Thou hast made me, and shall thy work decay?
Repair me now, for now mine end doth haste,
I run to death, and death meets me as fast,
And all my pleasures are like yesterday;
I dare not move my dim eyes any way,
Despair behind, and death before doth cast
Such terror, and my feeble flesh doth waste
By sin in it, which it t’wards hell doth weigh;
Only thou art above, and when towards thee
By thy leave I can look, I rise again;
But our old subtle foe so tempteth me,
That not one hour my self I can sustain;
Thy Grace may wing me to prevent his art,
And thou like Adamant draw mine iron heart.
John Donne, 16th-century poet-pastor, writes sharply of what is all too familiar to us all as we struggle to live the Christian life. Namely, why are we so prone toward death and its many faces (decay, despair, terror, feebleness, waste, sin) if we are resurrection people? This paradox is acutely painful, and has led to all kinds of attempts by Christian thinkers and theologians to describe what is going on. Paul gives an answer in 1 Corinthians that may be familiar to many: that there are really two bodies. Before I turn to Paul, however, I offer up N. T. Wright’s careful warning: to hear what Paul means, and not what we have been conditioned to hear.
This is the point at which we modern Westerners are called to make a huge leap of the imagination. We have been buying our mental furniture for so long in Plato’s factory that we have come to take for granted a basic ontological contrast between “spirit” in the sense of something material, solid, physical. We think we know that solid objects are one sort of thing and ideas or values or spirits or ghosts are a different sort of thing (often not noticing that they are themselves all rather different sorts of things). We know that bodies decay and die; that houses, temples, cities, and civilizations fall to dust; and so we assume that to be bodily, to be physical, is to be impermanent, changeable, transitory, and that the only way to be permanent, unchanging, and immortal is to become nonphysical.
Paul’s point here is that this is not so. Actually, it wasn’t so even in the dominant cosmology of his day, which was Stoic rather than Platonic. Still less within the Jewish creation theology, which formed the seedbed out of which, because of the resurrection of Jesus himself, Paul grew this theology of new creation. Paul is making his Corinthian readers think in new patterns, and he has the same effect on us. (Surprised by Hope, 153-154)
So, with this warning to not read Paul as Enlightenment-informed Platonists firmly in mind, we turn to Paul. (To help us avoid the temptation to narrowly read “physical,” therefore, I offer the New King James Version, which says “natural”):
But someone will say, “How are the dead raised up? And with what body do they come?” Foolish one, what you sow is not made alive unless it dies. And what you sow, you do not sow that body that shall be, but mere grain—perhaps wheat or some other grain. But God gives it a body as He pleases, and to each seed its own body. All flesh is not the same flesh, but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of animals, another of fish, and another of birds. There are also celestial bodies and terrestrial bodies; but the glory of the celestial is one, and the glory of the terrestrial is another. There is one glory of the sun, another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for one star differs from another star in glory.
So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. And so it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being.” The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man. (1 Corinthians 15:35-45, New King James Version)
N. T. Wright comments on this passage, helpfully explaining the nuances of the Greek words “natural” (or “physical”) and “spiritual”: namely, the difference is not the material from which our bodies are made, but the power by which our bodies exist:
Paul is talking about the present body, which is animated by the normal human psyche (the life force we all possess here and now, which gets us through the present life but is ultimately powerless against illness, injury, decay, and death), and the future body, which is animated by God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life, the energizing power of God’s new creation. (Surprised by Hope, 155-156)
This is why Paul is talking about Adam. Adam received the very breath of God, and instead took his life into his own hands by eating of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Rather than relying wholly on God as the source of life, and enjoying the many good trees by which God would sustain his creation, Adam and Eve wanted to live independently, sustained by their own “normal human psyche.” Paul offers Jesus Christ as “the second Man” who demonstrated what it looks like for a body to live entirely upon “God’s pneuma, God’s breath of new life.” When life is sustained by this divine breath, it is little wonder that the grave will not hold it.
What Paul is asking us to imagine is that there will be a new mode of physicality, which stands in relation to our present body as our present body does to a ghost. It will be as much more real, more firmed up, more bodily, than our present body as our present body is more substantial, more touchable, than a disembodied spirit. (Surprised by Hope, 154)
Resurrection living is not easy. Donne remarks that, “not one hour my self I can sustain,” because we live still in these perishable bodies. Our lungs are still pulling tainted air, knowing all along that we are promised the very breath of God. This promise is sealed to us in baptism, which is the sacrament by which we mysteriously participate in our Lord’s dying and our Lord’s rising again. But we have not risen yet, and these bodies still decay. An Easter paradox, indeed.
This is why Paul is working so hard to communicate to the Corinthians, and to us, that while we have not risen yet, Christ’s rising is a guarantee of our own coming resurrection, and Christ’s “spiritual” body is a testament that our own are coming. This is why we lament the death and disease so prevalent among us, because our hope is sure! Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus!