The caterpillar lives a fairly simple existence, slinking along, dodging the ravenous appetites of birds, all the while devouring as much food as possible. At some point he finds a choice spot and forms a cocoon around himself and begins one of the most astonishing transformations within nature: he turns into a butterfly. During this metamorphosis he sheds all his caterpillar “fur” (his setae), his caterpillar legs, and even his caterpillar antennae. His slender body, too, gives way to the chrysalitic soup, as his own digestive juices consume him. Not even his head survives intact, but dissolves until all that he was liquifies into the ingredients necessary to form his butterfly “self.” I put “self” in quotes because it’s not clear whether anything of the caterpillar actually survives the transformation. There is evidence of at least some memory being carried through the change, though how this occurs remains a mystery. Nonetheless, nearly all that is caterpillar is gone. What emerges is an entirely new and beautifully winged creature.
Some people think of religion like that, that religion ultimately means to replace what we are now with an entirely different kind of otherworldly existence. Like all ancient peoples, the majority of people in the world today still think that some kind of life after death is real. Like their ancestors, many of these people think that one of their primary purposes in this life is to prepare for that post-death existence. The ancient western cultures such as the Greeks and the Romans thought that life in the next world was the realm of shades, ghostly remnants of human identity, bereft of body and human connection. The Romans accordingly cremated corpses, because the body no longer held any necessary connection to the displaced soul. The Egyptians, on the other hand, were convinced that the human spirit required connection to the body for its survival. So, they focused on eternal preservation of that body, the process we know as mummification. In more recent times some religious groups such as the Scientologists have come to call the body a “vessel” or even an “impediment” to advanced development of the soul, something that can and should be left behind for good. In the science fiction of the Netflix series Altered Carbon, different bodies are entered into and left behind as mere “sleeves” in the quest for immortality. On these contemporary accounts, our lives here are only the lives of the caterpillar.
The more a religious system emphasizes the butterfly effect of total replacement, the less importance it places on living a fully human life in the here and now.
Religious rites and requirements also differ according to how their practitioners conceive of the next world and our place in it. The more a religious system emphasizes the butterfly effect of total replacement, the less importance it places on living a fully human life in the here and now. Some systems go so far as to actively restrict human expression and to restrain human desire in an effort to prepare the self, or the spirit, or the consciousness—whatever it is they think survives—for its future reality. Of course, nobody really knows, we are told, so it’s a crap shoot on how to prepare.
Except that some of us do know. Not because we’ve been there and come back with the details, of course. But rather, some of us saw what the people on the other side look like now. Do you remember when Jesus took Peter, James, and John up to the mountain for his transfiguration? He lit up brighter than the sun, startling the disciples with the revelation of his divine glory. But then something else happened. Moses and Elijah showed up, standing next to him and talking together with him. The three disciples recognized them, even though they hadn’t met either one of them before (heavenly name tags?). Moses and Elijah didn’t look like something else. They looked like themselves—perfectly, wholesomely human. Elijah had famously been taken up into heaven alive, but Moses had been buried—still, both had bodies in heaven. Consider that.
After Jesus rose from the dead, he, too, expressed distinctly human traits in his resurrected body. He was no ghostly apparition, though he had to convince his disciples of this by eating food and proving to them that it didn’t fall through him onto the floor. His memory survived intact, for he knew them by name. He recalled how fishing works, sufficiently so that he could direct the disciples on where to cast their nets for a great haul one morning. He still understood the value, tastes, and techniques of cooking, because, after they had exhausted themselves pulling in all those fish, they found that he had cooked breakfast for them.
I suppose someone might say that this is all well and good for Jesus post-resurrection but that, once he soared into the heavens in his ascension, he probably then underwent whatever butterfly-like transformation really happens in the next world. But not so fast, because the angels who appeared to the gaping disciples told them that Jesus would return to them someday exactly as he left them—same guy, same travel mode (flight), same spot.
That’s what the Son of Man became human to do, to save human beings not from themselves, but for themselves.
Mary, too, was taken up into heaven in her body. She didn’t leave it behind. Apparently, her humanity matters to her son. In fact, Jesus was so concerned that his disciples understood this point about the afterlife that he told them in the night of his betrayal that he would be going away from them soon in order to prepare rooms for them, so that where he was going, they, too, would one day go. They’d all be going to the same place—human friendship and community continuing—and they’d need rooms. Ghosts don’t need rooms. Pure consciousnesses don’t need rooms. Angels don’t need rooms. We need rooms, places to put our things, places to stow our shoes, mirrors to examine our appearance, closets for different sorts of clothing for various activities. Rooms are human. Rooms bespeak a fully human existence. Why? Because that’s what the Son of Man became human to do, to save human beings not from themselves, but for themselves.
Our humanity is not disposable. Our humanity is who and what we are, just as His humanity is now who and what He will always be.
Contrast the butterfly transformation imagery with the imagery St. Paul uses in Romans 8. All of this world, he says, is the womb and pains of childbirth, while the next life is our birth. The womb prepares the infant for what it is to be. It’s not one thing in the womb and a totally different thing once it emerges. It’s the same person, the same baby, the same human being. St. Paul rejects the butterfly imagery because our humanity is not refuse to be dissolved and happily left behind for a purely spiritual existence. Our humanity is not disposable. Our humanity is who and what we are, just as His humanity is now who and what He will always be. If human nature was good enough for God, don’t you think it should be good enough for us?
A religion that rejects the butterfly metamorphosis imagery emphasizes the glory and fulfillment of human nature. The Church cares for the wholeness of people. She cares for the body, building many of the first hospitals. She cares for the poor, building many of the first charities and soup kitchens. She cares for the naked, gathering and distributing clothing to those in need. But she also goes way beyond necessity to full human flourishing, because the Church also started most of the world’s greatest universities. The Church’s emphatic endorsement of the human body erupted in the arts, humanities, and sciences of the Renaissance, the single greatest expression of human majesty the world has ever seen. Music, exploration, engineering, sculpture, discovery, husbandry, government, literature, in each field we see how the Church played an integral part in ratifying and exalting these quintessentially human efforts.
We Christians are always living in two worlds at the same time, two “cities,” said St. Augustine. We prepare for the next world by living fully in the present one. Our rejection of sin is not a restriction on our humanity, for sin is mere privation, a cancer that limits and shreds that humanity. We exalt who we are in praise of the one in whose image we were originally made, the same image that we will inhabit forever in human perfection after death. No, we are not butterflies. We are men.