The knowledge of disembodied souls: Epistemology, body, and social embeddedness in the eschatological doctrine of later sixteenth-century German Lutherans
AbstractIn the wake of their rejection of purgatory Protestants had to rethink their eschatological views. The German Lutherans of the latter half of the sixteenth century developed a robust doctrine of the last things, including a teaching on what departed souls know prior to the resurrection. Following an overview of the sources and a brief reconstruction of the overall locus, this article focuses on an analysis of what and how disembodied souls are claimed to know. The evidence holds some surprises. First, while more than lip-service is certainly paid to the ways of knowing God, the authors’ real interest lies in the exploration of interpersonal relationships. Their primary concern is how other human beings, whether still on earth or already departed, may be known and what may be known about them. The implications are threefold. Knowledge of God and knowledge of human beings—ultimately, knowledge of self—are intertwined. Anthropology takes centre-stage, and ontology is thus superseded by epistemology. In all this, the body is never relinquished. The apparently unconscious importation of sensory language and conceptualisation of sense-based experience permeate the discussion of ostensibly disembodied knowledge. Knowing, for our authors, is ultimately a function of the body even if this means ‘packing’ bodily functions into the soul. In this doctrine, which may have had its roots in patristics but which has also demonstrably absorbed impulses from popular religion, knowledge of God is not only deeply connected with individual identity but also exhibits indelible social features and is inseparable from the (re)constitution of community.
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