Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Theology of the Body: Cornerstone of the New Evangilization

Recently, there has been a lot of criticism and discussion concerning Christopher West's presentation and interpretation of John Paul II's Theology of the Body. I currently work at the TOB Institute which organizes and promotes Christopher's talks and courses, as well as those of other speakers. Last month, I was privileged to attend a week long course on TOB, taught by Christopher West. Before the course began, I was skeptical about the "spiritual impact" of TOB, particularly since I considered myself familiar with it. I expected to learn more, but wasn't really expecting that God would touch my heart. God certainly had a surprise for me! I came to see that TOB is not just another theology course, nor is it just for people who have been wounded by sexual sins. Rather, TOB is an integral part of the new evangelization and I believe that all people, even Catholics with a strong faith life and years of really good Catholic education, need to read and understand the Pope's teachings in order to develop a deeper love of God and of others.

The goal of the Christian life is God, and since God is love, loving God, others, and ourselves forms the core of our calling as Christians. But how do we live this calling? As Catholics, blessed with the fullness of the Faith, the Sacraments are the foremost means of holiness, and then prayer, mortification, works of charity, etc. But are all those enough? St. Paul says that without love, they are nothing. The practice of virtue and avoidance of sin are doubtless essential to the Christian life, but they must be accompanied by a profound transformation of heart in which we begin to love as Christ loves. Grace, of course, is necessary for any good to be achieved in us, but what about knowing who God is and who we are? Why do we receive the sacraments, avoid sin and practice charity, anyway? Faith is not ignorance, it is knowing in a profound way who we are as creatures of God. This is where TOB is vital to our whole life: it explains who we are in relation to God and in relation to each other.

Before I go on about TOB, I'd just like to address a specific issue which I have heard raised as an objection to Christopher West's presentation of TOB. I have read several people who think that he downplays this dimension of pray, mortification, reception of the sacraments, perhaps even the need for grace. After spending a week with Christopher I would say this: rarely have a seen such a deep devotion to the Blessed Sacrament, the Blessed Mother, the saints, and a constant recourse to prayer. From his very example, as well as his words urging the need for the Sacrament of Penance, the reception of Communion, prayer to the Blessed Mother, etc., it is clear that these things are absolutely essential for anyone who wants to even begin understanding or living the Theology of the Body. Furthermore, Christopher encouraged us to practice self-denial and penance, both in reparation for sin and as a means to holiness.

So if prayer, sacraments, mortification is so important to a life of chastity and virtue, why does Christopher West move beyond those things to a deeper, more mature form of chastity? Because that is what the Pope calls us to do. For anyone who thinks that Christopher has made up the following theological and spiritual truths I'm going to talk about, I urge them the read the text of John Paul II's audiences, found at http://www.ewtn.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2TBIND.HTM. I have read them and I know this is from the Pope. They are dense and need to be broken down and explained, and I believe Christopher West does a good job of this. But if anyone thinks he makes up certain things, read the documents before judging the interpretation.

God created us male and female. Therefore, our bodies in their "male and femaleness" speak a "language"(JPII) which reveals to us fundamental truths about who we are and how we relate to God and others, and even more precisely, what the relationship is between Christ and the Church. JP II seeks to correct the "modern Manicheanism" which asserts that the body and sex are bad in themselves. Here is where the misunderstanding about West's comparison of Hugh Heffner and John Paul II. He never "favorably compared them". What West says is that each recognized that society was wrong in its rejection of the body and sex as inherently bad. But their reaction was totally different, and while Heffner's devalued the whole human person, John Paul has raised man, body and soul, to the very heights of heaven, for the Son of God Himself came to us in a human body, and was born of a woman.

Of course, JPII was not saying something "new" to Catholic teaching, but he was reminding a world and a Church that had lost a key part of its heritage that man is not Mancheen body/soul duality, nor is he a Cartesian "pure-thought" being. In developing the truth about man as a body soul creature, the Pope drew of the riches of Biblical and Catholic tradition, especially the Song of Songs, St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, and the writings of the mystics, especially St. John of the Cross. (Probably why Christopher West frequently quotes John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila.) It is in these very Biblical and mystical works that we encounter the rich and complex analogies of human and spiritual nuptial union, the very "sex" which Christopher West is accused of "harping on". But, I read on one blog, isn't this nuptial union of the soul with God, this state of holiness known as the unitive way, isn't it only reserved for and experienced by a few very holy saints? Isn't it too complicated for ordinary Catholics, too far from our everyday experience, too holy for our great sinfulness which has not been purified by intense trials like those of the few mystic saints?

To this, Pope John Paul would answer no; holiness is not for a few special saints, holiness is for ordinary people. (Remember how much he loved St. Therese.) Through his writing on the Theology of the Body, JPII was giving ordinary people the means for understanding man's call to nuptial, even mystical, union with God. Furthermore, once man begins this journey of love for God his journey of loving others, especially in the particular context of his vocation, becomes filled with ever more depth and meaning too. The Theology of the Body is 129 talks in which JPII offers men and women the insights they need to understand who they are and who God is. This is why people like Christopher West are necessary, just as Thomistic theologians are necessary: to unpack the depth of a saint's thoughts for others to better understand. I don't think that West is an "authority" on JPII. The more people the better who read and begin to teach and spread this message of the Pope. But Christopher West has begun the work. He's not perfect, and over the last 15 years his examples and presentation have been developed and will continue to develop.

The need for this mature purity is found directly in the Pope's words:“The task of purity,” as John Paul II observed, “is not only (and not so much) abstaining from ‘unchastity’ and from ... ‘lustful passions’.” In the illuminative and unitive stages of the journey, we discover “another function of the virtue of purity... another dimension – one could say – that is more positive than negative” (TOB 54:3). In this “positive” dimension, we come to experience “a singular ability to perceive, love, and realize those meanings of the ‘language of the body’ that remain completely unknown to concupiscence itself” (TOB 128:3). The reference to the illuminative and unitive stages may lead some to question the practicality of this for ordinary people. After all, aren't most of us going to be in the purgative stage all our lives? From the spiritual works I have read which guide the spiritual life according to these three categories, the writers state that most of us, while on the purgative a lot of the time, enter in to each of the stages at various points in our lives; there is not necessarily a linear progression, though virtue will be increasing. And if Pope John Paul emphasizes the need for such a radical dimension to be realized in our practice of the virtue of purity, is it strange that Christopher West would also emphasis this?

The truth is that as Catholic Christians we are being called to a deeper, much deeper relationship with Jesus, Mary, the saints, and others, than most people have ever heard of. If we are aware of the deeper levels of the spiritual life, we probably figure we're a long way off from that goal. So how can West repeatedly state that all people can develop this more "mature purity", which seems to be a far advanced state of holiness? Not just by observing the external norms of mortifying the senses and avoiding the topic of sex and the body because those things could lead to lust, but transforming our understanding so that we will see them at their true value as part of our divine birthright as human beings. Does this mean that will be able to dispense with prayer and mortification and look at naked images or engage in sexual behavior with no more danger of falling into lust? Of course not! Knowledge, certainly, is not necessarily action, and we can know all this and still feel a temptation to lust. But knowing a person's true value will help us to overcome the temptation.

Now this doesn't mean we should tempt ourselves or put ourselves in occasions of sin just to prove our knowledge. That would be presumption. But we should be better able to view individuals as persons and not objects. For the record, West does not advocate that men go around staring at naked or scantily women; in fact, he encourages them to take the opportunity to pray for the healing of their own sinfulness and to pray for the woman that she might discover her own worth. Also, I think the example, often quoted, of staying in the same house as one's fiance is not to encourage people to put themselves in occasions of sin, but to recognize that our sexual appetites can be governed to the point that an occasion of sin does not become a sin itself.

Also related to this is the idea that those who are not able to control their passions except through distance from any form or occasion of sin are not virtuous. I remember learning very clearly in moral theology that the continent man is not fully virtuous. There are degrees of virtue and Aquinas, JP II and West all mention this fact that there are degrees of virtue and holiness, and the continent man is not yet fully virtuous. Indeed, is it not ludicrous to assert that an unmarried man and woman who can never be alone together without engaging in sexual activity are actually virtuous if they just make sure they are always around other people? It's pretty clear they need a much better control of their passions and respect for themselves and each other (which they would learn from TOB) could encourage them to begin to change their hearts to start practicing virtue.

Ultimately, debates and criticism about Christopher West miss the point that it's not about Christopher West. It's about the truth that Pope John Paul II offered humanity, that man could better learn to know and love his Creator and his fellow human beings. If you don't like West's approach, than read the documents themselves or someone else's books on TOB. And if you think that Christopher West is misleading people, read the testimonies of those touched by his talks and classes. There are dozens on the TOB Institute website and it's hard to believe that every single one of those people who went to a Christopher West talk went away changed: but it's true.

In the words of a recent TOB student: "I am CONVINCED that theology of the body will heal the world. This is because theology of the body reminds us that Christ, the Bridegroom, is the ultimate answer to all the brokenness we face in this world."~Sr. Miriam Heidland

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