Monday, February 6, 2012

Thinking Outside the Combox

We've had some very interesting comments in the comboxes at previous posts on the Christopher West issue.

So far it seems to me that West's defenders defend his orthodoxy quite admirably, but it seems as well that they defend what I think is the germ of heterodoxy which is sometimes implicit and sometimes explicit in West's writings.

This heterodoxy takes two forms:

1. It ignores the proper context for the redemption of lust and

2. It encourages saying yes to temptation in the hope that the disordered appetite will be redeemed and the good toward which the sin tends will be honored.

In other words, West begins with a basic truth - that a married man and a woman must learn to channel their sexual desire for one another into an expression of love that's open to the possibility of procreation, as opposed to what their sexual desire might become if left unsanctified - mere lust and objectification of the other. This is quite a solid Catholic teaching. But in West it gets blurry. West is never clear that Marriage is the framework in which the redemption of lust must take place.

For example, in West's interview which I quoted here, he says, "There is something good behind it [pornography]. What is good behind it? The human body in its nakedness. Behold, it is very good!"

One of my friends suggested that West is simply trying to show that the porn user is seeking a good in a disordered way. But to say of a naked body abused and trashed by porn "Behold it is very good!" is appallingly wrong. West is echoing both Genesis and the Mass in this exclamation, and such a juxtaposition and misplaced emphasis makes one wonder.

At any rate, these seem to be the two major problems in West's theology, 1. ignoring the proper context in which lust is to be redeemed, and 2. encouraging sin for the purpose of redeeming that sin.

Hidden under these two mistakes are a host of Gnostic errors, which I go into here.


Kevin said...

He really just focuses on step one without getting to step two.

Yes, the body, as it is created by God, is very good. Yet it is also a neutral. The body, a great creation by God, can be used for good, or evil.

In pornography, they are using the body for evil. The person indulging in pornography is doing an evil, objectifying the individual and using them as a conduit to satisfy their urges.

So you need to start looking at the whole of the person, but not just that. One can still see a human person if they are in the nude. As you start to progress in Christ, you begin to realize that the body and its nakedness was made for something: it leads towards marriage. And so to engage in such behavior under normative circumstances outside of marriage, it is wrong. You are throwing aside your calling, and theirs.

I think West would agree with that. Its basically what he says. Yet now you go to step two.

As one grows in holiness, even looking at their wife in such fashion is not proper. Objectifying her so she no longer becomes your wife, but a mere body and conduit to settle passions, that is wrong. You realize that you have an attraction to your spouse, but that attraction leads to you something beyond the flesh. It leads you to the person she is. And the person she is, leads you towards God.

Viewed within that lens, pornography is terribly evil. It is the great lie. And it needs to be rejected in full, and replaced with what I mentioned above. That must be done intellectually, but it only goes so far. That is why marriage is a sacrament. It provides grace, the grace to become what you cannot on your own. That is how marriage "redeems" lust, extinguishes lust, and puts love in its place.

Yet for West, he never goes beyond step one. He is using the excuse that he is "speaking to the wounded", and youve gotta crawl before you learn to walk. Well, it's been over 10 years now, and he is still on step one. And worse, he is now saying step one is the destination point.

Scott W. said...

Yes, evil is usually an inversion of the good rather than something on its own. That's Catholicism 101 I thought. So it seems West is being uselessly truistic at best, unintentionally obscure at the middle, and heretical but lacking the clockweights to say so at worst. I'll be a nice guy and assume the middle case. He could clear lots of air by saying point-blank that pornography is objectively evil and don't ever look at it, and if you are stop and go to confession.

Deacon Jim Russell said...

"2. It encourages saying yes to temptation in the hope that the disordered appetite will be redeemed and the good toward which the sin tends will be honored."

Well, here may be part of the problem--West *never* encourages one to say "yes" to temptation. The answer to temptation is *always* a resounding NO. West doesn't suggest otherwise. Relative to pornography, West simply never says it's good to look at porn.

The larger issue about which we are currently conversing seems more to have to do with the management of concupiscence. In the sexual sphere, one way to say "no" is straightforward custody of the eyes. Another way to say "no" is to "see rightly" so to speak. Seeing "rightly" relative to the nursing mother, for example-- but *not* seeing "rightly" relative to a piece of porn that you somehow seek out as a "test" of your mettle.

So, the reason West never "gets to step two" as you say, is because "step two" is never his real point.

There is no "hope that the disordered appetite will be redeemed"--the disordered appetite is always told "NO"--but there are conditions under which the "no" is accomplished through a "mature purity" that can see rightly when confronted with what could be an occasion of sin.

(Again, think of the "pole-dancer silhouette" example--in that case you can look at it and still see "rightly"--but I don't think *I* can! I need custody of the eyes....

So I think you're expecting a "step two" from West, but that's just not where his mindset seems to be.

God bless,

Deacon Jim Russell

Kevin O'Brien said...

Regarding West's interview and his seeming endorsement of pornography (the audio interview is here - ) and especially West exclaiming "Behold the body" in this context, a Facebook friend observes ...

"It's not possible to look at pornography with detached admiration for beauty *because pornography is not beautiful*. Pornography takes beauty and distorts it into something ugly and utilitarian."

Kevin said...

Deacon Russell,

I guess my problem is that, at least in the writing of West, there seems to be a tension between "custody of the eyes" and "seeing rightly."

That isn't John Paul II speaking. That isn't in the Scriptures.

Rather, one cannot see rightly, until they have, and continue to practice custody of the eyes. Think of the prophet Isaiah. He says "cease doing evil, learn to do good." Yet if you aren't ceasing to do evil, you can't learn to do good. And once you learn to do good, you still have to cease from doing evil!

I think that is the entire point of Christ's discourse on lust in the heart. Now since i haven't read the latest book, can't comment what it says, but West flat out gets it wrong in TOB explained. He says the admonition to "turn your eyes" is only useful to the man ruled by lust. Yet that is just not so. It is also why West needs to invent a story not rooted in actual history (the "two bishops" story doesn't play out the way he says it does, in fact it directly contradicts him.)

The righteous man turns his eyes not out of fear of sin, but because he has no business looking towards that to begin with. It is like the book of the Hebrews. The entire message is "don't go back to Judaism. Don't you see, there's nothing to go back to!"

When a man lives a life truly redeemed, there's nothing to be gained in fixing your eyes elsewhere.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Deacon Jim, West does not make it clear that the answer to temptation should always be NO. On the contrary, he sets up a scenario in which a person has achieved a "mature purity" and so may "behold! the naked body" in its goodness, appreciating only its goodness. Thus it is no longer "temptation". Well, give me a break.

Now there are some times when one can not avert one's eyes, such as a medical doctor dealing with a naked body, or a man seeing a nursing mother on a bus. If one can not look away, one would pray for a "mature purity" in this regard. Likewise, a married man prays for a "mature purity" in his sexual realtionship with his wife, which is simply the fullness of Chastity.

My complaint is that if one begins to say to oneself, "I have attained mature purity! I may visit the nude beach or even watch porn. My lust has been redeemed! I am looking with the eyes of Jesus," then that person is guilty of something worse than lust, than person is guilty of pride.

And West's most ardent followers fall into this trap. My point is the heterodox germ at the core of West's orthodox shell has led them there.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Kevin, could you please provide a link to the true "two bishops" story, the one that West gets wrong?

By the way, I think Kevin has said things very well in his comment above.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Regarding, "Behold! the naked body", a comment on Kevin's blog "Common Sense Catholicism" is very much on point here ...


Blessed John Paul II described shame as an essential part of "the perennial norms regulating the mutual donation" of the body (General audience of April 22, 1981--a great resource for this topic!). In other words, the body's nakedness is revealed in the context of a deeply personal gift to one's spouse. To expose it outside this context reduces us to "anonymous nakedness."

Kevin said...

The story has been repeated ad infinitium, but for a quick synopsis, one can go to Dawn Eden's Masters Thesis, pages 42-43.

It is interesting to note that Mr. West's own editor, when confronted with this, speculated that West was more using allegory, not attempting to retell an actual historical event. If one reads TOB Explained (first or second edition), one finds that this is nothing but anachronism. West believed it was a true story. He probably just got it from one of his researchers, and didn't check the actual primary source.

It doesn't change the fact that the story he uses for "mature purity" never happened, and the exact opposite happened.

Kevin said...


RE: anonymous "nakedness", it is also the perfect answer to West's near obsession with the need to portray nudity in art, lest we be Manicheans.

John Paul II doesn't discount such portrayals, but he also recognizes the inherent danger of such art that it would be reduced to the "object", rather than the person.

For example, with the famous Sistine Chapel, Adam's nudity is not inherent to the point that was made by the painting. The point was the utter dependence of man, even in his original state, on God. Now some people, out of prudence, wanted to cover them up.

John Paul II simply pointed out that it wasn't necessary to do this, the artist wasn't, forgive the bluntness, focused on Adam's genitals. Now had they been painted with an emphasis on size or detail, such would no longer be art, but smut. (There's also the intent on JPII to portray these classics as they originally were portrayed, but that's getting away from the meat of the discussion.)

I think West went through this phase, but he isn't making the connection. Back when he was starting out, he talked about how we needed to ponder the size of Mary's "abundant breasts." He doesn't talk like that anymore, because I think he realizes how utterly stupid and foolish such a statement was. Yet if he stopped and made the connection, he would realize his story about the Sistine Chapel doesn't really do much for the discussion.

Kevin O'Brien said...

Thanks, Kevin.

In the fury of all this posting, I had forgotten many of the details in Dawn Eden's excellent thesis, which I read a few months back. I encourage everyone to read it.

I will note some things Dawn says re. this story of the bishop gazing on a prostitute with "mature purity". First, West gets the story wrong, as well as the point of the story. And second, (not conveyed by West) when the prostitute wrote to the bishop asking to meet with him, he demanded that another bishop be present. "Seek not to temp my weakness," he insisted.

Dawn Eden observes, "It is not surprising that West omits that last detail, as, by his own definition, it would mean Bishop St. Nonnus was insufficiently virtuous."

John C. Hathaway said...

There are really two issues at stake with trying to understand what West is even *doing*. One pertains to our *reactions* to beauty/attractiveness, and those reactions really apply to any question of art/beauty versus utility, though the human body is, after the Divine, the example par excellence.
On Facebook, I made the analogy of pornography to ground beef. Ground beef is, in and of itself, ugly though quite tasty.
On the other end of the spectrum, a cow or bull may be nice to look at, but it would strike one as odd, and no better than comical, to say, "Oooh, Cow!" And look on the cow with a Homer-Simpson-esque lust for the delicious meat hidden in the cow.
So, too, I think what West is getting at is that we *should* be able to look at human nudity without desiring the meat, so to speak.

I tend to think of both questions--beauty and "attractiveness"--an a Tripartite Soul context. To me, part of the issue is where the "stimulation" occurs. Some beauty stimulates my mind, making me feel a sense of enlightenment (the original meaning of Agape before Paul got ahold of it); some beauty stirs my chest to feel a sense of wholeness and homeliness and comfort (philos); other beauty stirs the basic impulses of the stomach/pelvic region.

Now, a very important question is the difference between "attraction" or "arousal" and "lust." I know traditional Catholic moral teaching says that it's possible to commit the sin of lust against one's own spouse, and I suppose in certain contexts (i.e., contraception), that's clear cut.
But I also think that in our fallen state at least it's difficult to distinguish between "lust" and "attraction" or "arousal." Jesus condemns feeling lust for a woman who is not one's wife because it redirects feelings that are proper to marriage, so that would seem to imply that such feelings can be proper to marriage.
As Bai Macfarlane has pointed out in reflecting on why her "perfect Catholic marriage" went south, one flaw in John Paul II's teaching is that he sometimes speaks as if it's wrong to feel *any* desire for one's spouse, as if marital love that is not 100% selfless is wrong.

In a hypothetically unfallen world, we would all be walking around naked. In such a hypothetical world, one would only feel attraction for the person intended to be one's spouse. In our fallen world, however, it's another story.

John C. Hathaway said...

That gets to the other question of West's work: how to *apply* it.
1. Marriage: At face value, and in his original context, myWest is talking about marriage, and, to some extent, the family. He started off by talking about the dangers of Puritanism in regard to people's need for basic affection and intimacy. Going back to my previous post, when I see my wife, my primary reaction is not lust, especially after knowing her for 12 years--however, I instantly feel a sense of mental elation and a sense of warmth in my heart. In my experience, I'm far more to desire intercourse the less intimacy we experience in other ways.

2. Art: this is of course one of the main areas of debate. Can one look at a nude painting or photograph or nudity in a movie without lust? Yes, and that's a matter of individual conscience. A big factor there is the *intention* of the art in question. An intermediate question is whether a couple can view something "sexy" or "erotic" but not specifically pornographic together.

3. The next category is professionals who deal with nudity. We're told that certain professionals--medical professionals, for example--become desensitized to nudity, but this is an opposite extreme and not an admirable view to take, either. If category 2 is OK, then it must be OK in some situations for artists, etc. to see nudty. Also, it gets to the question of cultural context. There's a lot of nudity in _The Mission_, for example, and several other movies the Vatican has approved of.
But where is the dividing line for such professionals? Something needs to be discussed about that between the extremes of "don't do it at all" and "Bon appetite!"
For example, is it appropriate for a medical professional (male or female) to praise a patient's beauty while examining her, particularly as a way of reassuring her during a difficult time?

4. Then we get into the categories of debate in our society, such as various styles of bathing suits, nude beaches, etc.

dcs said...

On Facebook, I made the analogy of pornography to ground beef. Ground beef is, in and of itself, ugly though quite tasty.

I don't think one should compare porn to something that is actually edible. Ground beef feeds our bodies but there is no sense in which porn feeds our souls. Indeed, that is my objection to West's analogy likening porn to eating out of a dumpster. Even dumpster food can feed us if we're picky, and even if we're not picky, the occasional dumpster dive won't kill us. But porn does kill our souls..

John C. Hathaway said...


True, but I was focusing on the question of appetite versus admiration, and art versus utility.

Right, but that's what I'm getting at. UNLESS he's clearly qualifying much of what he says as referring to marriage--and then there are relatively limited situations in marriage where it can be carried out--it doesn't really make sense.

Any other context, with the possible exceptions of the nude beach or the doctor's office, can be nothing more than, as you put it, a "grooming behavior" or certainly an occasion of sin.

Let's put it this way: even though tradition says ordination is an impediment to marriage, the Roman Church has very specific conditions under which widowed deacons may remarry--and those conditions amount to the situation where the deacon has to hire a live-in nanny or nurse to care for family members. The Church recognizes that such a situation is an occasion of scandal and an occasion of sin, and it's better to let the deacon marry someone else than have him keeping a young lady at his house to care for his children or parents and face that constant temptation.