Thursday, April 24, 2014

What the Message of The Theology of the Body Is - and Is Not

Here is a long quotation from John Paul II's Theology of the Body that comes at a moment where he starts into the home stretch, where, after 80 plus lectures, he begins to tie everything together.  I will be bold enough to comment in red.

In fact, "in hope we have been saved." (Rom. 8:24)  The hope of every day manifests its power in human works and even in the very movements of the human heart, clearing a path, in a certain sense, for the great eschatological hope bound with the redemption of the body.
In other words, our challenge as Christians is not just to be good people for the sake of this world, but to "prepare a way" (Is. 40:3, Mal. 3:1, Mat. 3:3, Mark 1:1-3, John 1:23), to clear the brush, the thistles and the clutter out of our lives in order to pave a path for the Lord.  It is our hope in the reality of the world to come that motivates this in us.  We never hear about heaven or hell anymore from the pulpit, but John Paul here is saying that hope for the Resurrection is what inspires us to begin an effort that will only culminate after our deaths.  We are aiming at something beyond time itself.
Penetrating daily life with the dimension of human morality, the redemption of the body helps first of all to discover all this good in which man achieves the victory over sin and concupiscence.  Here we begin to tread on the shaky ground over which Christopher West and his followers have stumbled.  West claims that not only can complete victory over sin and concupiscence be attained in this life, but that such victory allows a man boldy to enage near occasions of sin, going so far as to stare at naked bodies as proof of his spiritual boldness, lust becoming a kind of virtue.  But is this what John Paul is saying?  Christ's words spring from the divine depths of the mystery of redemption. They permit us to discover and strengthen that bond that exists between the dignity of the human being (man or woman) and the nuptial meaning of the body. They permit us to understand and put into practice, on the basis of that meaning, the mature freedom of the gift. West insists that JP2 says that lust must be neither repressed nor indulged, but "transformed", that only by following the path of lust (transformed somehow by Christ) are we fully human.  But here we have John Paul defining what victory over sin and concupiscence looks like, and telling us what that victory should lead to.  Should it lead to engaging our lust in a "transformative" way by looking at dirty websites?  What is the mature freedom of the gift?  What is the nuptial meaning of the body?  What are our choices when we achieve victory over sin and lust?  The Pope answers: It is expressed in one way in indissoluble marriage and in another way through abstention from marriage for the sake of the kingdom of God. Marriage or celibacy.  Pick one.  In these different ways Christ fully reveals man to man, making him aware of his sublime vocation. This vocation is inscribed in man according to all his psycho-physical makeup, precisely through the mystery of the redemption of the body.
Everything we have tried to do in the course of our meditations in order to understand Christ's words has its ultimate foundation in the mystery of the redemption of the body.  And the mystery of the redemption of the body is expressed, in the world to come, by virginal purity.  

What has happened with the Theology of the Body, I think, is that it's hard to read and understand what JP2 is saying: 129 lectures of difficult prose, dealing with concepts that are hard to grasp, upon which John Paul clearly meditated with much prayer and attention to detail.  There is a real call for someone to simplify, popularize and explain the content of these lectures.

And because of that a kind of priesthood has developed.  Christopher West has become the self-appointed High Priest of the Theology of the Body.  Normal people (and even bishops) stand in awe of the mysteries that our High Priest conveys, assuming that he's passing on to us a legitimate interpretation of the material, when in fact the very point of everything St. John Paul said on the subject "has its ultimate foundation in the mystery of the redemption of the body", a mystery which in this life is expressed either through marriage and babies or celibacy and renunciation, and in the next life is manifest by a bodily virginity that loves God and neighbor fully.  Indulging lust-transformed-by-Christ is not part of the program.


The great danger from West is his central message: you are wrong to repress lust.  He claims that lust can be "transformed" into something that is a virtue.  If you indulge this lust-that-is-not-called-lust you are not sinning; in fact you are in the know, you are experiencing here and now the fruit of the redemption of the body; indulging lust-transformed ("lust transformed" seems to be the equation of horniness with holiness) is a good, pious, and brave thing.

This is not the message of The Real Theology of the Body.

1 comment:

Kevin Tierney said...

I think one of the biggest problems is that for far too long, most of West's critics didn't argue from the actual texts themselves, nor did they try to weave together a consistent story the texts tell.

I think when all of this stuff really started flaring up four years ago, a lot of us were too busy pointing out what West got wrong, and didn't have time to really go into the other stuff.

A lot of that has really changed. It isn't just the "hardcore Anti-West" people anymore who are raising questions about how to approach the subject. Instead now we have people debating the actual nature of the text, and an alternative narrative has began to be weaved.

When West's partisans declared the debate over in At the Heart of the Gospel , even most mainstream voices didn't buy it. I'd honestly say the discussion about TOB is just now getting interesting.

4 years ago, the publication I write a dedicated TOB column for was carrying Fr. Loya's advice that the way to see random women correctly was to "look at her butt! look at her breasts!", and allowing Janet Smith to slander Dawn Eden, while Christina King was saying Dawn Eden's "past" disqualified her from offering any critque of Christopher West.

Now Catholic Exchange is incredibly successful, and their go-to TOB guy is me.

What a funny world.