By Christopher West
“‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:31-32).
If the typical Christian in our culture spilled the contents of his mind on a table, ideas about sex would probably look a lot more like Hugh Hefner’s vision than the Apostle Paul’s presented above. Hugh Hefner has been one of the most successful “evangelists” of our time. The world is starved for love, and when the Church fails to proclaim the glory of the banquet, we inevitably fall for the lies of the dumpster.
In Hefner’s “Christian” upbringing, sex was taboo – the body inherently tainted and “sinful.” Hefner, himself, said he started Playboy magazine as “a personal response to the hurt and hypocrisy of our puritan heritage.” Christians can – and should – agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of this disease. Rejecting the body as evil has no place in an authentic biblical vision. God proclaimed that everything he made was “very good” (Gen 1:31). Furthermore, Paul’s admonitions about the dangers of “the flesh” do not condemn the body itself. Paul, rather, is warning us precisely of the dangers Hefner fell into by divorcing the body from the spirit.
Thus, if Christians should agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease, we must disagree with his treatment of it. Hefner’s pornographic remedy doesn’t, in fact, solve the problem at all. All he did was flip the puritanical pancake over from repression to indulgence. Both approaches flow from the same failure to integrate body and spirit. Only such an integration can truly cure the disease.
Paul called this cure the “redemption of the body” (Rom 8:23). Pope John Paul II called it the “theology of the body” (TOB).
A “Theological Time Bomb”
When John Paul II was elected Pope in 1978, he knew that Christians needed a new language to speak about sex that would break the silence in our churches and reverse the negativity. He knew we needed a fresh theology that explains the beauty and greatness of God’s plan for human sexuality. Above all, he knew that we desperately needed salvation from a widespread sexual chaos that, left unanswered, was sure to spell cultural suicide.
And so, in a collection of 129 scholarly addresses delivered between 1979 and 1984, that’s exactly what he provided. In its course, John Paul offered – not just to Catholics, but to all Christians – a bold, compelling, and thoroughly biblical response to Hefner’s pornographic revolution. Rather than condemn Hefner and his followers for eating out of the dumpster, the Pope simply laid out the banquet that truly satisfies the hunger.
Only now, after John Paul’s death, is knowledge of this “banquet” spreading. In due time – if Christians take it up and live it – we can expect global repercussions. Papal biographer George Weigel said it best when he described the TOB as “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences ...perhaps in the twenty-first century.”
Of course, a short article like this can only scratch the surface of the Pope’s profound vision. We’ll begin with his main idea.
What Makes the Body “Theological”?
To many Christians the phrase “theology of the body” sounds like an oxymoron. Yet such a reaction only demonstrates how far many of us have drifted from an authentic Christian world-view. As John Paul II observed, “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology ...through the main door.” Because of the Incarnation, the Apostle John can proclaim it is that “which we have touched with our hands” that we proclaim to you concerning the Word of life. And that life was made visible (see 1 Jn 1-3).
We cannot see God; he is pure spirit. But the astounding claim of Christianity is that the invisible God has made himself visible through the human body. For in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). God’s mystery revealed in human flesh – theology of the body: this phrase is not only the title of John Paul II’s talks. It represents the very “logic” of Christianity.
Image of God
The Pope’s thesis statement proclaims that “only the body is capable of making visible what is invisible: the spiritual and the divine. It has been created to transfer into the visible reality of the world, the mystery hidden from eternity in God, and thus to be a sign of it.” This “mystery hidden in God” refers to the eternal union of the three Persons of the Trinity and our privileged invitation in Christ to share in the Trinity’s eternal exchange of love. This is the “theology” that the human body signifies.
How? Precisely through the beauty of sexual difference and union. In the normal course of events, the union of the “two” leads to a “third.” Here, in a way, we see a trinitarian image. Thus, John Paul concludes that we image God not only as individuals, but also through the union of man and woman. Of course, none of this means that God is “sexual.” We use spousal love only as an analogy to help us understand something of God’s mystery. God’s mystery, itself, remains infinitely beyond any human image.
The Bible, itself, uses spousal love more than any other image to help us understand God’s plan. It begins in Genesis with the marriage of Adam and Eve and ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Here we find a key for understanding the whole of Scripture: God’s wants to “marry” us – to live with us in an eternal bond of love that the Bible compares to marriage. But there’s more! God wants to fill us – or, to go with the analogy – God wants to “impregnate” us, his bride, with his own divine life. This is a very “earthy” way of speaking, but it isn’t mere poetry. In Mary we witness a woman who literally conceived divine life in her womb.
What we learn in the TOB is that God wanted this great “marital plan” of union and eternal life to be so plain to the world that he impressed an image of it right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become “one flesh.” If we have difficulty seeing our bodies this way, it’s only because we have been blinded by sin and a deceiver who is literally hell-bent on keeping us from recognizing our true dignity.
“In the Beginning”
On this side of the Fall men and women are often blind to the truth about their bodies and plagued in their union with all kinds of tensions and conflicts. John Paul II reminds us of Christ’s words that “in the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). And the “good news” is that Christ came into the world to make God’s original plan a reality in our lives. With this approach – the Gospel approach – John Paul shifts the discussion about sexual morality from legalism (“How far can I go before I break the law?”) to liberty (“What is the truth about sex that sets me free to love?”). The truth that sets us free to love is salvation in Jesus.
In the beginning “nakedness without shame” (Gen 2:25) reveals a very different experience of sexual desire from our own. God created sexual desire as the power to love as he loves. And this is how the first couple experienced it. Nakedness without shame, in fact, is the key, according to the Pope, for understanding God’s original plan for human life. It unlocks the intimacy and ecstasy of love that God intended “from the beginning.”
The entrance of shame, then, indicates the dawn of lust, of erotic desire cut off from God’s love. We cover our bodies in a fallen world not because they’re bad, but to protect their inherent goodness from the degradation of lust. Since we know we’re made for love, we feel instinctively “threatened” not only by overt lustful behavior, but even by a “lustful look.”
Beyond “Sin Management”
Christ’s words are severe in this regard. He insists that if we look lustfully at others, we’ve already committed adultery in our hearts (see Mt 5:28). John Paul asks whether we should fear Christ’s words, or rather have confidence in their power to save us. Here, the Pope sets us on the path of an effective sexual redemption. This is perhaps the most important contribution of the entire TOB.
As we allow our lusts to be crucified with Christ (see Gal 5:24) we can progressively rediscover and live God’s original plan for sexual desire. We needn’t merely cope with our lusts or “manage” our sinful tendencies. Our sexual desires can be effectively transformed through the “redemption of the body” (Ro 8:23). C.S. Lewis offered a grand image of this at the end of The Great Divorce when “the lizard of lust” was transformed into a great white stallion.
Of course, on this side of heaven, we’ll always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Only in eternity will the battle cease, as will marriage as we know it. However, when Christ said we will no longer marry in the resurrection (see Mt 22:30), this doesn’t mean our longing for union will be obliterated. It means it will be fulfilled in the “Marriage of the Lamb” (Rev 19:7). That is the union we truly crave. The union of the sexes here on earth is only an icon that’s meant to point us to heaven. When we get there, the icon will give way to the ultimate reality!
In fact, all the sexual confusion in our world and in our own hearts is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk. The gift of the TOB is that it helps us “unberserk” it. Lust has inverted our rocket engines causing us to crash and burn. The TOB redirects our rocket engines toward the stars.
True and False Prophets
Only in this context does the Christian sexual ethic make sense. Everything the New Testament teaches about sexual morality is an invitation to embrace the original plan of Genesis in order to launch us toward the marriage in the Book of Revelation.
But here’s what truly makes the Gospel good news: it doesn’t only give us a list of rules to follow. Christ empowers us with his grace to fulfill the law. As we allow grace to work in us, the law no longer feels like a burden imposed from without. It wells up from within. We embrace the biblical teaching on sex not because we “have” to, but because we long to. When we see the riches of the banquet, the dumpster no longer attracts us.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). For what reason? To proclaim and participate in the “great mystery” of Christ’s ecstatic union with the Church (see Eph 5:31-32). Could there be a more glorious vision of human sexuality than this?
As a proclamation of divine truth, sexual union has a “prophetic language.” But, as the Pope maintained, we must carefully distinguish true and false prophets. If it is possible to speak the truth with the body, it is also possible to speak a lie. Marriage vows are the solemn promise a man and a woman make to love each other “in the image of God.” In turn, spouses are meant to express this same love with their bodies whenever they become one flesh. In other words, sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of wedding vows – where the words of the vows are made flesh.
Since the “one flesh” union offers a prophetic reference to Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:31-32), our understanding of sexuality has ramifications for all of theology – for the very way we conceive of Christ and his Church. Thus, it shouldn’t surprise us that disputes about the nature of marriage are often at the core of historical divisions within Christianity.
Followers of Christ everywhere recognize John Paul II’s tireless ecumenical efforts. He publicly repented on behalf of those Catholics whose sins led to division in the first place. He reached out repeatedly to Protestant and Orthodox leaders, even asking them to help Rome “re-envision” the papacy so that it could more effectively serve the needs of all Christians. Yet, when history witnesses the fulfillment of Christ’s prayer that “all may be one” (Jn 17:11), it may well recognize the TOB as John Paul II’s most important ecumenical contribution.
If disputes in Christ’s family have led to multiple divorces, the Pope’s daring, biblical apologetic for unity in the “domestic church” (the family) can contribute greatly to bringing about unity in the Church at large. It’s precisely here, in fact – in the cultural battle for marriage and the family – that committed Christians of varying professions find themselves overcoming their mutual prejudices and standing together.
Alan Medinger, who has served the sexually broken for a quarter century through Regeneration Ministries, observes that “evangelicals have much to offer the Catholic Church.... But this is a two way street.... Catholics have [much] to offer [us] in the area of teaching and theology regarding the related matters of life, reproduction, and sexuality.” He concludes, “At this point in my ministry, I can think of no greater service to render to my fellow evangelicals than to point them to Theology of the Body.”
There will be no renewal of the Church and the world without a renewal of marriage and the family. And there will be no renewal of marriage and the family without a return to the full truth of the Christian sexual ethic. This will not happen, however, unless we can find a compelling way to demonstrate to the modern world that the biblical vision of sexuality is not the prudish list of prohibitions it is so often assumed to be, but rather it is the banquet of love we so desperately yearn for.
This is the gift and the promise of John Paul II’s TOB. But its riches have barely begun to penetrate the Catholic world, let alone the wider Christian community. Perhaps if Christians everywhere feasted on this biblical banquet, we could save our culture from its repressive heritage and from the pornographic backlash it inspired. In the process, we might even be able to evangelize Hugh Hefner rather than Hugh Hefner continuing to evangelize us.
Sunday, June 6, 2010
By Christopher West