Our Bodies Are Theological (Part 2)

Christopher West on the Love That’s in the Air

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By Ann Schneible

ROME, NOV. 29, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Our bodies tell a story, but a story that risks being lost if the body is seen merely from a biological perspective. The real “story” of our bodies is God’s love story.

These are the reflections of Christopher West, who spoke recently at Regina Apostolorum’s conference on John Paul II’s theology of the body. The conference included a production titled “Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing,” an event produced by West, which is touring internationally.

Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member at the Theology of the Body Institute.

ZENIT spoke to West about the inspiration behind Fill These Hearts, and the overall challenges of promoting the ideals within the theology of the body to both Catholic and secular audiences alike.

Part 1 of this interview was published Monday.

ZENIT: You had spoken about dualism in your talk today, and about the mindset of there being a separation between the spirit and the body. We often find that many in secular society have a very confused notion of sexuality, not only in regards to homosexuality, but also the general ways in which masculinity and femininity are understood. How have dualistic ideas contributed to the confused idea of sexuality that we find in secular society?

West: There are various angles [from which] I could address the question. In this dualistic idea of the human being, where we see the body as merely a shell in which the consciousness dwells, a shell in which the true human person dwells, we lose any sense of the story that the body tells. Our bodies tell a story. It’s not just an arbitrary collection of atoms. Human sexuality, revealed through the body, is not just the end result of a chance evolution. But rather, it’s the loving design of a creator who’s trying to tell us a story. The first book that God gives us is not the Bible, but it’s the book of creation. And so we need to learn how to read the book of creation. And the more we learn to read this book, the more we realize that all of creation is telling us the story of God’s life-giving love.  Look around at what all of nature is saying: If you look at a tree, what is a tree? If you look at a flower, what is a flower? If you look at the sun, what is the sun? What are the stars?

Psalm 19 says “the sun comes forth from its chamber like a bridegroom.” Why? Why is the sun like a bridegroom? For one, it gives life to the earth through its light and heat. When we start to look at what creation is saying, every blade of grass tells the story of a seed that landed in fertile soil and brought forth fruit.  Ultimately, that points us to Mary, doesn’t it?  She is the fertile soil that opened to receive that invisible, immortal seed that “fell from heaven.” And Mary, standing for all humanity as “the Bride” is “clothed with the sun.”

This is the story that all of creation is telling: God’s story of life-giving love. Virtually every creature God has created is about the work of reproducing itself. And this is what makes creation so beautiful. Think about the beauty of a flower. Why does Christ invite us to consider how the wild flowers grow? There must be some mystery in there for us that’s worth pondering.

I once read an article in National Geographic about pollen and plant reproduction called “Love is in the Air.” It was really fascinating to me from a theological perspective, to see how the spousal mystery revealed through the theology of our bodies is stamped not just in human beings, but in all of creation. You know that old schmaltzy ’70s song, “Love is in the Air”: Well, in a sense it really is! We’re breathing in pollen all the time, and what is pollen? Plants are trying to reproduce themselves.

When we begin to read the book of nature, we begin to see that signs of the spousal mystery are everywhere. All of creation is singing a love song. The hills truly are alive with the sound of music! And we are the culmination of that love song; “male and female he created them.” We are the crown of creation. The Catechism says that we give voice to all of creation, we, as male and female are a microcosm of the macrocosm, of the cosmos.  We express the truth of the cosmos in miniature. And what do we express? We express in our maleness, in our femaleness, the story of divine espousals: God wants to marry us. How do we know? Our bodies tell the story. The two are called to become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and it refers to Christ and the Church.

Sorry for getting a little carried away there, but with all that said, let’s come back to the original question.  When we have a dualistic view of the human being, of a soul trapped in a body, we don’t read God’s story in our bodies.  We don’t see the body as something sacramental. Rather, it becomes just an object to be manipulated at will, even dispensed with. And rather than respecting God’s love story in our bodies, we end up telling our own distorted version of a love story — “love” becomes whatever we want it to be, rather than learning that love from the God who is love.

When we recognize that our bodies tell God’s love story, then everything the Church teaches about sexual morality begins to make sense. Are you telling God’s love story with your body, or are you telling some other story? We’re called to tell God’s story. God wants to marry us; God is love, God is life-giving love. That’s God’s story. It’s stamped in our bodies. Our bodies are theological.

But we don’t see this when we view the body as only biological. There’s an old ’80s song that I used to like by Peter Gabriel: “In your eyes / The light the heat / In your eyes / I’m complete / In your eyes / I see the doorway to a thousand churches.” That’s a mystical vision! He’s seeing the spiritual through the physical. Well, if we reduce that song to something merely biological, it’d go like this: “In your eyes / the retina / in your eyes / the cornea / in your eyes / I see the lines of a thousand bloodshot blood vessels.” A student of mine once said, “Christopher, stop it! You’re ruining the song!” Exactly, that’s what happens when we reduce the body to something merely biological; we ruin the song. Now, thank God for what an optometrist can tell us. Thank God for what biology can tell us. But we’re not merely biological; our bodies are theological. That’s the key point.

ZENIT: One of the major dilemmas in secular society is that we’re taught that we should “embrace our sexuality,” and should therefore express this sexuality with multiple partners. How would you use the theology of the body to speak to a secular culture that is struggling to understand the idea of chastity and the celibate life?

West: You’ll see how I attempt to do that tonight at the Fill These Hearts event. But, first, I think what needs to be affirmed is this ache we all have for love — this yearning, this hunger, this desire. We all experience it. It is universal. The question is: Where do we take that desire, and what really satisfies it?

The imagery I’ve developed, and the imagery I use at this Fill These Hearts event, to speak of this hunger: I say there are three gospels out there — and by gospel I mean some promise of happiness, what to do with the hunger. Most of us were raised on what I call the “starvation diet gospel.” We’re raised in Christian homes, but we often get the impression that our desire is bad, and it’s only going to get us in trouble, so we need to repress it.  Then we need to follow all these rules and we’ll be good, upstanding Christian citizens. Well, that doesn’t last very long, because you can only starve yourself for so long before the culture’s gospel — which I call the “fast-food” gospel — starts to look very attractive. And the fast-food gospel is the promise of immediate gratification. You’re hungry? Eat this. Well, fast-food might not be very good for you, but if the
only two choices are starvation or fast-food, I’m going for the fast-food, which is what most of us do.

But you can only eat fast-food for so long before you start feeling really sick! You end up like the guy in the movie Supersize Me, who ate McDonald’s for a month; his body was decaying, he was shutting down, he was dying after this little experiment. That’s where I was in my college years. And so, the ache is still there, the fast-food doesn’t satisfy. It seems to, initially, but it leads to destruction.

The third gospel, which is the true Gospel, is the banquet. The Wedding Feast. This is the feast for which we are created. It’s the marriage of the Lamb. And so, when I’m speaking to a secular audience, I will affirm the hunger, and then I will say: Where do we take it? Does the cultural fast-food really satisfy the ache? And you’ll see this cry, even in the secular culture, for something more. Beyoncé, one of the most popular female singers today, says “I need a man who can take me to my destiny, who can lead me to infinity, and beyond.” That yearning we have is for infinity. And this means only something infinite can satisfy it. And that infinity is the Infinite One.

Then the question becomes: “Well, can infinity become food that we can actually eat?” Yes. That is the boldness of the Christian proposal: bread from Heaven. This is not a metaphor. We believe that there is a Heavenly Bread, that if we eat It, we will live forever. We eat Infinity. That is an astounding, astounding proposal. But that’s where we must go. The world is hungry for infinity, for something that lasts forever.

I draw all this out in my book that will be out in January, called At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization. I unfold there in great detail what I’ve been saying about “the way of beauty,” evangelizing through beauty, and what the popes have said about beauty and art. I unfold this hunger, this idea of where to take the hunger. It’s so important that we understand that this theology of the body is not just for married people. It takes us to the heart of the Gospel itself, which is the Wedding of the Lamb. That’s the good news! There’s a wedding feast, and that wedding feast corresponds to the hunger, and we have to go into the main streets and invite everyone to this wedding feast.

But if we’re going to do that, we have to speak a language that they can understand. As I say in my book: “Rather than simply condemning the secular world, with Pope Benedict we must ask” — and this is a quote from Benedict: “Where is secularism right? Where can, and must the faith adopt the forms and figures of modernity? And where must it offer resistance?” Dismissal of the secular world and the modern way of thinking, in the name of the Christian faith, is not the authentic Catholic approach. Quite the contrary, as Benedict XVI insists: “We must strive to integrate the two — the sacred and the secular — insofar as they are compatible with each other.” [In addition], Paul VI says: “All of us who feel the spur of the apostolate,” that is, going out and making disciples, “should examine closely the kind of speech we use. Is it easy to understand? Can it be grasped by ordinary people? Is it current idiom? An effective teacher of the faith is always at pains to learn the sensitivities of his audience, and if reason demands it, he adapts himself, and the manner of his presentation, to the susceptibilities and the degree of intelligence of his hearers.”

Paul VI insisted we must “forgo all privilege and the use of unintelligible language, and we must adopt the way of life of ordinary people in all that is human and honorable if we wish to be listened to and understood.” Then [Paul VI] says: “Before speaking, we must take great care to listen, not only to what men say, but more especially to what they have in their hearts to say.” Only then, Paul VI concluded, “will we understand them, the modern world of the secular culture, and respect them. And even as far as possible, agree with them.”

So that’s Paul VI. And that’s really the philosophy behind these events; first, to listen to what the culture is saying, and to agree as far as possible with what they’re saying, and then speak into that with the good news of the banquet. That’s how we evangelize the world. 

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