Telling Lies with the Body
Expert Christopher West explains Pope John Paul II's 'Theology of the Body,' a reflection on sexual love.
BY: Interview by Laura Sheahen
What does Pope John Paul II think about sex? Quite a lot--and papal biographer George Weigel has called his complex thoughts on the subject a "theological time bomb" that will reshape Christianity. Author and lecturer Christopher West has popularized the pope's "Theology of the Body" in the U.S. and beyond. West spoke with Beliefnet recently about Catholic sexual teaching and what he sees as a dawning "sexual counter-revolution."
What is the "Theology of the Body"?
"Theology of the Body" is the working title that John Paul II gave to the first major teaching project of his pontificate. He delivered it in 129 short talks between 1979 and 1984. It's a biblical reflection on the meaning of human embodiment, particularly as it concerns human sexuality, marital love and erotic desire.
The teaching is divided into two main sections: one, what does it mean to be human? Two, how do I live my life in a way that will bring true happiness? So the pope's theology of the body is a reflection on the universal questions about life-why do I exist? Why did God make us male and female? How do I find happiness? What is my ultimate destiny? Why is there evil in the world? How do I overcome it? All of those universal questions.
How can this understanding of our bodies help us find happiness?
In the language of the pope, the body reveals the mystery of God. And that mystery, which has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ, is that God is love. God is love in the relationship of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The theology of the body means that our bodies somehow reveal the mystery of divine love in the world. How so? Precisely through the mystery of sexual difference and the call of the two to become one flesh.
So you're saying God is revealed in the relationship between couples?
In the mystery of marital union we have a sign here on earth of the eternal mystery of love found in the Trinity. A sign that reveals the eternal plan of God for humanity. That plan, to go along with this analogy, is that God wants to marry us. This is the reason he created us.
That's really intense. Can you talk more about that?
It's very intense. If you look at the Scriptures from beginning to end we have a story about marriage. Genesis begins with the creation of man and woman and their call to marriage. Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets speak of God's love as the love of a husband for his bride. In the New Testament, the love of the eternal bridegroom is literally embodied when the word is made flesh. Skipping to the end of the story, the Book of Revelation describes heaven as an eternal marriage-a marriage of Christ and the Church.
The Pope has said something to the effect that although all of the human images, the analogies that we can use to describe God's love are inadequate, the spousal analogy is the least inadequate. It helps us to penetrate the mystery of God's love. To put it simply, what we learn through this paradigm is that God wants to marry us.
What would it be like to be married to God?
It's called heaven. We can push this analogy even further and recognize that not only does he want to marry us, but in a mystical way, he wants to impregnate our humanity with his divine life.
If God's eternal plan is to marry and to impregnate us with his divine life, he wanted this eternal plan to be so obvious to us that he stamped an image of it right in our bodies by making us male and female and calling us to become one flesh. This is the theology of the body. We see the mystery of God's love revealed in the sexes and their call to union.
Sexual love is an icon, or earthly image, of the inner life and love of the Trinity. This does not mean that God is sexual. Our sexuality reflects God, but that does not mean that we go the other direction and say therefore God's love is sexual. God is infinitely beyond any difference between the sexes.
If you have any question about sexual morality, it comes down to one very simple question: "Does this image Christ's love for the Church or does it not?"