Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Body Theology

I received a note from someone who was quite exuberant about Pope John Paul II's Theology of the Body (or rather, a digest of it by Christopher West). So I thought I'd say a little something about it. I've read the Pope's book. It is quite profound and, given the debased mentality of modern society, it is revolutionary as well.

As with most revolutionary ideas, he is simply recovering an original vision--that is, God's orginal vision for the meaning of the relationship between man and woman. One striking feature of John Paul's treatment is that he does not present his thesis as one more present-day perspective regarding sex and marriage, though he of course deals with the issues. Like Jesus--when He was asked a question about divorce (even at that time marriage was rather easily dissolved by a simple certificate of divorce)--the Pope refers to how it was "in the beginning." The paradigm for intimate human relationships is not found in modern psychological or social theories, but in God's own intentions when He first created man and woman.

In the beginning, man and woman were "naked without shame," because sin had not yet distorted the meaning of the human body and of intimate love. Human masculinity and femininity were seen and experienced as different but complementary ways of being human (and of imaging God), and the intimate union that resulted from this complementarity was experienced as mutual self-giving. This is what John Paul calls the "nuptial meaning of the body." God created us as man and woman so that each could express both the gift of oneself and the acceptance of the other as gift--without manipulating or dominating the other, or experiencing the other as a mere object for one's gratification. Thus "the giving and accepting of the gift interpenetrate, so that the giving itself becomes accepting, and the acceptance is transformed into giving."

All that changed, in practice, with the serpentine question: "Did God really tell you not to eat of the trees in the garden?" With pride and disobedience came the sin and the shame with which we have clothed ourselves ever since. But now that our bodies and souls have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, it is possible to recover, at least to a great extent, the true meaning of the body and of human love as God ordained it from the start. The human body was created to express the intimate love that God wills to exist in a one man/one woman relationship of sanctified matrimony that is further designed to bear fruit in children, as an image of the interpentrating and eternally fruitful love of the Most Holy Trinity. In marriage, two become one in intimate union, and this union opens up to receive new life, that this love may be shared in a new way. This is what John Paul explains in great detail in his book.

Today, the same snake that found its way into Eden is whispering into many hearts: "Did God really say that you have to be married before enjoying sex? Did He really say that you have to limit yourself to one woman or one man?" And even more perversely, "Did God really say that only a married man and woman could have sexual intimacy? What about a man and a man, a woman and a woman?" By believing the lie, many are still falling from grace through pride and disobedience, and through the confusion and lack of courage and clear vision that modern society and the media everywhere promote.

Now, what about celibates who cannot realize in their bodies the divine purpose that was "in the beginning"? Those of us who are not (or who have vowed not to be) married look not so much to the beginning as to the end. John Paul points this out as well. For in the Kingdom of Heaven, people "neither marry nor are given in marriage...because they are equal to angels and are sons of God" (Luke 20:35-36). So those who live the eschatological witness of the coming heavenly wedding feast, when Christ alone will be the Bridegroom of the whole Church, experience even now the ultimate truth that "the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body... He who is united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him" (1Corinthians 6:13, 17).

Whether in sanctified marriage or sanctified celibacy, the body is a means of giving oneself in love to another, and most profoundly and ultimately, to Another. The world needs to recover the true and deep meaning of the body, of sex, of love, of marriage and procreation, and of celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven. For this we look to the beginning--and to the end. These issues profoundly affect our society and our Church. Read the book. It can be the beginning of a deep inner transformation, for you will begin to see this mystery through the eyes of the One who created it.