In a series of lectures, the late John Paul II laid out a “Theology of the Body,” a potentially revolutionary way of looking at and speaking about human sexuality. Christopher West, research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Pennsylvania and founder of the Cor Project, is a prolific teacher and writer on the topic. He is author of the new book At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization, his first written for a major publisher, the Image imprint at Random House. West talks to National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the book, the Gospels, and theology of the body’s potential.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Isn’t the “Heart of the Gospel” Christ’s death and resurrection? What does that have to do with the body?
CHRISTOPHER WEST: You can’t die or rise from the dead without a body. Christianity begins with this “outlandish” idea that God has a human body. The Incarnation is at the heart of everything. Christianity is an “enfleshed” religion. We must diligently resist the strong tendency we have to “unflesh” it.
LOPEZ: What’s so greatly mysterious about human sexuality? Kids sure seem to figure it out without much instruction.
WEST: When we reduce sex to something merely biological, all we have is the plumbing. Christ invites us to another way of “seeing.” True sexual love is a doorway into another realm, another world — kind of like the wardrobe into Narnia. But we never see this “great mystery” when we stop at the surface.
Do you remember that Peter Gabriel song: “In your eyes — the light the heat / In your eyes — I am complete / In your eyes — I see the doorway to a thousand churches . . . ”? Now let’s reduce that song to something merely biological: “In your eyes — the cornea / In your eyes — the retina / In your eyes — I see the lines of a thousand blood-shot blood vessels.”
I once had a student shout: “Stop! You’re ruining the song!” Precisely. That’s what happens when we reduce sex to something merely biological: We ruin the song. God is singing a love song to us in and through our sexuality. “Morality” is all about learning how to live and move to the rhythm of that divine love song.
LOPEZ: What is the “universal longing”? How can you be sure you’re not being too general? Too certain?
WEST: Bruce Springsteen put it best: “Everybody’s got a hungry heart.” Haven’t we all felt it — that hunger, that yearning for something? The Greeks called it eros. We all wrestle with selfish lusts, but we also experience a noble eros, a longing for the true, the good, and the beautiful, a longing for love and happiness. And we sense that somehow, one way or another, that longing is connected with our sexuality.
LOPEZ: What does it mean to integrate eros, sexual love, and agape, divine love for mankind? Is that even possible given our culture today?
WEST: Even misdirected eros shows us what kind of beings we are: creatures created for love, for union, for intimacy. Yes, there are a lot of counterfeit loves on the market today, love substitutes. I call it the “fast-food gospel”: the promise of immediate gratification for our hunger. It’s everywhere, and we easily fall for it because most of us are raised with what I call the “starvation-diet gospel.”
Sex in the divine plan, as I’ve learned it through John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body”, is meant to be a sign here on earth of the eternal bliss that awaits us in heaven. But who grows up hearing that? This is why the “fast food” starts to look quite attractive. It may not be “good for you,” but it’s better than nothing.
Agape is the Greek word for divine love, for self-giving love. Integrating eros and agape means learning how to direct our sexual desires away from selfishness and in the direction of self-giving love. The more we learn how to do this, the more we experience “the banquet” for which our hunger is designed.
Is this even possible? It’s what the “new wine” of Christ’s first miracle is all about. We’ve all “run out of wine,” like the Biblical story of the wedding in Cana. But Jesus’s first miracle is to restore “divine wine” to the man and woman’s relationship, to restore agape to eros. If we want to learn to love divinely, we need to drink deeply of this “new wine.” As the saints say, we need to get “drunk” on God’s love.
LOPEZ: How can the “Song of Songs” help us?
WEST: Ah! The Song of Songs — that beautiful erotic love poem of the Old Testament! It takes us to “the essence of Biblical faith,” according to Benedict XVI. How? The essence of Biblical faith is the recognition that God wants to “marry” us. It sounds odd or even scandalous to some, but it’s the central message of the Bible. The Bible begins with the marriage of man and woman and ends with the marriage of Christ and the Church, and right in the middle we have the Song of Songs.
As Pope Benedict affirms, God loves us with eros! An eros that is perfectly agape. This is the “story” that our bodies tell as male and female — or at least, it’s the story they’re meant to tell. Tragically, when we’ve “run out of wine” (agape), our bodies tell a very different story — a story of selfishness, heartache, and disillusionment.
As the great mystic St. Teresa of Avila put it, the Song of Songs is an invitation from God to his Bride (all of us) to “drink as much as she desires and get drunk on all these wines in the cellar of God! . . . Let her die at last in this paradise of delights.” “Oh blessed death that makes one live in such a way!” exclaims Teresa. I’d guess most people didn’t hear this growing up in Catholic schools. I didn’t.