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.
#ad#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.
#page#LOPEZ: What does this all have to do with the “culture of death”? If we all got your book, could we stop having to March for Life every January?
WEST: As John Paul II put it, “It is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not . . . accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close inter-connection.”
Sexual pleasure is a divine gift when received as part of the joy of self-giving love. But when we buy into the idea that pleasure itself is the main goal of sex, society becomes utilitarian. You’re valued if you’re useful. And, in this case, you’re “useful” if you’re sexually stimulating. If you aren’t, or if you get in the way of my pleasure, you’ll be ignored, discarded, maybe even exterminated.
#ad#When pleasure is the main goal of sex, people (mostly women) become the means and babies become the obstacle. So we take our pleasure and we exterminate our offspring. This is not some dire prediction of a bleak future. This is the world we live in now. This is where the sexual revolution has taken us. Have we had enough yet?
LOPEZ: Is John Paul II’s Theology of the Body the proper and full response to the sexual revolution?
WEST: I’d say it’s a foundation that we need to build on. John Paul II basically said to the modern world: “You wanna talk about sex? Okay, but let’s really talk about it. Let’s not stop at the surface. Let’s enter into the depths of the ‘great mystery’ of our creation as male and female.” He started a deeper conversation, but we need to keep going.
LOPEZ: Why don’t we hear more about it? It’s not like it came out yesterday.
WEST: The Church tends to move slowly — that’s nothing new. But there is a movement of sorts underway, and it’s spreading, both in Catholic circles and across denominational lines. It wouldn’t surprise me at all, in fact, if evangelical Christians took it up and became a real catalyst in helping get the message out.
LOPEZ: There’s nothing all that new about it, is there? It’s consistent with what came before, with what Christ taught?
WEST: It’s new and not new. It’s new in the sense that it offers a deepening of Catholic theology. And it’s certainly “new” to the audience at which it’s aimed. People simply haven’t heard it. They may have heard the “what” of Christian teaching, but rarely the “why” — at least not in the compelling and attractive way that John Paul II explains it. So it’s certainly new in that sense. But in its essence, it’s the same “good news” that Christ proclaimed 2,000 years ago. The fact that people don’t know about it only underscores the pressing need for a “new evangelization.”
LOPEZ: What is this “new evangelization” business? Isn’t it essentially the same old, same old?
WEST: Many people are raised in the Church, but “so very little sticks,” laments Pope Benedict. Why? The modern crisis in faith stems in part from the fact that the Gospel has been proclaimed “in formulas that, while true, are nevertheless at the same time outmoded,” says the Pope. “They no longer speak to our living situation and are often no longer comprehensible to us.” Thus, he says, we “must seriously reflect on ways to give catechesis a new heart and a new face.” It’s not a new Gospel, but it’s a proclamation of the Gospel in new, more compelling ways.
LOPEZ: In the final chapter of your book, you speak of “The Way of Beauty.” What’s that?
WEST: The expression comes from a recent document from the Pontifical Council for Culture called “The Way of Beauty.” Hearts respond to the teaching of the Church when it’s presented in all its beauty. But when Church teaching is presented in a dry, legalistic way, we turn away. Christianity isn’t a list of rules to follow. It’s an invitation to be seized by beauty!
#page#LOPEZ: Who is the audience for your book?
WEST: Anyone who is concerned about where the sexual revolution has gotten us and is looking for a response that takes us beyond the polarizing extremes of sexual indulgence, on the one hand, and sexual repression on the other, I think will find this book compelling.
LOPEZ: Would a non-Catholic or a non-Christian have any use for your book?
WEST: The language is geared primarily toward a Catholic audience, but I think anyone looking for a redemptive vision of sexuality will be glad to have read it.
#ad#LOPEZ: Can one have a well-integrated sense of the human person without Christ?
WEST: If someone has a well-integrated sense of the human person apart from any explicit connection to Christ, I’d suggest that Christ is at work in that person in an implicit way. It seems Jesus is often content to remain “hidden” even when he is powerfully at work in a person’s life.
LOPEZ: Your message is about much more than sex, and yet it necessarily involves it, doesn’t it?
WEST: What I’ve learned from John Paul II is that sex is not just about sex. Our creation as male and female and the call of the two to become “one flesh” is meant to illuminate the very meaning of the universe. If that sounds exaggerated, I’d encourage you to read At the Heart of the Gospel where I make the case. John Paul II’s teaching takes us on a grand adventure into the meaning of existence itself. This is what is at stake in the way we understand, or fail to understand, our sexuality.
LOPEZ: What does this teaching about human sexuality and the Gospel mean for the single, the widowed, the divorced? All those celibates in the Catholic religious and holy orders? Are they somehow incomplete or otherwise not able to fully connect with the Divine?
WEST: The ultimate fulfillment of our longing for love and union is not to be found in the sexual relationship, but in union with God. This is what Christian celibacy is all about. It’s not a rejection of sexuality, but a sign that points us to the ultimate purpose and meaning of it — union with God forever. That’s why people of every state of life find this Theology of the Body incredibly affirming and illuminating. It helps them see what they’re really looking for in life.
LOPEZ: On a related note, you write, “Authentic chastity does not repress [sensual] reactions, but, with the help of grace, integrates them with and raises them to the level of the dignity of the person.” Come on — our culture’s not buying this, is it?
WEST: Those who think the “fast food” approach satisfies their hunger aren’t buying it. But you can only eat the “fast food” for so long before you start feeling ill, before you start thinking, there’s got to be more than this! Integrating sexual desire with the dignity of the person means learning to love people rather than use people. Nobody likes to be used or toyed with or treated as a thing. You can only put up with that for so long before you start looking for another way to live. In my experience, people are open to hearing about the “Theology of the Body” when we put it in a language they can relate to.
LOPEZ: Is it possible to reach the culture with this message using references to pop culture? You attracted some controversy for that.
WEST: In the New Evangelization, we must “translate the treasure that is preserved in [our] faith . . . into the speech and thinking of our time,” says Pope Benedict, “so that [Christ] can become present within the horizon of the secular world’s understanding.” That’s what I’m trying to do. Finding the right approach has been a challenge, but “one has to meet one’s listeners halfway, one has to speak to them in terms of their own horizon,” as Pope Benedict puts it.
LOPEZ: How exactly does one wind up lecturing about sex for a living (to put it more crassly than necessary)?
WEST: I discovered the “Theology of the Body” in 1993. I remember feeling like I was holding something in my hands that could change the world. I knew then I’d spend the rest of my life studying it and sharing it with others.
LOPEZ: If I drink in your book, if I find myself drawn to its message, where should I go to continue to go deeper?
WEST: Google “Theology of the Body” and explore what people are saying about it. There are lots of great teachers on the subject. If you like my approach, there are plenty of resources at christopherwest.com.
LOPEZ: What’s next for you?
WEST: For a few years now, I’ve been working with a team of artists and musicians developing an event called “Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing.” Popes Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI have all stressed that the Church needs artists to fulfill her missionary task, and we’re taking that very seriously. My next book is based on the presentations I’ve developed for these events. It will be out next fall.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.