|Theology of the Body|
A Compelling, Bold, Biblical Response to the Sexual Revolution
This article is from the January/February 2007 BreakPoint WorldView magazine. Sign up today to receive the free online edition 10 times a year!
“’For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and it refers to Christ and the church.” (Ephesians 5:31-32)
If the typical Christian in our culture spilled the contents of his mind on a table, ideas about sex would probably look a lot more like Hugh Hefner’s vision than the apostle Paul’s presented above. Hugh Hefner has been one of the most successful “evangelists” of our time. The world is starved for love, and when the Church fails to proclaim the glory of the banquet, we inevitably fall for the lies of the dumpster.
In Hefner’s “Christian” upbringing, sex was taboo—the body inherently tainted and “sinful.” Hefner, himself, said he started Playboy magazine as “a personal response to the hurt and hypocrisy of our puritan heritage.” Christians can—and should—agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of this disease. Rejecting the body as evil has no place in an authentic biblical vision. God proclaimed that everything He made was “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Furthermore, Paul’s admonitions about the dangers of “the flesh” do not condemn the body itself. Paul, rather, is warning us precisely of the dangers Hefner fell into by divorcing the body from the spirit.
Thus, if Christians should agree with Hefner’s diagnosis of the disease, we must disagree with his treatment of it. Hefner’s pornographic remedy does not, in fact, solve the problem at all. All he did was flip the puritanical pancake over from repression to indulgence. Both approaches flow from the same failure to integrate body and spirit. Only such an integration can truly cure the disease.
Paul called this cure the “redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23). Pope John Paul II called it the “theology of the body.”
A ‘THEOLOGICAL TIME BOMB’
And so, in a collection of 129 scholarly addresses delivered between 1979 and 1984, that is exactly what he provided. In its course, John Paul offered—not just to Catholics, but to all Christians—a bold, compelling, and thoroughly biblical response to Hefner’s pornographic revolution. Rather than condemn Hefner and his followers for eating out of the dumpster, the Pope simply laid out the banquet that truly satisfies the hunger.
Only now, after John Paul’s death, is knowledge of this “banquet” spreading. In due time—if Christians take it up and live it—we can expect global repercussions. Papal biographer George Weigel said it best when he described the theology of the body as “a kind of theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences . . . perhaps in the twenty-first century.”
Of course, a short article like this can only scratch the surface of the Pope’s profound vision. We’ll begin with his main idea.
WHAT MAKES THE BODY ‘THEOLOGICAL’?
We cannot see God; He is pure spirit. But the astounding claim of Christianity is that the invisible God has made Himself visible through the human body. For in Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9). God’s mystery is revealed in human flesh—theology of the body: This phrase is not only the title of John Paul II’s talks. It also represents the very “logic” of Christianity.
IMAGE OF GOD
How? Precisely through the beauty of sexual difference and union. In the normal course of events, the union of the “two” leads to a “third.” Here, in a way, we see a trinitarian image. Thus, John Paul concludes that we image God not only as individuals, but also through the union of man and woman. Of course, none of this means that God is “sexual.” We use spousal love only as an analogy to help us understand something of God’s mystery. God’s mystery remains infinitely beyond any human image.
The Bible uses spousal love more than any other image to help us understand God’s plan. It begins in Genesis with the marriage of Adam and Eve and ends in Revelation with the marriage of Christ and the Church. Here we find a key for understanding the whole of Scripture: God wants to “marry” us—to live with us in an eternal bond of love that the Bible compares to marriage. But there’s more! God wants to fill us—or, to go with the analogy—God wants to “impregnate” us, His bride, with His own divine life. This is a very “earthy” way of speaking, but it is not mere poetry. In Mary we witness a woman who literally conceived divine life in her womb.
What we learn in the theology of the body is that God wanted this great “marital plan” of union and eternal life to be so plain to the world that He impressed an image of it right in our bodies by creating us male and female and calling us to become “one flesh.” If we have difficulty seeing our bodies this way, it’s only because we have been blinded by sin and a deceiver who is literally hell-bent on keeping us from recognizing our true dignity.
‘IN THE BEGINNING’
In the beginning “nakedness without shame” (Genesis 2:25) reveals a very different experience of sexual desire from our own. God created sexual desire as the power to love as He loves. And this is how the first couple experienced it. Nakedness without shame, in fact, is the key, according to the Pope, for understanding God’s original plan for human life. It unlocks the intimacy and ecstasy of love that God intended “from the beginning.”
The entrance of shame, then, indicates the dawn of lust, of erotic desire cut off from God’s love. We cover our bodies in a fallen world not because they are bad, but to protect their inherent goodness from the degradation of lust. Since we know that we are made for love, we feel instinctively “threatened” not only by overt lustful behavior, but even by a “lustful look.”
BEYOND ‘SIN MANAGEMENT’
As we allow our lusts to be crucified with Christ (see Galatians 5:24) we can progressively rediscover and live God’s original plan for sexual desire. We need not merely cope with our lusts or “manage” our sinful tendencies. Our sexual desires can be effectively transformed through the “redemption of the body” (Romans 8:23). C. S. Lewis offered a grand image of this at the end of The Great Divorce when “the lizard of lust” was transformed into a great white stallion.
Of course, on this side of heaven, we will always be able to recognize a battle in our hearts between love and lust. Only in eternity will the battle cease, as will marriage as we know it. However, when Christ said we will no longer marry in the resurrection (see Matthew 22:30), this does not mean our longing for union will be obliterated. It means it will be fulfilled in the “Marriage of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:7). That is the union we truly crave. The union of the sexes here on earth is only an icon that is meant to point us to heaven. When we get there, the icon will give way to the ultimate reality!
In fact, all the sexual confusion in our world and in our own hearts is simply the human desire for heaven gone berserk. The gift of the theology of the body is that it helps us “unberserk” it. Lust has inverted our rocket engines causing us to crash and burn. The theology of the body redirects our rocket engines toward the stars.
TRUE AND FALSE PROPHETS
But here’s what truly makes the Gospel good news: It does not only give us a list of rules to follow. Christ empowers us with His grace to fulfill the law. As we allow grace to work in us, the law no longer feels like a burden imposed from without. It wells up from within. We embrace the biblical teaching on sex not because we “have” to, but because we long to. When we see the riches of the banquet, the dumpster no longer attracts us.
“For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). For what reason? To proclaim and participate in the “great mystery” of Christ’s ecstatic union with the Church (see Ephesians 5:31-32). Could there be a more glorious vision of human sexuality than this?
As a proclamation of divine truth, sexual union has a “prophetic language.” But, as the Pope maintained, we must carefully distinguish true and false prophets. If it is possible to speak the truth with the body, it is also possible to speak a lie. Marriage vows are the solemn promise a man and a woman make to love each other “in the image of God.” In turn, spouses are meant to express this same love with their bodies whenever they become one flesh. In other words, sexual intercourse is meant to be a renewal of wedding vows—where the words of the vows are made flesh.
Followers of Christ everywhere recognize John Paul II’s tireless ecumenical efforts. He publicly repented on behalf of those Catholics whose sins led to division in the first place. He reached out repeatedly to Protestant and Orthodox leaders, even asking them to help
If disputes in Christ’s family have led to multiple divorces, the Pope’s daring, biblical apologetic for unity in the “domestic church” (the family) can contribute greatly to bringing about unity in the Church at large. It’s precisely here, in fact—in the cultural battle for marriage and the family—that committed Christians of varying professions find themselves overcoming their mutual prejudices and standing together.
Alan Medinger, who has served the sexually broken for a quarter century through Regeneration Ministries, observes that “evangelicals have much to offer the Catholic Church. . . . But this is a two way street. . . . Catholics have [much] to offer [us] in the area of teaching and theology regarding the related matters of life, reproduction, and sexuality.” He concludes, “At this point in my ministry, I can think of no greater service to render to my fellow evangelicals than to point them to Theology of the Body.”
This is the gift and the promise of John Paul II’s theology of the body. But its riches have barely begun to penetrate the Catholic world, let alone the wider Christian community. Perhaps if Christians everywhere feasted on this biblical banquet, we could save our culture from its repressive heritage and from the pornographic backlash it inspired. In the process, we might even be able to evangelize Hugh Hefner rather than Hugh Hefner continuing to evangelize us.
Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in West Chester, Penn. He lectures globally on the topic and has authored numerous books and study guides translating John Paul II’s scholarly work into accessible language. Learn more at www.theologyofthebody.com.