“Physical Beauty is Meant to Point Us to Spiritual Beauty”

Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guest: Christopher West

Christopher West admits that, when he was in college, he bought into the common belief that sex is just a fun, recreational activity without any inherent purpose. He says, “I had eaten from what I call ‘the fast food gospel of the culture’ which promises us immediate gratification for all our desires. But by eating the fast food, I ended up like the guy in the movie ‘Super Size Me.’ He ate McDonald’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner for a whole month, and he was dying. That’s me in my college years. I was dying inside.”

As West explained to me during our interview about his new book, “At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization,” it was exposure to Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body teachings that opened his eyes to a new reality – that our bodies and our natures as men and women need to be looked at as symbols that point us toward the higher reality of God. “Our bodies tell a story,” he says. “We’ve reduced the human to a collection of cells, and we no longer see the spiritual mystery behind it…What do we mean by that? If you want to get into the mind and heart of an artist, then study his art. If you want to get into the mind of the ultimate artist – God – then study His art and His creation. And what is at the crown of all creation? We are, as male and female. We are made in the image and likeness of God. That means our bodies have something very particular to say about who God is and who we are.”

Though seeing our bodies and sexuality as good has always been a teaching of Christianity, the Church hasn’t always done a good job promoting that belief. West explains, “This idea that a lot of us have while growing up in a religious environment is that the spirit is the good part of us, and the body is the bad or less-than-holy part…That is an ancient heresy…The Incarnation reveals that the physical world is sacred and holy, and is destined in Jesus Christ to be taken up into the very life of God. We profess belief, not only in the salvation of our souls. We profess belief in the redemption of our bodies and the resurrection of our bodies. That’s what the Incarnation teaches us. God is not afraid to enter into the mess and chaos of this world to heal it, restore it and transform it.”

Throughout “At the Heart of the Gospel” and even in conversation with West, his upbeat and positive approach to spreading this message is constant. Instead of presenting Christianity as a set of prohibitions, he follows Pope Benedict’s advice to “show the positive option that Christianity is.” West continues, “We can’t just go out there and yell and scream about what’s wrong in the world. Scripture says that we overcome evil with good. This is the Good News that we have to proclaim. There’s a time and place to say, ‘That’s wrong.’ But it is so much more important that we show what is true, good and beautiful.”

The beauty that comes from looking at our lives in light of the theology of the body is a constant refrain for West. When I mention that his observations remind me of the author Dostoevsky’s claim, “The world will be saved by beauty,” Christopher elaborates, “I often like to say to my audiences, ‘Think of a time in your life when you were pierced by beauty. Maybe it was a song, a sunset, the birth of a child or the smile of your husband or your wife when you first met them.’ Those are moments when God is inviting us into His beauty. He’s made the world so beautiful to lead us to Him. In our pornographic culture, we have reduced beauty to something merely physical. When we do that, we actually lose sight of true beauty. Physical beauty is meant to point us to spiritual beauty. That spiritual beauty is what the heart craves. And when it is upheld, when it is proclaimed, our hearts yearn for it and are attracted to it.”

West advocates using this same positive approach even with people we might consider dead to sin. He quotes 20th century mystic Caryll Houselander’s book, “The Reed of God,” as saying, “We should approach even hardened sinners with the same reverence with which we approach the tomb of Christ. Why? Because Christ is dead in them, but He is awaiting resurrection.”

West adds, “When we start to look at the world this way, it changes everything. And guess what? We have to look at ourselves this way too. We are sinners. And wherever sin is in our lives, Christ is dead there waiting to be raised up. It’s not just ‘us against them.’ The wheat and the weeds grow together, Jesus says. There are plenty of weeds within the Church and within our own individual hearts, just as there’s plenty of wheat out there in the secular culture. There are weeds out there too, but we need to learn how to discern these things, not just think ‘we’re the good guys and the secular world’s the bad guys.’ We have to find a way to build bridges, to affirm elements of truth out in the culture.”

Listen to the complete interview with Christopher West: Christopher Closeup Podcast – Guest: Christopher West

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