The Sensual Nature of God

[As part of the blogger roundtable on Christopher West’s new book At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization, Patheos’ Managing Editor Patton Dodd offers this reflection on sexuality and religion.  Visit the Patheos Book Club for more conversation here.]

A few years ago, a dear Catholic friend of mine gave me a rosary and told me that it would soon come in handy, for I was on an inevitable journey to Rome. He knew I had been raised Baptist, experienced a charismatic turn in college, and bounced around between belief and non-belief for most of my adult life. “But you’re drawn to the resources of faith,” he observed, noting my love of religious history and religiously inflected literature and film. “And you’re drawn especially to Catholic resources—you’re always talking about Flannery O’Connor and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Maybe they’re speaking what you know in your heart to be true.”

I’ve not darkened the door of a Catholic church for some time now, but I do use that rosary from time to time, and I still keep close company with the likes of O’Connor and Hopkins. And upon reading Christopher West’s At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization, I remembered that much of what I am drawn to in those “Catholic resources” is their attention to—and affection for—the human body. For O’Connor, the body is the main place where Christ shows up in the world, often in some comically violent way because—to paraphrase O’Connor’s most famous villain, The Misfit—people can hardly act as they ought unless there’s someone there to shoot them every minute of their lives. For Hopkins, Christ expresses himself visibly through limbs and “eyes not his” and “the features of men’s faces”—through the bodies of God’s making.

Growing up Baptist, I never heard much about the body at all. I associated my body only with the “flesh” and its carnal desires, which I was always trying to deny—often without much success. The Christians I knew were people of the head or people of the heart, and my turn to teenage charismatic Christianity was, in part, an attempt to embrace a more bodily faith. Charismatics don’t just talk and feel their way to God—all that dancing and touchy prayer is a way to express their sense of the immediate presence of God.

It’s also a way to express the sensuality of faith, an idea that is at the heart of Christopher West’s project. West writes that if the language of Judaism is Hebrew and the language of Islam is Arabic, then the language of Christianity is the body. St. Paul chose to use the image of human marriage to clarify his idea of what God had done through Jesus—as a man gives himself entirely to his bride, so Jesus gave himself entirely to the Church—not just because it captured the depth of God’s covenant, but because it captured the sensual and ceaseless nature of God’s affection for humankind.

Just this morning, I was talking to a dear friend of mine about sex. I’ll say no more about that conversation here except that we observed how sex is profound in its capacity to open up the deepest, most essential questions about what it means to be human and what it means to attempt a life of love. Sex combines our most basic urges with our most soulful intentions, and the gospel, if it hopes to speak to us at all, must speak to that intersection. West is right that sex and the human body are “at the heart of the gospel,” and his book is a useful tool for examining the condition of that heart.

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