LT Johnson and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

LT Johnson and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body September 29, 2015

Screen Shot 2015-09-19 at 2.11.10 PMLuke Timothy Johnson, in his new theology of embodied experience (The Revelatory Body), begins what he calls “The Way Not Taken: A Disembodied Theology of the Body.” He does by taking on the late John Paul II. His aim is to show that if embodied experience is revelatory and part of theology, then the late pope’s theology of the body and sexuality proves to be source for this discussion. Johnson, as will become clear in this book, thinks revelation continues into the present through the Spirit and the church’s discernment.

Here is Johnson’s opening:

Among the many books available that in one way or another call themselves theologies of the body, perhaps the most notable is the collection of conferences delivered at papal audiences by the late (and now Saint) John Paul II, published as Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan. Appearing with such a title, under the name of the (then) sitting leader of Christianity’s largest denomination, the book was bound to attract attention, and it did, especially among conservative Roman Catholics, who have greeted all papal teaching on sexuality with extravagant praise (21).

He points his finger at Charles J. Chaput, Janet Smith, Jennifer Popiel and especially at George Weigel. Johnson’s assessment?

Indeed, I regard the pope’s effort as exemplifying precisely the wrong kind of approach to the mystery of human embodiedness. … But his effort in this book falls far short of adequate theological thinking on the subject of the human body as the arena of God’s self-disclosure. The pope’s book is inadequate, not in the obvious way that all theology is inadequate to speak of God (and should therefore exhibit intellectual modesty), but in the sense that it simply does not engage what ought most to be engaged in a theology of the body. Because of its theological weakness, the pope’s teaching does not really respond to the anxieties of those who, seeking a Christian understanding of the body and of human sexuality, look for practical guidance for their lives as sexually active adults  (23).

Johnson thinks JP2 focused love too much on sex and body too much on sexual love to be a theology of the body. In fact, “The topic of human love in all its dimensions has been wonderfully explored by the world’s literature, but none of its grandeur or giddiness appears in these talks, which remain at a level of abstraction far removed from novels and newspapers that carry stories of love among people who look and act like us” (24). He denounces him even more forcefully:

In the pope’s formulations, though, human sexuality is observed by telescope from a distant planet. Solemn pronouncements are made on the basis of scriptural exegesis rather than living experience. The effect is something like that of a sunset painted by the unsighted (24-25).

Johnson thinks JP2’s scripture exegesis flat and uncritical and incomplete. E.g., he should have looked more at Song of Songs, more at Tobit, more at 1 Cor 7 as well as at the texts of terror in the Bible. His exegesis of Gen 1 and 2 led JP2 to an overfocus on males and an underfocus on women, who are also sexual beings. If the former pope wants to approach things with phenomenology, as JP2 says, then he needs at least to deal with same sex orientation and homosexuality (27). He reduces, too, to transmission of life — love is sex and sex is for reproduction. [Interestingly enough, I find a similar lack of comprehensive biblical theology in many conservative evangelicalsm — I’m thinking of both Piper’s and the Kellers’ books, who also should have looked more at Song of Songs, etc..]

Johnson thinks JP2 left out things: the mystery of the human body is unacknowledged and masked by confident knowledge. We are implicated in our bodies but don’t comprehend ourselves well enough. He focuses too much on control, Johnson contends. JP2 doesn’t value embodied pleasure sufficiently. “In papal teaching, sexual passion and pleasure appear primarily as an obstacle to authentic love. But many of us have experienced sexual passion and pleasure as both humbling and liberating, a means through which our bodies know better and more quickly than our minds, choose better and faster than our reluctant wills, even get us to where God apparently wants us in a way our calculating minds never could” (29).

Behind JP2’s Theology of the Body was Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, an encyclical designed to fight artificial birth control. Johnson goes after Paul VI’s encyclical as well: “a regression in moral reasoning” (31), “sacrifice logic to a rhetorical brinkmanship” (32 [birth control = abortion], “pervasive sexism” (32), “absolute prohibition of artificial birth control becomes increasingly scandalous in the face of massive medical realities” (33), and Humanae Vitae, Johnson argues, should be revisited rather than defended. The document was produced against the discernment of those around Paul VI.


Our reading of Scripture must indeed shape our perceptions of the world, but our understanding of Scripture must, in turn, be reshaped by our experience of God in our mortal bodies, in the fabric of our human freedom and in the cosmic play of God’s freedom. . Theology that takes the self-disclosure of God in human experience — in the bodies of actual women and men — with the same seriousness as it does God’s revelation in Scripture does not turn its back on tradition, but recognizes that tradition must constantly be renewed by the powerful leading of the Holy Spirit if it is not to become a form of idolatry, a falsification of the Living God (34-35).

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