The Saving Power of Sex: An Interview with Christopher West

In your introduction, you note that your work on the Theology of the Body has been harshly critiqued. Why do you think your teaching has been misunderstood?

I thank my critics in the acknowledgement section of my book. Their challenges have sharpened me, refined me, and encouraged me to dig even deeper into the thought of John Paul II and the mystical tradition of the Church. I do not hesitate to acknowledge where I believe these authors have been correct in their critiques. The last perfect teacher of the faith ascended to heaven two thousand years ago, so there is always room for improvement.

Of course, it's in the very nature of theologians to debate. As I say in my book, the resolution of theological debate often involves finding the right balance between what appear to be competing truths, but are rather complementary aspects of the whole truth that must be held together in their proper "tension." It's like tuning a guitar--we inevitably go sharp, then flat, then back again until we find just the right tension in the string. When we understand this, we come to see how we need one another's different emphases.

The subtitle of your book is "Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelization." Who do you hope this book "evangelizes" and how does a renewed theology of the body have the potential to do so?

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." The "new evangelization" is an expression that John Paul II first used in the early 1980s to refer to new, more compelling ways of proclaiming the Gospel.

I think one of the reasons God may have tapped me on the shoulder to do this work is because I desperately need the message of the TOB in my own life. One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it. As a teacher of the TOB, I'm constantly being challenged by its message. So, first and foremost, I hope this book evangelizes me. Beyond that, I hope this book helps to evangelize everyone who reads it, for we are all in need of ongoing conversion.

How can the TOB evangelize? I chose the title At the Heart of the Gospel to underscore the scope of the TOB and where it leads us. It's so important that we understand that the TOB is not just a teaching on sex and married love. And it's certainly not just for married people. Rather, through the spousal analogy, John Paul II illuminates the entirety of God's plan from Genesis to Revelation with a splendid supernatural light. John Paul wrote that the new evangelization consists in "making known 'the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things.'" How can we make this mystery known? John Paul says that the "body, in fact, and only the body, is capable of making visible . . . the mystery hidden from eternity in God" (TOB 19:4).

In short, it's impossible to bring the world to Christ without recognizing the absolute necessity of the body in understanding what Christianity is and what it holds out to us.

What is one thing you wish more people understood about Catholic theology as it relates to the body and sexuality?

That, despite popular opinion, Catholic teaching on the body and sexuality is not a list of prudish prohibitions. It is a glorious, liberating vision of human life that corresponds perfectly with the deepest and most noble desires and aspirations of the human heart for love, joy, union, and happiness. Catholic teaching on the body and sexuality puts us on a trajectory, a journey, that, if we stay the course, passes over from the human realm of love and union into the divine realm of love and union, leading us into the eternal ecstasy and bliss of the Trinity. That pass over takes us through many painful trials and purifications, but with St. Paul we come to consider those sufferings as "nothing" compared to the glory to which they lead us.

How does the TOB speak into the trickiest questions about sexuality in the public square today, especially the definition of marriage?

John Paul II begins his Theology of the Body by reflecting deeply on the following words of Christ: "Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'?" (Mt. 19:4-5). John Paul II says that if we follow these words of Christ to their depth, we will be able to answer all of the pressing questions that men and women are raising today about marriage. And that's what John Paul II does in his Theology of the Body: he follows these words to their depth.

2/1/2012 5:00:00 AM
  • Book Club
  • Ethics
  • John Paul II
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  • Deborah Arca
    About Deborah Arca
    Deborah Arca is the former Director of Content at Patheos. Prior to joining Patheos, Deborah managed the Programs in Christian Spirituality at the San Francisco Theological Seminary, including the Program's renowned spiritual direction program and the nationally-renowned Lilly-funded Youth Ministry & Spirituality Project. Deborah has also been a youth minister, a director of music and theatre programs for children and teens, and a music minister. Deborah belongs to a progressive United Church of Christ church in Englewood, CO.
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