A friend asked me to write on this, and my first response was “heck yeah!,” and my second response was…”oh no…that’s a whole new book!” There is so much in the Theology of the Body, and often it is so misunderstood…. Since I have written on this extensively (Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Gifts of Birth, Impairment, and Dying, The Gift of Birth: Discerning God’s Presence in Childbirth, in the background (or foreground!) of many articles, and certainly a deep part of the current book I am writing, Why You Shouldn’t Kill Yourself: Five Tricks of the Heart about Assisted Suicide), I think I will do the less wordy thing and go for bullet points instead.
But first, a little candor: I am also a theologian, and part of my “stealth mission” is to introduce John Paul II’s anthropology and the potential within it to a wider academic audience. The Theology of the Body is more appreciated in ecclesial circles than some academic circles. Mind you, good people can disagree on the value of a given argument (get a Thomist and Augustinian in a room and watch them go), but I honestly hold that most of the people who tell me they don’t like the Theology of the Body haven’t read it, or have encountered some twisted stereotype of it that has badly informed their reading. We need to be clear what the audiences are about: that God created human beings male and female as a form of incarnational revelation, a sign that we best perceive in relationship that points to our destined relationship to God. The Fall skewed our ability to see and live out this sign, but it remains the reason why humanity was created–and we can see it, with God’s help. The audiences are rich (and occasionally difficult), but truly the tip of the iceberg. We live in a world that is desperately asking what it means to be human any more. There is wisdom here to answer that question. So the Theology of the Body is important to me, but I think it could be important to everyone, academic or not.
OK, a few bullet points about the importance of the Theology of the Body (or ToB):
- Revelation and sacramentality. So many efforts theologically to recover a thick sacramentality of the human being…and John Paul II’s is one of the very best. The idea that before there even existed the scriptures, there existed the human body–this is a radical notion that changes the way we see and treat the body, not as a machine or vessel or functionary, but as the visible sign of God’s revelation in the world. Many Christians want to say the body is important. John Paul II’s work reminds us why. p.s. I find it very interesting that many of my Protestant friends and colleagues in Theology (I went to an ecumenical divinity school) are deeply and favorably intrigued by this notion. It could be a point of ecumenical dialogue….
- John Paul II’s gift to spiritual direction. I am trained as a spiritual director, and so much spiritual direction is informed by the groundbreaking work of Ignatius of Loyola, the saint who founded the Jesuits and famously proclaimed that we must learn to see God in all things. The Theology of the Body is about seeing as well, precisely, it is about perception of the divine in human bodies and their relationships. There are so many insights in ToB that work brilliantly with spiritual direction: the meaning of shame, fear, self-giving, receiving, God in the everyday, vocation, avocation, discernment of spirits, the work of the Holy Spirit…. OK, I’ll admit, it’s probably the next book!
- It lends itself to a theology of childbirth. You guys. Women make up half the human race and we basically have no theology of childbirth. How did that happen? I won’t “go there” right now, but although John Paul doesn’t say much about childbirth, he opens the door to it and all the possibilities are right there. If the man and woman are created and told to be fruitful and multiply, and the body exists as sign, then doesn’t childbirth serve as an extension of the sign of marriage? Might it be a form of revelation? Is that why many women name it one of the most spiritual moments of their lives?
- It helps us learn how to give our dying bodies to God in love. That is, it teaches us how to die. Many refer to the law of the gift or the hermeneutic of the gift as the dynamic heart of the Theology of the Body–and there is another word for it, usually applied to Jesus Christ’s death on the cross. That word is kenosis, or “self-emptying.” It is a rich and loaded theological term, but most importantly here, it teaches us how to die. Death is a consequence of original sin. But with Christ’s redemption, we can approach death as he did–an emptying of the self into the arms of God the Father, a gift originally received and offered back to God. We simply don’t know how to die in our culture–look at the 17 states considering passing laws on physician assisted suicide right now–and John Paul’s insights give us a new art of dying (ars moriendi).
- We are not trapped souls. We are, each of us, a unity of body and soul. ToB speaks to this is clear ways, undercutting the gnostic tendencies that still reside in Christianity and the wider culture. Gnosticism is an ancient heresy that (among other things) held the human being was a good soul trapped in an evil body, just waiting for the release of death. Well, ToB says clearly we are both spiritual and bodily, and these realities are not opposites. It is a freeing teaching when absorbed, and brings a lens to what it means to be human that is not what our culture typically holds. ToB, in this regard, is a medicine to our culture.