Wednesday, 8 June 2011

TOB objections

Apologies for the short, euphoric interlude, but if you know me, you'll realise why I just had to stop and find a small glass of sherry to toast the recent news. Now back to business...

Let us make all the reservations first. I was standing in the lunch queue on Sunday next to another conference delegate who, like me, had had some reservations about what was an otherwise great conference. My view, I told him, was that it was very bizarre to hear a treatise of theology expounded almost as the panacea of twenty-first century Catholic illnesses without hearing a word breathed about the liturgy. Of course the Church, like Christ, has a role as servant, and so is concerned with ethics, but first her role is that of priest, because she is the Mystical Body of the High Priest himself who worships the Trinity ceaselessly. My theory, which I think is borne out by history, is that an ethically-preoccupied Christianity is on the slide towards secularisation, because sooner or later it is in danger of placing human agency above the agency of God. So, I found it problematic to be hearing all about Theology of the Body with no account of our bodies in relation to worship. I think one speaker during the weekend said that a Christian who fails to serve is on his way towards Phariseeism; he failed to mention the correlation that a Christian who serves but fails to worship is on his way to Zealotism.

My lunch companion had had another concern, which was that we had talked about 'the body' all weekend but not about the Mystical Body. Quite! And this was strange since one of the central themes of theology in the last half of the twentieth century was the attempt to marry all the treatises of theology to the treatise of ecclesiology.

Let me mention a last problem I had this weekend which not many people seemed to get. Everyone kept banging on about the body as a sign carrying a nuptial meaning. But it is clear that very few of the speakers had problematised this expression. I contend, however, that if you are going to borrow scientific language - and 'sign ' and 'meaning' qualify as terms belonging to the fields of linguistics and semiotics - you have to know what you are doing. You cannot, moreover, ignore the consequences. If, for example, I say the conjugal act has a specific 'meaning', and thus borrow a linguistic concept, I have to be able to defend the untranslate-ability (if you'll allow me the neologism) of that meaning. Normally, all signs that denote meaning can be translated into other signs. I can tell you I love you, or I can kiss you. I can tell you I hate you or punch you on the nose. If there is a meaning of the conjugal act, why cannot it be translated into other signs - not a man and a woman but a man and a man, for example?

Hang on, I'm not saying it can be translated! But I am saying that the language of 'signs' and 'meanings' appears not to have been thought through. Actually, the answer is not that difficult, but it forces us to connect the personalism which suffuses TOB with a bit of old fashioned cosmology. Blessed John Paul II knew this in fact, but sometimes, in listening to some of the enthusiasts of TOB, I get the impression that they are just a little unaware of it. On Saturday one speaker got carried away with a stream of melifluous consciousness on the theme of conjugal love, but when she was faced with a member of the audience who had been conceived by sperm donor (not her fault, right!) and who stammered her pain at the thought of her conception being so removed from the culmination of conjugal love, the speaker, not knowing what to say, blurted out, 'I'm sorry was there a question in that?' Everyone in the room hung their heads in embarrassment.

Well, anyone can screw up on the podium, and that is not a TOB problem. But my point is that some exponents (not all!) of TOB appear to go around with a halo of melifluousness which has not been grounded in classic, Thomist psychology - the psychology which JPII himself knew so well.

Right, you lot, you've made me miss my train! So I shall leave it there and come back to this later or tomorrow. I have stated the reservations that sprung to mind over the weekend and in doing so raised the question: so what? What indeed is the point of TOB?


Anonymous said...

Hi, I found your blog through a link at Natl. Catholic Register. I am not familiar with your writing so please excuse my daring to comment. This is a very interesting post. I believe there is much value in TOB but I know there are many critics as well. I am not an expert for either side. I am unsettled by the negative criticism but haven't been persuaded that TOB was all wrong. Perhaps you have hit on what is wrong with at least the presentation or current undertanding of TOB. Perhaps, TOB is fine as far as it goes but someone needs to think your questions and concerns through further. So far, critics of TOB tend to just bash it as no good. It is good but perhaps not finished. It took Blessed JPII years to develop TOB but maybe it wasn't for him to finish. Not sure my comments make sense. Thank you for a thought provoking post.

Anonymous said...

Thank goodness someone has finally asked such a sensible question about ToB rather than either dismissing it as pointless or hailing it as the answer to all the world's problems, since it is clearly neither of these. We await your answer with baited breath...

Richard said...

Very good point about the first role of the Church! And that goes well beyond TOB into all areas. A good many churches here have outreach programs, teen ministries, bible study, singles groups, ad infinitum, but the Mass is awful. Then they plead for money. If they would just put some of that effort into the Sacramental Life of the parish, everything else would fall into place.

Anonymous said...

Have you come across James Larson's comments on ToB and the liturgy? He doesn't pull any punches: 'ToB can only gain access and achieve acceptance where there has occured an emasculization of the male intellect and male spirituality.' Larson argues that this is exactly what has occurred in the liturgy since the reforms - his analysis of the 'emasculation' of the Mass does not make comfortable reading!

Generally speaking, he maintains that ToB inverts the hierarchy of human values, conflating or inverting primary (spiritual) ends with secondary (physical) ends: we should not 'identify the marriage act itself with the fullness of that ontological reality by which marriage images Christ's relationship to the Church. This 'image' is not to be found in the sexual act itself, but in the virtue of the fidelity between man and wife and in their bringing forth and rearing of children.' Thus he argues that the exaltation of, in particular, human sexuality into a means of mystical union with the divine confuses flesh with spirit, 'elevates sensual pleasure over the intellectual vision of Truth and Beauty, and denies the fundamental structure and responsibility of manhood'- back to the opening statement about emasculation.
What do you make of all that?