Friday, 17 June 2011

The 'why' of the TOB

It has been interesting watching the reaction buttons on my last post. Eight readers happen to think it was funny. I'm not sure exactly what was funny. Larson wasn't funny for a start.

I fear greatly that what was meant was that it was 'laughable', i.e., it's laughable to be talking about the body, especially in relation to theology. Larson himself seemed to take if not this point of view, then at least a dismissive point of view, considering the expression theology of the body as 'inappropriate pomposity'. Now, we can wonder what Larson thinks 'appropriate pomposity' would be, but that is tangential for now. I suppose I can only confront those amused by the notion of TOB by answering the question I left hanging at the end of an earlier post on this topic: what's the point of theology of the body?

Again, I come at this very much as a novice, simply asking the questions and trying to work out the terrain which has necessitated such study and provoked such debate. But I have to say that anything within Catholicism which reminds us of our embodied condition is worth considering. The nature of the human being is after all composite.

To consider this reality purely from the point of view of theological tradition is interesting. Doubts about the bodiliness of our condition can be found in some early Christological heresies. Doubts about the embodied character of our means of salvation are later found in doubts over the necessity of the sacraments. The incarnation too was one of those themes that became ever more prominent in late nineteenth-century theology, as historical criticism began to break down Protestant and then Catholic belief in the divinity of Christ. Speaking now as someone interested in France, I find divine poetry in the fact that Ernest Psichari, the grandson of Ernest Renan whose notorious Vie de Jésus was responsible for popularising a proto-modernist understanding of the Christ of History, would turn back to the Church at the same time as his good friend Charles Péguy who placed the incarnation at the heart of so much of his late work.

We can look back at other traditions within Catholicism which are equally proccupied with the body in ways that have the potential to surprise us. I remember coming across Saint Dominic's 'nine ways of prayer'. Instead of the complex psychological treatise which my formation in counter-reformation spirituality led me to expect - how to train the imagination, use the mind in prayer, elicit desires, move emotions - I found a list of bodily postures. Who would have thought that one of the masters of Catholic life in the Middle Ages would have left us such 'ways of prayer'. If we are surprised, it is indicative of how our thinking about spirituality and prayer has shifted locus, since the Cartesian revolution, from outward to inward. Of course, traces of this earlier dispensation remain within Catholicism until the present. Traditionalists often prefer to kneel when they are praying. Some other Catholics prefer to adopt the orans position with hands stretched out and palms facing upwards. To my mind, anything that casts our bodies in an attitude of prayer - rather than pretending that our souls are the ghosts in the machine - comes from a good instinct.

All this, it seems to me, can be linked to a theology of the body, i.e. how our bodies, as well as our souls, are intimately linked to the ecology of salvation.


The need for a theology of the body, which John Paul began to work out well before he came to Rome to be pope, seems to arise from several accidents of history. The first of these is the development in the social sciences in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, notably anthropology and semiotics. Anthropology, as I understand it, is the study of the species of homo sapiens, but it can also concern basic human production and those things that dominate the symbolic domain which each individual or community lives in. While this has no apparent theological significance, the fact that God became man - homo - and that the religion he founded is worked out in material conditions suggests that anthropology can serve theology in how theology thinks about man's return to God. After all, Saint Thomas used not only philosophy but also biology and astronomy in various questions of the Summa Theologica. All truth is of the Holy Ghost, as Saint Ambrose observes.

The other science to develop in the twentieth century and which is of importance here is semiotics, i.e. the study of how signs or symbols work. Our cultures are full of signs and symbols denoting directly, and connoting indirectly, meaning. The very work of our intellects is to make sense of the world around us. In other words, our minds' search for meaning is closely associated with the world's capacity to express meaning and purpose. The heavens proclaim the glory of God and our minds can embrace this meaning.

The second accident of history crucial to the development of the theology of the body - I say accident because everything in history depends on our free choices - was the collapse of sexual morality in the West. We can spend a long time going over this ground, but essentially what we have since the 1960s is a massive departure not only from the practice of a truly human sexuality (seen in various ways in previous centuries) but also from the understanding of human sexuality which is reduced for many to the level of a purely pleasurable pursuit, entirely unrelated to procreation and only incidentally related to personal relations.

Now, it is in these contexts - the development of the social sciences and the sexual revolution - that a thinking man like JPII begins working out ways in which the men of his time could be shown again the path towards a sexuality which is worthy of humanity and - at the same time and because God is the author of nature and grace - which is compatible with our call to salvation. In TOB, JPII appears to have set out to win the battle over the meaning of sexuality. If 'sex' has become the dominant theme of this theology, at least as it is popularly received, it is certainly in part because sex has become pathological in the liberal culture of death. But it is also because the division of genders and their orientation towards one another in creation are at the heart of all our bodiliness as designed by God; a bodiliness which is bound to the rational soul in a substance known as the human person. This is at least what a Christian anthropology, derived from revelation, would posit.

Another way of saying this is actually that the family, not the individual, is at the heart of Christian anthropology. Another way of saying this is that the Christian teachings on sexuality can only be supported and nourished by a better understanding of why God wants it this way.

In other words - and this, you'll be glad to know, is my last word on the matter since I am only learning about it myself - here is the importance of understanding what theology of the body terms the 'nuptial meaning' of the body. Nuptial must be understood not only in a univocal and concrete sense but also analogically. We are all, men and women, single and married, somehow shaped by this nuptial dynamic that belongs to us as embodied human persons. We must in some way give ourselves. Christianity completes that insight by telling us that we give ourselves to our sacramentally bonded spouse and children, or to others through our celibate service (singletons, priests or religious).

And that is, as I understand it, the why of the theology of the body. Laugh at it if you will.


Anagnostis said...

An excellent post, Ches. Thank you very much. Too much of Christianity is functionally Platonistic in this respect, I fear (is it too much of a stretch to see something of the sort in the sidelining of the Ascension, and in the "heresy of formlessness" generally?).

Our logiki latria - our "Logos-conformed" worship - is to glorify God in our bodies (!) according to St Paul.

Ches said...

Thanks! I shall be interested to see if as many people link to it as linked to my post on objections to TOB. Just for balance, you understand. Or am I being too optimistic?