Thursday, September 2, 2010

Christopher West, TOB, and the Limits of Analogies

When discussion comes up about Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, the name of Christopher West draws equal praise and criticism. For those of his critics, there tends to be one unifying thing. In their view, Mr. West does a very bad job (one could almost say sloppy) of choosing his words. He ends up saying things that, when taken to their logical conclusion, would make even Mr. West recoil in horror.

His supporters may acknowledge it, but feel critics are being uncharitable. “Certainly nobody speaks perfectly at all times!” “We must allow a certain license since he is speaking primarily to the so called un-churched, who have no understanding on the teachings of sexuality provided by the Catholic Church.” While both these statements are true, I personally believe they can only go so far. Far from precision being less important, it is all the more important when speaking to an audience that has little understanding of the truth. I would like to point out one I believe prominent example of this. First however, I would like to use an analogy myself.

During a recent bout of unemployment, I was given a temporary job at a warehouse. In addition to doing your normal stock work, the president of the company wanted me to provide technical instruction to the workers on how to use certain warehouse processes and computer applications. Two of these workers never used a computer in their lives, being over fifty years old. (The old saying, you cannot teach an old dog a new trick.) In providing the documentation, I had to explain how to use these systems. At this point, precision was required. If I didn’t state things exactly like they were, they wouldn’t know what to do. They did not have the technical know how to navigate menus, enter commands, shortcuts, and eventually arrive at the solution.

I would argue that this situation is analogous. Many people who hear Mr. West speak don’t have an advanced understanding of purity, modesty, chastity, etc. They don’t know of the powerful benefits the sacraments provide in combating these difficulties. One with that understanding will see some things and say “He may not have worded it right, but I get what he is saying.” One not so versed won’t look for that nuance. They will take it at face value, even more because a charismatic speaker delivered the statement with eloquence.

Some will look at the example I am about to cite as nitpicking. For reasons I hope to make clear, it is anything but. In an online column at his website, Mr. West states the following:

The Song of Songs teaches us – as does the spousal imagery throughout all of Scripture – that God wants to "marry" us. Furthermore, through this mystical marriage, the divine Bridegroom wants to fill us, "impregnate" us with divine life. In the Virgin Mary, this becomes a living reality. And this, as the Catechism says, is why "Mary goes before us all in the holiness that is the Church’s mystery as ‘the bride without spot or wrinkle’"

With great reverence and a kind of "holy daring," St. Louis de Montfort unabashedly presents the spiritual mystery revealed to us through the Virgin Mary’s feminine body. If we don’t share his comfort – indeed, many find themselves decidedly uncomfortable in the face of such a treatment of the Virgin Mary – we would do well to examine the source of such discomfort. It is much easier to eschew the body (our own body, Jesus’s body, Mary’s body) than it is to face the disorders in our hearts that cause us to eschew the body.
I take objection to the phrase “impregnate.” To the uneducated, this could sound very close to the idea that the Third Person of the Trinity had a sexual relationship with the Blessed Virgin Mary. This is blasphemy. To a pious Jew, this statement would be revolting. Why is that so? Jewish commentator Dennis Prager gives the reason in his seminal work on why Judaism (and Christianity) introduced a truly “revolutionary” understanding about sexuality compared to that of the world:

Thus, the first thing Judaism did was to de-sexualize God: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" by his will, not through any sexual behavior. This was an utterly radical break with all other religions, and it alone changed human history. The gods of virtually all civilizations engaged in sexual relations. In the Near East, the Babylonian god Ishtar seduced a man, Gilgamesh, the Babylonian hero. In Egyptian religion, the god Osiris had sexual relations with his sister, the goddess Isis, and she conceived the god Horus. In Canaan, El, the chief god, had sex with Asherah. In Hindu belief, the god Krishna was sexually active, having had many wives and pursuing Radha; the god Samba, son of Krishna, seduced mortal women and men. In Greek beliefs, Zeus married Hera, chased women, abducted the beautiful young male, Ganymede, and masturbated at other times; Poseidon married Amphitrite, pursued Demeter, and raped Tantalus. In Rome, the gods sexually pursued both men and women.
To imply such a union is to say that Christianity is no different from the other world religions, especially in manners of sexuality. It ultimately ascribes to the Creator a created status. Created beings have sex drives. The Deity (in Judeo-Christian understanding) does not. In a culture which views everything through the prism of sex, should we really be using such terminology?

Now there are those who will reply “yet this was only in a mystical manner!” I would reply that by its very nature as a mystical manner, impregnate would be disqualified. The church does not say in the Credo that the coming of Christ came about by Mary being “impregnated by the Holy Spirit” but rather that Christ was “incarnate by the power of the Holy Spirit.” The Incarnation above all is something that cannot be described by human understandings or concepts. Christ was incarnated in the womb of the Blessed Virgin “not of blood, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but God.” While this in a sense describes how we become sons of God (through God’s saving power alone), this also describes ultimately how the Incarnation occurs. It did not occur through a sexual action, or even the desire of men. While the Blessed amongst women consented to the Incarnation, she could not will it to occur. In short, we are dealing with a mystery so high above human understanding, in the words of Dr. Alive VonHildebrand “Silent Adoration is the only acceptable response.”

I believe this is established when one looks at the Scriptures themselves. During the Annunciation, the Archangel Gabriel announces that Mary will have a son named Jesus, and that this will occur in the Incarnation. When Mary wonders how this could be (since she was a virgin), Gabriel replies:

The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.
To an observant Jew, the phrase “overshadow” would have been unmistakable. The last time they knew of the Power of God “overshadowing” anything was when the shekinah cloud of the Lord appeared over the Israelites during their Exodus from Egypt. That cloud also overshadowed the temple, and was God’s sign to man of His presence. The word used in the Greek for overshadow is episkiazō. The term appears 5 times in the New Testament. In the first 3, it describes the cloud that overshadows Peter, James and John during the Transfiguration. In the other instance, it describes Peter’s shadow “falling upon” the sick, that they may be cured. Nothing sexual here, move along.

For some, it is the phrase “The Holy Spirit shall come upon” that denotes sexuality and “impregnating”. The Greek verb used here is eperchomai. This occurs 9 times in the New Testament. In direct conjunction with the power of the Holy Spirit, it is used only one other time, in the book of Acts, when Christ promises the power of the Holy Spirit will come upon the Apostles, which will begin their mission of preaching the Gospel to the entire world. Once again, there is absolutely nothing sexual about this, nor is “impregnation” implied. Unless Mr. West wants to state that the Holy Spirit also “impregnated” the Apostles!

Even with this evidence considered, there will be those who protest “Yet how else can we explain how Christ was found within the womb of the Blessed amongst women?” The simple truth is we cannot. This is an event so beyond human comprehension it can only be accepted by faith. We can understand the Incarnation. We can understand that through Divine Intervention, Mary had a son whose name was Jesus. What we cannot do is comprehend it. There are always these sort of things within Divine Revelation. Many times, attempts to “comprehend” the deepest mysteries of God lead to heresy. The Arians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Sabellians, all these heretics did their best to “comprehend” in a natural way, with reason and human example, the mystery that is the Holy Trinity. Many of them were no doubt well intentioned in doing so. With good reason did the Apostle Luke (himself a physician who certainly would’ve been able to speak of “impregnate” in a different manner if that is what indeed occurred) simply quote the words of the Archangel Gabriel and leave it at that. For the most consequential event in salvation history, St. Luke spends very little time explaining or discussing it. I think there’s a reason for that, one which people would be wise to heed.

Mr. West and his defenders believe that we object to this kind of imagery or language because of "doubts about our own bodies."  To this I can simply reply we object because the usage of such language and imagery is simply wrong. 


  1. Why is the focus upon the human body?

  2. Hi Kev,

    When it comes to West and others "fixation" with the body, I can understand what they are doing to a degree.

    They want to point out the fact that the human body is good, is not "depraved", irredeemably corrupted, etc. They also want to show that contrary to the culture which views the body as something that exists for the fulfillment of their own pleasures (whether through themselves or viewing others in that prism), we are meant to be servants, and use every facet of our bodies as a gift.

    Yet sometimes, they try to force this in where I believe it just doesn't really belong. especially when the topic of nudity is brought up. West constantly talks about how Adam was amazed at "Eve's naked body." While technically true from an observatory standpoint, is this what is going on operationally? I.e., was Adam really making the distinction, before original sin, of an unclothed versus clothed Eve? I think Scripture would argue against that, since the introduction of clothing comes as a result of shame (both positive and negative), which comes about as a result of sin. So West is just engaging in simple anachronism here, because he has, in my view, a fixation on sexuality, and introduces it into areas of religion where it really wasn't meant to be. The fact that he uses careless analogies makes it even more troublesome.

    The same goes with the quote from St. DeMonfort. He wasn't concerned with "Mary's Body" when talking about the joy that is the Hail Mary, and the power behind such a prayer. Yes, Mary had a body, Mary was human, but not everything is an anthropological exegesis on the human body. He takes the true statement of John Paul II (that only the human body in the experience of us makes visible that which is invisible, something which is pretty much true), and interprets that to mean everything must be made through an exgesis in anthropology on the body. by trying to force his views where they just weren't being conceived of, he winds himself into all kinds of trouble.


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