Monday, August 26, 2013

A Theology of the Face

Dawn Eden delivers a much needed "review" of Christopher West's work, even if they delayed running it for over a year.  One of the things she mentions in the review is how West's theology ignores entirely the importance of the face in John Paul II's writings.  This got me kinda thinking.  Might write something more formal on this now, but for the time being, here are a few notes:

1.)  Man is given life in his soul when God looks upon the face of Adam.  (Genesis 2:7)

2.)  Consequently, after the fall, the first thing man did was hide from God's face.  Just as important as realizing they were naked was the hiding of their face from God.  Up until that point, the race of man gazed upon God face to face.  (Genesis 3:8)

3.)  As Cain leaves with the mark for murdering Abel, he "went out from the face of the Lord, and dwelt as a fugitive on the earth."   (Genesis 4:6)

4.)  Jacob compares the companionship he now feels with his estranged brother Esau "as if I should have seen" the face of God.  (Genesis 33:10)  In other words, beholding God's face is the sign of a perfect communion.

5.)  To speak "face to face" in the Old Testament is merely an allegory for a deeply personal relationship.    (Exodus 33:11)  Like Moses, man longs to see the face of God.  (33:13)  Yet due to sin, we cannot see the face of God, but only "the back parts." (33:23)  A far better understanding of this is that on earth, man can only see God in a limited way.  Yet even this limitation has a profound impact on Moses life.  (His face shines bright.)

6.)  In his first sermon, Peter uses as proof of Christ's ultimate dominion over all in that he not only sits at the right hand of the Father, but that He looks upon the Father face to face.  A mere descendant of Adam cannot do this.  (Acts 2:25)

7.)  St. Paul describes the height of spiritual maturity as the day when he sees God face to face. (1 Cor 13:12)

8.)  Just as with the Churches John writes to, "that your joy may be complete", God will speak to man face to face in the end.  (Revelation 22:4)

9.)  St. John of the Cross describes this meeting face to face as such:

 I stayed there to forget.
There on my lover, face to face, I lay.
All ended, and I let
My cares all fall away

Forgotten in the lilies on that day.
In other words, when Christ and Man gaze face to face, all of this world fades away, and the new eternity in heaven begins where Christ and the race of Man are Bridge and Bridegroom.   John Paul II teaches likewise when he states that celibacy for the sake of the kingdom signifies something:

In him there will be revealed, I would say, the absolute and eternal nuptial meaning of the glorified body in union with God himself through the "face to face" vision of him, and glorified also through the union of a perfect intersubjectivity. This will unite all who participate in the other world, men and women, in the mystery of the communion of saints.
 10.)  As a sign of this reality on earth, during the sacrament of matrimony, the Bridegroom pulls back the veil of the bride, as a sign that he can now look upon her as she was meant to be, pure and spotless.  That husband and wife are now meant to have that communion we strive for with God (at least on a human level), and that this will even be a path by which we arrive to that moment with God!

John Paul II did his doctoral thesis on St. John of the Cross, and his Wednesday audiences were primarily a philosophical exegesis of the first few chapters of Genesis, where the emphasis of the face is at its strongest.  In other words, maybe there is something to the claim.  Maybe all the focus on nudity (to the point where we it is imperative to portray Mary as big chested) misses the point not just of the Wednesday audiences, but of the Gospel entirely.

There is really something to mine here for material, and hopefully someone more talented than myself does it.


  1. Kevin this is TREMENDOUS! KEEP IT UP... surely you are Ph.D.! Awesome and thank you for the needed charge! God bless you! HURRAY for men who tell the Story and keep us in it!

  2. Thanks for the kind remarks, but no degrees after the name. I'm just some scrub who likes his Old Testament, and finds it interesting that in this entire debate, few if anyone are appealing to the Scriptures much if at all.

    If we were doing this, it would be a lot tougher for West and company to make a lot of the claims they do, and his critics would be on far better footing.

  3. Great sum up. And great title. Well done.

  4. (Deacon JR said:) I see two significant problems:

    1. JPII doesn't seem to mention or at least reflect deeply on the "face" (as opposed to the body)in the TOB corpus, despite what is claimed in the "Inside the Vatican" piece. At least not that I've discovered. He addresses the beatific vision and seeing God "face to face", but I don't think the human "face" looms large at *all* in the TOB corpus. Does anyone have any TOB quotes that I may have missed, in which JPII talks about the human "face"?

    2. To claim that West "ignores entirely the importance of the face in John Paul II's writings" is demonstrably false on its...face. In fact, in West's "Theology of the Body Explained," he directly addresses the TOB passages in which JPII discusses the beatific vision and being "face to face" with God. He covers JPII's TOB references precisely to the same extent that JPII refers to "face to face". If anyone wants page numbers and quotes, let me know...

    Thanks, Deacon JR

  5. I'm really confused by this comment, and honestly Jim, I feel it's another case of you showing your bias and really missing the point. I was going to give a huge unpacking of the idea, but really, all we have to do is mention the original work.

    Whenever JPII talks about the nuptial meaning of the glorified body, he does so in terms of "Face to Face" which is speaking in the words of one of his philosophical predecessors who built an entire wing of philosophy on the concept as you see in Crossing the Threshold of Hope.

    Or if you prefer a bit wonkier:

    "Nowhere in At the Heart of the Gospel does West mention the importance of the face for John Paul II—yet it is central to the theology of the late Pope. In his Catecheses on Human Love, every time John Paul speaks of the nuptial meaning of the glorified body in union with God, he always describes this union in the scriptural phrase “face to face” (Ex 33:11, I Cor 13:11). In that phrase, he finds the biblical foundation for his personalistic understanding of communion—an understanding inspired in part by Emmanuel Levinas’s “philosophy of the face” (see John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, 210)."

    Whether or not it is mentioned in TOB Explained (and it is, but really, West only scratches the surface and doesn't realize what it really means), is kinda irrelevant, since the quote was about his latest book, as it was a review of his latest book that ran as a print edition but was just now loaded online.

    As far as the idea the face doesn't loom large at all in the corpus..... welcome to the entire reason I'm writing this series. Most of the pop evangelists of the text (such as yourself) read it in a vacuum, and as a result, come up with ideas that are questionable at best. Much of the stuff on "face to face" comes from the sources John Paul II used, not just in philosophy, but in Sacred Scripture and the Fathers. Really, if one wants to know where I got a lot of this understanding, one can just read the Hexameron of Sts. Basil the Great and Ambrose. (Each wrote their own.) When you bring the totality of the Catholic Faith together, there's actually some really cool things you see from the Wednesday audiences. The only problem is, you have to realize that Catholic teaching began before 1979 on this subject.

  6. I'm pretty sure it doesn't count as bias to point out that singling out Christopher West for passing criticisms about what he does *not* say (when at the same time you freely admit that *no one* is saying or really has said the stuff you want to explore about the "face" of the "body") is really what counts as "bias". Think about it--why don't you point out that *other* TOB presenters don't talk about the "face" in the way you suggest it should be talked about?

    I mean, you do admit that West addresses the "face to face" content found in TOB precisely in the same proportion that JPII offers it. I merely count the passing references to West in this post as unsubstantiated criticisms of someone you are intentionally singling out for special attention.

    Saying so isn't somehow missing your larger point, either--I understand and affirm whatever thematic exploration you wish to do of "face" theology. But in your post your launching point is the flawed assessment of an Inside the Vatican article about a book that was *never* intended to cover the material you're thinking about covering in future. Truth is, West covered the "theology of the face" to exactly the same extent that JPII did in his TOB corpus. Is there more to say about the "face"? Sure, and I'd enjoy seeing your continued exploration of that.

  7. Again, you are really missing the point because you are coming to this discussion looking to slay some dragon when that really isn't called for. I never said "no one" is saying the stuff I wanted to explore. Dr. David Schindler touched on this in the past, and obviously Miss Eden did as well. This isn't something we are pulling out of thin air. Like the lack of a Marian aspect to their teaching, pop TOB evangelists really lack a proper understanding of what the face means to JPII's theology. So even those few instances he does use it, it actually means something incredibly profound, that said pop evangelists barely comprehend because they don't do the requisite study, but instead read the pontiffs works as if you shouldn't read anything else.

    West was mentioned only in passing in the beginning, since I clearly said I was going off on my own thing. When I write, there is a reason I use the phrase "Pop TOB Evangelists" as a point of emphasizing that this is a lot more than just Christopher West. You've read the Catholic Exchange works I've done. I don't just single out West for criticism. And one can see here on my writings in the past, I criticize those i agree with as well. Most of the people who read these works understand that. Give it a shot. ;)

  8. Why? Why label people who are fellow workers in the vineyard as "pop TOB Evangelists," as though you really are in a position to judge who is an "authentic" TOB presenter and who is not?

    Why not just drop it altogether and let your work stand on its own merit without reference to the work of others?

    My whole point is in fact that what you mention "in passing" about the work of others is opinion, not fact. But you express it as though it were fact. And in doing so you malign the reputations of fellow Catholics instead of concentrating on contributing *your* unique voice to the TOB movement. West and others are in many cases pioneers as well as unique voices with unique gifts. You don't need to continue taking shots at these folks.


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