Friday, April 21, 2006

Theology of the Body

Luke Timothy Johnson is the author of The Writings of the New Testament: An Interpretation, which is the primary New Testamant commentary that we are using in our New Testament course. It was chosen because, generally, Johnson is a very reliable source in the field. He firmly believes in the historical reliability of the Gospels (having written, among other things, The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospels - a rebuttal to the work of the Jesus Seminar). He is also a firm proponent of the position that Paul wrote (or at minimum supervised the writing of) all of the Pauline epistles, a point which is much debated among scripture scholars today.

At any rate, as the book was being introduced to us at the beginning of the semester, it came with a big disclaimer from the professor, which basically said: "He's good with the scripture and all, but outside that realm he's got a few funny ideas. He even wrote an article attacking John Paul II's Theology of the Body once."

Purely by chance, I just happened to run across that very article. It definitely is bizarre for someone so thoroughly reliable on scripture to nonetheless be unsympathetic to, and even almost hostile to, the thoughts of John Paul II. Yet here it is: A Disembodied ’Theology of the Body’: John Paul II on love, sex & pleasure.

Some of his points are well taken (i.e. how can it be called a "Theology of the Body" when it mostly is a theology of sexuality and doesn't speak to many other elements of embodiment? such as: eating, feeling, etc.). Yet at other moments I found myself wondering, "Is he talking about the same John Paul II that we all know, or some other fictional one?" For example, Johnson is of the impression that John Paul II:
"thinks of himself as doing 'phenomenology,' but seems never to look at actual human experience. Instead, he dwells on the nuances of words in biblical narratives and declarations, while fantasizing an ethereal and all-encompassing mode of mutual self-donation between man and woman that lacks any of the messy, clumsy, awkward, charming, casual, and, yes, silly aspects of love in the flesh. Carnality, it is good to remember, is at least as much a matter of humor as of solemnity. In the pope’s formulations, human sexuality is observed by telescope from a distant planet. Solemn pronouncements are made on the basis of textual exegesis rather than living experience."
I suppose it could reasonably be asserted that, at least with regard to the content in the specific addresses that came to be known as the "Theology of the Body", John Paul II was a little bit academic and didn't address the topic as much from the perspective of actual lived experience. But certainly John Paul II's understanding of human experience from his many years of being a pastor must have been part of the driving force behind his teaching. I'm reminded of the following quotes from George Weigel's Witness to Tope:
Wujek [JPII's nickname when he was young] taught his young couples that the sexual expression of their love within the bond of marriage was a beautiful thing, a holy thing, even an image of God. At the same time, he had a very high view of marriage, formed in conversation with "serious people, who gave themselves time to think."
In working with his young couples, Father Wojtyla didn't shy away from certain topics as unbefitting a priest's attention. In a retreat for students a few years after beginning the marriage preparation program, he would tell them, "The sexual drive is a gift from God... He may offer it to another human being with the knowledge that he is offering it to a person... In twenty-eight months at St. Florian's, Fathoer Karol Wojtyla blessed 160 marriages, an average of more than one each week. His intense conversations with engaged couples left a lasting imprint.
And remember, this is the same Karol Wojtyla who, on page 272 of his book Love and Responsibility committed some verbage to a discussion of how the union between husband and wife must strive to be, to the fullest extent possible, equally pleasurable for both partners, and not just for one. You can read the text of this section here. If he doesn't have a good grasp of sexuality as lived in actual couples' lives, I don't know who does.

Of course, continuing to read further in Johnson's article finally gets one to the heart of the matter. It's not just John Paul II's Theology of the Body that he objects to, it's the Church's teaching in general. Johnson is a dissenter from Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the immorality of contraception. And thus provides the motive which underlies his critique of John Paul II.

So, the disclaimer given to us at the beginning of the semester now makes sense. As Paul Harvey would say: Now I know... the rest of the story...


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