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Mary Shivanandan

FAQ of Theology of the Body

by Dr Mary Shivanandan

I have heard it said that theologians have always accepted that the body is part of the person but could not explain it very well. What methods were used to explain that the body is part of the person before JPII and what were their limitations?

It must be kept in mind in discussing the Christian view of the body as part of the person, that it developed as an integration of two different anthropologies or views of the nature of Man.  One was based on God’s revelation and the other on Greek philosophical concepts, faith and reason respectively.  First and foremost, in the biblical view, the person is created as a living being.  Biblical thought does not conceive of the soul and body as separate. The human being, moreover, is always in relation with himself, the world, other human beings, and God.   Even in the shadowy world of Sheol after death the attenuated body has a place.  By contrast the Greek philosopher, Plato, posited a radical otherness between the world of sense and the invisible world of ideas.  Indeed, matter participated in various degrees in the abstract ideas of goodness, truth, and beauty, but the goal was to flee the decaying world of the body.   Aristotle, on the other hand proposed that the soul is the form of matter, a much more affirming view of the material world.

It was the Aristotelian view that predominated in the development of Christian thought, especially in Thomas Aquinas.  At the same time Aquinas adopted from Augustine Plato’s idea of participation, that all creation participates in the being, goodness, truth and beauty of God.  Boethius following Aristotle defined man as “individual substance of a rational nature” (naturae rationalis individua substantia) .   Now the problem with this definition is that “substance” or supposit refers to an existent being in reference to itself.  The sense of relation to God, the world,  and other human beings is obscured.  The definition of Richard St. Victor in discussing the divine persons “an incommunicable existence in a divine nature” (naturae divinae incommunicabilis existentia) brought forward a more spiritual definition but Boethius’ formula remained the preferred definition for the human person even in Thomas.

Why did this definition eventually prove inadequate?

Substance came to be identified, not with the entirety of the human being as the body in union with the soul, but the body as set over against the soul, and isolated in itself, a distinctly non-biblical view.  Francis Bacon, an originator of the scientific method, prescinded the body and matter from God as Creator and Revealer.  Instead of seeing each created thing as participating in God’s creative act with intrinsic value ordered to its fulfillment in relation, matter became a “given, ”  a “substratum” that could be measured and manipulated by mathematical formula.    The criterion of truth became physical evidence, not faith in a personal God as Creator and reason participating in divine truth and conformed to the intelligibility in things.  This brought about a tremendous mastery over the physical world but since physical evidence deceives, eventually a more secure mode of certainty as a criterion of truth was sought.  At the same time in scientific materialism the interiority of the human person is reduced to insignificance.  Enter Descartes with his philosophy of doubt about the external world and his turn to an interior source of certainty, cogito ergo sum (I think therefore I am).  It is now man who imposes truth on the external world through his own mind.  Matter is res extensa, completely cut off from the invisible realm of the spirit.  Such a development of Western thought on the body and matter, very briefly sketched, was hostile to the Christian view, central to which are the Incarnation and the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

What advantages has the Theology of the Body to explain the body as part of the person?

John Paul II bases his reflections on marriage and sexuality on texts from Scripture, beginning with the creation of man and woman in Genesis.  In other words he returns to a biblical view of the body and soul but without diminishing in any way the metaphysics of Aquinas. Not only does he return to a biblical view but he greatly expands our understanding of the body as expressing the person made in the image of God.  The body in some way images the Creator.  He goes further, the body in its masculinity and femininity is ordered to love and communion so that the love between a man and a woman in original innocence actually imaged the total self-giving love of the divine persons of the Trinity.  It is the body alone that makes visible divine realities.  Christ in the union of his divine and human natures is not the “ontological exception” but the fullness of what it is to be human, body and soul.  As Gaudium et Spes, no. 22,  says “Christ, the final Adam by the revelation of the mystery of the Father and His love, fully reveals man to man himself and makes his supreme calling clear.”

This is the real challenge of Christianity.  It is the reason the Greek philosophers on the Areopagus rejected Paul when he spoke of the resurrection of the dead.  It is the reason many Christians through the centuries have rejected the radical teaching of John 6 on the Eucharist.  To start from this premise sheds a whole new light on the relations between Man and God, men and women, marriage and consecrated celibacy.

What are some key insights of John Paul II?

The idea of interpreting the human person as a gift ordered to self giving is an essential concept.  John Paul II calls this the “hermeneutics of the gift.”  God created the world out of nothing.  He did not have to create it.   The human person, the highest point of creation, is the fruit and image of God as a Person and a communion of Persons.    It is the body that makes visible the spiritual and divine.  Not only, says John Paul II,  does the body make visible the spiritual attributes of the person as one who has the capacity to know and love freely, but even more in its masculinity and femininity, gender, the body makes visible its ordering to total self-giving love in the manner of the divine Trinitarian Persons.

Gender then is central to a Christian anthropology not just a social construction? 

John Paul II takes Genesis 3:18, “It is not good that man (male) should be alone.  I will make a helper fit for him” as a starting point for his whole discussion of the meaning of gender.  The fact that Adam was created alone, he calls “original solitude,” referring to the original nature of Man in the Garden of Eden.  He was created as a person, with intellect and will, with a body that expresses who he is as a spiritual being different from the animals and in a unique relationship with God.  “Partner of the Absolute” is the phrase the pope uses since Man has been given the power to determine his own destiny.  All these gifts, God saw were good but not enough.  “It is not good that man should be alone.”  So, God creates Eve out of Adam’s rib, which indicates she shares the same humanity, the same attributes of being a person in original solitude.  Yet Eve is different.   Eve is a different manifestation of the same humanity.  And that difference is not just superficial but belongs to her very way of being a person.  This is called asymmetrical difference. 

Why asymmetrical difference? 

In any giving and receiving of love, the integrity of the person must be preserved.  This means that the man can never dominate the woman or use her for his own selfish ends.  He must always receive her in her femininity as a gift from the hand of God, just as he received his own being from God.  Only in this way can man and woman enjoy the fullness of communion and image divine Trinitarian union.  The difference, which can never be overcome but only shared, must always be honored.  It is this communion of complete self-giving that constitutes original happiness.

Man and woman were created for love.  There must be one who first loves and one who receives love.    In the one flesh union of man and woman the fruit is first of all the bond of love and then the child.  It is this very way of being a masculine or feminine person, expressed in the body,  that enables the love to be fruitful.  The fruit is also spiritual in the education of the child.

The kind of communion you are talking about seems rare if not impossible in today’s world.

John Paul II would say that it is difficult but not impossible.  Indeed when Adam and Eve sinned by eating the fruit of the tree of good and evil,  its first and most devastating effects, after the rupture with God, penetrated their communion.  They could no longer receive each other as a gift.  The other became an object of use and manipulation.  The Church has always taught that, even though human nature was damaged by original sin, its underlying goodness remained.  This is a very important part of John Paul II’s catechesis, the recognition that there is a continuity as well as a discontinuity between the graced state of original innocence and the historical state of sin.  In fact the experience of shame in some way links the two.  When man and woman feel shame before one another’s nakedness, it reveals to them that something has been lost.  They instinctively protect their vulnerability from the other out of fear of exploitation.  Nakedness is significant not just in the physical arena.  It comprises the whole area of psychological and spiritual relations between men and women.  Chastity , either in the single or married state, is the virtue that protects the integrity of the person.  It is intimately linked to self-mastery and is essential for the “freedom of the gift.”

If human nature was so grievously damaged by original sin, how can communion be restored?

Christ came in the flesh to restore Man’s dignity.  Taking on a human body in the Incarnation, Christ raised the human body to a new level.  In the catechesis, John Paul II shows how redemption through Christ has real power to restore the human person, body and soul, so that once again the body can express total self-giving love between man and woman.  Now there is a new way of living the meaning of the body as gift in consecrated celibacy, when the total gift of self is given to God alone.  Such a way of life points to the resurrected state where there will be no marrying or giving in marriage but all will be absorbed in God in a virginal way.  The total transformation into a spiritual body will bring about a perfect “intersubjectivity” or communion between persons.

You have called your study guide A New Language, why is that?

John Paul II has always recognized the importance of language.  It frames not only our way of thinking but our behavior.  When we speak of fornication, we are reminded that sex before marriage is disordered.  The sociologists knew this so deliberately changed the language to premarital sex which makes it sound benign.  John Paul II has not only restored biblical language for speaking about sexuality but brings out the full meaning of the spousal language in Sacred Scripture, that reveals the nature of God’s incomparable love for his people.  The Old Testament equates  the idolatry of the Israelites to adultery.  The body itself, says John Paul II speaks a language of which it is not the author.   In its actions it speaks on behalf of the person, as it were truth or untruth.  When, for example, a couple engages in sex outside marriage, the body speaks the language of total commitment but the man and woman falsify that language by not making the total commitment that can only be expressed in the indissolubility of marriage.  It is the same with contraception.   When the couple withhold the gift of fertility, their union is not total.

What place does passion have in the theology of the body?

John Paul II views eros, which strives to possess the good, the true and the beautiful, as a powerful force for the goodness of unionHe interprets the Song of Songs not as a spiritual allegory but the love of man and woman as it would have been in the Garden of Eden.  In the first English translations several of the more erotic verses were left out.  These have been restored in the fine new translation by Michael Waldstein.  Far from being suspicious of eros, John Paul II sees it as an essential ingredient of spousal love.   When it is integrated with the love that desires only the good of the other it is purified and contributes greatly to total self-gift.   Pope Benedict XVI has developed these insights in his encyclical, Deus caritas est, seeing eros even in God’s passionate love for us.

I have heard the phrase “the sacramentality of the body.”   What does it mean?

John Paul II speaks of a general sacramentality of the material world, which makes visible the goodness of God in creation.  The body participates in that.  We are more familiar with the seven sacraments, of which marriage is one.  In his comments on the Passage in Ephesians 5:21-33 on marriage as an image of Christ’s union with the Church, his bride, John Paul II offers a rich reflection on general sacramentality as well as the seven sacraments including marriage.

In a short interview it is not possible to bring out all the wealth of wisdom and insight John Paul II brings us in his Catechesis on the theology of the body.  I have touched on only a few of the highlights. It is well worth spending the time to study it in depth.

How  can I learn about John Paul II’s theology of the body?

A study guide on the theology of the body, called A New Language, has been developed by an organization appropriately called Imago Dei (image of God) in the United States.  It comprises 24 group study sessions of 90 minutes each and covers the whole of the theology of the body.  Since the text of the pope’s own Catechesis is dense, the study guide uses excerpts from Dr. Mary Shivanandan’s book, Crossing the Threshold of Love: a New Vision of Marriage in the Light of John Paul II’s Anthropology.  The study is designed as an encounter of the participants with the theological concepts presented by the pope and makes full use of his emphasis on “lived experience.”  The truth lies in the heart of every human being, made in God’s image.  It resonates with the shared experience of those present. 

A major feature of A New Language is that the leader or facilitator of the group does not need to be a theologian.  With the pope’s own reflections, Dr. Shivanandan’s text, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the facilitator is well provided with authoritative sources.  A one-day formation is given to facilitators and a mentor assigned to help when needed.  The sessions take place in a spirit of prayer with time for silent reflection on a relevant Scripture passage.  Every facilitator must be committed to the Magisterium of the Church. 

What do the participants in the New Language Study Guide say of the experience?

  • "It was hands on for me!"

  • "The most beneficial aspect of Season One was the reflection on gift because those who don’t receive you as a gift probably do not realize they are a gift.

  • "It’s been some time since I’ve taken part in a discussion series, and this was by far the best."

  • "It gave me a new dimension and reverence for Genesis.

  • "It was a refreshing look at marriage and parenthood which offsets the non-Christian view so prevalent in our culture today.

  • "It was beautiful to speak of it as learning a new language—how true!

  • "Thank you so much. This was so wonderful, and I am excited to start a group at our parish next Fall.

  • "I think it is a great eye opener & I wish I would have had these teachings when I was younger.

  • "Overall, I think A New Language has done a nice job in helping to both stimulate thought and ponder personal experience with regard to Catholic sexual ethics & the theology of the body, & I hope & pray for continued success.

  • "To understand what it truly means to stand before God as a man knowing his own dignity and a woman in all her dignity and what that means in marriage or as a single person could only improve mankind in this time in history. It is so needed now.

  • "A thorough & rich understanding, a complete context, for traditional Catholic teaching.

  • "…The radical way of re-visioning this truth for the contemporary world & beyond is the best aspect of this approach to the theology of the body.

  • " …Philosophical & theological background in digestible form and understandable.

What about the facilitators?

Sharon Iler, a facilitator in Florida says:

The beautiful truths that unfold in the New Language study of Pope John Paul II’s catechesis are resonating here in west central Florida. I began facilitating in 2004 with a small group of six who still continue to meet every few weeks to share their evangelizing efforts. My parish is now listing the study series as one of its education ministries. Four new study groups have just formed and reaction is very positive. The study material is not an easy read but each participant’s careful reading and perseverance, combined with the group discussion, seem to clarify each concept. So far it has been our experience that anyone who is interested and willing to study will do well. Further, every person, regardless of background or life experience, enriches the group (a wonderful mix of backgrounds and ages: moms, dads, singles, priests, professionals, grandparents!). We all learn from each other!

Christianity surely needs new ways to convey old truths. May God continue to bless and spread this "new language", a grand tool for deeper understanding (and living) our humanity in all of its God-endowed splendor.

What do you see as the fruits of the Study Guide Experience?

We have seen many transformations.  Men and women, caught up in the anything-goes culture of the seventies and eighties, have turned their lives around.   Equipped with the language the pope provides, participants have gained the confidence to present the Church’s teaching on sexuality and the person as gift in their work places, their families and in the public forum.  On the Christendom-Awake site the article by Tara Seyfer and Dr. Travaline on medicine and the body originated in a study group led by Tara which Dr. Travaline attended.  Other participants have gone on to study at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family and other theological centers.  The program in Kansas City, Missouri, has been included in the diocesan efforts to counter pornography.   Many groups continue to meet and we are planning to provide additional dialogues on other Church teaching to nourish their faith.  They become small communities, islands of faith and hope in a desert of trivialized sex and the diminishment or destruction of the human person through abortion, euthanasia, same sex marriage, and reproductive technologies . 

Who can join a study group and where can I find one?

Study groups have been meeting in more than 22 US dioceses and in eight other countries, including London, England.   Groups include men and women, married, single, divorced and widowed, consecrated religious and priests, A  version for teens has just been completed.  A New Language has also been translated into Spanish and will shortly be available

For more information on how the program started, the complete first session and helpful resources , see the web site  www.imagodei-tob.org, or contact via e-mail, tobstudy@imagodei-tob.org.

Copyright ©; Mary Shivanandan 2008

This Version: 3rd June 2008

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