Recently, while I was discussing the beautiful teaching of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body” on the radio show “Catholic Answers Live,” someone unfamiliar with this teaching called in and asked me to explain what makes the body theological.
“Theology,” he observed, “is the study of God. How can our bodies be a study of God?” Good question. When we hear the word “theology,” “body” is not the first word that comes to mind.
God is pure spirit; our bodies are so “carnal.” God is so heavenly; our bodies are so “earthly.” God is all beautiful; and our bodies . . . well, they are not always so beautiful. Even a supermodel’s body will smell bad by the end of the day if she hasn’t masked her odoriferousness with deodorant.
When people hear that phrase for the first time — “theology of the body” — it almost seems like an oxymoron, like the artificial linking of two realms that have no business together. Give it some thought: such a reaction only demonstrates how far many of us have drifted from an authentic Christian worldview. Have we forgotten about the Incarnation?
As John Paul II said in his general audience of April 2, 1980: “Through the fact that the Word of God became flesh the body entered theology . . . through the main door.” Because of the Incarnation, St. John can proclaim it is that “which we have heard,” that “which we have seen with our eyes,” that “which we have touched with our hands” that we proclaim to you concerning the Word of life (1 Jn 1-3). And that life was made visible.
We cannot see God; he is pure spirit. But the stupendous mystery of Christianity is that God “has made himself visible in the flesh” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1159). Elsewhere, quoting from the church’s liturgy, the Catechism teaches that “in the body of Jesus ‘we see our God made visible and so are caught up in love of the God we cannot see’” (no. 477).
God has chosen to reveal his deepest mystery through the human body, through the body of his Son who, in the fullness of time, was born of a woman. The Catholic Church remains forever immersed in wonder at this mystery, honoring and praising the womb that bore him and the breasts he sucked (Lk 11:27).
Theology of the body, then, is not only the title of a long series of talks on sex that John Paul II gave the Church. Theology of the body is the very “logic” of Christianity. It is also the particular scandal of Christianity.
In Christ “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col 2:9). The implications of this never fail to confound the human heart. If God himself took on a body, this would imply not only a blessing of the highest degree upon the whole physical world; it would also imply in some sense the “making divine” (theologians would say the “divinization”) of human flesh. This may seem like too much to accept. A phantom deity is much more tenable and, let’s be honest, much more becoming than a God who wore diapers.
Christians are those who have faced squarely the scandal of an incarnate God and proclaim: “I believe” (from the Credo). So, in answer to my caller’s question, it is Christ’s body, above all, that makes the body “theological.” Christ’s body conceived of a virgin, born in a stable in Bethlehem, circumcised on the eighth day, raised by Mary and Joseph, baptized in the Jordan River, transfigured on the mountain, “given up for us” in his passion and death, risen in glory, ascended to the Father and participating eternally in the life of the Trinity — the story of this body is the focal point of all Christian theology.
And everybody that comes into the world is invited to share in this mystery by becoming “one body,” one spirit with Christ. This is the deepest meaning of our creation as sexually embodied persons — we are destined for union with the God who, himself, has taken on a body. For the body is meant for the Lord, and the Lord is meant for the body (1 Cor 6:13).
CHRISTOPHER WEST is a best-selling author, educator and theologian recognized around the world for promoting an integral, biblical vision of human life, love and sexuality. He serves as a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Institute near Philadelphia and is the founder of The Cor Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to cultural renewal through John Paul II’s Theology of the Body.
This article was first published as part of Christopher West’s syndicated column on April 7, 2006 (CO Catholic Herald syndicate). For media inquiries, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.