If you have spent any time with Catholics, or Evangelicals who have become frustrated enough with a quasi-gnostic perspective to look outside their tradition, you have probably encountered John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, whether through reading his work itself, being exposed to populist and less nuanced versions of it, or in magazines such as Christianity Today. Personally, I have encountered all sorts of reactions to it; I have seen it help revive the faith of some, and I have also encountered some who are frustrated by dumbed down versions of it that don’t account for the nuance of John Paul’s work. Of course, there are also those who mistakenly think that the Theology of the Body is solely about a controlling sexual ethics, and they accordingly reject it. Whatever your position, I hope that what I write in the following paragraphs will convince you that it would be a good idea to read a new book by a longtime friend of mine, Leah Perrault – whether you are Catholic or Protestant, married or single, frustrated by populism or elated and waking up to the realization of possessing a physical body.
In my opinion, Leah’s book, Theology of the Body for Every Body, starts exactly where the Theology of the Body should start, and does start for John Paul II. That is, if we only start talking about TOB when we talk about sexuality and marriage, it is I think a sure sign that we have missed what it is about, and have already fallen into a cultural dualism that has come to view romance in near materialist terms and conversely given up on material and bodies in many other spheres of life. What Leah does is defer the discussion of sexuality to talk about all the other ways that people in all walks of life might learn to appreciate the “bodied-ness” that God has given them. In doing this, she implicitly recognizes one of the key insights we should take from TOB; the problem in some of our churches is not so much that we need to change the way we talk about sex, but rather that we need to start talking about (and doing) everything else in ways that are more than thin. Out of this will come changes in the way we think about sexuality, but we may also realize that there are other things in the world – and very embodied things at that – that matter besides sexuality.
One of the most welcome implications of Leah’s book is the way it decenters Christian discourse that conceives of life as meaningless without marriage or sex. There has been something of a crisis about this in Evangelical circles – what if those who save sex for marriage never in fact get married? (there are statistically three Evangelical women for every Evangelical man) – and thinkers in this area would do well to take a page from Leah’s discussion of John Paul II. She goes out of her way to offer examples of embodiment of people in all situations, not just marriage, and surely thinking about this is part of what we must do if we are to have a cogent understanding of Christianity that does not lean too heavily on marriage as the sole vehicle of meaning.
Another important thing about this book is that Leah does not think a Christianity informed by TOB will be a quick fix for the world. I must admit that, as someone who relates to God after the manner of St. John of the Cross, I sometimes worried that the book was at some points too optimistic (though conversely the book also challenged my own sinful proclivity toward cynicism), but by the end my fears were dispelled. In one of the most moving passages in the book, Leah describes her own Good-Friday reflection as she was going through a very difficult time in her life: “Jesus enters the tomb, and the wisdom of our tradition has us go there with him, every year, commemorating his suffering and death. God goes into the darkness and we can do nothing to change his circumstances. But we can go there with him and he with us. I thought of how supportive my family had been…They could not fix it, change it or take it away. They just surrounded me with care. So many times, I begged God to intervene, to make things go my way, and all of a sudden, on Good Friday, I was moved to tears by the God who simply and respectfully sits with us in darkness as well as light.”
Though I am largely Catholic in my theology, I grew up Evangelical and so speak with an Evangelical twang; on account of this, I am not in much of a position to give advice to my Catholic readers, but there is one caveat I want to make for Evangelicals, particularly of the emergent sort. Such emerging Evangelicals have played, and played loudly, the problems of Evangelical neo-gnosticism, and rightly so (cf. Parker’s Back by Flannery O’Conner). However, in disabusing themselves of gnosticism, Evangelicals, with the much chronicled scandal of their minds, do not have the deep liturgical and philosophical traditions of the Catholic church, which is the home of TOB. Thus, whereas Leah and John Paul II can reject gnosticism but also imagine a form of Christian embodiment different from secular materialism, I am not sure that emergent Evangelicals have the tradition necessary to give them the imaginative capacity for this. Let me put it this way: When I go into the Cathedral at Notre Dame U in South Bend, I am certainly called out of my gnostic proclivities – here is an entire building where every stone cries out to God – but there is a difference between this kind of embodiment and the materialism that a secular person might consider embodiment; in the former, heaven and earth meet, while in the latter, there is just earth. However, when I go into an emergent “pub church” or “coffee shop” church, I suppose I am embodied insofar as I am enjoying the material culture of a secular world. However, I am not made uncomfortable by the fact that there must be something more than coffee shops and pubs – there is no yearning – and so while I may be very embodied, that embodiment might be too comfortable to be church, however commendable it might be as a social activity; the Church should pique in us a longing for embodiment of a holy kind, the kind that hungers for the Eucharist, and that experiences this as an expansion rather than a reduction of meaning. So, while Catholics and other churches with liturgical and philosophical traditions in some ways have built into them a safeguard against mere materialism, I would caution emerging type Evangelicals to be careful because they do not have this safeguard.
I would like to conclude with one of the quotes I most appreciate from Leah’s book, and a brief reflection on my own recent experience of embodiment. The quote is that, “if we take Theology of the Body seriously, then we have to shift our mindset away from issues and start to see, hear and love the people who are affected by them, just as we do when we are the ones facing hunger, fear or oppression.” Recently, I moved from the West side of Vancouver – one of the richest neighborhoods in Canada – to the North side of Winnipeg. We are not in the “rough area” proper, but we are close enough that, when I went to get a new prescription for my antidepressants, the clinic I went to was one that dealt largely with addictions – with helping some recover and turning away others looking for yet another prescription for the painkiller to which they are addicted. And I was struck by how glad I was to be there. Not because I was going to rush in and save these people, or because I romanticize their lives – I know their lives are often gritty and brutal and joyful in ways I do not yet understand. What I do know is that I was glad to be out of a community that prided itself in its issues and ideals but could not recognize themselves in the broken bodies lying on the street. I will be the first to acknowledge that I am not good at loving my neighbor, but seeing them – and seeing them in the flesh – might not be a bad way to start.