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Faith talks to Christopher West, noted expert on Theology of the Body
After searching for answers to questions about the meaning of life, love and the purpose of sex, renowned speaker and author Christopher West found the answers he was looking for in the words of St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOB).
West, who is also the founder and president of the Cor Project – a global outreach that encourages people to learn, live and share the Theology of the Body – first learned of the Theology of the Body in 1993, and he has since spent his time studying and sharing St. John Paul II’s teachings across the globe.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? Family, hobbies, schooling?
Wendy and I just recently celebrated 20 years of marriage. We have five amazing kids, 3 boys and 2 girls, ranging from senior in high school to first grade. I feel super blessed in my life as a husband and father, with all the joys and trials it brings.
As far as hobbies, I love music. I’m a drummer and I play some guitar. Years ago I actually began pursuing a music career, but that changed when I discovered John Paul II’s Theology of the Body. I also love the outdoors – backpacking, skiing. I’m a bit of a daredevil on skis. Well, I used to be anyway. Last year I broke my left femur taking way too much air off a jump in the terrain park. I suppose I had it coming to me.
Schooling. Well, I bounced around in college quite a bit, but I ended up graduating from the University of Maryland in 1992 with a degree in anthropology. That actually ended up proving quite helpful for my graduate studies in theology – which were, more specifically, studies in theological anthropology. And that means not only what theology teaches about our humanity, but also what our humanity reveals about theology, about who God is. If we are made in the image of God as male and female, then our creation as sexual beings has something very important to tell us about divine realities. That two-way lesson is what Theology of the Body is all about.
For those who may not be familiar with Theology of the Body, what is it and what kind of things do you discuss?
“Theology of the Body” is the title John Paul II gave to his first major teaching project as pope. It’s a bold, compelling, incredibly life-affirming response to the sexual revolution – the chaos of which is evident everywhere today as we are drowning in a sea of family breakdown and gender confusion. Theology of the Body is the lifeline!
The TOB itself is quite dense and scholarly in its language. My work seeks to translate it into language that average people can understand. The basic message is this: our bodies tell a story, an incredibly glorious story of God’s eternal, life-giving love. That’s who God is – a family of life-giving love: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We image that life-giving love as male and female. Think about it – a man’s body makes no sense by itself. Nor does a woman’s. But seen in light of each other, we see a call to holy communion. And in the normal course of events, the union of the two leads to a third. And so we catch a glimpse here of the Trinity. We catch a glimpse of the God who is life-giving communion. And we catch a glimpse of his eternal plan to marry us.
God wants to marry us! That’s the whole Bible in five words. And he wanted this eternal “marital plan” to be so plain to us, so obvious to us, that he stamped an image of it right in our bodies by making us male and female and calling the two to become “one flesh.” As St. Paul tells us, this union of husband and wife is a “great mystery” and it refers to Christ’s love for the Church (see Ephesians 5:31-32). In other words, the whole purpose of human sexuality is to point us to the love, the ecstasy, the bliss, the union that awaits us in heaven – what the Bible and the Liturgy call “The Marriage of the Lamb.”
Is this the way we understand our sexuality? If not, why not? Well, maybe there’s an enemy who wants to keep us from heaven. If he can confuse and distort the meaning of our sexuality, it will point us in a very different direction.
This is the battle we’re in the thick of today. And John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, I’m convinced, is the gift the Holy Spirit has given us for such a time as this.
You are a well-recognized teacher of TOB. How did you get started with this?
I first discovered the TOB in 1993. My sister’s high school theology teacher told me about it. I had been searching and searching for answers to my questions about the meaning of life, love, the purpose of sex, what to do with the deep “ache” I felt inside, what to do with all my passions and desires. I found incredibly compelling answers to these and many other questions in John Paul II’s teaching. This crazy Polish pope was reading my soul. I knew then I’d spend the rest of my life studying his teaching and sharing it with others.
Same-sex attraction seems to be a popular topic, especially how Catholics can guide and understand those with SSA. There was even a recent Courage conference held in metro Detroit on SSA. Where do you see the TOB conversation going in reference to SSA?
TOB is indispensable to this conversation. First of all, it affirms the “ache” – it affirms the cry of the heart for love, for union, for intimacy. That ache, that cry, John Paul II tells us, is called eros. Everyone naturally feels it. And not only is that erotic passion good – God gave it to us to be like the fuel of a rocket that has the power to launch us to the stars, to infinity … and beyond (if I can quote Buzz Lightyear).
That’s the starting point – affirmation of eros. God looked at everything he made and called it good, and male and female he called very good. However, we also have to be honest here and recognize that the way we experience eros in our fallen world is not the way God created it. With original sin, our rocket engines became inverted, so to speak. And what happens if we set that rocket off? This is why the sexual revolution backfired. It told us to pursue erotic desire, but it just assumed the way we experience it in our fallen humanity is the way it’s meant to be. This is why you will hear people justifying all kinds of disordered expressions of sexuality.
Here’s the good news of the Gospel that John Paul II illuminates so well for us in his TOB: Christ came into the world not to condemn us for our inverted rocket engines. He came to redirect our rocket engines toward the stars. It’s called the redemption of the body. Christ came to redeem us, beginning with eros, because that’s the dominant force in our humanity. In some ways it’s what’s most in need of redemption. So, it’s okay to be sexually broken. We all are. And it’s okay because Christ has a remedy. But it’s not okay to call sexual brokenness health.
Whether it be movies or music, or even the media highlighting gender and sexuality issues (Caitlyn Jenner for example), teens are enveloped with the discussion of sexuality. How can teens, or even parents guiding their teens, view these topics through the TOB lens? What about gender issues? Is this where The Cor Project comes in?
Well, you cannot give what you do not have. You cannot view these topics through the TOB lens if you’re not wearing TOB glasses. That’s actually a great image. When you put these glasses on, the whole world begins to come into focus. That’s not an exaggeration at all. You start to see more and more clearly the world as it truly is. You see more and more clearly the problem and more and more clearly the cure.
Yes, and this is where I think the Cor Project can be of some help. Members of the Cor Project receive ongoing formation in the TOB through short videos, access to our online library of talks, and a host of other formation tools. And we’re all about sharing this good news at the Cor Project, so Members have a license to share all the talks and videos with whomever they’d like.
Why is your ministry called the Cor Project?
Cor is Latin for heart. And questions about sexuality take us to the heart of what it means to be human. They also take us to the heart of culture and civilization. If society has a “cancer,” we need to treat that cancer at the cellular level. And the fundamental cell of society is the family. But at the heart (or “cor”) of the family is the union of man and woman in one flesh. The “cor project,” therefore, is to go back to those basics and bring hope, healing, and redemption. In a word, we want to show men and women around the world how beautiful they truly are.
With it being the Year of Mercy, how does TOB and Mercy connect?
I’m so glad you brought that up. I’d say there is no better time to share Theology of the Body with others than during this Jubilee Year of Mercy.
As Pope Francis stated in an interview early in his pontificate, “I see clearly that the thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds.” And this means that “ministers of the Church must be ministers of mercy above all.”
Pope Francis’ oft quoted description of the Church as “a field hospital after battle” couldn’t be more fitting in our post-sexual revolution world. When idealized and hyper-eroticized images of the human body have become the cultural wallpaper and hard-core pornography our main reference point for the “facts of life,” it’s no wonder we’re in such misery and confusion when it comes to questions about gender and sexuality.
John Paul II’s TOB is a healing balm of mercy on our misery. The Latin word for mercy, misericordia, actually means “a heart which gives itself to those in misery.” That’s how I have always experienced John Paul II’s TOB: as a healing balm on my misery.
Since you were a presenter at the World Meeting of Families, what are some of the things you took away from that experience?
It was encouraging to see so many thousands of people gathered together – right in my back yard (I’m not far from Philadelphia) – for this global event supporting Catholic teaching on marriage and family life. There is a David and Goliath kind of fight going on in today’s world. The forces arrayed against God’s plan for man and woman are legion. But the deception will fall with one small stone properly aimed. That stone is Christ. There’s no other victory. But I’d suggest that the sling that gives us the proper aim is John Paul II’s TOB. It was exciting to see so many people at WMOF willing to stand up for the truth.
That said, fighting language or battle language isn’t always the best way to frame things. It is a battle, a spiritual battle. But above all we have to be convinced as Catholics that we have a powerful, beautiful, liberating message to share with the world. John Paul II’s TOB gives us the language we need to show the world the splendor and beauty of the truth.
Where do you see TOB going? I heard you were recently in London, presenting to both Catholic and Christian audiences. Why is TOB starting to cross denominational lines?
A significant amount of my work in recent years has been with non-Catholic Christians, especially evangelicals. Christians everywhere are facing the challenges of having sexuality, marriage, and family life completely deconstructed. They’re looking for answers. And many of them are turning to the TOB. Since the TOB is nothing but a penetrating reflection on the Scriptures, especially the words of Christ himself, we have a tremendous common ground here with our evangelical brothers and sisters to study the TOB together.
Where do I see this going? Well, I’ve always sensed, from the first time I read it in 1993, that the TOB would eventually reach around the world in a dramatic way. I think George Weigel, John Paul II’s biographer, was spot on when he called the TOB a “theological time bomb” set to go off with dramatic consequences perhaps sometime in the 21st Century. It hasn’t detonated yet, but it will, and when it does, the world will come to see that our bodies are not porno-graphic – they don’t tell a perverse story (that’s what porno-graphy means). Our bodies are theo-graphic – they tell God’s story … and that’s why the enemy is so bent on perverting it.
What will be the takeaway for people who attend your seminar in Ann Arbor in April?
I think people will recognize – bear with me here – that I have beautiful feet. What the heck!? Did he just say that!? Yes, I did. I have beautiful feet. Remember how Scripture says, “How lovely on the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news”? Well, I’m coming to Ann Arbor with good news about our creation as male and female, good news about the meaning of sex and gender, good news about our sexual desires, good news about the healing and redemption of sexuality in Christ. And God knows we need some good news! We hear far too often in the Church what we’re not supposed to be doing with our sexuality. But what are we supposed to be doing? People can expect to hear an eye-opening, life-changing, liberatingly positive vision that puts what’s going on in the world today in its proper context, and, above all, gives us hope for our own futures.