Timothy C. Tennent, President of Asbury Theological Seminary has a series of brief posts that provide important insights from the late Pope John Paul II and his Theology of the Body. Each entry from Tennent prompts serious reflection about how we conceive of our material presence here on this earth. Below are links to and an excerpt from each that has been published to date. I hope they will prompt you to read them and, more importantly, think deeper about “marriage, human sexuality, and the body.”
Download the entire series here.
Discussions about marriage, divorce and issues of human sexuality are not new. What is new is our unpreparedness for the current questions being asked. It is way too simplistic and reductionistic to think that the task before the church is to come up with a clever answer against, for example, homosexual practice, without stepping back and seeing it within the larger picture of a whole host of sexual brokenness on the cultural landscape—like digital pornography, adultery, fornication, gender re-assignment, etc. These problems cannot properly be addressed in isolation from the larger theology of the body.
We are, bodily, a living sacrament and our bodies are a sign to the world of God’s presence—ultimately fulfilled in the incarnation and expressed through the physical community of the church. In fact, the human body is the bridge between theology and anthropology. Indeed, without the physicality of the body the “means of grace” as we know it would cease. Think about it. You baptize a body, you take the Eucharist into your body, you confess Christ with your lips, you lay hands on the body of the sick and anoint with oil, or lay hands on someone to set apart for ministry, etc. Even Scripture is read with our eyes or listened to with our ears. Only the body can make the invisible, visible. It is the ultimate outward sign of an inward and spiritual grace. It is just so close to us that we can easily miss it.
The answer to our solitude is that we are included in the mystery of God’s triune nature in that we are brought into full communion with him and, secondarily, we are in communion with one another. The creation of Eve deepens our identity with God because we are invited to become co-creators with him. The sexual union of two who are “others” mirrors by design our own relationship with God who is not us, but another. Adam and Eve give birth to a child. Eve is brought forth from Adam and a new man – a new Adam comes forth from Eve.
It is far too tiny of a strategy to try to come up with 5 clever objections to this or that practice, without recognizing the deeper void of theological work which addresses the very foundation which will enable us to speak to the whole spectrum of brokenness in our society ranging from divorce to digital pornography to homosexual practice to adultery to fornication to gender reassignment, and so forth. It is your generation which must regain your theological composure. To put it bluntly, we cannot twitter our way out of this!
Adam lay with his wife and she became pregnant and gave birth to Cain. Eve says, “with the help of the LORD – Yahweh – I have brought forth a man.” It is marriage between a man and a woman in the mysterious communion of sexual union which unites us as “one flesh” and, in the gift of God allows us to join him as little co-creators with God. A new little life proceeds from that sacred union, which further dispels our solitude and further deepens our self-donation. Eve came out of Adam, and a new little Adam comes forth from Eve. A child comes forth, and we now have a Trinity; an intimate unity of father, mother and child whereby we discover the mysterious spousal meaning of our bodies in all its masculinity and femininity, each given to the other, and both given to the child as a reciprocal gift of self-donation.
The sacraments of Christ, Eucharist and Baptism, cannot be done apart from the body. It is a body which takes the Eucharist and a body which is baptized. In the sacraments of the Spirit, it is the ears that hear or the eyes which read God’s word. Bodily hands are laid upon the sick and the ordinand. It is a body which is either healed or set apart for ministry. So, John Paul II makes the point that before Christ established any sacraments, and long before the Holy Spirit established any sacraments or means or grace; there must have been, by necessity, a primordial sacrament which precedes them all; namely, the creative work of God the Father in creating bodies in general and the sacrament of marriage in particular.
It is lust which destroys the spousal meaning of the body. To even look at someone for sexual pleasure is wrong because it reduces God’s creation, a subject, into an object by dis-embodying that person’s physicality from his or her inner self. God intended a man and a woman to stand before one another in the full reciprocity of the “I” – I is subject. In the Fall, the man and woman covered the very physical markers of their distinctive human sexuality in shame. To look with lust at someone’s private sexual markers is to dis-embody those physical markers from the whole person who embodies them. This is to rip someone apart. Pope John Paul 2 calls it the “dis-incarnation of man.”
Even if we do not perform a bodily sexual act with anyone, but simply look at someone with an eye which reduces that person from a subject to an object, as in a sexual object, we have committed adultery. It is lust which turns someone into an object, dis-embodies them from the very inner life which allows us to fully participate in the visibility of the world. This is why, after the Fall, shame enters the world and men cover the physical, visible signs of masculinity, and the woman cover the physical, visible signs of femininity. Because these visible signs which had heretofore been integrated into their lives and bodies as a sacrament in joyful communion with God have now been separated out as objects of desire, destroying not only the union of their communion, but even the unity of their own persons.
Marriage and celibacy are not two separate things but one thing. Both mirror and anticipate the same reality. Both states are deeply intertwined with the other. In the Christian vision, all those called to singleness can only come into the world through marriage and the single and celibate state prefigures the time when we will all be engulfed in the real marriage; namely, the mystery of Christ and His Church. Those called to marriage all experience a temporary state of singleness and celibacy both before and, at times, during marriage, and we are all moving inexorably to that day when there will be neither marriage nor giving in marriage. So marriage and celibacy are deep mysteries which are deeply entwined. I hope you are beginning to see how deeply the contemporary church has been co-opted by the culture’s war between singles and married, the war of the genders, and the quick sand of autonomous solitude. Because all relationships have become sexualized, deep and beautiful same sex friendships have become eroded. There is so much that we must recover in our day.
A theology of the body enables us to see how God has woven into the very fabric of creation and inscribed in the design of every human body wonderful, theological truths which we have largely ignored. The church has been caricatured into two camps. On the one side are the conservatives who are portrayed as angry protestors, shaking their fists in the face of those who support the erosion of traditional Christian values. On the other side are the so-called “progressives” who listen to whatever the culture is saying and find new ways to say that the Bible affirms that. But our culture does not need to meet an angry church. Our culture does not need a church which serves only as a cultural echo chamber. We are in the sunset of that time when we need only raise our voices and state what are against. We must be able to articulate what we are for. We must sing a more beautiful and more compelling song about God’s design and plan. His design, as we have seen, is nothing less than our bodily reflection of the Trinity and the wonderful trajectory leading to union with Him. We must embody an entirely new vision which is holistic, beautiful, compelling and resonates with the biblical and historic witness in deep and profound ways.
Despite the language of popular Christian discourse, God is not saving our souls so that they may someday dwell in some disembodied state for eternity. Salvation is about all of creation being healed in its full embodiment. This is why truly evangelical preaching must embrace not only inward faith leading to justification, but full bodily redemption. Our vision of sanctification is extending the holiness of God into all the world.
This is one of those interesting debates in the church where both sides have been wrong, and both sides have been right. In the cultural context of autonomous solitude the genders are at war with each other, and they struggle for power and dominion over the other. Even scriptures can be used as bludgeons against the other as we struggle to position ourselves into the siren song of autonomy. But, in the greater song of the New Creation, we see that it is only through dying and self-donation that we discover the true meaning of our own identity. This identity can only be fully realized in community as reflected in the family, the church and, ultimately the Triune God—the eternal “sweet society.” Christ as the head, laid down his life for the church and called us joint-heirs. The church, in turn, joyfully submits to Christ and is summoned into glorious union with the Triune God. So, egalitarianism and complementarianism are not two things, but different aspects of the one thing; namely, the mystery of Christ and His church.
There is no media which is inherently evil, but there are ethical implications for how media is used in relation to the ethos of the body. This meditation focuses specifically on ways in which bodily images are portrayed and extended out into the world. When an image is portrayed – perhaps a provocative billboard, or a Super Bowl commercial, or even nudity in a pornographic magazine or website, a body is ripped from its wholeness and turned into an object. This is a powerful force in our world. Carl’s Jr. Hamburger paid 4.5 million dollars for a 30 sec. spot of Kate Upton using her body to sell hamburgers and French fries. Our culture is inundated with these kind of images. They are used to incite lust or inordinate desires in the viewer, often to engender lust or to associate a bodily image with a product, like a new car. In both cases, John Paul II makes the point that it necessary to assign the evil in the proper place. We often refer to these images as “dirty images.” But, in the Christian vision, the body is never dirty, because we are always image bearers in our bodies. The evil is in the separation of the body from its full reciprocity as a person – a subject. The evil is in the lust, whether is a sexual lust or a material lust, that is the evil which must be named. To view images in this way is to separate a person from their God given wholeness and turn them into an object. This unleashes tremendous destructive forces because when this happens an image becomes an idol.
If we judge someone by the color of their skin, we rightly call such separation of a person from their body racism; but if we judge someone by the shape of their body, we call it glamour.
We must first begin by remembering that the body in general and marriage between a man and a woman in particular is the greatest physical icon which God uses to portray a range of spiritual truths and a primary means of grace. If the view of the body which this generation has embraced is allowed to prevail, then the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ will be vacated of its power and theological force.