Saturday, January 2, 2010

The Theology of the Body #1: Teaching John Paul II to Evangelicals

One of my predictions for the new year was that appreciation for John Paul II's "Theology of the Body" would grow among Evangelicals, as well as among all conservative Christians including Eastern Orthodox, Confessional Protestants, etc. A couple of comments call for some further discussion of this prediction. I intend to post regularly throughout the year on the TOB, but I want to start off by recounting my experience this past semester.

I taught a new course, RLGS 3943 Marriage in Theological Perspective, this past semester and I had 23 students in the course. Seven were married and several were engaged and all were very interested in the course; it was a pure elective for most.

My working assumption was that we are all bombarded with the sexual revolution and the liberal view of sex, marriage and family every day and so the course content was to examine the only two serious alternatives to the liberal view, which is now the establishment view in the West, namely conservative Evangelicalism and the TOB. We used a book by Andreas Kostenberger called God, Marriage and Family for the first few weeks and then studied Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body by John Paul II. Each student also did a review of a different book and made presented a 10-15 minute presentation on the book to the class.

Here is a sample of the books we read:

1. Pornified - Pamela Pauls (a non-Christian journalist examines pornography in the Internet age)

2. Unprotected: A Campus Psychiatrist Reveals How Political Correctness in Her Profession Endangers Every Student
- by Miriam Grossman (originally published anonymously out of fear of reprisals)

3. You're Teaching My Child What? A Physican Exposes the Lies of Sex Education and How They Harm Your Child by Miriam Grossman (a look at the philosophy of SIECUS and Planned Parenthood and how they are influencing public education)

4. The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It by Philip Longman (a counter intuitive, but convincing study using UN data)

5. Omnigender: A Trans-Religious Approach by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott (a glimpse into the long term agenda of the pansexual movement by a cross-dressing, lesbian English professor who started out as an Evangelical)

6. Return to Modesty and The Good Girl Revolution by Wendy Shalit (two books by a young, Jewish graduate of Wellsley who thinks the pendulum is about start swinging back)

7. The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce: The 25 Year Landmark Study by Judith Wallerstein, Julia M. Lewis and Sandra Blakeslee (one of the few studies of the longterm effects of divorce)

8. Remaking Eden: How Genetic Engineering and Cloning Will Transform the American Family by Lee Silver (a fascinating exercise in futurology by a Princeton bioethicist and molecular biologist)

But what I really wanted to stress in this post is how positive the students were toward John Paul II's book. They were mostly surprised to be reading a biblical-theological study by a Roman Catholic that seemed to them to be informed by a high view of Scriptural authority and a deep engagement with the text. They found him to be Evangelical in his view and very convincing.

By the end of the class about half were convinced that artificial contraception is wrong and most of the rest were very open to the idea of Natural Family Planning. All found John Paul II's arguments to be impressive and not to be dismissed lightly. In fact, I have arranged for a speaker from the Couple to Couple League to come to campus on Feb. 4 to make a presentation on the practical questions surrounding NFP.

My experience is that the problem is simply ignorance. Evangelicals and Roman Catholics live in "two solitudes" and communication is bad. Christopher West, who has devoted his life to spreading the message of TOB, was in Toronto for a conference in Nov. and I attended with about 8 of my current and former students. It was quite an experience to be in such a heavily Catholic environment. (We even attended the 8 am Mass with Archbishop Thomas Collins as homilist and main celebrant and, no, we did not communicate.)

But John Paul II is bigger than Roman Catholicism, if I might be permitted to put it that way. He represents the Tradition and he also represents the apostolic message of Scripture as the fount of that Tradition. I have a student doing an honours thesis this year on how John Paul II's TOB differs from the teaching of St. Augustine, which is a very interesting topic. The TOB is for the whole church. I believe it is a gift given by God now for the post-sexual revolution Church in the West and I agree with George Weigel's famous prediction that it is a time bomb set to go off some time in the third millennium with great blessings for the entire world.

Some of the topics I want to post on in the coming weeks include:

1. The TOB and Feminism
2. Sexual Complementarity and the Dignity of Women
3. The Center of the Biblical Revelation on the Meaning of Sexuality
4. Marriage as a Sacrament: A Proposal for Catholic-Protestant Agreement
5. The Song of Songs in Relation to Genesis, Isaiah and Ephesians
6. Evangelicals and the Contraceptive Mentality
7. Four Views of Marriage (Traditional, Revolutionary, Evangelical and TOB)

I know that not all Protestants are open to John Paul II's insights just because he is Catholic, but I think that the answer is to present his views as "the conservative and traditional view" of sex as grounded in Scripture. It will be necessary for most Evangelicals to encounter this teaching first in a book written by an Evangelical and I hope to write such a book eventually. But once most conservative Evangelicals get past their prejudice and actually encounter the content of the TOB, their response is almost guaranteed to be positive to one extent or another.


Josh said...

Can a lack of birth control not lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies, and in turn an increase in abortions?

Andy said...

I think that's a good question, and I think the answer lies in how we've done over the last 50 years since birth control has become a part of our culture. Abortion was legalized after the "sexual revolution" (so-called) of the 1960's when hormonal birth control became prevalent. Unwanted pregnancies and abortions are, compared to that time, astronomical. In the 1960's there were basically two forms of STDs--gonorrhea and syphilis. Today, there are over 50! We won't solve today's problems by throwing more contraceptives at them--historically this has proven disastrous.

Chris said...

Craig, I have taught "Theology of the Body" three times, to mostly Catholic undergraduates. They too generally like it and are surprised that they never heard it in their suburban parish youth groups as they grew up. But what I really want to say to you is that I think JP2 learned a lot of his exegesis of Genesis from Karl Barth, perhaps via von Balthasar. Barth in turn learned key moves from Luther, who learned them from Augustine. So not only is Weigel right about "Theology of the Body" being a ticking time bomb, it's a ticking ecumenical time bomb. Sorry for giving my book a plug, but I recommend my own book on this, "Creation and Covenant: the significance of sexual difference in the moral theology of marriage," by Christopher Roberts. Ch 6 renders Barth's sexual ethics as clearly as I've ever seen them in a secondary source, and then the next chapter does the same for JP2. The similarities are breathtaking. My book also shows the historical debts of both to Augustine, so I think there's something here for your student's honors thesis. Good luck and thanks for this post.

Craig Carter said...

Exactly so.

Craig Carter said...

Thank you for your comment. I'm honoured to have you reading my blog. I have used your book in a Directed Reading course on this subject that I did before I developed the course on Marriage. You are absolutely right on the connections between Barth and JP II. My thesis student has read your book carefully and is studying the primary texts in order to assess aspects of your thesis. I think there is a development of Augustine's thought by JP II. Why Barth came to the conclusions he did on contraception in III/4 is something I don't quite understand. But JP II takes his exegetical insights to build a deeper and more biblically-based case for Humanae Vitae.

Also, you might be interested to know that I'm teaching a 4000 level seminar course starting next week on "The Human Person in Trinitarian Perspective" and the core text is Barth's CD III/1. We will read Par. 41 plus an essay or chapter from a book each week. I plan to use essays/chapters from JP II's "The Person in Communion" and "Love and Responsibility," as well as Marc Cardinal Ouelett's "The Divine Likeness" and Angelo Cardinal Scola's "The Nuptial Mystery." What would you suggest from Augustine?

Chris said...

Craig, thanks for looking at my book! Now it's my turn to be honoured. There's lots to discuss - how do we take this conversation off the blog? I can't find your email posted on the blog....Chris

Josh said...

Andy, thanks for the conversation. Yes, I am aware of the argument that the increased prevalence of birth control has led to more promiscuity, which in turn has led to more STDs; and I'm sure there is at least some truth in this argument. But how would one know the numbers of unwanted pregnancies and abortions before abortion was legalized? The unwanted-ness of unwanted pregnancies was kept secret, and abortions were performed secretly (and often unsafely). Then, there were many illegal abortions; now, there are many legal abortions. Neither situation is ideal.

Abortion is tragic. I am not convinced, however, that denouncing birth control in our current context has reduced or will reduce the abortion rate. In fact, if people who currently use birth control stopped doing so without also changing their current sex habits (a possibility), then a lack of birth control could lead to an increase in unwanted pregnancies, and in turn an increase in abortions.

Craig Carter said...

My email address is