Sex and John Paul II’s Theology of the Body

According to rabbinic tradition, the first commandment God gives Adam and Eve in the Garden is to have sex: Pru vehravu, “be fruitful and multiply.”

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It’s little wonder, then, that Christian theology has pondered for centuries the place that human sexuality and bodily existence have in God’s plan for the universe.

On the one hand, anyone familiar with the Jewish testament knows that sexual attraction (and sexual sin) permeate virtually every book. What’s more, two centuries of crusading secularism has exaggerated Christian pruddery in the early centuries of Christianity and in the Middle Ages.

On the other hand, it’s also true that the monastic movement that led to so many cultural and educational achievements in the West did tend to emphasize the negative aspects of human sexuality and bodily existence — if only because vowed celibate monks and nuns inevitably saw sexual feelings as temptations to be avoided at all costs.

Into this tangled history stepped the late pope John Paul II.

Raised by his widowed father in Poland during the nightmare of World War II, Karol Wotylwa was a working man, athlete and actor before he became a Catholic priest and a philosopher.

His experience with young married couples during his early years as a pastor — combined with his in-depth study of early 20th century phenomenologists — allowed the young priest to see the sexual embrace and life in the body in an entirely new way: as quite literally a way to God.

When he was elected pope, John Paul delivered a remarkable series of 129 lectures during his Wednesday audiences on what has become known as the Theology of the Body (TOTB) — a very traditional, very radical teaching on human embodiment and sexual attraction that papal biographer George Weigel has described as “a kind of theological time bomb” that will have dramatic consequences …perhaps in the twenty-first century” (Witness to Hope, 343).

John Paul’s argument, in essence, is that both secular libertines and Christian pruddery have missed the point. Human beings are radically, essentially physical. Human beings are not “ghosts in a machine,” as Descartes described it.

In a dramatic way, the entire Christian understanding of the incarnation means that Christians are and must be “pro-sex” and must celebrate the body generally. I would even say that Christians take the body at least as seriously as the devotees of most religions, including even Hinduism. The doctrine of the bodily resurrection reflects the Christian belief that we are our bodies — that if we are to survive death then it must be a physical survival. A disembodied spirit would not be a human being.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna teaches Arjuna the exact opposite of the Christian view of our essentially bodily natures:

As a man discards his threadbare robes and puts on new, so the Spirit throws off its worn-out bodies and puts on new ones… The Spirit in man is imperishable.

While Christianity agrees with the Gita (and with yoga!) that there is an imperishable, immortal essence of the human being, which, for lack of a better word, the west has traditionally called the “soul,” it does not agree that the physical body is merely incidental to that essence — something that can be “thrown off” for a new one.

Rather, in the Christian view, we are embodied spirits or spiritual bodies — and thus it is our bodies themselves that are (or will be) immortal. Thus, the Christian hope is even more absurdly optimistic than people give us credit for: We actually believe that we will live forever… in glorified “resurrection” bodies, not as disembodied spirits. I’ve never been the least scandalized by Taoists who claim that yoga can lead to physical immortality of a sort or at least extreme longevity: it seems perfectly plausible to me given the Christian revelation.

That is why St. Paul tells the (male) Corinthians that they should take good care of their bodies and not defile themselves with prostitutes — and why Christian practitioners of yoga celebrate the body and do what they can to maintain good health. That is also why Pope John Paul II, in his teachings on the Theology of the Body, emphasized how incarnate human beings come to God in and through their bodies — and that sex, far from being inherently sinful, is actually a way to God.

In John Paul’s teaching, sex (for non-celibate “householders”) is a sacrament (a “sign”) of divine presence because it is the preeminent example of that spiritual intimacy that is the birthright of all human beings.

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Robert J. Hutchinson is an author and essayist. His most recent book is Searching for Jesus: New Discoveries in the Quest for Jesus of Nazareth (Thomas Nelson, 2015).