By Andrew Symes,
Along with millions of other viewers recently I watched transfixed as Adele concluded her show on the BBC with a spine-tingling rendition of her classic ballad “Someone like You”. Its not normally my kind of music but there is something extraordinary about her singing, a kind of passionate yearning that is of course on one level an expression of a universal human emotion – lost love – but like all great singers it seems to transcend that, and speak about something else deeper and higher that we are missing and desperately need.
American speaker and writer Christopher West believes that some of the best music operates on different levels: entertainment, love poetry and existential spiritual longing. As human beings we have a natural desire for close relationship, especially “completion” with a special “other”.
To find this with another person is a goal for most, but as St Augustine said, our spirits are restless ultimately until they find rest, completion in relationship with God. For West, “sex is not just about sex” but “is meant to point the way to the ultimate fulfilment of every desire” (Fill These Hearts, Random House 2012, p11). So when Adele expresses hope that she will find somebody to love and be loved by, she means firstly a male partner, but secondly, perhaps unconsciously, her Creator.
Christopher West has been acclaimed for some time as the foremost popular communicator of a school of biblical teaching called “Theology of the Body”. Unusually, this thinking is increasingly opening up common ground between evangelicals and Roman Catholics who share a desire to understand and communicate a philosophy of sex and marriage that is grounded in the Scriptures, linked to the wisdom of the ages and makes sense practically, yet is winsome in putting forward counter-cultural truth.
West and his team will be running a three-day seminar in London from 14-16 January, to which all are welcome.
What is Theology of the Body?
Between 1979 and 1984 Pope John Paul II gave a series of lectures as a reflection on the creation of humanity, male and female, as sexual beings. The 129 talks sought to develop a biblical anthropology, or a theology of what it means to be human, addressing and countering the ideas and attitudes that were taking hold in society’s “sexual revolution”. He foresaw that without such a strong Christian apologetic, Western culture would become increasingly confused about the nature of love and sex, singleness, marriage and family, and the Church would be unable to offer God’s wisdom with a clear united voice.
In particular, according to this teaching, we need to recover and have confidence in the Bible’s insistence that as human beings we are a body-mind-soul unit: our bodies are as important to our identity and personality as what we think or how we feel. Our bodies speak of God’s creation: he wants to redeem and know us as whole people with bodies both now and in eternity.
Central to the Theology of the Body is the Bible’s portrayal of the ideal of complementary heterosexual union between male and female as a good thing in itself (from which there are various deviations because of human sin); it’s also a picture of God’s relationship with his people.
John Paul II uses reflection on the “Thomistic” tradition and other relevant philosophy, but puts the Bible’s authority first; he explores the biblical theme of marriage from Adam and Eve in Eden to the marriage of the Lamb and the Church in Revelation. Once we have established God’s intention for our bodies in creation, we can see more clearly the answers from his word on the goodness of singleness and celibacy, marriage, sex and procreation, but also on the ways we have deviated from God’s plan and their relentless contemporary normalisation.
What can Protestant evangelicals learn from this?
I myself am a convinced conservative evangelical, and remain wary of some sections of the teaching and the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. But I want to acknowledge and learn from truth wherever it can be found. The evangelical tradition has been strong at establishing what the Bible says, and setting out good pastoral practice. But among some evangelicals there has been a loss of confidence in commending the historic orthodox teaching on sexual ethics; others have rejected it.
Contemporary culture locates authority and truth around these issues in personal experience. West’s presentations, geared to an interdenominational audience, help us to critique this, and recover confidence in the Bible’s message that we are not our own, but called to honour God with our bodies. How Christ enables us to do this is a key component of the Gospel.
Full details about the conference Our Bodies Proclaim the Gospel can be found at www.core-issues.org/events