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Theology of the body – the gift of creation (Part 2)

Anna Krohn
Anna Krohn.
By Anna Krohn

In his early years as a young actor and playwright, and again as an ethics professor and priest, Pope John Paul II had a keen awareness of the painful but important questions surrounding human love, personal relationships and the sexuality of men and women.

As Fr Karol, he was teacher, pastor and confidante to many thousands of young men and women, especially on matters of love, marriage and the morality of human relationships.

Later, as a theologian-bishop at the Second Vatican Council and then as Pope, John Paul II concluded that the Church was struggling in the contemporary culture to convey the richness and beauty of her central teachings about the preciousness of human life, the dignity of the human body and the importance of sexual ethics.

What was needed, he decided, was a more complete and convincing announcement of Christian wisdom about these matters, an approach which revisited the very foundations of Christian faith and yet answered the root questions thrown up by the contemporary revolutions in technology, living styles, attitude, thought and behaviour.

Beginning the story

Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body series of talks, (introduced in Catholic Outlook Vol. 13, August 2010) began with a compelling cycle of reflections on the biblical theology of ‘creation’, which was delivered from September 1979 to April 1980.

In his first cycle of talks, the Pope addresses a pivotal matter of dispute with secular modernity. Do we as human beings have a common or essential core of meaning, of purpose, or of destiny? If we do, how do we know this? How do we as human beings relate to the restless flow of life, death and survival on our planet and in the universe?

Many contemporary thinkers argue that there is no specific ‘given’ purpose or ‘natural’ meaning to life, sexuality or our bodies. They argue that nature is only configured around random genetic chance and survival, so it is up to human beings to use sexuality and our bodies however we choose.

At the same time many other people are concerned that human beings have used and abused ‘nature’ and that human beings are the greatest enemies of ‘Mother Nature’.

Pope John Paul II has a different take from each of these perspectives. For him ecology includes not only the balanced relationship between all living things but healthy moral, spiritual AND bodily relationships between human persons as well.

The Pope begins his theology of the body’ series with a reflection upon the meaning of ‘the beginning’ of everything. ‘Beginnings’ are after all “a very good place to start” (as Maria von Trapp sings in The Sound of Music) in any journey and any investigation.

Instead of launching upon an abstract theological or scientific speculation, Pope John Paul II, the great playwright and poet, lands his audience into the middle of a drama. In this case a lively dispute about marriage and divorce, about sexual fidelity and broken commitment; a question that has arisen untold times throughout the history of humanity.

This is, however, a decisive discussion and is retold in the Gospels of Matthew (19:3-8) and Mark (10:2-9). “The Pharisees came to him to test him and asked him: ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason?’”

Pope John Paul II is making a striking and key theological point here: it is the Word of God who teaches us how to read the Scriptures – the Incarnate Word (“The Word made flesh”) is the last word on the scriptural Word.

In this scene, the Pharisees are told by Christ to go back and reread the two scriptural accounts of creation. Jesus Christ cuts through the speculation about marital custom, social convenience and clever intellectualisations which the Pharisees wanted to engage him in. He accuses them with the equivalent of ‘you don’t get it, do you?’

The Pharisees have lost sight of a key pillar of mature Jewish faith: that is that existence is not only a ‘brute’ fact but that it has immense personal value. The world is not simply full of random and meaningless ‘stuff’ but is part of a love letter and an invitation from the Creator to humanity.

Two lenses on creation

To see the beginning and, therefore, ourselves clearly, Pope John Paul II reminds us that the biblical story of origins should be read through the two lenses of bifocal glasses. There are two ‘beginnings’ at the beginning of our Scriptures: Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Both provide us with complementary readings – different but essentially working together.

The first chapter of Genesis is written like a rhythmic hymn, a liturgical account (it is what biblical scholars call the ‘Priestly’ account) with a repeated chorus of God’s making and resting.

It makes several vital theological points: that man and woman together, equally but in their own distinctive way, make up humanity as a whole.

It affirms that these two ways of being human stand at the apex of God’s good creation, related to the ‘fruitfulness’ of other creatures, but also distinctly “made in the image and likeness” of the Creator. The Creator blesses all beings as ‘good’ but human beings he blesses as ‘very good’.

Pope John Paul II reveals that he has a special interest in the second and third chapters of Genesis. These accounts are believed to come from an older source and form of story telling. They provide a profound insight into bodily, emotional and sexual aspects of our human experience, both as given to us by God and as it is altered by the ingratitude of human sin.

Gift of the body

In the traditional theology of the person our ability to think, decide, act and love – in short our intellectual, moral and spiritual powers – are considered those qualities we have as personal beings which most reflect God. In this sense the Church says that human beings are each and every one made imago dei – in the image or reflection of God.

Of course, this is only one side of an even greater theological mystery – that God is not another ‘being’ like us at all. God is the source of all personhood. God is the means and the fulfilment of all knowledge, goodness, life and love. To capture this idea we say that God is almighty, all-knowing and so on.

Pope John Paul II in his theology of the body, reminds us that the biblical account of our creation and our own deepest experiences reveal to us that God specifically created human persons, not to be angels (that is purely spiritual beings without bodies) but as conscious, choosing and loving beings in a concrete, physical and tangible universe.

Pope John Paul II insists that we are at the same time spiritual and embodied, inward meaning and outward expression. Our bodies are not in that case merely accessories, tools or containers for our souls or minds. We are not avatars or virtual realities but flesh, blood, bone and skin, and at the same time persons.

Our bodies have an innate language – be it expressed in smiles or kisses – which speak of what Pope John Paul II calls “the invisible: the spiritual and the divine”.

The human body is God’s original and continuing invitation for us to engage the drama of life. Our lives begin with the first quiver of our tiny physical embryonic bodies and continue to build, find and share meaning because we are body-persons.

Now we are mortal (and frail), so that the ‘original’ unity of the personal and the physical is somehow ruptured by death. But then, in our resurrection (a great intuition of faith), we are destined to be embodied gloriously forever.

Anna Krohn is a sessional tutor in the Nursing Department at Australian Catholic University and an academic skills adviser at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family.

This article was first published in Kairos Catholic Journal.

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