Sunday, June 10, 2012

At the Heart of the Gospel by Christopher West

I was once a grad Theology student, and I used to think theological debates invigorated me. Today, I believe there is a proper place for all that, but it isn't within my life. I think of St. Paul's charge not to get involved in foolish and stupid arguments (2 Tim. 2:3), and frankly, sitting around and endlessly picking apart the message of someone who is trying to evangelize by laying out the teaching of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church seems foolish and stupid. Honestly. First spend an equal amount of time trying to evangelize souls as you do nitpicking, then come and tell me why this person's presentation of the nuance of a Pope's teaching is too faulty for you to handle.

Frankly, that's just how I feel about detractors to Christopher West's approach to teaching Theology of the Body. I haven't studied every word he's written and I probably never will. Nor will I ever plumb the depths of everything Bl. John Paul II taught on this or any subject. But Christopher West's new book At the Heart of the Gospel helps me, because I see laid out in print and with theological reference what God Himself has taught me through the painful process of my own walk with him.

A few days ago I wrote this post, which is sorta how I like to argue these days. I argue with the testimony of my life. I can relate completely to the type of person West describes as one side of the disorder-pendulum. I was one who grew up drinking deeply of  Manichaeism, of dualism, of a Puritanical inheritance that had no appreciation of the Incarnation and the radical acceptance by God of the human condition that this entailed and of the Protestant notion that holiness meant something imputed to us.  He acknowledges that there are folks on the other side of the disorder-pendulum, and the importance of understanding what has formed your own heart. These would be the folks who know they have not been squashed by oppression of their humanity but risk being ruled by the indulgence of the flesh. Neither repression nor indulgence are the path of Christ. The path of Christ is the path of transformation into the life of the Blessed Trinity. No matter what kind of human experience we've had, transforming grace is what we need. I'm taking a wild, blunt stab at a summation here, but it seems that what gets people all upset about Christopher West is that many people's approach to sexual morality has looked like this: You all are too wild. Go repress yourselves; that's holiness. But Christopher West is looking at modern culture, reading JPII and saying, That's nuts. It makes the gospel a laughing stock, and empties it of its real power. It's not true, it is not what the Church teaches, and if we can't say something better to people, we are irresponsible as evangelists. There is good news to tell the world about the meaning of why we are created male and female!

There are many nuggets in this book that had me nodding my head in agreement, especially about the painful difficulty of the path necessary to experience the grace of transformation. But I pick out just one passage to comment on directly. He relates a story in this book that he apparently repeats often, of two Bishops, and the woman St. Pelagia of Antioch, who, at the time of the story, was a prostitute. The story goes she was walking down the street wearing very little, and passed the two Bishops. The first looked away immediately; the second looked at her intently. With tears in his eyes, he lamented the tragedy of her state. West asks the question, which Bishop did the right thing? The first one did the right thing, because he knew that if he looked at her he would have lusted after her. However, at the same time, he demonstrated that concupiscence dominated his heart. The second Bishop had a purity which had matured, and he was able to see the body for what it is: a sacramental sign, that which makes visible the invisible mystery of God. The story goes that it was this pure gaze from this Bishop that led to the conversion the prostitute.

I believe this story because I have experienced conversion in this way, too. Those who don't believe this type of "mature purity" is possible strike me like the types who do not believe that the healing miracles of Jesus in the Bible could be true, simply because they lack the faith to receive or perform the same.

Maybe you aren't a broken person. Maybe you have no confusion about the holiness of sexuality or God's intentions in the creation and redemption of humanity as male and female. But lots and lots of people around you are in deep pain, perhaps more widely promiscuous and more profoundly lonely than in any recent generation. How do you effectively reach them with the love of God? That's the question that provokes me.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just stumbled across this post and your related other one and couldn't agree more. Thank you for your honesty.

I think about these questions often too and would suggest the best way to effectively reach people with the unconditional love of God for each of us (which is ultimately the message of the TOB) is to just live it daily ... "preach often, use words when necessary" ... make a gift of ourselves whenever possible ... try to love unconditionally... let others glimpse a joy that goes far beyond the pity and shame that so many of us carry around and struggle with... not necessarily theological debates, but showing love and mercy to those around us so that their hearts are prompted and reminded of a greater love and joy that draws us out of ourselves. I think this is why Christopher is so effective particularly at reaching young people. They are trying to find their way through a pornographic culture and, deep in their hearts, they know it's wrong but they may not have the support to keep them focused on true love and joy. Then they hear Christopher talk or read one of his books or do a DVD series and they realize they are not alone. They can feel the ongoing transformation of God's love in Christopher's life that you don't get at so many apologetics talks (even though they can help). They get a glimpse of something greater and it changes their lives and gives them the courage to live this wonderful, countercultural faith in a very hostile environment because, no matter how persecution they may get from peers, they remain fixed on this greater joy. And if they fall, there is the amazing sacrament of reconciliation for Catholics that focuses us right back on that joy and mercy. This is one of the reasons why I am so thankful for Christopher's works, because they challenge me in a way unlike other theological books I've read. Chapter 7 ("The Way of Beauty") in "At the Heart of the Gospel" is one of the most inspiring, beautiful things I've read. In fact, I'm going to re-read it now. Thanks again for sharing.