Theology of the Body: Of Sign and Fulfillment

I wish to return to my discussion of Theology of the Body, and the exchange between Dr. Lowery and Christopher West.  Specifically, I wish to discuss the topic of theological analogy, because it is so central to the argument and because it is easily misunderstood.

In answering the charge of Dr. Lowery that he is sexualizing Christianity, West turns to the topic of analogy and says that it works both ways:

Of course, it’s an analogy to speak of the marriage of Christ and the Church. Analogies are always inadequate. Yet John Paul believes the spousal analogy is the least inadequate since “in the very essence of marriage a particle of the mystery is captured” (Aug. 18, 1982).

Hence, the Pope says we’re justified in applying the spousal analogy in two directions. Primarily, God reveals the truth about nuptial union (Christian nuptiality). But in some way nuptial union also reveals the truth about God (nuptial Christianity).

In practical matters, West has worked this analogy both ways, not only from the top down, but from the bottom up, that is, from earthly marriage to the divine union, by saying that heaven is like the ultimate climax, that the Holy Spirit inseminates and impregnates Mary with Jesus, that the Easter liturgy is a fertility rite, and that a woman’s womb is like the Holy of Holy’s or the Eucharistic tabernacle.  This is the habit of mind that moves, I believe, Dr. Lowery to say that West is sexualizing Christianity.

Now, in the quote from West above he makes reference to John Paul II’s Theology of the Body Wednesday audience from August 18, 1982.  (I am linking to the original translation but will quote from the more recent Waldstein translation, 90.3-4.)  It is true, as West says, that the Holy Father does indeed say that the analogy works both ways.  However, once again, West latches onto to the Holy Father’s precise philosophical language and then uses it to proclaim all kinds of things the Holy Father never said.

I will not quote at length, but I recommend a careful reading of sections 3 and 4, so that one can verify my interpretation.

First of all, regardless of the inherent logic involved, the Holy Father speaks only of the analogy that St. Paul presents in the fifth chapter of the letter to the Ephesians, namely, Wives, be subject to your husbands . . . as the Church is subject to Christ, and You, husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church (vv. 25, 24).  St. Paul is simply not talking about body parts or sexual acts, and neither is the Holy Father.  They are certainly not using sexual language to describe heavenly or supernatural realities realities.

But what does John Paul II actually mean when he says that “this analogy works in two directions”?  The Holy Father says:

While [this analogy] allows us, on the one hand, to understand better the relationship of Christ with the Church, it permits us, on the other hand, to penetrate more deeply into the essence of the marriage to which Christians are called.

This statement and the Holy Father’s explanation is much more modest than West suggests by means of his practical and erotic applications.  John Paul II merely wants to point out that the analogy allows us to obtain, both a “deeper understanding of the Church,” and a “deeper understanding of marriage.”

But while there is this reciprocal movement in two directions, it is not identical in both instances.  John Paul II says that we must keep in mind “that at the basis of the understanding of marriage in its very essence stands Christ’s spousal relationship with the Church.”  So, in other words, Christ’s relationship to the Church is the foundation of our understanding of marriage.  He goes on to say that “marriage becomes a visible sign of the eternal divine mystery, according to the image of the Church united with Christ” (emphasis in original). Thus, while the relationship of Christ and His Church is the foundation of our understanding of marriage, marriage itself is a visible sign of the mystery of Christ and His Church.  This is the sense in which the analogy works both ways—and only in this sense.

What this means precisely can be elucidated if we further describe the workings of theological analogy.  This is made possible, in a particular way, if we remember the relationship of type and anti-type in sacred scripture, which is a particular use of theological analogy.  Old Testament types such as the Paschal Lamb, in relation to Christ, or the Ark of the Covent in relation to Our Lady, or even marriage (as a sacrament of creation) in relation ship to Christ and the Church, are foreshadowings and signs of something more perfect that is to come.  The Old Testament pre-figurements are the “types,” and the New Testament fulfillments are the “anti-types.”

Yet, no one would suggest that Christ is something like a furry animal or that Our Lady is something like a gold-plated wooden box.  Yes, these analogies work in two ways, but the foundation of our understanding of the Paschal Lamb is Christ as Our Lady is of the Ark of the Covenant.  And Lamb and the Ark are signs of Jesus and Mary, respectively.  The analogy does not work backwards in exactly the same way that it does forwards.

Thus, the way that these analogies work is from the higher to the lower.  We call it exemplarism.  The higher, invisible realities define and illumine the meaning of the lower, and the lower are visible signs and faint hints of the higher.  The anti-types (Jesus and Mary) are the examplars or archetypes of the lower realties (Lamb and Ark).  Yes, these analogies work both ways, but not in the same manner both ways.

But this explanation is not sufficient to deal with the particular analogy that St. Paul uses in the letter to the Ephesians, because the “sign” that St. Paul writes about, namely, marriage is not an Old Testament type, but the New Covenant Sacrament, instituted by Christ, and in itself is a higher reality than the original sacrament of creation.  In fact, both the relationship of Christ and the Church, and of man and woman in the Christian Sacrament are kinds of fulfillments, but they also both point to higher realities.  The Christian Sacrament points to Christ and His relationship to the Church, and the love of the Christ the Bridegroom for His Bride the Church on the Cross points to communion of the Father Son and Holy Spirit.

So we rightly say that analogies work in two directions, the higher, more perfect, and sometimes invisible reality defining and illuminating the meaning of the lower reality, and the lower reality remaining a visible sign and hint of the fuller reality that we are yet to experience or which is experienced in a more hidden way.  Hence, in our experience in this life of Christ’s love for the Church we often find our faith challenged because the interior life, which is Christ’s presence within us, most often goes on without our perception, yet faith tells us that the union can lead to a bliss, concerning which Christian marriage only offers a faint hint.

None of this even begins to suggest that theological analogy in general, or St. Paul’s analogy specifically, justifies our using sexual imagery to explain supernatural realities.  In any case, once again, the Holy Father simply does not make the claim Christopher West suggests he does.  Even more, the imagery in Ephesians five, when taken in the context of what Our Lord has to say of marriage belonging only to this life, drives home the fact that the more perfect must inform the less perfect and not vice-versa.  The less perfect (marriage) being closer and more familiar to us is a sign and helps us to look up to the higher reality which we do not perceive so readily.  In heaven there will be spousal love, but not sex, and even in this life that exclusive and blissful love of spouses can be had without sex.

We should be careful to not introduce more confusion into our sex-saturated world as we attempt to evangelize the masses.

3 thoughts on “Theology of the Body: Of Sign and Fulfillment

  1. Okay … I think if we piece together all of these blog articles on this subject, we’ll have quite a good book on the topic! Who wants to be Father’s editor to help him piece it together? 😉

    I’m not kidding and I’m not being sarcastic (for once). I don’t know the subject matter well enough, but I type pretty fast so I’d offer to help in some meager way. We can all come to the Friary with laptops and pizza (for brain power) in hand. Just a suggestion … don’t want to be pushy or anything. tee hee

  2. Pingback: Compendium of TOB Posts « Mary Victrix

  3. Jen, Something along those lines would be nice… I am trying to explain to some of my friends the dangers of West’s theology, and the best resource I can point them to is some blog posts. Not that theres anything wrong with that, but its just not the same as being able to hand them a book or document of some kind.

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