Thursday, September 30, 2010

Continuing the conversation with Dawn Eden

This time, it's Professor Janet Smith. The most serious "charge" Eden makes in  her well-publicized thesis--it seems to be the one thing that unsettles the largest number of more conservative thinkers--is that, according to West, the Theology of the Body is so "revolutionary" that it marks a real break with the past, with tradition. In more formal terms, it violates the hermeneutic of continuity. (Them's fighting words if you're an orthodox theologian!)
In her very lengthy critique of the thesis (as a Professor, Dr. Smith has had to wade through many a Master's thesis, so she critiques this one as if it were another work coming across her desk), Smith zeroes in on this most weighty point. That passage (from the middle of Smith's response) will follow here; please go to Catholic Exchange for her Part 1 and for the rest of the critique.

[Eden] states the theme in this way: “The Theology of the Body is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize ‘everything’ about Christian faith and life” (ET, 11). She explains further by stating, “It isn’t just about sex and marriage;” it is a “revolution” that “will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed.”  (Eden notes that this quotation came from George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, 343). There is a striking set of words linked here: “all-encompassing,” “recontextualize,” “everything,” “revolution,” and “dramatic development.” Eden bombards her readers with words that she seems to believe will shock them.  Surely, there can be no hermeneutic of continuity if such radical claims are being made.
But does West say such things and, if so, where, and what does he mean?  The merit of Eden’s thesis over against some of the other pieces against him is that it provides readers with sources where they can go to verify her charges.  Unfortunately, as I have stated, when one goes to the sources or even reads carefully what Eden has stated, one rarely draws the same conclusions that she does. I was hoping to find where West says what she states the first theme to be.  Eden doesn’t lead us to any passages that state that the Theology of the Body is an “all-encompassing” theology; she only notes that West said it “isn’t just about sex and marriage.” (ET, 11) I would have thought Eden would be pleased that West says the Theology of the Body “isn’t just about sex and marriage,” because elsewhere she accuses him of presenting the Theology of the Body as though it were only about sex and marriage. He can’t win!
Recontextualizing Everything
Eden does acknowledge that the word “recontextualize” is hers, but she does not acknowledge that none of the words in her first theme belong to West.  (ET, 11, footnote, 25)  That is, he does not say that “theologians and religious educators” must do anything in respect to “everything about Christian faith and life.” In reference to the word “everything,” she refers us to an essay by West, entitled “What is the Theology of the Body and Why is it Changing So Many Lives?” The word “everything” does not appear in that essay.  I did find some interesting material there, however.  West quotes John Paul II as saying that “Since our creation as male and female is the ‘fundamental fact of human existence’ (Feb. 13, 1980), the theology of the body affords ‘the rediscovery of the meaning of the whole of existence, the meaning of life’ (Oct. 29, 1980).” This certainly is a sweeping claim, but it is John Paul II’s claim, not West’s.  West follows John Paul II in understanding that the Theology of the Body will allow us to “rediscover” the meaning of existence and life.  This rediscovery is a kind of revolution but it is in no way a revolution that involves any change in doctrine.  It is a reappropriation of the deepest roots of the faith.  There is no discontinuity here.
When Sister Marianne Lorraine TrouvĂ© (who is providing an excellent critical commentary of Eden’s thesis on her blog) also pointed out Eden’s error regarding the “everything to change” assertion, Eden thanks her for pointing out the error and notes: “The source should have been listed as West’s article ‘The Pope’s Theology of the Body.’ (Catholic Education Resource Center; [accessed February 5, 2010]).”  I invite others to read that piece and see if West is claiming that “everything about Christian faith and life” must be “recontextualized.”  Again, I think those who go to the source will find a wonderful article disclosing the treasures of the Theology of the Body.
A search for “everything” in the source that Eden provides, leads us to these paragraphs:
According to John Paul, by reflecting on these three levels [Original Man, Historical Man, Eschatological Man] of “experiencing” the body, sexuality, and marriage, we discover the very structure and deepest reality of human identity – we find our place in the cosmos and even penetrate the mystery of the Trinitarian God. How is this so through contemplating the body, sex, and marriage? As John Paul shows us, the question of sexuality and marriage is not a peripheral issue. In fact, he says the call to “nuptial love” inscribed in our bodies is “the fundamental element of human existence in the world” (General Audience 1/16/80). In light of Ephesians 5, he even says that the ultimate truth about the “great mystery” of marriage “is in a certain sense the central theme of the whole of revelation, its central reality” (General Audience 9/8/82).
This is to say that everything God wants to tell us on earth about who he is, the meaning of life, the reason he created us, how we are to live, as well as our ultimate destiny, is contained somehow in the meaning of the human body and the call of male and female to become “one body” in marriage. How? Pointing always to the Scriptures, the Holy Father reminds us that the Christian mystery itself is a mystery about marriage – the marriage between Christ and the Church. Yes, God’s plan from all eternity is to draw us into the closest communion with himself – to “marry” us! Jesus took on a body so we could become “one body” with him (which we do in the Eucharist)  (my emphasis). [i]
West is hardly giving instructions to theologians and educators to “recontextualize everything.”  Rather, he is simply pointing out that the Holy Father is directing us to contemplate the mystery of the body, of marriage, and the relationship of Christ and his Church.  We see no “revolution” here, no calls for “doctrinal development.”

No comments: