In culture we’ve made an idol of sex. In church, we’ve made it a sin. But should sex be an act of worship? "Desire is part of our design" "We are destined for eternal ecstasy" "Sexual union is the main icon scripture uses to explain what heaven has in store for us"
West’s passion is to equip the Church to respond effectively to the sexual revolution ? and he thinks that the answer may lie in the teachings of a late Pope. His vision is for a new God-inspired sexual revolution that eschews both repression and promiscuity. ‘Indulging in our lusts or repressing our lusts ? these aren’t the only two options: there’s another way to live our sexuality,’ he says.
Theology of the body
West’s ‘other way’ is sourced from Pope John Paul II’s teaching on the theology of the body, which he endeavours to make accessible to the Christian masses.
‘Our culture’s sexual freedom is more accurately described as sexual addiction,’ says West, who was working this out in practice during his formative university years. Part of his sexual experimentation back then, he explains, was rooted in his reaction to the lack of conversation around sex experienced in his Catholic upbringing. Then, at 19, he witnessed a date-rape, shocking him into reassessing his beliefs and behaviour. A few years later, West began to study the late Pope’s theology of the body. ‘God poured a mad, crazy, fiery love into that man’s heart. My life, my work, my mission, is to take his theology and put it into a language that normal people can understand.’
At the Victoria and Albert Museum’s elegant Lydia and Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre, surrounded appropriately enough by smooth stone curves of sculptural forms, West delivered a series of lectures on this theology of the body as part of HTB’s Leadership Conference this year.
Christians get very uncomfortable talking about sex and God together
A passionate fan of both the rock band U2 and Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables , his talks are peppered with live a capella renditions of songs, which he employs to help express his points. On every level, West is about as far as you could get from the stilted, moralising stereotype of a stuffy celibacy advocating theologian ? and yet his hero is a Pope known for his conservative views.
The true purpose of sex
The real truth about sex, says West ? a father of five ? is that sex and sexual pleasure is all about creating life. ‘We’ve lost an understanding of the role of our fertility in our sexual relations. When we reject our fertility, the goal is no longer building a family with all its joys and trials.’ One of the effects of this cultural outlook is the objectification of women. ‘Years ago, if a man said to a woman, “I want to have sex with you,” she could rightly conclude, “This guy wants to father my children. He wants to give his whole life to me and raise a family with me. Wow!” But today, it means, “You’re hot and I want an orgasm.” What does that make the woman? [She becomes] an object to be used for some man’s pleasure. We have to take a hard and honest look at how our rejection of fertility has created a culture in which human beings are valued if they are sexually pleasurable and devalued if they are not. Something has gone drastically wrong.
‘If creation is God’s first book for us to read, then you have to conclude that one of his favourite subjects, if not the favourite subject of God, is mating and fertility. What is a flower? A flower is nature’s most beautiful reproductive organ. We have lost sight of the beauty of human fertility, the beauty of life. We have reduced sex to exchange of pleasure.’
West’s desire for social justice also fuels his thinking on this. ‘The number one profile of people in poverty in the world is a single mother with children,’ he says. This tells us that ‘some guy came, had his pleasure and left. If we want to work for social justice ? and I certainly do ? we must first do justice to the fundamental social unit and that is the family. We can rebel, we can deny it, we can scream and shout and hate this fact, but it’s a fact; the family is the fruit of the sexual embrace of a man and a woman. That’s the design that is written into creation. Our rebellion against that design does not bode well for our future. Ears are meant for hearing, eyes are meant for seeing and genitals are meant for generating. A culture that fails to respect that truth will degenerate.’
The authentic soundtrack of Christianity is the Song of Songs
‘Sex is not our be all and end all: that’s the error that culture is making today,’ says West, who wants to see Christians reclaim and redeem sex as the beautiful gift God intended it to be. ‘The Song of Songs encapsulates the Christian message. When the Church cannot sing that love song powerfully and effectively to awaken hearts and invite hearts to fulfilment, sex degenerates from being an icon; an image that points us to heaven. When we lose sight of heaven beyond the icon, we start worshipping the icon.’ This explains our culture’s worship of sex, which West describes as ‘the world’s religion’
If sex is an icon that points us to something far greater that itself, how have we lost sight of the icon? And why? ‘Because an icon can be distorted,’ West explains. ‘Think of a painting: take The Mona Lisa. You can distort [it]; you can change her expression. You might hate [it] and take a knife to it and cut it to shreds…you could cover it in tar. That’s what we’ve done to sex. We don’t see sex as an icon of the life of God any more because we’ve tarred it. We’ve marred it. We twisted it and distorted it.’
West is the first to acknowledge that usually Christians get very uncomfortable talking about sex and God together. And the reason for this, he says, is because our culture’s distortions of sex are not an image of God. ‘I’m not saying let’s take the distortions of sex in the culture and you’ll find God there. No. In fact, you’ll go in the other direction, and this is the plot of the enemy ? to take us in the other direction. How does he do it? One of the ways he does it is by taking sex and twisting it all up.
‘When you turn sex in on itself, it doesn’t lead to life and love and happiness, it leads to death and lust and destruction. But the solution is not to throw away the rocket. We get afraid of the rocket. “Look at the destruction it’s caused, let’s get rid of the rocket!” we say. But Christianity is an invitation to redirect the rocket engines towards the stars.’ This image helps West define sexual morality: ‘It’s learning to aim your rocket at heaven so that the sexual choices we make truly become an authentic icon, an authentic image of divine love.’
Lust and objectification
Lust is a classic example of our culture’s distortion of sex, says West. ‘Men and women are looking at each other as objects. We cover ourselves in a fallen world not because our bodies are bad, but because they are so good. We feel an instinctive need to protect the goodness of our body from this distortion of lust.’ So how should we respond to lustful feelings? ‘Neither indulging them or repressing them is the authentic Christian way,’ West says. ‘A prayer for the redemption of the body would be like this: “Lord, I praise you and thank you for the beauty of this person. I praise you and thank you for the desire and attraction I feel in my heart to them. But Lord, I also recognise that something has gotten twisted up in my heart. I just want to use this person for my own selfishness. Lord, I give this lump of clay to you; this twisted lump of clay in my heart. And I ask you please to untwist it. Mould me, form me, shape me, and restore in my heart your original plan for my desire. Through the power of your death and resurrection in me, raise me up so that I can see the body and live the truth of sexuality in a new way.”’
The real sexual revolution
Will we stand with West in his longing for a new sexual revolution? ‘The real sexual revolution is this: that sex would be transformed from something that is worshipped into something that is worship. Transformed into something that becomes praise of God for the joy of being alive, the joy of love, the joy of being created male and female in his image and being given, in our creation, this stunning and amazing invitation to eternal ecstasy and union with God.’
It’s a mind-blowing proposal. But let’s be realistic: most Christians associate sex ? and related teaching ? with sober lists of prohibitions that may be a hurdle to finding fulfilment. ‘The way out is to show the world that this is what Christianity invites us to. But you can’t sing this love song to the world if your heart is not on fire with it yourself. We Christians must first be set on fire with this love song.’
We are all called to a marriage ? but which one? Our churches are packed with adults trying to work out the challenges that come with singleness, but West challenges us to understand marriage as so much more than a simple solution to these struggles. Marriage is a God-breathed symbol of Christian salvation. ‘The Bible begins with a marriage and ends with a marriage. The whole story of our salvation is sandwiched between the marriage of man and woman in Genesis and the marriage of Christ and the Church in Revelation,’ he says.
‘This is the way that God frames the story of salvation; this is his story. And our bodies tell this story, the story of marriage, whether you’re married or not. When we understand these two bookends of the Bible as framing the whole Christian mystery, the marriage of man and woman takes on its true nature as an image that points us towards our ultimate destiny ? marriage to God. So everyone is called to marriage, but which one?’
This reframing of a calling to singleness strikes me as refreshing. It isn’t about quelling passion, but acknowledges and identifies good in instinctual human desire. ‘Not everyone is called to the marriage of man and woman here on earth, but everyone is called to that union that lasts for ever. And every human being can relate to this because it is the cry of our heart. It’s the ache we feel; it’s the universal longing.’
Created for something infinite
A tension arises between West’s incredibly positive understanding of sex and the body and his teaching that sex in itself ? or anything else of this world, for that matter ? can never fully satisfy. ‘The journey is one of recognising what I feel: desires for food, desires for sex, desires for success…there are so many of them. We’re created for something infinite and there’s nothing in this world that will satisfy. If we make peace with that fact…then this life becomes a life of longing for God.’
Married people, says West, also need to remember that they cannot rely on another person to satisfy their ache for God. ‘You cannot be your spouse’s fulfilment. The Christian proposal is this: the infinite one has made himself food that can satisfy our hunger for the infinite.’
Sex is not our be all and end all: that’s the error our culture is making today
If we can grasp this we will come to share in Paul’s experience: ‘I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want’ (Philippians 4:12). West says we can apply Paul’s teaching here to all human relations: ‘I can rejoice if I get married. I can rejoice if I don’t get married. I’m not looking to the things of this world to be my ultimate satisfaction.’ Ever a realist, he adds: ‘But I must be very plain here in saying that getting to that place of peace is a lifelong journey of learning to trust that we really do have a loving God who wants to fulfil our hunger.’
Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the body
This was expounded through a series of 129 scholarly lectures given during his Wednesday audiences in St Peter’s Square and the Pope Paul VI Hall over a five-year period (1979-84). It was the first major teaching of his pontificate, and covered adultery, celibacy and virginity, marriage, contraception and the resurrection of the body. ‘Even seasoned theologians have their struggles wading through the lectures,’ says West. ‘A friend of mine describes reading them as like trying to wade through concrete. It’s really dense stuff.’ George Weigel, author of John Paul II’s biography, Witness to Hope (HarperCollins), described the lectures as a ‘theological time bomb’ set to go off sometime this century.
Prayer as nuptial union with God
Could this use of marriage as a symbol of salvation have a reviving effect on our prayer lives? ‘The life of prayer is nothing but a longing for God,’ says West. He highlights that Jesus’ instructions on prayer in Matthew 6:6 ? ‘when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen’ ? could more accurately be translated using nuptial imagery: ‘Go into your inner chamber and close the door.’
‘The Christian saints throughout the centuries attested to this as they stammered to explain what happened in prayer for them. They said things like, “It’s nuptial union with God.”’ While West acknowledges that this concept can seem ‘almost icky’ when we first engage with it, he also identifies its importance. ‘There’s something very significant here; there are overtones of a bridal chamber and of an intimacy that the Lord is calling us to in prayer’, he says.
The hope that saves us is the redemption of our bodies
Quoting Romans 8:23 ? ‘we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies’ ? West says that he hopes that his teaching will ultimately impact the Church by shaping our view of and hope in the afterlife as offering us bodily redemption. ‘What is the redemption of the body? We often say that Jesus came to save souls. That’s true, but if we hear that as something distinct from the redemption of our body as well, we have a problem. We have a unity of body and soul as human beings. The Christian view of the afterlife is not escape or liberation from the physical world. We are destined for eternal ecstasy.’
Christopher West’s latest book, Fill these Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing (Image Catholic books) is now available. You can download his introductory talk on the theology of the body, ‘Our Bodies Proclaim the Gospel’ at Christopherwest.com/proclaim1.