Saturday, February 28, 2015

TOB: What is original solitude?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

As I wrote in my first post on this topic, John Paul II’s TOB is often looked at solely in terms of what it has to say about sex and marriage. This is not without warrant—indeed, John Paul II placed a great deal of emphasis on marriage and the family during his papacy—but if looked at only in this light, we miss the bigger picture. Man and Woman He Created Them is about, in the simplest terms, what it means to be human—a bodily creature who comes from and responds to God.

This method of theological anthropology is evident from the beginning of TOB, After John Paul II sets up the starting point for his reflections—that is, Jesus’ insistence that we return to “the beginning” in his dialogue with the Pharisees about divorce—the pope introduces the three “original experiences” based on the creation accounts in Genesis. These three experiences—solitude, unity, and nakedness—all help us understand what it is to be both spirit and body. What does it mean to be in the material world but not entirely of it? There is more going on in TOB than thoughts on what conjugal love is and means.

This is reinforced by John Paul II’s reflections on the first of the three original experiences -- original solitude. Though in the first creation account, male and female appear simultaneously (“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” Gen 1:27), this is not the case in the second creation account. Instead we are presented with Adam, the first human, whose name means something like “humanity.” John Paul II is careful to note that in this second account, the worlds “male” and “female” (‘is and ‘issah in the original Hebrew) do not appear until there are two. I’ll talk about this more when I address original unity, but for now we’ll give our attention to the solitary Adam.

John Paul II explains the experience of original solitude in terms of man’s place and situation in the world—man is neither animal nor pure spirit.  As both, man is above the rest of the creatures. The first indication of this superior place in the created world is the directive about the garden: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). Work, then, helps set humanity apart from everything else in this world; man is the only creature with the capacity to care for what has been created—to receive it, we can say, as a gift. This receptivity and capacity to work, then, is a first step in thinking about original solitude.
"For to be a farmer's boy" by Winslow Homer is in the Public Domain

Another indication of man’s being set apart is the naming of the animals: “out of the ground the Lord God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (Gen 2:19). This too is a form of dominion—to name something is to see and understand its essence; no other creature in the world has been given this task and privilege.

Though this multi-faceted dominion is clearly a gift for and to man, making it clear that the earth is for him, it also sets the man apart in such a way that it’s not entirely clear to whom or what he belongs. By tilling the garden and naming the animals, it is evident that though Adam has a material body like the rest of creation, there is something more in him as well. Obviously the question of belonging becomes clearer when Eve is created from Adam’s rib, but we should not pass too quickly over original solitude, as, for John Paul II, it is the key to other original experiences.

John Paul II draws our attention to a third dimension of human existence that occurs before the original unity of male and female: “And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it, you shall die’” (Gen 2:16-17). John Paul II asks this question of the passage: “could man, who in his original consciousness knows only the experience of existing and thus of life, have understood what the words ‘You shall die’ mean?” (7th Catechesis). Put another way: how could Adam understand death as death has not yet entered the world?

We tend to glide over this question because of our familiarity with these passages. But if the commandment about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil can hold any weight, so to speak, with Adam, then he must have at least some sense of the consequence the Lord gives him. What can this mean?

John Paul II writes: “The words of God-Yahweh addressed to the man confirm a dependence in existing, so that they show man as a limited being and by his nature, susceptible to nonexistence.” In other words, because man is a creature, nonexistence is constitutive to his very being. Though it is somewhat unfathomable, we all know with certainty that there was a time when we were not. This is the situation of the creature.

Thus the commandment, though often viewed in negative terms (likely because we transgressed it and pay the price), is actually also a gift in line with the other directives of keeping the garden and naming the animals: it allows man to know his place in relation to the world and God, in short, it gives him the capacity to know what he is—a creature.

This, then, is the main thrust of original solitude: that man can rest in the knowledge that he is a creature, and not just a creature, but also one to whom God speaks. The original experience of solitude secures our knowledge of our selves in this world, that each person is created for his or her own sake by God, who gives the world to man as a gift.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Throwback Thursday

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"Mother Teresa Collage" is licensed under C.C. by 2.0
"Once in a while we should ask ourselves several questions in order to guide our actions.  We should ask questions like: Do I know the poor?  Do I know, in the first place, the poor in my family, in my home, those who are closest to me -- people who are poor, but not because they lack bread?

"There are other types of poverty just painful because they are more intrinsic.

"Perhaps what my husband or wife lacks, what my children lack, what my parents lack, is not clothes or food.  Perhaps they lack love, because I do not give it to them!

- Bl. Mother Teresa 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

What is sexual difference? Part II

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Sexual difference is one of the most contentious topics today.  We toss around the word “gender” with a panoply of meanings, though each person professes the utmost confidence that his (or should we use the gender neutral “hen”?) understanding of the term is the most accurate.

So, in a quest to understand what sexual difference is and why it matters, we are carefully defining our terms.  This post is the second in a series. 

In Part I of our reflections, we looked at who God is and summarized that He is relational, has unity and difference (three Persons, one God) and that within God there is both giving and receiving.  In Part III we will focus on the visible ways in which we can see the Trinitarian stamp in humanity, but first we must take a quick (and confessedly inadequate) primer in metaphysics.  To understand why the visible has an inherent logic and meaning, we must understand something of the invisible behind it.

In Ancient Greece, the philosopher Aristotle asked the question, “What is being?”  He came to understand it as composed of two things – each necessary for a thing to exist, but not reducible to each other – form and matter. 

Form is the principle of unity.  It is what actuates a thing.  Because a thing has form, it cannot be “mere matter.”  Therefore, a whole is greater than its parts.  A person is still a person if his finger is cut off.  Likewise, a frog dissected in biology class cannot be magically put back together again as a living frog.

Matter is the material.  In modernity, this tends to be that to which things are reduced, because form, is in a sense taken for granted: if it gives matter its being, then we think all we see is just matter.  But if things were merely matter, they could not exist.

Fast forward from Aristotle to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Instead of beginning with the question, “What is being?” he wanted to know why things exist.  For Aristotle, the world was eternal and therefore it seemed an irrelevant question.  But for Aquinas, who believed that the world was created out of nothing, this was an important question with which to begin. 

"Angels at Mamre (Holy Trinity)" by Rublev is in the Public Domain
St. Thomas Aquinas had a more comprehensive notion of what it means to be, which includes the “real distinction.”  An existent or entity is composed of esse (being or “that a thing is” and essence (“what a thing is”).  Essence is composed of form and matter.  So, for Aquinas there are three dimensions of a particular being – esse, form and matter.

Though belief in what is immaterial has always been part of humanity, there has been a shift in the last several centuries to not take these immaterial realities seriously.  In many ways we seek value only in what is provable through experiment and what is tangible or makeable.  Metaphysics is not visible and therefore is not seen as true or as valuable.  But it’s vital for a full and philosophical explanation of the human person to understand what form is.  When it is denied by the world at large, we miss out on huge implications of who the human person truly is.

In answering the question, “What is sexual difference?” we start with God who is eternal Gift, a Communion of Persons in which the Father gives to the Son, the Son receives the Father and gives Himself in return, and the Holy Spirit is the love that they share.  In Genesis 1, the pattern of God creating and then saying, “It is good” is interrupted before the creation of man.  Here, God pauses and looks into Himself, seeking in a sense the “blueprint” for the creation of the human person in His own image and likeness.  There is a “Trinitarian logic” at the ground of the human person, both physically and metaphysically.  Esse/being in all its fullness gives itself to existents/entities and “receives” from them.  Likewise, form – although invisible – gives shape to matter, which in turn receives and instantiates form.  This logic of gift is then made visible in our male and female bodies.  God has not only given us the gift of ourselves but also the ability to give – a reflection of and a participation in His own generosity and love.

In our next post in this series we will look more closely at the meaning of sexual difference and what our masculinity and femininity reveal to us about being human.  

Monday, February 23, 2015

Is the World a Jungle or a Home?

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Roughly a year ago a wise religious sister shared with me a profound truth, “either one receives the world, and life itself, as a gift and therefore perceives one’s surroundings as a hospitable home or the world is simply experienced as a harsh jungle threatening one’s life constantly.”
Her words came back to me recently as I was watching my toddler son explore our kitchen. In the span of 45 seconds, he bonked his head twice and was sent reeling backward onto his posterior. Clearly our kitchen was a jungle for him. Then, before bedtime, that same son bent over to pick up a toy only to unexpectedly hit the corner of the bed with his head causing him to fall backward and land on the carpet. The bedroom proved itself to be no less than the Amazon.

So how do I communicate to my children that ‘there is more than meets the eye’ when it comes to their experience of the school of hard knocks? I think it has to do with an exchange I just had with my older, three-year-old son.

This photo by the Montgomery County Planning
Commission is licensed under 
C.C. by 2.0.
Unbeknownst to him, Grandma had mailed him a picture book about hook and ladder fire engines. So I told him Grandma had sent him a surprise and that he should close his eyes and hold out his hands to receive it. After two or three more repeat instructions he trusted and did it. When he opened his eyes, he discovered the fantastic gift and was thrilled with it.  He was genuinely delighted with the book and kept asking me, “What is a surprise?” I found his question endearing, and this experience of surprise was an irreplaceable moment for him. In his innocence, surprise is 
now synonymous with a good thing given by a loved one who knows one’s preferences. 

The next morning, as we were walking down the stairs, he looked out the window and saw a slight dusting of snow and immediately exclaimed, “it snowed! Thank you Jesus!” Clearly for him this experience demonstrated that the “world is a home.”

Perhaps this is the punch line of Christian parenting? I must form my children to know through personal experience, not just lecture or conceptually, that life is full of goodness, providence and being intimately known. Inevitably, when their innocence is worn down and the struggles of life (see Genesis 3; i.e. labor pains, thorns, thistles and sweat) have mounded up, they can then enter the philosophical fray and concur that creation is very good and given to humanity to till and keep; all in anticipation of the Master’s return when He will invite His faithful servants to reside with Him in His Father’s house.             

I’m truly beginning to discover that being “like a child” (Mt 18:3) as an adult necessitates me being physically, emotionally and spiritually present to the children in my life (primarily my sons) so that when they oscillate between “jungle” and “home” experiences of the world, I relearn the lesson too and revisit my ultimate conclusion about life. Namely, that the world is an awe-inspiring gift, and if I have the eyes, ears and heart to receive it, I will become like a child trusting his father that the next thing placed in his hands will be an unexpected delight.

Life isn't a perpetual pop quiz that we dread because we have never understood the material. Life is a surprise mailing of a hook and ladder fire engine book that you love so much that you take it with you to nap time so that it fills your dreams.     

Saturday, February 21, 2015

What can experience mean?

We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

The first part of the Wednesday Catecheses, sometimes called the first “cycle” of TOB, concentrates on what John Paul II calls the “original experiences”: solitude, unity and nakedness. Each of the three warrants its own post so for now I’ll just concentrate on opening up the word “experience,” and what John Paul II is drawing out of it here. Using the creation accounts in Genesis as his guide, John Paul II contemplates the first experiences of man. In these reflections, the late pope leads us to an incredibly deep and rich understanding of man’s place in the world as creature, as worker, and as male and female. In a word, thinking about the original experiences helps us understand what it means to be human.
Michelangelo's "Creation of Eve" is in the Public Domain.
It’s important to remember that these original experiences are not fairy tales. The Genesis accounts are mythic in structure, but mythic in the sense that they recall something common to all mankind—a memory, so to speak, that we all have within us. John Paul II speaks of solitude, unity and nakedness as original not simply because they are first temporally, but because they are at our origin: these three experiences are common to us in our very humanity.

John Paul II spends most of his time in this first cycle on the original experiences exegeting the second creation account in Genesis, though always keeping the first in view as well. This second account, called “Yahwist” on account of its using that name to refer to God, is older, and John Paul II notes, has a more subjective tone. That is to say, in the second creation account we see creation more from man’s point of view, as it were. Therefore, John Paul II refers explicitly to this second account more often in order to contemplate man’s original experience of his body, which in turn helps man understand his relationship to the world and God.

Let me reiterate that last point: John Paul II is proposing here that it is mankind’s having a body and his experience in that body, that allows man to know himself, the world and God. “The body reveals man,” says the late pope in the 9th Catechesis.  In the very same paragraph, he also says of the person that “man as a person, that is, as a being that is, also in all its bodiliness, ‘similar’ to God.” Our lived experience in and through the body opens us up to God. Indeed, it is also where we are similar to Him.

Perhaps this seems like common sense: of course my experience is how I know things, since knowledge first comes from the senses. But maybe it’s not so evident to us—we have a tendency, I think, to regard our day-to-day lives and experiences as having little to do with the laws of the universe or the truth of the world. What could my body help me to understand about those things? Well, John Paul II avers, everything. Without the body, there would be no experience, and therefore nothing to know.

We tend to think in a false dichotomy of subjective vs. objective. My subjective experiences only accidentally connect with what is objectively true, but the two aren’t intrinsically connected to each other. In fact, “subjective” has become a bit of an epithet.* But if what is objectively true about the world, man and God doesn’t have everything to do with how I (subjectively) experience such things, then the world (and man and God) becomes foreign to me, a place in which I don’t really belong. That is problematic and deeply divisive, but it’s the situation we find ourselves in when we pit subjective against objective and vice versa.

John Paul II is trying to cut through this dichotomy by recovering experience as a means to know the true, good and beautiful, rather than as something incommunicable that traps us in ourselves. Experience and meaning are not opposed. The original experiences help us to see this more fully because they are at the basis of every other experience, and therefore something which we all share. Solitude, unity and nakedness, as John Paul II articulates them in TOB, are the abiding presence of “the beginning” in the midst of our lives. And as we have this deep memory of creation within us simply because we are human (and therefore bodily), surely our lived, bodily experience is also what helps us to understand the transcendent.

*the Dude abides.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Throwback Thursday

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"By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.

Public Domain
"Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. Of this salvation event marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy: 'As a memorial, the sacrament gives them the grace and duty of commemorating the great works of God and of bearing witness to them before their children. As actuation, it gives them the grace and duty of putting into practice in the present, towards each other and their children, the demands of a love which forgives and redeems. As prophecy, it gives them the grace and duty of living and bearing witness to the hope of the future encounter with Christ.'"

-- St. John Paul II, "Familiaris Consortio" #13

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Openness to life does not guarantee having children

A while ago, I attended a friend's bridal shower. We played that game where the shower planners ask the groom a series of questions about the bride beforehand, and then at the shower the bride is asked the same questions to see if their answers match or (usually for a laugh) don't. Questions like, "What is the bride's least favorite chore?" and "What was the bride's first pet?" and so on.

One of the questions was, "How many children does the bride want to have?" At the shower, my friend answered without hesitation, "As many as God gives us." I think the groom's answer was a specific number, (maybe four?) so that got a laugh.

Fast forward: nine months after my friend got married, they welcomed their son into the world. A big Catholic family was in the making.

The funny (ironic? sad? devastating?) thing is, that when I was getting married almost four years ago, I answered that question exactly the same way: "as many as God gives us." In fact, on one of the first dates with my future husband, he asked me, "How many kids do you want?" and I replied (blushing, and feeling slightly giddy at the thought of us having kids together), "Enough to fill a church pew!"

And yet here we are, still childless. A family of two. I am conscious of that heavy label every single day: infertile. Or, more biblically, barren.

"relax baby" by Janine is licensed under C.C. by 2.0.
We have been open to life our entire marriage, and so far the number of children God wants to give us appears to be a big fat zero. (And by "open to life," I mean what the Church means: that each and every marital act is open to the possibility of conception and not closed off to that possibility by means of contraception or sterilization, cf. Humanae Vitae, no. 11.)

I could fill several books with moody, macabre reflections about the experience of being infertile, about what it's like when children don't come despite your strong desire and best efforts. But I'll spare you that (for now).

What I'd like to share here is one truth that infertility has hammered home for me, the title of this post: openness to life does not guarantee having children.

Perhaps that seems so obvious as to be banal. Of course not every procreative act results in actual procreation; basic biology tells us that. And yet there are many days when it seems to me like this fact is not obvious at all.

For example: at large Catholic events when a speaker is introduced and the crowd gasps and cheers at the fact that he has ten children. Of course we should celebrate the gift of life and the generosity of large families. But would people cheer for us, just as open to life, although with nothing (visible) to show for it?

Or another example: I have read articles or been part of conversations that implicitly, or quite explicitly, blame everything from demographic winter to the closing of Catholic schools to the growing use of immoral reproductive technology on childless couples or small families, without the qualification that not all of them chose not to have a(nother) child. I would very much like to bump up the birthrate!

In short, it seems from my (emotionally biased, yes) vantage point that even within the Church many forget that having children is not first something a couple wills or does, such that they can take credit for procreation or deserve blame for its absence. Having children is not, first, a choice, a box to check "yes" or "no". If only it were that simple! Rather, having children is something that a couple receives through no merit of their own but simply because our God is abundantly generous and has inscribed in our bodies the awesome power to participate in the very act of creation.

In other words, children are a gift. They are gratuitously, mysteriously given, and sometimes, even more mysteriously, not given.

Only God knows whether my friend and her husband will conceive easily again (and again); only God knows whether my husband and I will live our entire marriage as a family or two, or whether we will be blessed with children through conception or adoption. But what I do know, what the experience of infertility has taught me through an often painful valley of tears, is that life is not at our command nor something we can take credit for. We will remain open to life in obedience to God and the truth of our bodies and marriage. As for having a church pew full of children, well, we'll welcome as many as God gives us.

The author is a graduate of the John Paul II Institute. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

TOB: What is meant by "beginning"?

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We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

As I said in my first post on TOB, my aim in this series has been and will be to highlight some less commonly written about aspects of the Wednesday Catecheses. One, I think, is that the entirety of TOB is scriptural exegesis. Indeed, we could describe John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them as an incredibly in-depth and rich exegesis on the Gospel passages in Matthew and Mark that describe the encounter Christ has with the Pharisees in which they ask him about divorce. The late pope starts with the Gospels and only turns to the Genesis accounts in light of Christ’s words. This is, first of all, an indication of how we should be reading all of Scripture all of the time—in and through the Word that is Jesus Christ. This is perhaps John Paul II’s first lesson in his Wednesday Catecheses, albeit an implicit one.

Let’s then, as the saint did, look at this passage in Matthew (19:3-8):
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?” He said to them, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.

Let’s also look at the first comment John Paul II makes on this passage: “Christ does not accept the discussion on the level which his interlocutors try to introduce it.” This is also a key aspect of John Paul II’s writings, though again one which I think is often passed over—that is, John Paul II is communicating a method here: we cannot accept the given framework (of a problem, of a discussion, of a culture) if it is not given in the fullness of what is true, good and beautiful. In a word: we must reject that which does not come from God.
"The Birth of Christ" by Henri Fantin Latour is in the Public Domain
But is Christ’s response to the Pharisees a simple rejection? I would say no. What Christ rejects is the hardness of their hearts, the sinfulness of Israel, but he does not reject Israel outright. What he does is go back to “the beginning,” a beginning that Israel knows well, and to Scriptures that the Pharisees know and must acknowledge to be true. This is not, then, a simple reference; it is a directive: go back to the Scriptures and try to understand and read with faith.

Many times in the Gospels we encounter this phrase about Jesus: “He spoke with authority.” What does this mean? Surely it conveys something more than tone of voice, and we also know that Christ did not go around proclaiming he was the Son of God in so many words. Rather, this authority comes from Christ himself; he radiates understanding of the Scriptures, and has since he was a child: “all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Lk 2:47). He is no Pharisee but rather lives the Scriptures from the inside out, as it were. And this living of the Scriptures is palpable in his presence and the way he speaks about the Word of God.

Thus, when Christ tells the Pharisees, “from the beginning it was not so” in distinction from the Law of Moses, he is also signaling that a return to the beginning is possible in a way that has not before been available to man. By rejecting the Pharisees’ question and pointing to the beginning, Christ is helping us to see that through him man can regain his original disposition in front of God, the world, and his fellow man.

This, I must emphasize, is more than a moral or juridical issue: Christ is not simply an example to us, showing us we can live more holy lives, nor does he inject us with some spiritual strength so that we finally have the endurance to stay with our spouses. Rather, this is on the level of being, on the ontological level. Christ is the beginning—John’s Gospel does not start the way it does accidentally. Man is created in Christ’s image and likeness. Therefore, the incarnation of the Son brings the beginning back to us: it is a re-creation of man, again in Christ’s image, again in his likeness. Christ has the authority to speak of such things to the Pharisees because he is the authority, the Word made flesh, who makes it possible for all of man to again become Adam, albeit in a way greater than even the first Adam could have ever imagined.

This comes, however, with implications for our lives. Hardness of heart is no longer an excuse. The beginning has been given to us again, in a way we could not anticipate. Therefore, John Paul II helps us to see, we must reject all frameworks other than that of Christ himself, and live in the authority of the Word once more. This is man’s true beginning, and it is one he never leaves behind.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Throwback Thursday

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"Wedding 011a" by Walter is licensed under CC by 2.0.

"Authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ's redeeming power and the saving activity of the Church, so that this love may lead the spouses to God with powerful effect and may aid and strengthen them in sublime office of being a father or a mother. For this reason Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state. By virtue of this sacrament, as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligation, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ, which suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity. Thus they increasingly advance the perfection of their own personalities, as well as their mutual sanctification, and hence contribute jointly to the glory of God."
 -- Gaudium et Spes #48 ("The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World," Second Vatican Council)

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

What is sexual difference, Part I

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Two years ago when the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for a pair of cases regarding the redefinition of marriage, I attended a March for Marriage held in Washington, DC.  Although many people were energized by standing with thousands of supporters of marriage (“marriage without adjectives,” as Dr. Jennifer Roback Morse likes to say), I left the rally rather discouraged.

People representing both sides of the debate were present.  People on both sides represented their beliefs through chants and slogans written on cardboard.  In a culture accustomed to expressing profound and mundane thoughts in 140 characters, perhaps this seemed normal to most people.

I felt trapped in front of the Supreme Court building, physically because of the chaos, but even more so, trapped by misunderstood vocabulary and the limitations of sound bites and slogans.  The truth of marriage cannot be expressed in the confines we have been handed.  The truth is a delicate set of paradoxes. 

Chief among the words that must be defined before a true conversation related to so many hot-button issues today can take place is that of sexual difference.  “Gender” is viewed as something fluid that we define for ourselves.  Commonly, sex is considered whatever reproductive organs I happen to have, and gender is viewed either as a social construct related to those reproductive organs or as the sex that I feel like or that to which I align myself.

By St. Petersburg College Library [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Is there an inherent meaning in gender or sexual difference?  Does it matter how we define it, how we understand it, how we talk about it?  Could an adequate view of sexual difference be key to assisting us on our quest to discover the meaning of being human?

To define sexual difference, we must plunge deeply into our origin as human persons.  This is a question that cannot be answered superficially.  Rather, we must go to the heart of who we are in order to discover why we are created male and female.   Consequently, to answer the question, “What is gender or sexual difference?” we really have to start with the question, “Who is God?”  A comprehensive answer is impossible in about 1000 words, but what follows is a brief summary.

Jesus’ disciple John tells us that God is love.  Yes, God loves, but even more so God is Love.  Love is who He is.  Love requires three – the lover, the beloved and the love which they share.  Love, however, is not three separate actions.  The giving and receiving in love are united as one. 

One person cannot be love because love requires three.  The three Persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are Love in their unity and giving and receiving.  The Father pours Himself out as a gift to the Son.  The Son receives the Father and in return gives Himself to the Father.  Their love is so powerful that it is a third Person – the Holy Spirit. 

God is so generous within Himself that in this superabundance of love, He created the world.  Adam and Eve, as all of us, were created to receive everything as a gift – their own lives, each other, the world around them, their relationship with God.  There was no reason to grasp or to take.  All that they needed had already been given.  But in that moment of encounter with the serpent, Eve decided to not trust the goodness and love of God.  By grasping at the gift rather than receiving it, our original parents testified to their doubt that God would really provide for all that they needed and desired.  Rather than trust the Fatherhood of God, Adam and Eve took matters into their own hands.  Rather than value the gift of being creatures, they sought to become the creator of their own destiny and identity. 

Thousands of years later, we are making the same mistake today.  Instead of receiving our lives, our identity, our femininity/masculinity as a gift from God, we have attempted to take and to fashion ourselves.  But in order to be a man or a woman, in order to be a person, we first must receive.

A large portion of feminist sentiments over the years have been driven by a perceived negativity of receptivity.  Aristotle, for example, identified woman with passivity (matter) and man with activity (form).  Act was considered perfection, leaving women to be perceived as a sort of deformed male – completely passive.  This was the reining philosophical interpretation of gender for centuries.  However, as time went on and receptivity became associated with weakness, ignorance and inferiority, women desired to shed the title.  If receptivity really is about weakness, ignorance and inferiority, then women would be justified in their desire to find a different role.  But somewhere in our history, we were invited to change our perception of receptivity as not purely passive, and therefore, not inferior.
In the Incarnation, being both fully God and fully man, Christ revealed God to us.  The great mystery of the Trinity entered our radar because of Jesus Christ.  He spoke throughout the Gospels about his oneness with the Father and His call to send the Holy Spirit.  The three Persons of the Trinity are each fully God, and yet they are not cookie-cutter images.  They are unique Persons, all one God.  Consequently, there is an order within the Trinity. 

Since God is a Communion of Persons in love, and love requires both giving and receiving, there is an order of these two actions in God as well.  In Philippians 2, we see that Christ is the one who receives from the Father.  Love is initiated by the Father, without Him being greater than the Son or the Holy Spirit.  If all three are “equally” God, and yet there is a giving and receiving within the Trinity, then receptivity in God cannot be less than giving. 
Before the revelation of Jesus Christ, no one could conceive of receptivity as being a good in the same way as giving.  If giving is equated with power, then only the giver could have the “goodness” of being in control.  St. Thomas Aquinas saw the receptivity of Christ, and knowing that Jesus is not less than the Father, drew the conclusion that Christ’s receptivity had to be equal to the Father’s giving.  For many years, these conclusions about the equality of receptivity stayed in the realm of Trinitarian theology.  In the 20th century, the theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, meditated upon the “perfection” of receptivity in creatures as well. 
It’s important to note that in terms of Creator-to-creature, both men and women receive.  Each human person receives his life as a gift from God.  Each of us receives the opportunity to respond to the love of God that has existed eternally. 

When we discover that receptivity is not a disadvantage and that all of creation is on the receiving end of the gift, we begin to realize that women hold a privileged position of representing the good of receptivity to the world.  Giving and receiving are not about power, but about service and love.
At the same time, not only do men both give and receive, but women do as well.  We are not two halves that make a whole, nor are we a positive and a negative number that balance each other in the end.  Yet, just as there is an order within the Trinity that does not cancel the equality of each Person being fully God, similarly there is an order within our human interactions that allows us to give and receive love in image of the One who created us. 

Back to our question, “Who is God?”  There are three major points to emphasize as we seek a definition of sexual difference. 

·      1) He is relational.  The three persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – are always in relation.  In fact, without their relationship, they would not be the Trinity – three Persons, One God.  Their relationship is more than just a friendship:  God is love.  Within God Himself, there is the Lover, the Beloved, and the Love that they share.

·      2) He has unity and difference.  God is three Persons who are “as great as” the others and are completely united.  At the same time, however, the three Persons are different.  They are able to share in eternal love because they are both different and perfectly united.

·      3) Within the Trinity, there is both giving and receiving.  If there was only giving, God couldn’t be love.  If there was only receiving, God couldn’t be love.  It is only because both giving and receiving are present in perfect abundance in God, that God is love.  We might think of receiving as something that weak people do, but God invites us to see otherwise. 

The fact that we are created by God – as is the entire world in which we live – allows us to see something of God around us.  In all that He creates, God leaves His “Trinitarian stamp.”  There is an inner logic to every person and to the whole world that is rooted in the Trinity.  The more we come to understand who God is, the more we are able to see who we are and why we are present in the world – and why we exist as male and female. 

Saturday, February 7, 2015

TOB: What is a gift?

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 We continue here our explorations into St. John Paul II’s series of Wednesday Catecheses, which eventually became known as Man and Woman He Created Them: a Theology of the Body (TOB, for short). To see other posts on this topic, click here.

It is no secret that John Paul II was both involved in and influenced by the Second Vatican Council. Though his attendance at the Council was occasionally spotty, due to the then Cardinal Wojtyła’s passport being revoked by the Communist government in Poland, he participated in many of the planning committees through written interventions and the like. When he was elected to the papacy, it is clear that the late pope took seriously the task of propagating and interpreting the teachings of Vatican II. The documents appear often in his writing, and even if there are no direct references, there is usually some reflection on a theme that emerged from the ecumenical council.

One theme that is interwoven throughout John Paul II’s writing is that of gift. One of the most-quoted lines by the saint is from Gaudium et spes (GS) 24:
The likeness [between the communion of men and the communion of the Persons of the Trinity] reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself, except through a sincere gift of himself.

Looking back through his writings, it becomes clear that this line is special to John Paul II. It’s included in almost every one of his encyclicals, and much of his other writing as well. TOB is of course no exception here. And “gift” carries here some meaning both beyond and below, as it were, the presenting of another person with a token. It has more depth as it is used by the Council Fathers in GS and in John Paul II’s work, including TOB. Let’s try and unpack that a bit.

In the Wednesday Catecheses, the first place gift appears is not with respect to man giving himself to woman, or vice versa, but with respect to God giving man the gift of creation. This language is radical, even if it may seem trite to us today.

**Reader beware: generalizations and simplifications in the next couple of paragraphs, though I think none of it false. It just needs more nuance after further discussion.**

Pre-Christian philosophical man had two choices (more or less) when it came to understanding the divine: either there was a god or gods who were very close to man, creating man because he somehow needed him—man’s sacrifices, man’s offerings were some source of power or pleasure, for example—or there was a god who was absolutely indifferent to the world, who created unknowingly or didn’t care at all. There were attempts to bridge the gap between these two pictures of divinity with the image of an indifferent god, a demi-urge, subordinate to the supreme being..  This demi-urge was responsible for making the world and consequently  in some sense, needed his creatures. In the end, even this alternative takes us back to the perennial philosophical seesaw of the necessity of the world to God or the absolute indifference of God to the world.

Can we say that God needs his creatures, or that creation was necessary? We cannot. To do so would be to put God at the mercy of his creatures, and ultimately would make him just a more powerful version of ourselves. But can we say that God is indifferent to us? That he created the world arbitrarily, through some sort of spasmodic will? . . . This doesn’t seem quite right either, especially in a Christian worldview. This is, after all, the Father who sent his Son for us, and the Son who suffered and died for us. There is a lot at stake there for a God who is simply indifferent to his creation.

So how do we cut through this dialectic of need and arbitrary will in God? By trying to understand the logic of gift. Let’s think about this a bit: one never truly needs to give a gift, one just wants to. But when you decide to give a gift, you’re not simply indifferent to what happens to it after you’ve given it away, nor are you indifferent to how the person receives it. But you do give it in all freedom, meaning there are no claims or qualifications on how the person is to use it; rather, you hope that they enjoy it, receive it well, and use it well. True gifts are not perfunctory things.

This all points to there being such a thing as a logic of gift. In a way, when I give a gift, I’m giving part of myself. I’ve put thought into it, time and/or money, etc., so this thing is not entirely different from myself, and yet, here I am, giving it away freely to another person, to do with it what they will. Indeed, I don’t diminish myself in giving a gift, even if it is part of me. In fact, the opposite is likely true. The gift in some sense unites the giver and the receiver: the giver is really giving part of himself, while the receiver really receives it into himself.
"Creation of Adam" is in the Public Domain.

So too with creation. The logic of creation is gift: God is entirely free to give, and we, in some sense, are entirely free to either receive it well, or to reject it. It is there for us, so that it may serve us, and we may serve it. And God is not entirely indifferent to whether we choose to receive or reject His gift.

But just as a gift tells something about the one who gives it, so too can creation tell us about our Creator. If the logic of creation is gift, then that logic in an analogical sense is also within our Creator. Now, if a gift really does unite the giver and receiver, we might be able to say that the logic of gift looks a bit like communion, and that this logic could be carried up—again, analogically—into God. And of course we already know this to be true: the Trinity is a communion of life and love. The point then is that the logic of creation is not outside of or extrinsic to the logic of the life of the Trinity. The Creator is not foreign to his creation.

But the stakes of this gift,  the gift of creation, are raised higher than any gift we could possibly give or receive because in the gift of creation, not only is the gift given, but the receiver is given too. That is to say, man is created, and he is created as the receiver of the gift of creation. Thus, the logic of gift is written into him as well, into his very being, his very body. Therefore, the logic that enables (so to speak) creation in the first place, a logic of gift and communion that already exists in the Trinity, can be seen in the flesh of man himself.

But what does this mean for man’s existence and his existence-as-embodied creature? First, it seems to me that gratitude is then the disposition of our existence, and that gratitude always directs us to another—we’re always directed out of ourselves, and again, our bodies help us to see this. This gratitude is not, however, simply how we react to God, rather, as an existential disposition, it means that that is how we’re disposed to everyone and everything. If creation is a gift, if my very existence is a gift, along with the existence of everything else, gratitude has to be how we first look at the world.

But(!) look at the radicality of this: it immediately communicates a different way of relating to the rest of the created world, God and each other. Gratitude is not bitter: one doesn’t view a gift in light of one’s own neediness—that is, we don’t hold it against the giver that he sees something we need or desire and then gives it to us. In this logic of gift and reciprocal gratitude—in this logic of communion—our embodiment and corresponding finitude is not something about which we should be ashamed; it is rather the space to allow a gift to be given in the first place. The limitedness of my body is not a curse I must master or overcome, but precisely the place at which I am open to generosity.

Gift, then, indicates an entire way of understanding and responding to God, the world, my own body, and everything in between. We were created as gifts to ourselves and to each other, in the image and likeness of the Trinity, an image and likeness to which our corporeal form is not incidental. To give oneself, as John Paul II highlights often in his quoting of GS 24, allows one to enter into the logic and life of God himself.