Monday, June 8, 2009

And then God created the olive branch
David Schindler calls time-out in dispute over Christopher West's teachings

A guest post by FR. ANGELO MARY GEIGER F.I.

I have no desire to see [Christopher West’s] project fail. My intention in this and my earlier statement has been to say enough only to identify problematic tendencies, which seem to me serious. My intention, in other words, has been to lift a horizon of objective concerns into relief, for the purpose of inviting reflection by all those involved or interested in West’s project.

These words of Prof. David Schindler, that hit the Web Friday are a perfect expression of the spirit in which his whole response to Profs. Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein was written.  I have the greatest admiration for this man’s cool-headed and courteous manner. Prof. Schindler limited himself to discussing the issues at hand, and I believe he has established the basis for on ongoing dialogue on this subject in such a way that prominent West supporters will not be able to dismiss.  These issues have now been brought irreversibly out in the open and will be discussed for a long time to come.

Prof. Schindler points out that, aside from the way that this debate may affect the future of the theology of the body apostolates in this country, there is a more vital interest:

Defense of our own positions matters only in terms of the always anterior need for accountability to the integrity of truth for its own sake.

Of the most fundamental importance is not the way in which the battle lines have been drawn on the Web, or the way in which this or that person may feel about discussing these issues in the open, but the issue of truth itself. And while Schindler says that a resolution to such a problem is “anterior” to any question of personal consequences, he is not suggesting that the issue of truth can be resolved in summary fashion.

Schindler has thus expressed his unwillingness to engage in discussion by means of a conference, because this would result more in “strategic management” than fruit born of “sustained thinking.” However, he is willing to engage with West in an ongoing and sustained exchange of ideas in the pages of Communio, the scholarly journal he edits. He stresses, and rightly so, that this exchange is going to take time, and that means, in my view, a willingness to take the concerns raised against West’s presentation seriously.

In connection with this I would like to make reference to another defense of Christopher West released also Friday from Prof. Michael J. Healy, who this past week participated in a joint presentation with West on purity and sexuality, sponsored by the Personalist Project.  A summary statement from his comments, I think, underscores the importance of Schindler’s exhortation to take some time on this question:

I think Christopher West has more experience on the front lines of our sexualized culture than most of us; thus, we can respectfully let him follow his own “instincts” (probably not the best “personalist” word here) in these matters.

Schindler seems to think, and I agree, that in the interests of truth what we need to do is precisely to respectfully question West’s “instincts,” especially when, as Schindler points out, the concerns he raised in his first critique of West are abundantly well documented over the many years of West’s programs and presentations.  If we are trying to plumb the depths of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, “instinct” is certainly not enough.  In any case, Schindler’s latest piece has made this kind of dismissiveness irrelevant.

The reason for the force of Schindler’s argument is that he substantiates at length the validity of his first critique and establishes a standard by which to judge the value of his evidence.  None of Schindler’s critics argued rigorously against his assertions, they simply dismissed them as not meeting a scholarly standard.  But the fact remains that the concerns he raised are credible on the basis what many, many people have heard West say. As Schindler notes,

What one rightly does in such a context is pay attention to the character and number of incidents, to the consistency of what is reported, and to the credibility of those reporting, assessing all of this in terms of its correspondence with one’s own direct knowledge and experience – all sound Aristotelian methodology.

Schindler’s latest contribution to this debate deserves a careful reading.  I will not try to summarize it, but I would like to mention a point of interest in his piece that touches upon one of the main concerns that I have had with West’s presentation, namely, the whole idea of the taming of concupiscence.

First of all, in my previous posts I have never intended to allege that West is suggesting that we will return to original innocence.  (Some of the commenters have suggested I did.)  Generally I have referred to “something akin to original innocence” or the “silencing of concupiscence.”   In fact West rejects the notion of a return to original innocence:

And the more we experience a “real and deep victory” over lust, the more we experience that same sense of wonder and fascination at the human sexual-body that is present in the verses of the Song of Songs—and experience very different from the mere arousal of lust.  It is not possible to return to the state of original innocence, but it is possible for love to win in its battle with lust (Heaven’s Song, p.42).

So we will not return to original innocence; however, a “’real and deep victory’ over lust” will bring about a “holy fascination” with our bodies and our sexuality that is something quite different with lust.  (Cf. West's Heaven’s Song, pp. 37-52 for the idea of “holy fascination.”)  This “real and deep victory” is mentioned by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body:

The accusation of the moral evil that the "desire" born from carnal intemperate concupiscence contains within itself is at the same time a call to overcome this evil.  If victory over evil must consist in detachment from it (hence the severe words in the context of Mt 5:27-28), nevertheless one must only detach oneself from the evil of the act (in the case at hand, the interior act of "concupiscence") and one must never transfer the negativity of this act to its object.  Such a transfer would signify—perhaps not in a fully conscious way—a certain acceptance of the Manichaean "anti-value."  It would not constitute a real and deep victory over the evil of the act, which is evil by its moral essence, and thus and evil of a spiritual nature; on the contrary, there would be concealed in it the great danger of justifying the act to the detriment of the object (the essential error of the Manichaean ethos consists precisely in this) (45.4; italics, the author; bold, mine).

In the context of the Holy Father’s remarks it appears to me that this “real and deep victory” concerns the refusal to consent to lust of thought, recognizing its intrinsic evil, but without the transference of the evil of that act onto its object, namely the body of a woman.  And the danger of not winning that victory, in Manichaean terms, would be to excuse the sin of lust on the basis that one is overcome by the evil of a woman’s body.  At least in this context, there does not seem to me to be a mandate to have a “fascination at the human sexual-body,” just an urging not to allow our rejection of lust to become a rejection of the goodness of the human body. 

In the theology of the body, John Paul II does speak about “reciprocal fascination” of man and woman with each other’s bodies; however, the context is the experience of Adam and Eve in Genesis before the Fall (108.5) and the bridegroom and bride in the Song of Songs (108.6). Applying this to the exigencies of modern man, it would seem particularly appropriate for this mutual fascination to exist between spouses purified by redemptive grace through the Sacrament of Matrimony, as it would also be appropriate to understand the metaphor of human spousal and even bodily love as a means of perceiving the depths of the love of God, but I am not sure that it suggests anything more than that.  In other words, I am not sure that the Holy Father is suggesting that a real and deep victory over lust consists in the ability to be fascinated with the body of the opposite sex without experiencing the movement of concupiscence, or that in general we ought to set its approximation as a goal in order to overcome “suspicion” of the body and sexuality (cf. TOB 46.4; Heaven’s Song, 15).

In his original piece Schindler asserted that "West misconstrues the meaning of concupiscence." Waldstein countered by suggesting that Schindler almost denies that “in the sexual sphere, true growth in virtue is possible.”  In this new article Schindler answers Waldstein’s charge by affirming the possibility of “growth in virtue in the sexual sphere,” but emphasizing the need to qualify what exactly that means.  Schindler indicates three areas where he has a concern over West’s interpretation of concupiscence and its taming:

1) West emphasizes the goodness of the body and stresses that lust resides in the heart. He does not deny that concupiscence continues to exist within the body, but by putting the emphasis on purity of heart Schindler wonders whether West “gives sufficient weight to the continued objective presence in the body of the fomes peccati (the tendency to sin).”

2) Perhaps West is not giving “sufficient weight to the necessary mediating role of natural-human virtue,” “in treating the will immediately in relation to the transforming power of grace and the Gospel.”

3) Perhaps West does not go far enough in distinguishing between “decent” and “indecent” looks, when there is a need for a reverence “deriving from the mystery contained in the body whose unveiling requires a sensitivity to time and to place which is not simply a function of sin and hence shame.”

No one in this debate denies the transforming power of God’s grace to heal us in the sexual sphere and to make real spontaneous virtue in matters of sexuality a reality.  The question for me is whether all this verbal unveiling and propensity toward sexual fascination is the way to do it.  It’s in this sense, that I have never been comfortable with all the apologetical marketing hype concerning TOB.

Schindler states that he decided reluctantly to involve himself in this debate, not because of the Nightline interview, but because

the great numbers of people who have experienced some uneasiness in their encounters with West’s work . . . need to know that this uneasiness has an objective foundation in the work of West itself: it is a consequence not only or always of unconscious “Puritanism” on their part, but often simply of their spontaneous and authentic human and Catholic instincts.

According to Michael Healy, during his joint presentation with West the other day, a questioner asked: “whether explicit descriptions of private acts ought to be used in public and that he himself found this offensive.  Did that make him a prude?”  In reply West asked the man “to consider why he felt the way he did and to consider whether he wasn’t being oversensitive to the matter rather than just properly sensitive.  Did he have some problem with accepting his sexuality?” (Another witness mentions the exchange here.)  Healy “did not see this as illegitimate pressure on the questioner but as a reasonable consideration”; nevertheless, he emphasized that West is “clearly a very humble man, always ready and eager to learn and improve.”

It is interesting to note, however, that this event comes right on the heels of this very public controversy that questions precisely this type of presentation and pressure.  In fact, as already noted, the uneasiness of many people with this kind of presentation is the primary basis for Schindler’s intervention.

Much more needs to be said about this unrelenting penchant for unveiling the mystery and then suggesting that anyone who does not consider this sufficiently reverent has a problem with their sexuality.  At some point, I would like to write something on West’s approach to his regard for the body of the Blessed Mother, and his insinuations that anyone who is uncomfortable with examining the body of their mother has some kind of unresolved sexual conflict within themselves (cf., e.g., Heaven’s Song, pp. 76-81).

For his part, Schindler writes:

My own view is that the habit of communication of the dominant culture, which knows no discreet activities that ought not to be fully exposed, and no mysteries that ought not to be fully unveiled, is precisely what needs to be called into question, by both the form and the content of an authentically Christian-human response. To be sure, this does not mean that things which ought not to be talked about publicly should not be addressed in private — for example, if a personal question needs to be clarified or if counseling is warranted.

I will be the last person to deny that prudery is a problem.  I have seen very often an excessive reliance on secondary rules for modesty entertainment and general behavior that is narrowing and sometimes sectarian.  It is a real problem in certain circles.  However, in matters of sexuality I don’t believe that more is necessarily better:  more talk, more fascination, more flesh unveiled.  What is needed is good judgment: naming the darkness of lust, without projecting it onto the body, but at the same time realizing that some mysteries need to remain veiled and should only be unveiled within the sanctuary of holy matrimony.

Which brings me back to a consideration which I have mentioned before:  apologetics is not enough.  Yes, there are thousands of people, who have had their innocence destroyed at a young age, who have been saturated with our pornographic culture, who have been wounded by Puritanism or addicted the satiation of their lusts. 

The veil is off.  “We have seen everything,” so, we are told, “and we had just better make the best of it.  In fact, with this new way (TOB) we can actually transform our pornographic fascination into a holy one.”

I disagree.  At some point we need to move beyond apologetics and put the veil of mystery back onto to marriage and sexuality, and especially the Blessed Mother, for heaven’s sakes.  This re-veiling is a real problem, I admit, but it is also one of the real challenges of our age.  I would hope that this debate will help Christopher West put his very real and extraordinary gifts to the accomplishment of this task.

Father Angelo Mary Geiger, a Franciscan Friar of the Immaculate, blogs at