Monday, 13 February 2012

Sex, idols and the meaning of life

So much of the abortion debate has been made necessary by the skewed way in which we, today, view sex and the human body.  Sex, it seems, is not only a “right” – any time, any place, anywhere, like a nice Martini – but the ultimate form of fulfilment and pleasure.  It’s the end goal of just about everything.  Why buy shampoo?  So that you can toss your super shiny hair around and bring square-jawed male models to their knees.  Why shave?  So that a glamorous girl in a towel will undulate up to you as you gaze in the bathroom mirror and drape herself suggestively against you.  Why keep clean and nice-smelling?  So that persons of the opposite sex will fly through shop windows and glue themselves to your body... And so it goes on. 

It’s not surprising, then, that the very idea of suggesting abstinence to young people is laughed out of town.  Pardon?  It’s obvious they’re going to “do it”, don’t be so silly.  Well, they will given the fact that we are blasting “sex is everything” at them 24 hours a day via all their senses (in other contexts, that would be called indoctrination).  And as for suggesting someone should embrace celibacy for any period of time... p-lease.  Why would their life be worth living?  The fundamental right to life is a debatable concept but the fundamental right to have sex is beyond question.

Unfortunately, of course, sex sometimes leads to pregnancy (that being a big part of what it was designed for).  And if you haven’t had sex in a context in which you would be open to nurturing a new life, then abortion so often rears its ugly and painful head.

The saddest thing is that all of the above attitudes are not usually consciously held.  They are the result of the mis-moulding of our minds and hearts over several generations.  Most women who have abortions are not hard-edged, thoughtless pleasure-seekers.  They are victims of a warped worldview that they were born into, within the terms of which they may have seen themselves as acting perfectly normally and responsibly, indeed may well have taken positive steps to do so.  The trouble is, we have got sex, its nature and its importance, way out of proportion.

I say that, but in another way sex is fundamentally, beautifully, hugely important and has foundational, earth-moving things to say about us as human beings and as men and women.  It’s just that we don’t hear it right these days.  For me, Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body (TOTB) came as a revelation in this respect.

I don’t know how to make a synopsis of such a big topic as TOTB in a paragraph – I’ve talked on it, but summarising it is a different matter!  Many people who might be reading this post will be familiar with it anyway.  Essentially, our bodies are speaking about who we are, about our fundamental vocation in life: that is, we were made to love.  Each other, and ultimately God.  That’s why we were made male and female, for “it is not good for man to be alone”.  Sex between a man and a woman is the ultimate expression, in physical terms, of this vocation; that makes it an incredibly precious and dignified, symbolic action (in terms of Catholic Christianity, in fact, it has been raised to the dignity of a sacrament through marriage, a source of divine grace like baptism or priestly ordination).  

Intrinsic to this view is that our bodies, far from being things we “have” or “own” and can dispose of as we wish, are inherently a part of us as whole people.  We are not souls in bodies, or minds that happen to have a torso and limbs at our disposal – we are a unity of spirit and flesh, or as the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it, “in his own nature [the human being] unites the spiritual and material worlds” (CCC 355).  What we do with, or rather in, our bodies is important.  It has meaning, it speaks volumes about who and what we are, and it has a profound effect on our minds, our souls, our emotions and our wellbeing.

This way of seeing the human person is in direct contrast to many of the assumptions that underlie our modern-day thinking.  Since the not altogether appropriately-entitled “Enlightenment” of the 18th century we have progressively excluded the spiritual from human identity and seen ourselves primarily as biological entities with rational minds.  Our reason has primacy over this biology and so we can use our bodies and those of others as we will, be it genetic engineering, abortion, sex, embryonic stem cell research, whatever.  Alongside this is the tendency to regard the “person” or “self” as a psyche, a collection of feelings and emotions, which are conditioned by a number of factors such as societal pressures, and thus morality and identity tend to get defined by “how we feel” as individuals about ourselves and others. 

The union of man and woman has meaning
All this makes a lethal and rather confused cocktail of materialistic rationality and illogical subjectivity, but the taste that it leaves in the mouth is above all that of a debasement of the body.  The body is there to be used for our profit or our pleasure.  There is no value or meaning inherent in the biological because the biological is merely matter and has whatever value we as individuals assign to it.   What a contrast to the beautiful vision offered by the Theology of the Body.

I believe that many others would find TOTB as much of a revelation as I did, if they were only introduced to it.  Neither do I think it’s something that only has meaning for people of religious belief, because many of every faith and none profess themselves to be open to a holistic view of mind, body and (maybe!) soul and therefore to the view that the body has a very personal dignity, which can be compromised by certain ways of thinking and acting.  It’s a sort of divinisation of sex and sexuality, if you like – but it’s the right sort, which doesn’t make sex an idol and the answer in and by itself to the meaning of life.

If you would like to know more about TOTB, read Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners – you might just have your eyes opened to a whole new way of seeing the world!  One that, you’ll realise, you always kind of understood really, deep down, always glimpsed – but could never before quite nail...

The call to nuptial love and communion revealed by our sexual bodies ‘is the fundamental element of human existence in the world,’ ‘the foundation of human life,’ and, hence, ‘the substratum of human ethics and culture.’  Indeed, the human project stands or falls based on the proper ordering of love between the sexes.  Thus, it ‘is an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not... accept and experience human sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close interconnection.”  (Christopher West, quoting Blessed Pope John Paul II)

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