Q&A: Christopher West reflects on the Passion ‘like you’ve never heard before’

Aaron Lambert

Christopher West has never been one to play it safe.

His talks on Pope St. John Paul II’s revered Theology of the Body go against basically every modern-day notion of human sexuality, and it speaks to the work’s relevance that West is always able to tie it into some element of pop culture. He recently released a free eBook titled Theology of the Body at the Movies that points out examples of JPII’s teachings on sexuality in modern films.

On Wednesday, April 12, West is paying a visit to St. Mary Catholic Church in Aspen for a free talk and Q&A session titled “A Reflection on the Passion, Death & Resurrection of Jesus Like You Have Never Heard Before.” Denver Catholic caught up with West ahead of his visit.

Denver Catholic: Without giving too much away, why will your talk on the passion, death and resurrection of Christ be “like you’ve never heard it before”?

Christopher West: Few of us have heard the passion of the Lord presented as so many of the saints and mystics describe it – as the consummation of a marriage. Saint Augustine, for instance, describes the Cross as Christ’s marriage bed. And the Byzantine Church, in fact, calls Holy Week the “Week of the Bridegroom.” Saint John Paul II lamented how this spousal vision of the most important event in human history has been largely lost in the modern view of Christianity, and he sought to reclaim it for the whole Church. In this presentation, we’re going to reverently pull back the veil and enter into what Pope Benedict XVI described as the “mad Eros” of Christ the Bridegroom loving his Bride, the Church, from the Cross.

DC: What can the culture today learn from JPII’s “Theology of the Body,” especially when it comes to hot-button topics such as gender ideology and same-sex relations?

CW: We live in a world that is telling us our gendered bodies are meaningless. Christ not only reveals that our bodies have a meaning, but that the human body is a message from God that reveals Ultimate Meaning … This is what Christmas means. If you believe in the Incarnation, if you believe that God took on flesh to reveal himself to the world, you believe that the human body reveals Ultimate Meaning. You believe the human body is not only biological; it is, as Saint John Paul II proclaimed to the whole world, theological.

We’ve been blinded to the meaning of gender in the modern world, and this can be traced back in large part to the 20th Century embrace of contraception. Contraception is a direct attack on the meaning of gender. Gender shares the same root as words like generous, genesis, generate, genitals, progeny, genealogy. The word “gender” means the manner in which one generates. When we fail to respect the fact that our genitals are meant to generate, we eventually degenerate. This is what we are now living through. For such a time as this have we been given Saint JP II’s Theology of the Body.

DC: You recently published a free eBook called Theology of the Body at the Movies. Where did the idea come from, and what’s the aim of the book?

CW: I’ve always been a bit of a movie buff. It’s one of the most powerful modern art forms, and I’ve been drawing from my favorite movies for years in my courses, lectures, books and blogs. I’ve finally collected all that I’ve written about movies over the years into this one new resource. Hollywood produces a lot of awful films. It also produces some real gems with incredibly powerful lessons. You can get Theology of the Body at the Movies for free at my ministry’s website corproject.com.

DC: Anything else you’d like to add?

CW: For readers not familiar with the beautifully liberating vision of John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, there are lots of ways you can learn more. You can begin just by Googling the term and doing some reading. We offer ongoing formation at The Cor Project (cormembership.com) and an annual TOB-themed pilgrimage. This July we’re going to Ireland (corproject.com/Ireland), and a few spots are still open.

COMING UP: Forming mind and heart in faith

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

People tell me pretty regularly that we should not over-intellectualizing the faith — making the Church simply about ideas, doctrines, and rules. I agree that this can be a problem, but we also have to guard seriously against an opposite problem — emotionalizing and privatizing faith. We are blessed with a reasonable faith that can be studied in harmony with the truth of the natural world. Faith and reason strengthen one another, together leading our minds to conform to the mind of the God who is our Creator and Redeemer. In the midst of a secularism which pits science against the faith, it is important that we form our minds in the truth. Being rooted in the truth of our faith does not lead to abstract ideas, but to an encounter with the living God which sets our hearts on fire with His love.

The Dominicans have a long history of teaching the faith, founded originally to preach to those who had fallen into the dualistic heresy of Albigensian and producing the Common Doctor of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas. The papal theologian, who advised the pope, by tradition comes from St. Dominic’s Order. One of the most renown Dominicans teaching in the United States, Father Thomas Joseph White, has recently been called to Rome to teach at the Angelicum, the Pontifical University of the Dominicans. Father White, though a profound scholar, has produced a clear and accessible overview of the Catholic faith.

Father White’s book, The Light of Christ: An Introduction to Catholicism (Catholic University of America Press, 2017) offers a serious overview of the Catholic faith. It is not a scholarly work, but one that does challenge us to enter more deeply into the theological tradition of the Church, flowing from the Bible and Catechism, the Fathers, and especially the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. Part of the genius of the book is how it uses the theological tradition to address contemporary concerns such as evolution, sexual ethics, and relativism. The book contains seven major sections—Reason and Revelation, God and Trinity, Creation and the Human Person, Incarnation and Atonement, the Church, Social Doctrine, and the Last Things—as well as a robust epilogue on prayer.

Father White challenges us to “to be an intellectual. . . to seek to see into the depths of reality” (1). As intellectual beings, we have been created in the image of God and are called to enter into his truth and life. Therefore, White reminds us that “every person has to accept risk in truth’s call to us. Even religious indifference is a kind of risk, perhaps the greatest of all, for if nothing is ventured, nothing is gained. The mind is reason’s instrument, but the heart its seat” (5). Therefore, the ultimate questions lead the mind into prayerful contemplation of the truth. Theology cannot remain an intellectual enterprise alone, but must lead us to encounter God in prayer: “Prayer is grounded in our natural desire for the truth. When we pray we are trying to find God, to praise him, and to see all things realistically in light of him. In a sense, then, prayer stems from a search for perspective” (288).

Our faith forms us as a whole person and shapes our feelings and desires according to what is highest. Father White rightly points out that “heart and intelligence go together” (49). When it comes to God, intellectual theory is not enough, as he calls us to know him in a “concrete, personal, affective relationship” (48). This does not mean that we can dispense with theology. Quite to the contrary, “we want to get right who God is, and what the mystery of Christ is, so that we can be in living contact with divine love” (42). God speaks to us so that we may come to know him by exercising our minds to know the truth given us through the Church (36).

Knowing God is the work a lifetime and our eternal vocation. We can strengthen our faith by studying theological truths and deepening our capacity to contemplate divine things. Father White’s book will help us all to be theologians, entering into the practice of theology as faith seeking understanding. As we come to know God more, it should lead us to fall in love with him more deeply, strengthening our relationship with him and preparing us to see him face to face.