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What is the “Theology of the Body?

Then God said: Let us make human beings in our image, after our likeness. Let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, the tame animals, all the wild animals, and all the creatures that crawl on the earth. God created mankind in his image; in the image of God he created them; male and female* he created them. Genesis 1:26-27

The term the Theology of the Body comes from a book called The Theology of the Body, and is a collection of talks given by St. John Paul II from 1979 to 1984. These talks are a beautiful gift to the Church; they are a way of viewing our relationship with God that is new to many people. They provide St. John Paul II’s vision of who is God, what is love, and what it means to be human. He drew on scripture, tradition, the writings and lives of saints and mystics, science and even the experiences of ordinary Christians to write these reflections. St. John Paul II’s talks are a call for all Christians to be mystical, to understand the intimate relationship between loving God and loving neighbor, and how the image of spousal love is the key to understanding that connection. These talks are among the most comprehensive works on the Theology of the Body written.

But St. John Paul II did not invent or come up with the Theology of the Body; God did. In the deeper, more fundamental sense of the term the Theology of the Body is God’s plan for us, of how he made us. This is the fundamental meaning of the Theology of the Body: that we are made male and female in the image and likeness of God; therefore, we can understand who is God using the analogy of Spousal Love. In faithfulness to God's plan, St. John Paul II expressed God’s vision through his speeches. It is God’s Theology of the Body expressed through St. John Paul II.

Since the idea of the Theology of the Body comes from God we find that others have written on this Theology throughout all of history. And if we have the eyes to see we can see the Theology of the Body both in our day to day romantic relationships and in all good romantic art such as stories, poems, and songs. One of St. John Paul II’s inspirations was St. John of the Cross. St. John wrote on the spiritual life by writing his own love poetry and then applying it to the spiritual life. One might say it was the theology of love poetry. In fact, many mystics use love poetry to understand and talk about God and his love for us; and pre-eminent among love poems is the Song of Songs, found in the middle of the Bible. It’s true that St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body, as well as the many supporting books which have been written to help us better understand it and implement it are wonderful resources, but to really understand the Theology of the Body we all need to spend time mediating on the source material-romantic art. All of us, married, single, priest and religious, need to look at and meditate upon good romantic art so we can understand the theology of the body. In addition to love poetry there are many love songs that are excellent. There are also wonderful novels: two of my favorite are Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen and The Space Trilogy by C.S. Lewis. If we don’t do this, then we will fail to use the theology of the body the way that God intended.

C.S. Lewis and the Levels of Reality While much of my understanding of the theology of dance came from my experience on the dance floor and studying the Theology of the Body, the idea of Theology of dance came to me from C.S. Lewis. Lewis is actually a great writer on the Theology of the Body, and many of his works seem as if he was intimately familiar with the writing of St. John Paul II, which is not possible, since he died before the Theology of the Body was written. I was reading a collection of essays from CS Lewis titled God in the Dock, and one of the essays was titled “Priestesses in the Church?” At the time (the 1950’s) the Anglican Church was considering ordaining women and Lewis argued against it. His reason was that the Church is much more like a ball (a dance) than a political part or a factory.

And this parallel between the Church and the Ball is not so fanciful as some would think. The Church ought to be more like a Ball than it is like a factory or a political party. Or to speak more strictly, they [politics and factories] are at the circumference and the Church at the Centre and the Ball comes in between. The factory and the political party are artificial creations…in them we are not dealing with human beings in their concrete entirety…such artifices are necessary: but because they are artifices we are free to shuffle, scrap and experiment as we please. But the Ball exists to stylize something which is natural and which concerns human beings in their entirety; namely, courtship. We cannot tamper or shuffle so much. With the Church we are farther in: for there we are dealing with male and female not merely as facts of nature but as the live and awful shadows of realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge. CS Lewis, God in the Dock

Lewis noted a connection between the art form of dance, the body as male and female, romantic love, and Christian theology and mysticism. Dance is theological precisely because it is based entirely on courtship, which in turn is the expression of being male and female in the image and likeness of God. When we see a dance it’s as if we took a life time of marriage and distilled it to its essence, so that it was only three minutes long. The soul of the marriage, stretched over 50 years and veiled in the marriage bed, is revealed in a few minutes by the symbolism of the dance. If we learn the language we can unpack this meaning and transform our lives with it.

In his essay Lewis divided reality into different “spheres,” like an onion, which contain the different forms of relating. Some forms of relationship tell us more about God, some less about God. God himself is community, a relationship of three persons- the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This relationship is imaged in the relationship between Christ and the Church, and in turn this relationship is imaged by the marriage of a husband and wife. Lewis noted that dance imaged the husband and wife. That means each relationship images the relationship above it, and the better we understand one relationship the better we understand them all.

The relationships of the world include things like work, school, government, sports, the military, playing sports and games, and enjoying secular entertainment. Some of these have a lot in common with a dance, others have less. We will look at these relationships and see how much they are like a dance, and by doing so will discover how we can make even our everyday relationships at work, at school and even running errands as loving as possible.

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