The blogsophere is abuzz with discussion of Theology of the Body apologist Christopher West’s recent interview on something called Nightline.
Much of it derives from this statement, as quoted by Matt Abbott:
”I love Hugh Hefner,’ said West. ‘I really do. Why? Because I think I understand his ache. I think I understand his longing because I feel it myself. There is this yearning, this ache, this longing we all have for love, for union, for intimacy.’
Of course, the quotation was taken out of context, and he’s talking about Christian love and sympathy, but there’s something else at work here.
The voices who are raising themselves online and in the media–most notably Alice von Hildebrand–criticizing West’s statement are doing so because he dares to show sympathy with a sinner’s viewpoint. As this commentator points out,
One of my own favorite attempts is the ancient Buddhist fable about the two monks on a long journey. They are about to cross a river and they encounter a woman who is also trying to reach the other side, but really struggling. The older of the two monks says, “Here, climb up onto our shoulders and we’ll get you across.” She climbs up, they make it across, she thanks them profusely, and the monks continue their journey. For the next three hours, the younger monk is seething. Finally, he explodes: “You scoundrel! You know we are not allowed to touch women!” The older monk looks at him with infinite patience, and says: “I put her down three hours ago. Why are you still carrying her?”
Jimmy Akin, in his commentary, says,
The language about “feeling his ache” doesn’t strike me as the best way to say this. I don’t really want to get into Hugh Hefner’s head in quite that way (though that’s what the language invites me to do).
And there is a danger of spiritualizing away the sexual urges to which Hefner caters if they are presented as just longings for love, union, and intimacy.
The problem with the criticism is it smacks of what I call the “Arthur Dimmesdale Paradox”: that people are afraid of causing “scandal” by admitting what sins they struggle with. In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale is afraid of being a hypocrite, so he constantly preaches on sin, on how we are all sinners, and he considers himself the worst of all. Each time, he really wants to admit he is an adulterer, but he is afraid, because the people put him on a pedestal. In the meantime, the pedestal only gets higher because the people think his protestations of sinfulness are an expression of humility and, therefore, proof of his holiness.
For fear of causing scandal by “setting a bad example,” priests, theologians, apologists, etc., are afraid to own up to their own sins. Conversely, being afraid of hypocrisy, they make themselves into hypocrites. Then they cause real scandal by missing an opportunity to help others who are struggling with the same sin, particularly when it’s a bad habit: the person with the bad habit says, “I’m not as holy as he is, and I could never be that holy” or “I sure wish someone would give me practical advice on how to overcome my sin.”
St. Paul, who was arguably the first “Christian apologist” was so successful a teacher because he understood how the Jews, and the Pharisees in particular, thought. He also understood how the Greeks thought, because of his educational background.
St. Augustine understood how Manicheans and Platonists think.
C. S. Lewis was a great apologist because he knew the lures of paganism, he knew how skeptics think, and he knew how relativists think.
Scott Hahn, Marcus Grodi and Thomas Howard tell us how Evangelicals think.
But if Christopher West, or anybody else, tries to stand up in a Catholic context and say, “This is how Hugh Hefner thinks,” the response is ,”OH! You must be a pervert like he is!! You’re just excusing his sins!”
Uh, no. He’s trying to develop a response that looks at the psychology behind the sin and tries to address the sin that way, to help the person trapped in sin find a way out of the maze.
All sins are distortions of a good. “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions,” they say, and almost every sin has a desire for something good at its root. God draws the sinner back to Himeslf by redirecting that desire, by redirecting that creative activity. God can bring good out of most evils. A simple example is the baby that results from an adulterous union.
So I’ll stand up and say that Christopher West is on the right track: the Nightline interview may not have adequately expressed what he was trying to say, but *someone* needs to say it.
Jimmy Akin and other commentators have read the interview *as if* West was appealing to the stereotype that “all Christians are Victorian Puritans.” But he’s not, not exactly. He’s reaching out to the longing at the root of the sin and saying how to properly redirect it.
It is an approach I’ve often found useful in my own spiritual life: if I can track down the authentic need that Satan is distorting with temptation, I can overcome the temptation.
I could shift into a reflection on what I think Christopher West means by “intimacy,” but I will save that for another post.