Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Joan Timmerman on the “Wisdom of the Body”

Recently, while updating the Wild Reed’s Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues, I came across an excellent review by theologian Joan Timmerman of Evelyn and James Whitehead’s 2001 book, Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality.

This review first appeared in the February 7, 2003 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.

I particularly appreciate the questions Timmerman raises concerning the failure of “documents of official teaching” to formulate or capture the corporate body of Christians’ experience and wisdom regarding sexuality.

Following are excerpts of Timmerman’s review.


God’s Design for Generous Love
Excerpts of Joan H. Timmerman’s review
of Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality

by Evelyn E. Whitehead and James D. Whitehead
(Crossroads, 2001)

The best justification for religion I ever heard was that religion functions to give meaning to ordinary things and to perfect our love in the face of death. [Wisdom of the Body: Making Sense of Our Sexuality] touches both of those fronts: It summarizes and evaluates the meanings given to various sexualities by Catholic tradition; it supports the new ways of talking about sex coming from the grassroots; and it advances the reader’s willingness to love in the absurd situation of knowing at the outset that separation is inevitable.

While the Whiteheads give the complexity and ambiguity of the religious tradition its due, and acknowledge our cultural inheritance regarding sex, they have an original focus. The noteworthy theme of this book is that the corporate body of Christians has experience and wisdom regarding the sexuality of Christians – a wisdom that has not been formulated or captured in the documents of official teaching. The play on words is evident already in the title. “Body” here means the communal body, the mystical body, not just the individual sensual body. The purpose of the book is to “draw out and make public the sense of the faithful about Christians and their sexuality.” The “truth” about sexuality is that the life of Jesus challenges all, married and unmarried, to “a more than genital love, a larger than biological family, a fruitfulness that goes beyond fecundity.”

While the theological basis of the sensus fidelium is assumed rather than demonstrated, the explicit application of that principle to sexuality is long overdue to give doctrinal value to the reflection of Christians. Why must the same book be written over and over? Why do the conclusions of credible, but non-clerical, Christian thinkers not accumulate to consensus? When will we learn to build on previous insights rather than simply restate them? Lay people thinking about their sexuality are certainly instances of faith seeking understanding. . .

Especially on matters of sex, Christians are bedeviled by the few and flawed exchanges of information. This book can perhaps be more effective than a discussion group to give those who are reluctant to talk openly about these matters a sense of not being alone. One of the best pieces is a letter from a father to his son about masturbation. Rarely is the truth told about the topic of self-pleasuring. This chapter on pleasure is “must” reading for Catholic teens, their parents and their grandparents.

Wisdom of the Body is built upon the authors’ earlier distinction between vocation and lifestyle (“Conscience allows us to make choices about our lifestyle . . . in fidelity to our deepening sense of vocation”). The discussions on singleness, gay partnership and married life respect these lives as a “gift to the church, signs of the diversity of God’s design for generous love. For the vast majority of Christians, gay and straight, chastity describes the quality of our sexual loving, not a commitment of sexual abstinence” . . .

To its credit, this book documents the state of the art of Catholics’ public thinking about sexuality. It is not only worth your time; it deserves wide distribution. Send a copy to every pastor and parish leader you know.

To view Joan Timmerman’s review of The Wisdom of the Body in its entirety, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Joan Timmerman
The Sexuality of Jesus
The Non-negotiables of Human Sex
When “Guidelines” Lack Guidance
Be Not Afraid: You Can Be Happy and Gay
Truth Telling: The Greatest of Sins in a Dysfunctional Church
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
Trusting God’s Generous Invitation
A Catholic Bibliography on Gay Issues

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