Friday, December 21, 2012

Hugh Hefner's Theology of the Body - and John Paul II's

Paul Adams

Playboy founder Hugh Hefner is once again scheduled to be married to his fiancee Crystal Harris, this time on New Year's Eve, 2012.  Prompting some thoughts about puritanism and sexual expressionism...and John Paul II's answer to both.

I recently had the privilege of sitting in on a seminar taught by Professor Michael Waldstein, the distinguished theologian who not only translated John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body but also provided the book with a brilliant 128-page introduction.  One of the most memorable sessions involved an unscheduled discussion about Hefner's theology in relation to JP II's.  The occasion was the interview with Hef conducted in 2004 by religion reporter Cathleen Falsani.  According to Waldstein, Falsani is a very bright graduate of Wheaton, the Evangelical college).  The interview - under the improbable title “Hugh Hefner: Man of God?” - appeared in the SoMA Review.  I would link to it except that the site carries a computer safety warning.  Still, her account of the meeting is included in a collection of Falsani’s interviews with famous public figures about their spiritual lives.

The conversation with Hef is revealing and seemed to surprise both participants.  It seems Hef had a Puritan upbringing.  He's descended from the original Mayflower Puritans but was raised sorta Methodist as he explains (loose in dogma, strict in morality).  

To set the stage for looking at Hef and his spiritual evolution, first a word about concupiscence and adultery in the heart - the topic for the day from TOB.  Bear with me here and I think you'll find it interesting from a cultural perspective, if nothing else.  I think it brings out how very differently a Catholic thinks about things than a Protestant or secularist. The two - Protestantism and secularism - are closely linked, I think, historically and spiritually - some say Protestantism is a stepping stone to atheism.  Even some Protestant theologians like Alister McGrath, whose book, The Twilight of Atheism: The Rise and Fall of Disbelief in the Modern World, I reviewed here, thinks there is truth in the observation.  (See also Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.)  Of course, in countries like the U.S. where Protestant/secularist culture predominates, even Catholics start to think like Protestants, a great loss to the larger culture as well as themselves.

In the Catholic view as explained by John Paul II, concupiscence is defective love, in as well as outside marriage, which it corrupts, so that even a marriage between Christians falls short of a Christian marriage when the spousal love is corrupted by it.  Thus adultery in the heart can happen even within a marriage while adultery in the flesh cannot.  But adultery in the flesh (i.e., involving someone outside the marriage) doesn't happen unless adultery in the heart has already happened.  A full and integral love (of flesh, blood, spirit) derives from the mystery of Creation (God who is love creates us out of love for love, so man cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of self [cf. Lk 17:33]).  

Our main difficulty with sexuality is that we don't see it in its full value, its real beauty, which is tied up with the spousal meaning of the body.  We are created male and female for a one-flesh union that is a full communion of persons, the archetype of which (without the sex) is the Trinity, a communion of Persons in the complete giving and receiving of love.  Jesus warns, not against normal sexual desires when he says the man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart (Mt. 5:27-28), but against the dehumanizing reduction of another person to an object for one’s own use, like a bar of chocolate.  His strictures, more harshly stated than the OT Law in some areas, can be a danger for persons of a scrupulous disposition.  But Jesus' point is not puritanical or sex-negative.  It is to reduce everything to the commandment of love, which Augustine summed up perfectly in the very non-Puritan injunction to "Love and do what you will."

So the answer to our tendency to objectify the person we are attracted to, to see her in a utilitarian way, in terms of her usefulness for our pleasure, is not to turn away in revulsion at our drives, our bodies, and sex, to take a cold shower (the Protestant-Kantian approach) but to love more.  Not to look away but to look more closely, to see the woman as a full person on her own journey through life and toward God, with her own goods (love is willing the good of the other as other, a matter of will and not just feeling or drives).  This corresponds more or less to the way Aristotle talks about friendship.  It's about living for someone and sharing life with them (the gift of self).  For the utilitarian alternative, think of the way I go to the store and buy a bar of fine dark chocolate.  I don't ask it if it wants to be bought and used by me for my pleasure.  I just pay for it, unwrap it, and eat it, an object of use for my pleasure, and then throw away the wrapper.  Treating a person that way is a real problem, combining slavery and rape.  Prostitution, even where it does not involve trafficking and coercion, is like that except it involves two people using each other in a commercial exchange in which each gets what they want, sex or money.  But there is no pretense of loving or even seeing the other as a full person with his or her own life journey, any more than there is in my relation with the cashier when I pay her for a bar of chocolate.

So what is the character of sexual desire in a right relationship?  It's part of an exchange of gifts--joy through giving and receiving joy.

From this perspective, utilitarianism is the other side of the coin of Puritanism.  Puritans, as did Luther, worried about selfishness.  You have to avoid pleasure in sex, or at most give it without receiving it.  This is manifestly absurd.  I kiss my wife to give her pleasure, but I make it clear that I am doing it for her, I get no pleasure from it myself as that would be selfish.  She'd slap my face.  Reminds me of the advice to English wives who were supposed to do their marital duty but not to enjoy it - just "lie back and think of England" - England being presumably so unerotic a thing to think about as to fill you with a sense of duty but without any pleasure attached.  Kant is like this, isn't he? - One should act out of duty only, not pleasure.

So in puritanism and porn (or hooking up), you have two sides of the same coin.  In both, sexuality is separated from the person, in one case to be repelled, in the other embraced as 'recreation.'  The actual teaching of Jesus is beautiful and liberating.  The real challenge is to love wholeheartedly, not defectively.

Hefner was consumed by the sense that an injustice was done to sex.  He was not hugged, he was left with a longing for love, which his mother could not express because hugging your kids is too pleasurable and like a good Lutheran she wanted to avoid pleasure.  So poor (though rich) Hef never broke out of his puritanism.  He just switched sides.  From born again to porn again. He is right to say (para. 4 of the interview) that organized religion (to the extent it embraced this puritan revulsion from sex) played havoc with people's lives and was very unChristian.  But he's wrong to tell his mother that because of what she was unable to give as love, "it set me on a course that changed my life and the world."  No it didn't.  He just changed sides, but remained as far away as ever from a full integration of sexuality with love and the full human integrity of the person.  He, no more than his mother, was able to love fully and integrally.  Both meant well, but neither was able to break out of their puritan chains.

Of course, Catholicism has been deeply influenced, more in some countries than others, by this puritan strain.  Nostra culpa.  But the challenge is to recover - in the midst of a deep dehumanization as well as desacralization of sex, the body, love, and marriage - a fully human and so fully Christian understanding, which seems more and more to be the task of countercultural 'creative minorities' rather than a socially available option on a large scale.

But young people who encounter JP II's TOB find it life-changing.  I wish more Catholics understood it and were capable of teaching it.  It's JP II's greatest gift to humanity, which is saying a lot given his many and profound contributions - to ending Soviet-style Communism/totalitarianism, stopping the rot in the Church, and his connection to millions of spiritually deprived young people.  (I like that poster of JP II, in the style of motivational management posters about teamwork.  It says, Generation JP II: Raising Our Parents Catholic.) 

Fr. Robert Barron has some excellent discussion of these themes in his essay, Sex, Love, and God: The Catholic Answer to Puritanism and Nietzcheanism.  See also such video clips of his as this:

and this, discussing Hanna Rosin and her defense of the hook-up culture as good for women -

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