St. Pope John Paul II’s general audiences known as the Theology of the Body (or TOB) are “a theological time bomb waiting to go off,” according to papal biographer George Weigel. In my role as moderator of the TOB forum on Google+, I’ve encountered many people’s testimonies that reading the Theology of the Body changed their life and often brought them back to the Church. TOB’s message that sexuality and marriage are not just good but sacred is a powerful expression of what’s best about Catholicism. But TOB was never meant to end there, and recent scholarship has pushed past earlier limits and demonstrated convincingly that TOB actually helps us to answer the eternal questions of what it means to be human beings with human bodies created in the image of God. Prof. Susan Windley-Daoust’s recent book The Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying, is an important contribution to modern thought on TOB, and she tells us more about her book here in this author interview.
1. How did you become interested in the Theology of the Body (or TOB)?
My dissertation work in the early- to mid-1990s focused on humanity’s creation in the image of God — basically, a field called theological anthropology. But I had barely heard of Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body then. After teaching at the college level for many years, my undergraduate students kept bringing it up and wanting me to go into more depth about it. I finally broke down and began reading some of the material — first, the secondary material my students were reading, and second, what the Pope actually said in the general audiences where he developed these themes. I was very intrigued and could see the appeal through my students’ eyes…and I couldn’t stop going back to the audiences. The more I read, the more I realized there was theological work to be done here.
2. How did you get the idea to expand the Theology of the Body out of the realm of marriage and sexuality and into other areas such as childbirth, disability, and dying?
It just seemed obvious, honestly. The entire first half of the audiences is about what it means to be human, not about marriage in and of itself. And John Paul II himself encouraged theologians to “take it further” in the audiences. Another piece of it for me was that I was in a three-year program discerning a call and preparing to be a spiritual director. So much of the audiences are about how to see God’s call for your life, and responding to that gift. Since spiritual directors help people see God’s hand in the midst of everyday life, jumping to childbirth, impairment, and dying seemed very natural.
It’s interesting to me that in the past year four books have come out attempting to expand and apply the insights of the first half of the audiences to a wider range of primordial human experiences, and three are by women — my book, Emily Stimson’s These Beautiful Bones, and Leah Perrault’s Theology of the Body for Every Body. (The fourth is Fill These Hearts by Christopher West.)
3. What is the primary audience for your book?
It’s written as a “readable academic” text, aimed at upper-level undergrad or graduate students who want to study the Theology of the Body. The book would also be appropriate for a class on theological anthropology or systematic theology. It doesn’t assume much prior knowledge of the Theology of the Body — I reprise it a bit in the beginning, and every chapter has an opening summary section. I think if you are interested in TOB, you’ll be able to read it.
4. I understand that well-known TOB expert Prof. Janet Smith made a surprise mention of your book in her keynote speech at the Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia this past July. Tell us more about that.
Well, it was a surprise to me! I didn’t know she had even read it. It was a very kind and unexpected plug for the work and the argument. I was sitting there in the audience with my mouth on the floor (and people at my table, who I had just met, whispering “hey, isn’t that your book?”). I introduced myself to her afterward and she was very gracious and enthusiastic. It means a lot to get that kind of compliment from a person whose work I respect.
5. In your book, you mention briefly that you and your husband adopted a son with cerebral palsy. How did that personal experience influence your thinking on the theology of disability?
I could talk about this for an hour…. We have five kids, and our fifth child Alex was a gift through adoption. He does have cerebral palsy. But honestly, most of the book was written while we were going through the adoption paperwork for Alex — we had not met him yet, since he was in Ukraine.
I had initially wanted to do my dissertation on the theology of disability, which is an increasingly thriving school of thought in contemporary theology. My dissertation director talked me out of it, but my interest remained. I saw lots of connections between John Paul II’s focus on the vulnerable, the concept of receiving life as a gift, and the theology of disability, so naturally, it came out in the book. But I didn’t write this book out of my experience of parenting Alex — all I can say is that a number of things converged at once that year.
6. What’s next for you?
I’ve written a draft copy of a more “popular” (that is, not angled to the academic world) book that introduces a spirituality of childbirth influenced by the Theology of the Body. Kind of like “what to spiritually expect when you’re expecting.” A publisher is looking at it now. I hope that comes to fruition, because so many women say that giving birth was one of the most spiritually rich moments of their lives, and that deserves to be explored from a theological perspective! I would be interested in doing something similar about a spirituality of dying.
In addition, I’d like to write some academic articles related to TOB. I’ve also been approached about presenting this material to diocesan pastoral ministers (which would be great, because I love the teaching/retreat mix model and would love to do more of that). But I also have a family of seven, and a full-time job teaching undergraduates theology. They take first priority! So we’ll see what happens.
Copyright 2014 Karee Santos