Jun. 4, 2009, at 7:59pm
As professor of philosophy at Franciscan University of Steubenville, I have been teaching a course on the nature of love, using Von Hildebrand, Wojtyla, Pieper, and Kierkegaard (among others) for nearly three decades. I have known of Christopher West’s work more indirectly through the decidedly good influences his works have had on my children. However, this past Wednesday, June 3, I got the chance to finally meet Mr. West. It was my privilege to put on a joint presentation with him on purity and sexuality sponsored by the Personalist Project. Nearly two hundred were in attendance, including a great many young people, most I’m sure drawn by the prospect of hearing Christopher—who is a bit more well-known than I.
My approach to sexuality has been fathered by Dietrich von Hildebrand and deeply enriched by Wojtyla. In the midst of the recent controversies surrounding Christopher’s work, or presentation of the material, including criticism from Alice von Hildebrand herself, I was very interested to meet Christopher and see him in action. After our presentation together, I want to join with Janet Smith and Michael Waldstein in a hearty endorsement of Christopher’s work and presentation.
He did a masterful job of going back to acknowledge Von Hildebrand as one of the heroic pioneers (in the face of considerable opposition and misinterpretation in his day) who laid the groundwork for the achievement of Wojtyla, both men offering an interpretation of the sexual sphere that strives to do justice to the personalist element. He interpreted the gradual victory of purity in the commitment of the will, in the making of that commitment organic in the heart, and finally in the victory of genuine love in the whole person in light of the purgative, illuminative, and unitive stages of the spiritual life.
In content, he was right on the mark; in presentation, he was terrific! While I gave a lecture, he conducted an enamoured interaction with his audience. Thus, I too am distressed at the critical pieces recently penned by Alice von Hildebrand and David Schindler. I wish to offer my perspective on some of those criticisms.
As an approach, let me detail a couple of points in Christopher’s presentation Wednesday night, or the question and answer period that followed, that might seem to support some of the attacks against him, but which really do not. First, knowing what was already blowing in the wind from the Nightline interview, Christopher at one point in the talk announced “Hugh Hefner is gold.” This seems rather overbold and undifferentiated, quite possibly misleading (if taken out of context.) But in the midst of his talk, affirming the fundamental value of each person, the destructive effects of sin, yet the antidote available to us in Christ, all the clues and evidence and perspective in which to take his bold statement properly were there. Moreover, a short time later, he amended his description of Mr. Hefner to “tarnished gold” (as are we all.) Moreover, when I affirmed in the Q&A session the greater clarity of the second statement, he went on to elaborate that the “tarnish” may involve yards and yards of dirt and dung that stand between us and our true redeemed selves. So when you look into the full facts and the full context, all is perfectly in order. But then, one might ask, why does he do this? Why does he speak the way he does?
Some might call it sloppy or needlessly opaque, but I think there are deeper things going on here in terms of content in relation to style. First, as to content, whether Christopher consciously intends this or just naturally does it, I think he at times practices what Kierkegaard (a favorite of Alice von Hildebrand) describes as his own approach of “indirect communication.” Soren Kierkegaard, radical Christian existentialist, was of the opinion (especially in his early years) that just stating the truth to others on the level of direct intellectual communication often merely remained on that level and never penetrated any deeper. So Kierkegaard began to state things in extremes, yet in such a way that the clues and the evidence were there for the mind of the reader to see through the extreme statement itself and bring it back into balance as an insight and a “work” that the reader did for himself. Thus the truth was more actively seen by the reader, as an achievement, not just passively absorbed. Now I think Christopher West does the same (whether as a consciously chosen technique or not is irrelevant.) It is effective. When he says, a half hour into his talk unfolding the real truth about JPII and human sexuality, that “Hugh Hefner is gold,” everyone there knows darn well he doesn’t mean that the way Larry Flynt might mean it. Christopher means it in light of all that he has said before—but the listener has to think through it all himself in a more active way to get at the truth, after his initial shock wears off at what appears to be a simple statement. This is a way of presenting content that forces the reader or listener to think and get more actively involved. It works. Especially when Christopher himself clarifies as he goes along (which, as has been pointed out, he surely did in the Nightline interview but the context and clarifications never made it off the cutting room floor.)
However, also on just the level of style alone, I think we have to give each speaker a certain freedom and leeway in terms of how he presents his material. Christopher’s approach is so dynamic, so in tune with his enthusiastic personality, so evocative for his audience that I would sooner put a beautiful Bengal tiger in a tiny cage than nitpick Christopher to death on his presentation. He comes as a powerful package all at once! It would be a tragedy to reduce him to a “tame” lion. He may have to backtrack and clarify later, but let him hit people right between the eyes in the present.
Now, let me turn to a second example from our joint presentation that might seem to exemplify one of the criticisms launched at Christopher yet which I think can be defended in more than one way. In the question and answer session, one gentleman questioned whether explicit descriptions of private acts ought to be used in public and that he himself found this offensive. Did that make him a prude? In point of fact, in my opinion, the question did seem to imply too narrow a perspective: as if even those speaking on the topic of integrating sex properly into love are not allowed to be specific. For instance, in my own talk, following Von Hildebrand discussing how the power of sex as a sheer physical act has the danger of swamping the spirit unless “informed” by a spiritual act of even greater power (betrothed love transformed in Christ), I referred to the “power of the orgasm and its thrusting.” So, in reply to the gentleman, Christopher asked him to consider why he felt the way he did and to consider whether he wasn’t being oversensitive to the matter rather than just properly sensitive. Did he have some problem with accepting his sexuality? I did not see this as illegitimate pressure on the questioner but as a reasonable consideration. Nonetheless, I had a slightly different take on the matter in my own response. I said the fellow may in fact have a healthy sensitivity to the crudeness of our culture in addressing this most private sphere, so he might be defending the depth and intimacy of sex in not wanting public display, even verbally, about it. However, I pointed out that such an event as this lecture was precisely not a normal everyday situation, but an educational presentation about the sexual sphere. Thus we as speakers had a right and an obligation, in this special educational context, to discuss matters openly (although here too of course a deep reverence for this intimate sphere should prevail.) Christopher had no problem with my answer as I had no problem with his. But, someone might ask, why didn’t Christopher make or allow for my point from the beginning? Why start in with the idea that the questioner might have a problem with his sexuality? Well, of course, in the future maybe Christopher on his own will allow more clearly for a point like mine, because as Janet Smith and others have observed, he is clearly a very humble man, always ready and eager to learn and improve (would that we all were). However, secondly, it may in fact be true that such a questioner does have a hidden problem with his sexuality: so this should at least be addressed. Why might Christopher come to this conclusion? To quote Janet Smith:
I think it important to keep in mind “who West’s audience is.” It is largely the sexually wounded and confused who have been shaped by our promiscuous and licentious culture. People need to think long and hard about the appropriate pedagogy for that group. Yet, as West himself knows, his approach is not for everyone. An analogy that pushes the envelope may be “offensive” to one person and may be just the hook that draws another person in. (See her recent article on Christopher West at catholicexchange.com)
I think Christopher West has more experience on the front lines of our sexualized culture than most of us; thus, we can respectfully let him follow his own “instincts” (probably not the best “personalist” word here) in these matters.
One of the commentators to Michael Waldstein’s defense of Christopher West, demands an answer to each of the charges leveled against West by David Schindler. I think Janet Smith has largely done this in her article cited above. Much depends on the context and situation, but nothing I see in that list is inherently wrong. It just needs proper explanation and application. Even the “anal penetration as foreplay” reference would seem to be parallel to the discussion of the status of preparatory oral-genital contacts discussed extensively by Frs. Ford and Kelly in their two-volume moral theology book from the 1950’s for seminarians (future priests in the confessional) with similar conclusion and this is referenced as the authority to consult by Germaine Grisez in his great ongoing compendium of moral theology. (See The Way of the Lord Jesus, Vol. II, p. 641, ftnt 176 where Grisez mentions only oral-genital contacts, but as I say Ford and Kelly treat this in such a way that anal-genital contacts would seem to be parallel). Again, no one is recommending such acts, and they have their dangers both physically and morally, and many find them physically and aesthetically repugnant, but the thinkers in question are just discussing the technicalities of what is and is not strictly forbidden. Priests have to know this for the confessional; it is not out of idle curiosity that such things are discussed. So I think the list of “charges” is really answerable.
I have but one regret about my evening with Christopher West. After my talk (“Von Hildebrand on Sexuality: 3 Ways of Attraction, 3 Dangers in Action, 3 Reasons for Renunciation”) and Christopher’s fine and lively commentary, I was invited up to join him for questions and first to offer some reflections on his segment. At that point I felt so at one with him in our approach and so “at home” with him in general, that I just offered one or two minor clarifications of his talk and then opened the floor for questions. But this was ungracious of me. I should have first expressed how deeply grateful and appreciative I was of his remarks, of his insightful use of Von Hildebrand’s contributions, and of his kindness toward me in referring to my own remarks. I regret forgetting to explicitly show my thanks to Christopher and my admiration for his commentary. Please accept this written piece as my filling in of that lacunae. (By the way, our joint talks, and the Q & A session that follows, should be available online shortly at thepersonalistproject.org)
(EDITORS UPDATE: the talks are up by now, and can be downloaded for free from this page We have also posted four short audio clips from the question and answer session. Look for them under the “The Christopher West controversy:” series on the right column of the Linde page page).
For the 2nd part of this comment thread click here.