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Katie van Schaijik

Christopher West breaks silence; answers critics (2)

Oct. 27, 2009, at 12:14pm

The 2nd part of the comment thread of the previous post can be found in the comment section below.

Katie van Schaijik • Oct 31, 2009 - 9:46 am

Dear Scott, can nothing be granted to context?  Must we always be precise and elaborate enough in our every word to eliminate all possible misunderstanding?  How cumbersome and tiresome and pedantic that would be!  Who could stand to listen to us?!

Anyone who listens to CW, hears the isolated phrase “liberation from concupiscence”, and uses it claim that CW thinks that we are safe from temptation, is someone not paying attention, or not very bright, or warped already, or bearing ill will.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 1, 2009 - 6:06 pm

I should have added “at this point.”  He himself admits that his early work lacked fulness and balance.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 5:45 am

Lots of discussion here. I would like to contribute more later. (by the way, I am working mostly nights now, so if you see me commenting at strange hours, this is because I am partly on a night schedule now)

But Katie, to your point, I would say in some respects I agree with you. But, in my view, when it comes to certain terms and ideas that are especially fundamental (and “concupiscence” in regard to TOB surely is a very fundamental subject), it is not acceptable to be loose and inconsistent in preference for some ostensible goal of freedom or liberality. When it comes to very key ideas, lack of careful consistency does not promote freedom, but rather, confusion.

And I would note also a significant difference in this between a brief presentation to a popular audience and a lingering written exposition that covers many pages of text. The latter can allow for a greater variety of usages, presuming the reader is open enough to interpret the author in the context of all the author has written on a subject (i.e., that “liberation from concupiscence” of JPII has to be understood in harmony with what he wrote about being free of domination from concupiscence; as, for example, St. Paul, in speaking about the law, must be understood in light of all that he said about the law, not just grabbing one or two phrases in isolation). As one becomes familiar with an author it is clear that if one is going to summarize an idea from an author for a presentation to a popular audience certain terms or phrases if taken in isolation from the author’s own corpus would not serve well to encapsulate key ideas for those not already well-versed in the author’s thought. They assume too much on background to be taken properly. Other terms or phrases used by the same author to represent key ideas would serve better. One should be selective and then be consistent.

This is the case here. A careful reader of JPII knows (as West points out) that JPII, in using “liberation from concupiscence,” did not mean the complete removal of all temptation. The idea of becoming free from the domination of concupiscence is in fact what JPII meant, as he himself explained.

By insisting that when it comes to certain very fundamental ideas a popular speaker must be very careful and consistent in his use of terms does not mean I am for excessive scrupulosity in the use of all terms across the board. One can be exciting and dynamic and appropriately consistent at the same time.

I think that this clarity is very important on the subject of concupiscence because we live in a culture that does not, generally, understand the doctrine of original sin and its effects with much degree of clarity. This in turn produces a collapsing in popular culture of the very important distinction between the original state of holiness and justice before the fall, and the state of redemption after the fall. The latter is not a return to the former. Any use of terms that permits this confusion to be perpetuated can be more misleading than helpful.

I also have experienced from my own observation of audiences and preachers that if a presenter uses more than one term or phrase to represent an especially key idea, and one of those terms is somewhat vague, some audience members will hear only the vague term and completely miss the more accurate term. Then, using the vague term, they receive and interpret the message in a manner that is without doubt contrary to how the presenter wanted it to be received.

It is amazing how readily this can happen. But as any priest knows, it is very easy for people to hear something in your talk that you did not put there. One can only do so much to prevent this. But, being consistent with the use of the most key terms is one very important way to minimize being misunderstood.

A long, in-depth written treatment of a topic (like the TOB texts) can afford a certain variety and flexibility in terminology. But this must be restrained for the sake of clarity in the context of much shorter and less nuanced popular presentations.

Lauretta • Nov 4, 2009 - 10:12 am

I agree with much of what you say about short presentations, Scott.  That is a concern I have had for quite some time about TOB being presented in such a manner.  There are so many layers of misunderstandings about our bodies and sexuality that I think it takes a lengthy process of learning and discussion and correction before we begin to understand this subject properly.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 11:47 am

Context is about more than words in a treatise.
Suppose a man walks into a bar full of drunks and announces: “I have good news; you can be free of your addiction to alcohol!”  Is he to be faulted for not explaining at the same moment that they won’t be absolutely free; they’ll remain alcoholics their whole life?  Has he misled them?

More on this later too.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 3:45 pm

This would not be misleading. Addiction is far more than just temptation to misuse something. I can become free from an addiction even as I am still tempted.

Your example would be similar to saying, “You can be free of being dominated by lust!”

The meaning of addiction is already a significant step beyond mere temptation. It is, indeed, a form of being dominated. Using this term actually nicely fits with my caution to consistently prefer the language of being freed from the domination of concupiscence.

The man walking into the bar would be badly misleading people if he said, “You can be free of all temptation to drink alcohol.” This would be similar to the way that simply saying you can be free from concupiscence is likely to mislead some people quite seriously.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 4:34 pm

Does CW anywhere say anything like “You can be free of all temptation to sin sexually?” 
I’d be surprised. 
In the things I have heard and read by him, he takes pains NOT to say or teach that. 
My contention is only that it would be scrupulous and pedantic to insist that he always and everywhere use the term “liberation from the domination of concupiscence” because “liberation from concupiscence” or “freedom from lust” would be inconsistent and possibly misleading.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 5:03 pm

“freedom from lust” is a good alternative for a shorter phrase. It is not the same meaning as “freedom from concupiscence.” Lust is a domination of sorts. It goes beyond the temptation or inclination to sin.

I think it is helpful in recognizing the potential problem with being satisfied to use “freedom from concupiscence” at a popular level by replacing “concupiscence” with “temptation.” They are not equivalent, but, concupiscence is a form of temptation. Would it be acceptable to say that we can be “liberated from temptation?”

Katie, you don’t imply that concupiscence (not itself sinful) and lust (a sin) are the same or close to the same thing, do you? Perhaps this is part of the problem. One can indeed become free from lust but not free from concupiscence. If a person does not clearly see the difference between the temptation or inclination to sin and sin itself (of which lust is one example), it would make sense that she would be puzzled about insisting on making a clear distinction between such things as “freedom from concupiscence,” and “freedom from lust.”

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 5:24 pm

My point is that “normal people” (including preachers and teachers) do not think and are not bound to talk like theologians or scholars.  I claim that a “normal person” hearing one of CW’s presentations would not take him to be claiming or teaching that we can be free of all temptation.  She would gather his meaning of the phrase “freedom from concupiscence” from the general context of the presentation and from her own background and experience.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 6:14 pm

I do think that everyone benefits from clarity and consistency, even if it means modifying the way JPII used terms.

Hey, do you mean I am not a “normal person?”  ;) Hee Hee. That strikes me as a funny question.

I claim that a “normal person” hearing one of CW’s presentations would not take him to be claiming or teaching that we can be free of all temptation.

Perhaps you are right, Katie. My sense is obviously that this mistake might indeed be made by a “normal person.” In fact, if I recall, in the talk CW gave after Dr. Healy, he used the phrase in question (i.e. “freedom/liberation from concupiscence”) and this is in part what spurred my own question to him in the Q & A. I wanted to be clear what he meant. But, I grant you, in order to have this concern, a person has to already have a good understanding of concupiscence to begin with, which probably 99% of “normal people” do not have.

The phrase “freedom/liberation from temptation” would be even more serious, and I do not know of any instance (with my limited exposure) of CW using this phrase. We agree that what CW intends to convey is correct. The rub, of course, is whether a particular manner of conveying it is troublesome or not as to the way it is received by “regular Joe’s.”

Part of the background of my (perhaps seemingly anal) concern here is Luther and the horrible wound in the body of Christ opened up by the divisions that followed Luther. As I understand it, Luther did not adequately realize that concupiscence is itself not sin. His collapsing of concupiscence into the category of personal sin in part lead him to despair of ever becoming transformed from within—of becoming virtuous—of being sanctified—transformed by grace from within. Luther’s failure to distinguish between the temptation to sin, and sin, lead him to abandon hope for what grace can do in the interior of the human person.

There is a grave risk in presenting a topic in such a way that a person might think that grace completely removes all temptation to sin. I know that CW does not teach this or intend this. But I still think it is worth perhaps a tad little bit of extra care on this very fundamental point to be sure that there is the least possible chance of anyone coming away with this misunderstanding. It can cause much spiritual trouble.

How? A person with a seedy background, newly in love with the faith, Christ, and the Church, wants deeply to be made pure—to become new. If he gets the idea that he is not moving toward purity and virtue and sanctity if he merely still experiences temptation he may well be on a path to eventual despair. The revert or convert, especially, needs to know that he can indeed be making much progress in the spiritual life even as he still has concupiscence. Equating spiritual progress with not having concupiscence can lead a fragile novice in the spiritual life into disaster. Great pains should be taken to prevent even one person from such needless suffering.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 5:38 pm

Katie, in his very response which you linked to above, CW writes,

But to those who cannot imagine freedom from concupiscence, such a way of seeing, living, talking, loving, and praying not only seems unusual - but improper, imprudent, dangerous, or even perverse.

What is a person to make of this when he also reads earlier in the same article,

It is abundantly clear from both Catholic teaching and human experience that, so long as we are on earth, we will always have to battle with concupiscence - that disordering of our passions caused by original sin. . . In some of my earliest lectures and tapes, I confess that I did not emphasize this important point clearly enough.

We all know here what CW means by this. But to someone unfamiliar with all this, the two quotes above seem to be contradictory. At the very least, how they fit together has got to seem very confusing.

Actually, I think the fault for this confusion lies not with CW, but with JPII. It seems that in the above CW is simply imitating JPII. So, I would argue that JPII’s use of the phrase “freedom from concupiscence” (if this is indeed a good translation from the original) was a poor usage and potentially very confusing. How is it true that so long as we are on earth (so the Church teaches), we must do battle with “concupiscence,” yet also, here in this life we should hope to attain freedom from “concupiscence”? Huh??? “Concupiscence,” in these two senses, is actually not the same thing. The same word is being used equivocally. I simply think it is much better not to equivocate and use other words for one of the two usages instead of using “concupiscence” in two different and seemingly contradictory ways. The term is obscure and unfamiliar enough for most people without adding this confusion on top of it.

And I feel I should affirm that I completely and fully support the substance of CW’s response article. Indeed, it is a horrible thing when a Christian does not realize that grace can truly make him a new man in Christ, freeing him from slavery to sin.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 6:00 pm

I think “a normal person” is capable of intuitively recognizing two different senses of the same term.  Lauretta’s military analogy was spot on.  A political leader can say the withdrawal of an enemy army from our borders has eliminated the threat of war, and (in the same address!) say that we must remain vigilant against threats.
A “normal person” would not respond with “so which is it? I’m totally confused now.”

In one sense of the term concupiscence means the tendency to sin; in another it refers to a standing attitude or disposition in a given soul.

Scott Johnston • Nov 4, 2009 - 6:34 pm

Don’t want to beat this particular horse too much more, here! And I hope I’m not arguing just for argument’s sake (heaven forbid).

I simply disagree (not in a foot-stomping, pounding-the-beer-mug-on-the-table sort of way; but in a friendly way) that many people would intuitively recognize the two different senses.

We recognize them. But we are fortunate to be able to bring more to the table given our particular backgrounds than most people. Perhaps we are too quick to use ourselves as templates for “normal people,” as we are not normal when it comes to our theological and philosophical educations. What is intuitive to us, I suggest, would not be for many others.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 8:58 pm

I still think you’re thinking too “theologically”, Scott.  I think they understand it in just the same way an alcoholic can hear “you can be free from slavery to alcohol” and “you’ll always be an alcoholic” in the same talk without being confused. 
“Normal people” (in the sense of people who are not either warped or hyper-alert from theological training) naturally FEEL the difference between being dominated by eroticism and being susceptible to temptation.  Because we all have that experience, we get what he means without too much difficulty.  We can get it even when we’re totally uncatechized and still under that domination.

On the other hand, I don’t want to seem to be implying that anyone who HAS been confused by CW’s presentations “has a problem.”  To me it’s easy to believe that short-comings in his presentations over the years have led to some confusion on that score, which he does well to correct.  I just don’t think technical accuracy and verbal exactitude, no matter how unwieldy, is the answer.

Pedantry and excessive caution can get seriously in the way of our witness in the world, in my opinion.

Tim • Nov 4, 2009 - 6:01 pm

While CW may never unequivocally say “You can be free of all temptation to sin sexually”, I agree with Scott that his message can be confusing and on the surface seem contradictory.  My church library has some of CW’s talks and the latest I listened to had one statement in it where he said we couldn’t get to the state of Adam and Eve before the Fall.  And yet there were several statements peppered throughout the talk that seemed to imply we could.

I’d like to listen to that talk with several people and discuss what THEY heard him say in the talk.  Would they agree with Katie that CW takes pains to be clear on this issue or would there be confusion?  I have to plan to do that.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 4, 2009 - 8:37 pm

Shall we do it?  Jules and I would be happy to host a such a gathering at our house for interested people in the area.  Too bad Lauretta is too far away to join us.  (Didn’t you just mention Idaho, Lauretta?  Or was it Iowa?)

Tim • Nov 4, 2009 - 11:35 pm

That is very gracious of you and I think you too should try it and see what the results are.  But I am more of the “normal person, average joe” type and I am more concerned what these types of people hear, not necessarily the ones with theology and philosophy degrees.  No offense.  Considering many of CW’s presentations are to the “average joe” it would seem to be a more telling test.  What does the average Catholic hear who doesn’t have the extensive education that many of you have?

Lauretta • Nov 5, 2009 - 10:25 am

I hope to have a few minutes until my grandchildren wake up to jump in here for a minute.  Tim, I, too, am an average joe-ette! and have been trying, with my husband, to learn TOB for almost ten years now since we think it is so helpful in human relationships, especially marriage.  It is much more than that, I agree, in fact I think that it is a fairly good catechesis on most of the basic tenets of the faith.

Anyhow, as to your question about how people hear what CW says in his talks, we have presented his material to I’m sure over 100 people from teens to elderly people.  Of course, we were always adding and clarifying because we would present the talks over a series of several weeks and so could deal with the misconceptions as they came up.  The issue that you are all referring to as to people misunderstanding “liberation from concupiscence” was never much of an issue.  What most people picked up on was the fact that they had an inherently negative attitude toward the human body and the fact that lust toward your spouse was wrong.  The other major issue, of course, was contraception.

We had one group in which we were the youngsters(imagine that) and all of the couples who were in their sixties up to later seventies admitted that lust was a major issue in their marriages.

I have a question for all of you about concupiscence.  I understand what it is theologically pretty well, I think, but am not sure about its totality in the individual.  What I mean is whether the Church teaches that we all have disordered desires in every area of our lives.  From my own personal experience, I would have to say no.  I have not ever, in my fifty plus years had a disordered desire for drugs and alcohol.  Never.  It is not an issue for me at all.  No virtue there but I have no temptations in that area.  I truly believe that I have liberation from concupiscence in that area.  Watch, now I’ll become an alcoholic since I made such a bold statement!!

Also, my husband was talking with a man who had to undergo surgical castration for health reasons, possibly cancer.  His male co-workers were expressing their “compassion” for his plight—we are talking blue collar workers so you can imagine the gist of the conversation!—so my husband decided to speak with him about his situation.  Interestingly, the man said that it was not a cross since, unlike impotence, he had absolutely no desire to engage in the sexual act.  I bring this up because I want to know if this man could not be said to have liberation from sexual concupiscence.  He will never again have that disordered desire, not through grace and virtue, but still the disordered desire is gone.

Are you all familiar with CS Lewis’ work, The Great Divorce?  I think that is the book, any how.  He has a great section in there about lust.  It is wonderful and very applicable to the discussion, I believe.  I know of people who have struggled with lust their whole lives but after learning what healthy sexuality is, were able to make a firm decision to change and the bondage, to a great degree, disappeared.  Not that they don’t have temptations but the temptations are more external to them and not controlling their actions in the same way. 

Grandchildren are awake—more later!

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 5, 2009 - 10:56 am

Don’t you think we can look to the general reception of CW’s work for that answer?  I mean, are there not huge numbers of people testifying that his work revitalized their faith or revolutionized their understanding of the Church’s moral teaching from something negative and condemnatory to something beautiful and challenging?  I have one 50-something friend.  A single guy, a businessman, who’s been involved with orthodox Catholic movements for years.  He took the week-long TOB course a year or so ago and was blown away.  He said to me, “My idea of Catholic sexual morality was basically a list of things that are not allowed.  This is GOOD NEWS!” 
My sense is that that is the “normal reaction” of “normal people” who go to TOB Institute with an open mind and heart.  I think that’s why Cardinal Rigali and so many other bishops are warmly encouraging it in their dioceses.
Clearly there are some who get some wrong headed notions along with the good news, whether from shortcomings in the presentations or their own limits and weaknesses or both.  Let all that be addressed in due course.
But I think it’s clear that if the general drift of CW’s work led people to imagine that they can be freed of all temptation to sin, we’d be seeing a lot more nuttiness among his followers and a lot less support from the likes of Michael Waldstein, Janet Smith, et al.

Tim • Nov 5, 2009 - 6:53 pm

There’s also a huge number of people that testify that Medjugorje and Father Jozo Zovko revitalized their faith.  Can one conclude from that alone that it’s beyond reproach?

I think gathering a diverse group of people, listening to some talks and asking some follow-up questions will give me a better idea how others are receiving CW’s message.  As for your friend, that’s great.  I’m glad for him.  But most don’t take a week long course.

Tim • Nov 5, 2009 - 6:56 pm

You said you presented his material and then added and clarified things.  My point is simply to have people listen and then ask them what they heard- not teach to them or clarify things.

Tim • Nov 5, 2009 - 6:57 pm

Oops!  Last reply was for Lauretta.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 5, 2009 - 7:33 pm

We cannot escape an element of discernment, can we?

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 5, 2009 - 9:20 pm

Tim, I have never said that CW is beyond reproach.  I don’t know anyone who has, though I have many good friends among his admirers as well as his critics. 
Widespread testimony of personal transformation is evidence, not proof, of his basic soundness.

Lauretta • Nov 6, 2009 - 10:12 am

I don’t think that TOB is something that most people are able to hear a couple of talks and understand what is being said.  That is why we were clarifying and adding things because we had listened to and read about TOB a lot and so had already dealt with many things that we had misunderstood in the beginning.

I would assume that those who are giving talks to groups of people are hoping that the talks will pique the interest of their audience to go out and strive to learn more.  That is what happened to us.  We knew about TOB and I had tried reading it before it was compiled into one volume but found the text daunting.  Several years later, someone mentioned CW to us, we listened to a tape and became interested because of his zeal but also because we could hear in an academic explanation what we were going through in our own marriage.  Imagine our excitement seeing this understanding laid out in such a systematic fashion!

One thing that I have learned is that we all “hear” things through our own life experience filters.  If these filters are filled with wrong perceptions, even if we are hearing something that is correct, we will tend to distort it because of our tainted filtering system.  That is not the fault of the person speaking or the material he is presenting, but our own filters.  For me, it took accepting that my ideas were skewed and I needed to lay my opinions aside and listen with an open mind and heart to what was being said.

To me one of the big things that TOB does is change how we relate to others.  For many of us we relate to others from a position of fear—either of ourselves that we may fall into sin because of another or fear that another may entice us into sin.  Well, even more than that, fears of rejection, judgment, etc.  TOB, in my opinion, once it is understood, helps us to relate to others differently.  We can begin to see the great dignity of the other, and ourselves, which takes away a lot of the fear.  We learn the need to make a gift of self to the other and what that means in everyday life.  It is so much more than just about sex, as we define the term, but who we are as persons made in the image and likeness of God.

Scott Johnston • Nov 7, 2009 - 8:49 am

Lauretta, this last paragraph of yours is a great summary statement of the benefits of TOB! Well said!

It is right on target, I think, to emphasize the gradual healing and transformation that can take place within our personal relationships, how we relate to others, that TOB can facilitate.

In my case, after my conversion to Catholicism (and for the first time to a serious Christian faith as an adult), one of the first and most noticeable positive changes was a transformation in how I was able to relate to women. Not claiming total success here, but there was a huge difference that was incredibly freeing and life-enhancing. But, interestingly, this took place before I had any specific introduction to TOB. It was primarily, as I recall, through the Bible and the Catechism (and the example of the Saints) that my vision of what human life under grace is meant to be was radically reworked from my former default secular view into a vision that could hope (with the action of grace) for a radical interior reshaping of the heart, a genuine transformation such that a life of virtue, a life of Christ-like supernatural, indwelling virtues genuinely possessed by the individual as his own, could be had. In other words, I began to see that a freeing of one’s heart from a horribly depersonalizing enslavement to sin was possible through a life of grace! Specifically applying this to the realm of the relationship between the sexes with contemporary language is essentially what TOB does.

This post from my blog is related:
http://tinyurl.com/yf8egp5

There is a fundamental insight (hope, really) about what human life on this earth can become under grace, that, to me, is one of THE most important and freeing things about being Catholic. In the daily, practically lived experience of life, it is one of the most distinctive markers of a Catholic vs. non-Catholic approach to life. It is this beautiful Catholic understanding of what is possible by grace: the authentic, personal, interior freedom of the saint. This freedom being increasingly attained by concurring growth in both natural and supernatural virtues.

Katie van Schaijik • Nov 7, 2009 - 9:27 am

I agree with you, Scott.  On the other hand, I want to stress again how crucial and dramatic a development the encounter with TOB is for many, including for many cradle Catholics and many already-ardent converts.
I am a cradle Catholic whose personal religious life was awakened through evangelicals when I was 12, then deepened through Emmaus retreats in high school, then strengthened, illumined and matured through theology classes in Steubenville.  I had “a personal relationship with Jesus”: I wanted to live my life for God; I wanted to be a saint; and I was surrounded by friends, professors and priests who wanted the same.  Yet, even so, for me the discovery of JP II and Dietrich von Hildebrand’s philosophy of love when I was 20 was a moment of dramatic development in my moral, intellectual and religious life—involving a transformation even.
Since then 1) I have heard many similar testimonies, i.e. of people whose understanding of their Catholic lives was transformed through TOB and 2) I have met many devout Catholics whose approach to life and faith is conspicuously lacking the fundamental insights of that saving message.

Lauretta • Nov 7, 2009 - 9:58 am

I agree with both of you.  Someone who strives to live the fullness of the Catholic faith WILL come to the same realization that TOB brings us to.

I, too, am a convert, Scott, from atheism.  I converted at 19.  Sometimes, as one looking, in a certain sense, from the outside, it almost seems as tho cradle Catholics can be at somewhat of a disadvantage.  For many, it seems as tho “learning” about the truths of the faith as a child makes them less able to understand and incorporate the fullness of what is there.  Their understanding stays at a more childlike level.  For me, coming into the faith as a young adult, if someone said something to me that didn’t seem to make sense, I would question and read until I came to understand correctly what was being taught.

One of the things that is so appealing to me is the systematic way that TOB teaches.  It seems to tie all of the major tenets of the faith together in this flow that makes so much sense.  I understood the individual tenets of the faith but sometimes things seem disjointed to me and I didn’t see the connectedness in the same way that I do now.

I have some thoughts on Original Sin that I would like to share with you at some point, but am up against the clock since we are setting roof trusses and I am to be ready at the crack of dawn—and it is coming quickly!

Lauretta • Nov 7, 2009 - 10:00 am

P.S.  What about my questions about concupiscence?  Any thoughts about that?  I am really curious.

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