Theosis and Eros, Celibacy and Marriage

"The cross to me is everything," explains Dr. Adam G. Cooper in remarking on his two recent books, "It’s the defining centre of God and human history."

Dr. Adam G. Cooper is a permanent fellow and senior lecturer in the theology of the body at the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne. He has a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Durham (UK) and a licentiate and a doctorate in Sacred Theology from Pontifical Lateran University (Rome). He has authored several books, including The Body in St ­Maximus the Confessor (2005) and Life in the Flesh (2008). His two most recent books were both published this year: Naturally Human, Supernaturally God: Deification in Pre-Conciliar Catholicism (Fortress Press) and Holy Eros: A Liturgical Theology of the Body (Angelico Press). His article, “Cardinal Kasper and the Church Fathers”, was published by Catholic World Report this past June.

Dr. Cooper recently corresponded with Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, about his newest books and his research into salvation, liturgy, theosis, the meaning of the body, and the crucial relationship between celibacy and marriage.

CWR: At first glance, these two books might appear to be about two rather different topics: soteriology and liturgy. But would it be accurate to say that each, in its own way, focus on shared topics, including the nature of man, the purpose of existence, and the end (or End) to which each of us is oriented?

Dr. Cooper: Yes, that’s a fair observation. Much of my writing has tended to revolve around theological anthropology in one shape or another. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it revolves around Christology, from which a good deal of my thinking about what it means to be human and bodily emerges.

CWR: Naturally Human, Supernaturally God is rather unique in that it takes a topic—deification—usually discussed from a biblical perspective or a patristic foundation, and examines it in the writings of three great twentieth-century Catholic theologians: Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange O.P., Karl Rahner S.J., and Henri de Lubac S.J. How did you first become interested in the topic of deification? And how did you end up writing about Garrigou-Lagrange, Rahner, and de Lubac and their theological work about deification?

Dr. Cooper: My interest in deification goes a long way back to the first year of my Lutheran seminary education, where I had the chance to read Irenaeus and Origen for a research paper. I was struck by the centrality of this idea in their respective works. At that time quite a bit of work was also being done by the Finnish Lutherans on deification in Luther’s theology, so I was able to draw some tenuous links.

Several years later I found myself studying deification and the body in the writings of St Maximus the Confessor. To master Maximus on this topic one needs to master the whole Greek patristic tradition. Soon after becoming Catholic, I realised how much I stood in need of orientation in twentieth-century Catholic theology. So I chose a theme I already knew well from the fathers—deification—and set out to discover whether and how it had featured in pre-Vatican II Catholic theology. It turned out to be a really worthwhile project.

CWR: What are some of the common points of emphasis among the three theologians? And in what ways did they differ? Why is important to study both the points of agreement and of disagreement?

Dr. Cooper: From my research I would say that all three theologians locate the heart and centre of human meaning and fulfilment in Christ, the incarnate God. That may come as some sort of surprise to some who think that Garrigou-Lagrange is too Neoscholastic or that Rahner is too modernistic. I really didn’t know what I would find. I just knew the three figures represented very different streams or traditions in contemporary Catholic theology.

What surprised me was this convergence, revolving around human deification in Christ. Perhaps I am naïve, but it seems to me that here is at least one way towards healing and overcoming some of the many unnecessary polarities that afflict the post-Vatican Catholic Church, as well as offering a fruitful point of dialogue with other ecclesial traditions.

CWR: You acknowledge that you think de Lubac’s thinking and writing about deification, while controversial in some ways, is the best of the three. Why?

Dr. Cooper: Maybe because of my own formation in biblical and patristic theology, de Lubac speaks a language that is most familiar to me, and that rings true from what I know of authentic Christian tradition, spread over space and history.

He also speaks what I would call a more universal Christian language, one that is not narrowly bound by the categories of Neoscholastic or Transcendental philosophy. That may sound subjective, but I think de Lubac’s theology has also been more clearly corroborated by magisterial teaching in the last forty years or so.

CWR: Another shared theme of these two books is what you describe as the “cruciform humility” of Christ and those who share in his divine life. What is the place and role of the Cross in what you call “holy eros” and the “liturgical theology of the body”?

Dr. Cooper: The cross to me is everything. It’s the defining centre of God and human history. Failure to come to grips with what happened there in our Lord’s bleeding and broken body results in a vague, abstract, evanescent theology entirely lacking power to change lives.

A theology of the cross does not simply mean that the cross is important. It requires the paradoxical reversal of all worldly perspectives, and the discovery of life in death, power in weakness, honour in humility, salvation in judgement. Christianity proclaims a glorious salvation, but it is not found in this life except under the veil of blood, tears, humility, and surrender to death.

CWR: How can the theology of the body equip Catholics to better understand and participate in liturgy? What misunderstandings about worship and adoration can be countered by a deeper comprehension of the sign and symbolism of the human body?

Dr. Cooper: Christian faith is not first of all a mental event. It is born in the body, and shaped by what we do with and in the body. Our bodies furthermore are not just neutral, mute instruments, but already inscribed with meaning and purpose, already indicating something about the shape of human and spiritual fulfilment. In the liturgy, which is nothing less than the body language of Christ in the world, all these dynamics come together.

The Church in worship is a living, breathing body. Its communion with God is physically mediated. Sensitivity to the meaning of our own bodies, especially what John Paul II called the body’s ‘nuptial’ dimension, as well as to the ‘physicality’ of the Church’s liturgy, goes a long way towards strengthening effective participation in and understanding of Christian worship.

CWR: Celibacy has often been presented as a discipline with an ancient heritage. But what are the theological roots and meanings of celibacy? And how can they help us to better understand marriage and the nuptial relationship?

Dr. Cooper: Our Lord is a virgin. So is his Mother. In his virginal conception and incarnate virginal life ‘nature is innovated afresh’ (to use a phrase of Maximus the Confessor). This means that in Christ’s bodily virginity, which even now is enclosed within the Trinitarian communion, something new enters the sphere of salvation history, revealing and effectively realising a new and more ultimate meaning for marriage and sexuality.

According to the Creator’s plan marriage is not just a means for human reproduction. Rather it bears a paradigmatic status, directing us toward our ultimate end in the marriage of the Lamb and the Bride. In a hidden yet real way sacramental marriages already participate in the redemptive grace of this Christ/Church union. But celibacy for the sake of the kingdom more manifestly embodies and anticipates the ultimacy of heavenly fulfilment. In their lives and teaching both Jesus and Paul subordinate marriage to discipleship and the kingdom.

Marriage thus needs the witness of celibacy to prevent it from appearing as god, as ultimate. Celibacy on the other hand needs marriage to indicate its relational, nuptial meaning and erotic trajectory.

CWR: There is currently a strong push in Western culture to erase or dismiss the differences between men and women, as well as to redefine marriage. How can the theology of the body and a better understanding of the nuptial nature of Christ’s relationship with the Church help the Church in defending and lauding that which is truly masculine and feminine, as well as presenting the nature of authentic marriage?

Dr. Cooper: Every true union presupposes difference. This is true at the level of the Trinitarian communion, the hypostatic union of Christ’s two natures, the union of Christ and the Church, and the union of human persons in marriage. Bodily, sexual difference iconically signals this fact. We can ignore it, but cannot erase it.

This is why proposals to redefine marriage in generic, non-sexually specific terms, amount in fact to an anthropological devolution. With this anthropological genericism goes a more or less subtle eradication of the iconic nature and function of human sexuality, its symbolic capacity to disclose divine mysteries. The body and sexuality lose their inherent, divinely-inscribed meaning and transparency. They instead become playthings, pure instruments, subject to the arbitrary manipulations of human will.

CWR: You conclude Holy Eros with a short chapter on the “prophetism” of the body. In what way does the use of our bodies—in marriage, in worship, and so forth—give witness to divine truths and realities?

Dr. Cooper: The holy prophets of Israel were more than just mouthpieces or disinterested conduits for the powerful divine word. This word gripped them and took hold of them. It burned inside them, it weighed constantly upon their hearts, it overturned their lives and histories. Above all this word effectively enacted the realities of which it spoke.

In marriage, and most poignantly in conjugal union, the bodies of the spouses function similarly. Their bodies do not just communicate information, but effectively enact new realities. The language of the body in marriage is, like the language of the prophets, a performative language, an effective word-deed. This of course implies the possibility of falsification. The language of the body can be falsified. The body can be used to tell sexual lies.

For the prophets, fidelity to the word of God was paramount. On it turned the wellbeing of Israel and the history of the world. For spouses, and indeed for all, fidelity to the God-inscribed language of the body is no optional extra, a useful possibility worthy of consideration. On it turns the wellbeing of God’s people, and the future of society.


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About Carl E. Olson 1113 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications.