Thursday, September 30, 2010

Janet Smith Takes on Dawn Eden's Criticism of Christopher West

This whole Theology of the Body debate is quite confusing - so if you are not interested, stop reading now. Trying to sort out who said what and the truth behind it all is getting more blurry all the time.

If you are interested, there is a debate over Christopher West's approach to Theology of the Body. As I have stated previously, I count Christopher as a friend, even though I don't agree with him on everything. Also, while I have been critical of Dawn's thesis, I believe she had good intentions behind it and several good points, even while I disagree with her on some major ones.

One of the things I have found in this debate is that neither "side" likes to admit when the other "side" has a good point. This doesn't help further the debate. A lot of it has become a "he-said / she-said" affair, which means people are defensive, walls go up, and some are trying to win.

Fulton Sheen once said, "Win and argument. Lose a soul." The participants in this debate should keep this in mind.

With this in mind - Janet Smith has written a response to Dawn Eden's thesis (pdf download here). There are a few good points and a few not-so-good ones. A few of my thoughts are interspersed within the quotes below. My thoughts are in Red.

A few snips:
I have communicated some of my concerns to Eden, but that dialogue did not end well. I am glad she did this directly with Dawn. This is part of the problem with the whole debate - Christopher hasn't been a part of it yet and it is public. It should have been done in private first, then brought out in the open. The scandal that has come from the whole debate is driving some people away from a wonderful teaching. I fear some people have taken a mere glance at her thesis, and since they are predisposed to accept her conclusions, they are dazzled by the number of quotations and footnotes into thinking that she has provided a worthy critique West’s work. Here, I would like to invite those who are using Eden’s thesis as the foundation of their rejection of West to test her claims. Go to the sources that she cites and see if her representation of West’s views is accurate. I think they will discover that Eden regularly distorts what West says. I agree that her footnoting, quoting, and sources need a lot of work. I also agree that she distorts what Christopher actually says. But, Eden still has a few good points that need to be considered, even if the thesis isn't the greatest academic work.  Fortunately, they will also discover an author much worth reading, that is, West. When Eden’s work exhibits the care that West’s does, and when she exhibits his fairness, humility and docility, There is no need to comment on her humility. she will have a great deal to offer the Church.
Eden herself may not yet be enough of an expert on the Theology of the Body to be publicly critiquing the work of an author whose writings and presentations have been favorably reviewed both by bishops and top scholars. Maybe she doesn't know the TOB as well as many others, but I don't think that this should take her out of the debate.
Violating the “hermeneutic of continuity” is what Eden considers to be the most serious flaw in West’s work. Oddly, she does not set aside any specific portion of her thesis to defend this charge. Her most direct engagement of the issue of “hermeneutic of continuity” is in her presentation of the first of ten “themes” she finds in West’s work, a section of only two pages at most. She states the theme in this way: “The Theology of the Body is an all-encompassing theology that requires theologians and religious educators to recontextualize ‘everything’ about Christian faith and life” (ET, 11). She explains further by stating, “It isn’t just about sex and marriage;” it is a “revolution” that “will lead to a dramatic development of thinking about the Creed.” (Eden notes that this quotation came from George Weigel’s Witness to Hope, 343). There is a striking set of words linked here: “all-encompassing,” “recontextualize,” “everything,” “revolution,” and “dramatic development.” Eden bombards her readers with words that she seems to believe will shock them. Surely, there can be no hermeneutic of continuity if such radical claims are being made.

But does West say such things and, if so, where, and what does he mean? The merit of Eden’s thesis over against some of the other pieces against him is that it provides readers with sources where they can go to verify her charges. Unfortunately, as I have stated, when one goes to the sources or even reads carefully what Eden has stated, one rarely draws the same conclusions that she does. I have to agree on this point. I do not believe that there is such a radical disconnect with the Traditions of the Church as Eden proposes. I was hoping to find where West says what she states the first theme to be. Eden doesn’t lead us to any passages that state that the Theology of the Body is an “all-encompassing” theology; she only notes that West said it “isn’t just about sex and marriage.” (ET, 11) I would have thought Eden would be pleased that West says the Theology of the Body “isn’t just about sex and marriage,” because elsewhere she accuses him of presenting the Theology of the Body as though it were only about sex and marriage. He can’t win! I think Smith is missing the point. Sometimes Christopher does go to far in trying to stretch the TOB. But, this teaching is new and some mistakes are bound to be made. Furthermore, he does try to sexualize things a bit much, even if it isn't as bad as what some make it out to be.
One more:
Eden maintains that West’s claim that the Theology of the Body is causing a “new sexual revolution” “implies discontinuity” (ET, 66). I suppose it might — but not a discontinuity with Church teaching. Eden fails to understand several claims West makes. He is claiming at least these three things, all defensible, in my view: 1) that those who teach Church teaching about sexuality and who use the concepts of the Theology of the Body, will present it in a more positive way than it has often been presented in the past; This is true in many respects. 2) that the teachings of the Theology of the Body have given us a much deeper understanding of the way that the body reveals truths about man and God; Also true. and 3) that if people understand and live by the teachings of the Theology of the Body, there will be a revolution in sexual conduct. Also true.  None o these claims involve a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” Here is the biggest disagreement I have with Dawn's claims. I do not see the discontinuity either. Just because a teaching is called "revolutionary" does not mean it necessarily must be a change in doctrine. It seems to me that it is implying a change in individual behavior, which is much needed today.
I could go on, but I haven't the time.

Suffice it to say - I pray for more charity and more clarity regarding this debate.  Please pray with me.

John Paul II pray for us!

Further Reading:
**Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve' Critiques Dawn Eden's Thesis
**My Response to Dawn Eden's Thesis
**Christopher West Controversy
**Dialogue on West Continues
**Christopher West Criticized by Alice von Hildebrand
**Christopher West Interview
**More West Criticism
**Christopher West Receives Support from Bishops
**OSV on West Controversy


Sr. Lorraine said...

Thank you, Marcel, for this post and your good comments. Very insightful and charitable.

Thanks also for putting up the post about my critique of the thesis too.

I agree about the continuity point. It doesn't seem to me that West is breaking with Church tradition. Some of the arguments used to try and show that seem a bit of a stretch, especially the part where she links West's treatment of the virtue of continence to John Paul being a revolutionary.

You're also right that she does have some good points though. I think the point about the Easter candle was good and showed some good research.

Baron Korf said...

Not to be a pest, but isn't Janet Smith the one who tweeted that "Every lover is a pathological stalker. God is a stalker"? I only bring this up because it seems to bring her judgement into question especially in light of this topic.

Marcel said...

First off - I wouldn't say she lacks judgment because of one statement, which has been taken out of context.

Second - she said it, didn't tweet it. I heard the entire talk and the statement was a joke about how much God pursues us.

Baron Korf said...

I'd still say it is bad judgement, even for a joke. But that does clear up that concern.

Marcel said...

It probably wasn't the best way to put it, but I seem to do the same thing once in a while when I give talks, so I am quite forgiving of others.

tour86rocker said...

I agree that critics of West regularly misrepresent what West teaches. I did find his engagement in Houston last year to be higher on emotion than substance, but he has done some good.

Liz said...

very interesting....i heard dawn eden speak at a conference this summer. i'm going to have to go back and look at my notes of what she said at the conference regarding TOB.

Kevin said...

As one who has been pretty involved in the debate, for what its worth, I find this quite balanced.

I would of course disagree with what Dr. Smith has said (and some of the things even Dr. Smith later walked back to her credit.) You are one of the few I am aware of (not firmly in the "camp" of West's critics) who has mentioned that the essay really could've done without some of the pot shots.

What I'm hoping is a repeat of what Sr. Lorraine was able to accomplish. For a few weeks, varying voices had a (for the most part) civil exchange in the blogosphere over the discussion, and areas where common ground could be established, etc.

I think Dr. Smith's current essay has poisoned that well pretty thoroughly, at least for the time being. She did say she will have another essay on Alice Von Hildebrand coming, and will be in a more irenic tone. Hopefully the scholarship improves as well (as she is no doubt a capable scholar) and everyone can forget this incident, and focus on the evidence.

Kevin Tierney

Larry said...

A couple of points, if I may:

1. There is concern that the debate became public too soon. Both Dr. David Schindler and Fr. Angelo Geiger of the Franciscans of the Immaculate have stated that they tried to engage with Christopher West privately on some of these issues but received essentially no reply. Many went public with concerns after West seemed to pose the risk of scandal due to his comments regarding Hefner and Pope John Paul II on the Nightline program.

2. There has been a tendency on the part of those defending West to ignore many of the criticisms, or to seize on relatively small side issues (like how a paper was footnoted), at the expense of engaging the more profound concerns presented. We see here again an example of this. In fact, Smith's critique of Eden has been so poorly received, and such a public embarrassment, that she has requested a do-over, and has stated she is writing a new response.

3. This final bit is just my own hypothesizing regarding the "tone" of the debate that seems to concern some. Along this line, as someone who doesn't have a dog in the fight and has not previously been opposed to West's material on TOB, nor have I been an endorser of it, I see in some of the response to these criticisms a sense of panic, an over-reaction, if you will. It's odd to see extremely well known people in Catholic circles taking time to respond with a certain degree of vitriol to a relatively unknown person with a Master's thesis. Yes, that thesis got some distribution, but nothing even approaching the order of what West probably achieves in a week. Why all these surrogate engagements? Why the sudden dogpile? These are very odd behaviors in response to a paper read by perhaps a few thousand, in relation to a man who publishes books sold to millions. It makes me wonder why. I can understand some reaction, most of all by West, but not what we have seen.

There is nothing new under the sun. If you want to read how to approach God and define your relationship with your spouse in a manner that will be pleasing to God, read the Saints. There is precious little in present day Catholic writing that can approach what has been written before. But doing that does not keep hundreds, or thousands, in careers.

Marcel said...

Larry - a few points.

1 - they should have first gone after Nightline. Chrisopher might have made an error in judgment by letting them do the piece, but the editing made it worse than what it was. Context means a lot.

2 - This is true in many respects. Certain arguments have been ignored, but that doesn't mean the errors of Eden, et al. should be ignored either. I think she has made more errors than anyone in the debate.

3 - Some have over-reacted, but this is much more public than what you are giving it credit for. It is very well known in most Catholic circles.

Lastly - you seem to hint that this is about profit. Please be careful in making such accusations.