Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing by Christopher West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
What do a bunch of celibate men have to tell the world about marriage, love, and sex? Apparently quite a bit if those celibates are men like Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Christopher West’s slender text, Fill These Hearts: God, Sex, and the Universal Longing is an attempt to unpack the Catholic Church’s richly developed and under-appreciated theology of the body, though his desire to make this theology accessible to the widest audience possible at times makes it feel an exposition writ in crayon.
Plus, he starts off very much on the wrong foot from an astronomical point of view. So, pardon a astronomer’s annoyance, but first a short rant:
The opening sentence in West’s book states that “In 1977 NASA launched Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to explore the galaxy.”
There’s so much wrong here. Granted, this isn’t a book about science and West only makes this comment in passing to talk about how the music samples carried by these spacecraft testify to humanity’s universal longing. But it is the opening line of his book . . .
The Voyager missions were launched to explore the outer planets of our own solar system, not the galaxy. But more than that, that there’s a staggering problem of scale here. Imagine tossing an Oreo cookie into the center of a football field. That cookie is roughly the radius of our solar system. (The Sun would be a candy sprinkle at Oreo’s center, and Neptune would be a microscopic dot skimming around the cookie’s edge.) On this scale, the nearest planetary system is another cookie two football fields away. The galaxy is about 200 billion of these cookies spread over an area about the size of North America. And where are the Voyagers on this scale? In the decades they’ve been in space, they’ve drifted less than a yard away from our own cookie– er, solar system.
Saying that we sent them out to explore the galaxy is a bit like imagining sending a paramecium to explore New York City.
Okay, so it’s not a book about science. It’s a book about theology. West’s major point is that we as humans are built with certain longings and desires and that this isn’t a bad thing. We have these desires for a reason, but we have three possible responses to this reality, two bad and one good. We can either ignore and suppress those desires (what he calls the “starvation diet”) or we can indulge them (what he calls the “fast food diet”). Though Christianity is often portrayed as leaning toward the first option, West says this is as wrong as the improper indulgence of desires. (And to be clear, throughout the book he’s mainly talking about romantic and sexual desires.)
The proper response, West says, is to recognize these desires as pointing toward something beyond themselves, as indicative of an eternal banquet to come, to realize the things of this world cannot satisfy our desires, and to see romantic and sexual desires as a way of stretching our hearts so God can satisfy us. There’s weirdness here and mysticism and even some discomfort. But there’s also quite a bit of solid theology and biblical exposition. Song of Solomon, for instance, is in the Bible for a reason.
West’s alliterative thesis is that our desires— when understood correctly– point toward God, our design shows we’re meant to exist in relationship, and our destiny is that God wants to expand our desires and longings toward infinity where they can be filled with His love.
Along the way we’re treated to passages from Scripture and Catholic theology interspersed with painful analogies from Spider-Man 2 and lyrics from U2 (see the comment above about being writ in crayon). The most compelling portions for me were the final chapters where West provides an outline of the Catholic view of chastity and sexual ethics. In West’s interpretation, chastity is a promise of immortality. It’s a way of rightly ordering desire here on Earth, of keeping human nature free of the addictive aspects of sexual desire and oriented toward eternity. (If it seems like a futile and desperate hope, it kind of is.)
There are lots of issues here, primarily related to the point that West seems to think humans all have more or less the same sort of desires and takes this as the starting point for his exposition. This is in keeping with what I understand of Catholic theology often beginning from a “natural laws” treatment of the world, something that I’m not sure remains tenable.
If nothing else though, besides bringing a taste of some of the deeper aspects of Catholic theology, West does call attention to the undeniable fact that many of the central themes and symbols in the Bible have to do with sex and marriage– and wine. Sex and alcohol, often shunned in puritanical circles, are central to a Biblical view of desire and satisfaction. Christ’s first miracle, as West points out, was at a wedding feast, and it was to provide that feast with a fine vintage. This is West’s central claim: that God isn’t interested in starving us or in seeing us waste ourselves seeking after pleasures that can’t satisfy. Rather, He wants to provide a real, eternal banquet and (though the analogy becomes strained, at least to me) a real, eternal marriage relationship.