Interview with Susan Windley-Daoust, author of Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying
Susan Windley-Daoust received a 2011 Sabbatical Grant for Researchers award for her project The Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Childbirth, Disability, and Death. Susan shares with us about her book Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying (Lectio Publishing, 2014).
LI: Tell us about yourself and your current work.
SWD: I am an associate professor of theology at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota, a Catholic liberal arts school. My doctoral work was in systematic theology; I am also a trained spiritual director and an active layperson in the Catholic Church. I am married, a mother to five children, and generally very busy. Right now I’m completing a popular text called Giving and Receiving Birth: A Spiritual Theology of Childbirth. Soon I hope to write a book on spiritual direction and the theology of the body.
LI: What core question/concern guided your research project?
SWD: If the human body was created to serve as a sign that points to God, then every primordial human experience witnesses to that. How does childbirth, impairment, and the process of dying point the human being to God? How can we perceive that? What prevents us from perceiving that?
LI: What would you like us to know about your book Theology of the Body, Extended: The Spiritual Signs of Birth, Impairment, and Dying?
SWD: In Catholic circles, the theology of the body is a bit of a phenomenon. Standing on the shoulders of others, Pope (and now Saint) John Paul II crafted and introduced a theology that speaks to the “language of the body.” The popularity of this perspective skyrocketed within ecclesial circles. As George Weigel said, the theology of the body is “one of the boldest reconfigurations of Catholic theology in centuries….a theological time bomb set to go off with dramatic consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.” Indeed, this school of thought has become deeply polarizing: many enthusiasts either claim it has changed their lives or dismiss it as irrelevant idealism. I began reading theology of the body literature with skepticism, but was impressed by its integrated vision of the theology of creation and redemption, as well as its organic critique of modern sexuality.
Many of the “popularizers” of theology of the body—and they are needed, because the original texts are extremely dense unless the reader has advanced training in philosophy and theology—have focused on its application to sexuality and marriage. This is certainly appropriate given that John Paul II focused half of his work in these texts on that topic. But the other half is important as well: what does it mean to be human, an ensouled body? What does it mean to understand our incarnation as a pre-given language of self-giving and fruitfulness? Would the polarization be diminished if we paid more attention to theological anthropology? My book addresses what it would mean to perceive the body as a sign that points to God: in the process of giving birth, in living with an impairment, and in the process of dying. Essentially, there is a phenomenology of those primal experiences of embodiment in dialogue with the theology of the body’s particular insights on creation and redemption.
I think the work is important because this is a theology that touches people where they live. Parents often say that giving birth is one of the deepest spiritual experiences of their lives. People often cry out “Why?” when faced with an unexpected impairment—or begin to rethink how we are all impaired, limited, in ways when we stand coram Deo (in the presence of God). The prophetic work of hospice shows that dying can be, and often is, a deeply spiritual experience for those dying and those accompanying them. It connects the growing art of spiritual direction with the classical work of theological reflection in ways that help us understand what it means to be human. And as I tell my students, how you answer the question of what it means to be human determines how you will answer every other question in life—every single one. I’m grateful to have had a chance to contribute to that ageless enterprise.