"Is nudity God's will?"
1-hour PBS TV Debate
Item#: DVD 1 $7
David showed up with his slingshot, but Goliath was nowhere to be found! That's how I felt in 1997 as all of the big shot leaders of the so-called "Radical Religious Right" refused to pick up the gauntlet and engage me in publicly debating the question, "Is nudity God's will?" All of them very seriously considered the invitation from PBS, but in the words of the Assistant Producer, "began backpedaling" when they discovered they would be opposing Jim C. Cunningham of Naturist LIFE International. Some were already familiar with NLI through either print or the internet, or back-pedaled after checking us out. The funniest case was a very erudite Catholic apologist, a priest often featured on Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network. He was invited to the debate in person when he happened to be at the Manhattan TV studio. They gave him NLI's guidebook, Vermont Unveiled, to peruse while making up his mind. "These pictures are beautiful!" he exclaimed, and he refused the challenge, recommending Fr. Benedict Ashley, an 82-year old Dominican Theologian from St. Louis University, a bioethicist who published a huge tome, Theologies of the Body. Well, it seems that Fr. Ashley did not know better, and accepted the challenge to be the captain opposing me. The rest of the opposition consisted of Peter Thiel, an evangelical attorney and research fellow with the Independent Institute near San Francisco, and Bawa Jain, a Hindu Jainist United Nations interfaith director.
PBS allowed me to have input on the other members of my team, and I immediately suggested Fr. Jim G. Dodge, an 82-year old Trappist monk-priest and naturist for about seventy years (nothing like a little experience!).
Our team now consisting of yours truly, a staunch Catholic lay father of five children who have never known anything but naturism, and an articulate and widely experienced Catholic priest, we racked our brains trying to perfect the team with an articulate, Christian naturist woman who could speak for the "better half" of humanity. We had almost given up when Fr. Dodge found Claudia Kellersch, a Bavarian living in the U.S.A. Northwest. She was known on the internet to be very articulate in defense of naturism. When I asked her about her theological background, she said she had read the Bible in both Greek and Latin, so I figured she was just the perfect complement to our team.
We immediately began to do our homework, researching the opposition, readying our best "guns," and planning strategies to utilize the strictly fixed professional debate format to our best advantage. We also practiced at the fine Manhattan hotel where PBS graciously accommodated us.
The evening before the big debate I called the two members of the opposing team who were also staying at the hotel, Fr. Ashley and Peter Thiel. They cordially accepted my invitation to dinner at the hotel restaurant. I wanted to enter the debate not with fire and ire, but with understanding, mutual respect and congeniality. There were ten of us at dinner: my wife, Linda, myself, and our three youngest children (who obviously did not look ill-adjusted or abused!), Claudia, Fr. Dodge, Peter and Fr. Ashley. Being completely blind and disabled (which I do not think they knew), I was the last to arrive with one of my children guiding me. I made a point to shake their hands and personally introduce everyone, always trying to "break ice" and remove imagined fences.
The dinner conversation was most amusing to me as I could see Fr. Ashley and Peter go through a series of massive mental readjustments as they discovered that we did not each have three heads, and in some respects, were even more conservative than they. Instead of being turned off by the type of godly nudity that we expounded, they seemed to be very intrigued. Most ironic was the fact that the Dominican and our Trappist found out that they had "met" before in 1941 at Gethsemane Abbey in Kentucky. Fr. Ashley had been there on retreat with Thomas Merton, while Fr. Dodge was being received into the order as a novice. Small world!
To top it all off, upon parting for the night I asked them if I could make a present to them of a copy of Vermont Unveiled. They seemed enthusiastically glad to receive it. By the elevator, I said to Fr. Ashley, "Your theology of the body actually fits into our philosophy very well. What you have done on the theological level, needs to be done on the practical level; there ought to be retreats for Catholics focusing on the spirituality of the body in order to help straighten out harmful warps."
"You mean a nudist retreat?" he exclaimed.
"Well, not necessarily, but at least geared to address this neglected dimension of spiritual growth," I explained.
His response to this was a prolonged, pensive, "Hmm…," as he entered the elevator. The following day, September 30, was the taping of the debate. Ironically, it was the feast of St. Jerome, who said, "Nudus nudum Iesum sequi." ("Naked, I follow naked Jesus!")
Fr. Ashley came to me between cosmetic make-ups.
"Did you check out Vermont Unveiled last night?" I queried.
"Well, I didn't read the whole thing yet, but the photographs are beautiful; they are definitely not pornographic!"
Linda felt sorry for the opposition, because by the time the debate began, it seemed they truly regretted being there, now that they better understood the naturist ideal as we presented it.
During the debate their best "guns" were not very powerful. Fr. Ashley asserted that it was unrealistic to suppose we could return to the Garden of Eden. Several times he said he agreed with us about public nudity; he just insisted that it be somehow regulated. Peter's "gun" was that we shouldn't practice naturism if it would scandalize a weak brother in the Lord who might not understand it the way we do. Bawa Jain's argument was that if naturism occasioned turmoil and public strife, it should be avoided so as not to create negative "karma." And that's the best they could do!
I think our team argued well and convincingly. Fr. Dodge, especially, was very funny, getting the live audience to laugh a few times. No matter who "won" or "lost" the hour long debate, what's really important is that the issue was seriously and respectfully addressed in a public forum, and among Christians. This alone had to get many PBS TV viewers to thinking, and it will be obvious to all that the assumption that "nude is lewd" may well be not adequately thought through.
PBS' "Debates Debates" ("Is nudity God's will?") was aired the week of November 5, 1997 on as many as 170 subscriber stations.