The Personalist Project

Thanks to a key passage in Amoris Laetitia, I've been working lately on a post about the problem of idealizing marriage, which is real. But I'm putting it down for a sec, to lament an article I came across today.

I'm not a fan of LifeSiteNews, but I am a fan of Eric Metaxas, so it pains me to find him promoting a view I think bad and damaging, plus depressingly commonplace among Christian leaders and teachers.

The article is called "How the 'soul mate' nonsense is destroying Christian marriages." And, just like a similar article by a Catholic apologist I critiqued a few years back, it starts off dismissively.

I speak, gentle listener, of the whole “soul mate” nonsense, especially when it comes to finding a husband or wife.

(Note for later that he is referring "especially" to "finding a husband or wife.")

Protestant that he is, Metaxas naturally justifies his rejection of the soulmate concept by saying it's not biblical.

...the only thing you can find remotely close to it is the fierce friendship of David and Jonathan. “Jonathan made a covenant with David,” Scripture says, “because he loved him as his own soul.”

Now those are soul mates, friends. But the Bible knows nothing of romantic “soul mates.” 

Setting aside a point recently emphasized by Pope Francis, viz. that conjugal love is the highest form of friendship, we could point to the story of Jacob and Rachel and the Song of Songs, as counter examples. But for Catholics at least that isn't even necessary. For us, it's enough (more than enough) that the soulmate phenomenon is found in human experience; that it's consonant with the Bible, sanctified in the writings of the saints and the teachings of the Church, and celebrated in the great artistic achievements of Christendom.

Metaxas then claims:

This concept is more New Age than Christian.

He offers no evidence for this outrageous claim other than the fact that new-agey types use the term and define it in a new-agey way. But if a pantheist were to say he worships the moon by dancing naked in its light, we don't conclude that the concept of worship is more pantheist than Christian. Rather, we conclude that the pantheistic conception of worship is false and/or impoverished in comparison with the Christian one.

Then, throughout the article, the author associates the idea of soul mates with attitudes and behaviors that sometimes accompany it, but that are inessential and may in fact have no part in it at all.

this idea implies that somewhere out there is that “perfect person” for you, and if your marriage is not exploding with intense communication, romance, and a great sex life, well then maybe it’s because your spouse is not your “soul mate.”

Men who are a little bored with their wives, or vice versa, might be tempted by a co-worker who “understands me so well and is my soul mate, or could be my soul mate.” But frankly, this is a recipe for adultery and divorce, and families end up getting dropped for “soul mates.”

The problem here is infidelity, not the concept of soul mates. The fact that the phenomenon is sometimes invoked to excuse adultery doesn't mean it isn't real. Some people justify arrogant behavior by invoking "genius." It doesn't mean geniuses don't exist. 

A concept is one thing; its practical application in individual lives is another. Nor does the presence of dirty bathwater prove the absence of a baby.

Notice, further, that Metaxas has shifted the rhetorical ground. He's no longer talking about someone looking for a spouse, but someone who already has one, which is rather a different case.

Once I have chosen my "life's companion" and vowed before God to "forsake all others," I am responsible to love him and honor him, and work to grow and deepen my union with him. That's true even if I discover at some point after marriage that we are ill-matched, and I wish I had married someone else.

It doesn't follow that it's nonsensical for those who aren't yet married to hope and yearn watch for a soul mate.

He goes on:

The “soul mate” concept is unworkable and completely unfair to the real other person in your life. It puts enormous pressure on him or her to perform, to meet our impossible expectations. As Jerry Root and Stan Guthrie point out in “The Sacrament of Evangelism,” putting others in God’s place—expecting them to give us what only He can—is a naked form of idolatry and will only lead to deep disappointment.

Speaking for myself, I don't experience my husband's thinking of me as his soul mate as pressure to perform. On the contrary, I experience it as freedom to be my true self.  And my thinking of my husband as my soul mate, doesn't involve idolizing him. I don't  expect him to be perfect (human perfection wouldn't be a good match for my particular soul); I don't imagine he's the answer to all my needs; I don't worship him. I just love him and thank God for him.

The miraculous, "uninventable" suitability of his soul for mine only deepens my awe over God's sovereignty and providence in human affairs and my gratitude for His ineffable goodness to me. It makes me want to praise God, not displace Him.

For the following point, too, I have little sympathy. 

Here’s another thing. The “soul mate” idea suggests that marriage is all about me, that I need to find someone who understands me perfectly, who makes me happy. Marriage should be about finding someone you can make happy. In the great teaching on marriage in Ephesians, for example, husbands are told to lay down their lives for their wives, as Christ did for the church.

Conjugal love, like the soul mate experience, entails reciprocity and mutuality. We are not indifferent to our own happiness, or unmotivated by it. Rather, when we fall in love, we begin to understand that our happiness is mysteriously bound up with the happiness wellbeing of another, and that this is God's design for human life. The "foretaste" of beatitude the experience of loving and being loved provides gives us the willingness and the moral energy we need to aspire and commit ourselves to something higher and greater.

Look, we all know—or should know—that the answer to pop culture's obsession with sex isn't to deny that sexual attraction is real and important in human life; it's to show how it's related to our vocation and fulfillment as persons and as Christians. Similarly, the answer to confused and immature notions of romance isn't to dismiss romance as nonsense, but rather to remove the chaff, so the wheat can be revealed and used to make good bread for the starving throngs. 

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