The Personalist Project

The other day I challenged Eric Metaxas' rejection of the concept of soul mates. Now I'm thinking it would be good to lay out more fully what I like about it—in other words, begin to articulate the positive Christian and personalist case for the soul mate phenomenon.

Before I do that, though, I need to first mention ideas often associated with it that I agree with the critics are false or at least doubtful.

1. The idea that there is only one person out there for me—only one person on earth I could be happily married to. This idea is refuted by experience. We all know cases of beautiful second marriages. And when we consider all the "accidents" involved in affairs of the heart, and then how awesome a thing human freedom is—how easily one or both of a given couple might have said no at any point—and then the way our choices, events, and circumstances keep shaping our personalities over time—we realize we ought to refrain from making such an absolute claim. We may believe strongly that there really are such things as "matches made in heaven."  We may sense deeply that God designed a given pair for each other and brought them together. We may feel so well-suited to our spouse that we find it practically impossible to imagine being happy with anyone else, and yet, and yet, we wouldn't go so far as to claim that we never could have married someone else. Human life is too mysterious and contingency-ridden for that. 

2. The idea that unless I am married to my soul mate, my marriage is bound to be worthless or loveless, and miserably unhappy. It's not true. Even mismatched couples can have good and fulfilling marriages. Life and literature are full of convincing examples. (See, for instance, Elizabeth Gouge's Green Dolphin Street.) The extra effort and moral virtue called for in such cases can even lend these unions a particular value, which is a great gift for the spouses and the world. The moral goodness of fidelity despite hardship is real and rewarding.

3. The idea that from the fact that I feel like another person is my soul mate, it follows that we ought to get married. There are lots of good reasons for not marrying a soul mate. For instance, one of us is already married to someone else, or we are otherwise duty bound. (Think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester, or the princess in Roman Holiday, or the Helen Hunt character in Castaway.) We can also imagine a case where even though we feel that another person is our soul mate, we still judge marriage a bad idea. Maybe he is an addict, for instance. Or maybe he doesn't want or can't handle the responsibilities involved in raising a family. Or maybe, like Kierkegaard and Regina Olsen, there is a hidden, interior obstacle that we don't know how to overcome. Such cases have a tragic element, like so much of human life. But Christians know that tragedy can be redemptive, and the sacrifice of a great desire in the cause of right is beautiful and ennobling. 

4. The idea that if I'm married to my soul mate, marriage will be easy and effortless. Even soul mates are sinners. To be human is to have faults and shortcomings and idiosyncrasies and issues that are trying for others, especially those who live with us day in and day out. And even the best marriages suffer periods of strain and difficulty. There is no such thing as a great love that doesn't involve self-denial and sacrifice.

Apart from its association with such false notions, there are other good reasons for being leery of the soul mate phenomenon.

1. Morally serious and honest people are aware of how changeable we mere mortals are, and how given to illusions. The experience of having once felt like we were made for someone, only to realize later that it was only an infatuation or to learn that our love was unrequited, inclines us not to put much weight on romantic impressions, however intense.

Still. The fact that the soul mate phenomenon can be counterfeited or that we can be deluded about it even in our own case, doesn't mean it isn't real. I like something Sheldon Van Auken said. We might, in the dark, mistake a hyena's growl for a lion's roar. But when we hear a lion, we know it's a lion

2. There is also the undeniable fact that people fall of out of love. We know or have read stories of couples once thoroughly enchanted with each other who later grew estranged and even began to hate and antagonize each other. Such stories can make a person skittish or even cynical about romantic love. Better to emphasize commitment and will.

But again, the fact of failure in one instance doesn't mean there's no hope of success in another. Loss of faith or apostasy in friends doesn't prove that my religion is false.

The question before us is: Is the soul mate phenomenon real? And if yes, it is good to talk about it and hold it up as desirable and attainable in this day and age? I say yes. I say further that belief in it is more consistent with the truth about persons, and more consonant with the mysteries of our faith than the alternative.

I'll explain why in my next post.

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