The Personalist Project

Man’s superiority over the animals

[H]umanity’s superiority over animals is not only the one most often mentioned, the universally human, but is also what is most often forgotten, that within the species each individual is essentially different or distinctive. This superiority is in a very real sense the human superiority; the former is the superiority of the race over the animal species.

Søren Kierkegaard, Works of Love

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 and 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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Not long ago I caught a clip of a famous atheist on some talk show. The host asked him, "So, you die and find out there actually is a God, what do you say?" He responded with something like, "Mass starvation? Child abuse?..."

I was half appalled, half bemused. Atheists are so unreal. I thought, "You've just found you've been utterly wrong; you're standing in front of Most High, whom you have spent your life offending and rejecting, and you imagine that the thing you'll do in that moment is demand that He justify himself to you?" 

Then I forgot all about it, till yesterday, when I read (hat tip Robert Moynihan Letters) some lines from Pope Emeritus Benedict's latest interview with the journalist Peter Seewald (soon to be published in English under the title, Last Testament).

Peter Seewald: When you find yourself before the Almighty, what will you say to Him?

Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI: I will ask Him to be indulgent with my wretchedness.

 

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The other day I ran across a very useful trick--almost a litmus test--for evaluating how your home life is coming along. I hesitated to write about it, because it seems so obvious--once you see it. But I finally decided that if I find it so enlightening, maybe others will, too. Let me know what you think.

I've been helping to prepare a series of discussion groups, and we're trying to put our finger on what exactly makes a home a home. We're avoiding extremes. Some would insist that nothing counts as a home unless it contains a married couple and their own biological children. Others would rather throw caution--and distinctions--to the winds, and call "home" anything that feels homey--the less traditional and nuclear-family-oriented, the better. 

We're still working on a concise definition, but here comes the litmus test. The following is from the notes of my friend, Ann Brach. She distinguishes between two aspects of formation that any home should offer:

1.    Inward or individual orientation of the home: formation in support of the whole person, which corresponds to the dignity of the person and takes into account the individual needs of each one [...]
2.    Outward or social orientation of the home: the individual formation is aimed at the individual being able to form part of larger society, to work and contribute.

The two aspects are accomplished within the family, which

cannot be reduced to just personalized attention nor a protective environment nor merely a production plant for citizens.

Periodic reflection on how you're doing with each of these is useful. It's so easy to go off the rails in one direction or the other. There are families that aim to function like efficient factories, producing a certain number of approved members of society who can be relied upon to be presentable and acceptable in public. They're highly likely to live a "productive" life; they won't disgrace the family name. The bringing-up time is a period of formation that aims to fit the person neatly into the requisite mold before setting him or her loose. 

Other families suffer from the opposite malady. They nurture, they affirm, they're safe, they're homey, they're cozy, they don't get carried away with imposing standards--and they can produce people unequipped to venture into society, to contribute to its institutions. Sometimes they produce people who lack even the desire to try. 

There's a natural remedy to this in many cases: one day a child brings home a son- or daughter-in-law, giving the family an opportunity to catch itself in the act of moving too far in the direction of cozy inwardness.

And the remedy for the production-line tendency? I'm not sure, but I think catching oneself in the act would go a long way. I think many people who are raising their children in this impersonal, generic kind of way don't mean to, but have a misguided understanding of what it means to have high standards. They underestimate how different people can be--even children of the same parents, raised under the same conditions. Or they see the differences all right, but as obstacles instead of promising raw material. If they come to see that high standards are compatible with treatment that respects and nurtures the given--all the givens--then they're on the right track.

So there it is: your one weird trick for making sure your home offers everything its inhabitants need to flourish. Simple and obvious. Now to try to put it into practice.

I'll let you know how it works out.

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No, that's not me.

My son got me a fitbit for my birthday, and I'm trying to make friends with it. The other night when I was half asleep, it started vibrating and sent me into a panic. I realized eventually that it just wanted to congratulate me for meeting my daily step goal. It didn't mean any harm. 

But I can't shake the sense that it's too nosy, too insistent about eavesdropping on my every morsel and movement. I'd rather go about my business carefree, the way I used to, ingesting jelly donuts because they taste good, not because I can afford the carbs today, or burning calories as an unnoticed side effect of tickling my toddlers.

And it makes me wonder: How exactly are we supposed to approach this bizarre reality, the body, at once a lump of meat and a Temple of the Holy Spirit?

In German, they have two words for body: Leib and Körper. Leib means lived body: the body as experienced by the one who "inhabits" it. The Leib is mysteriously but undeniably connected to your soul, your psyche, your subjectivity. It's unlike any other material object. 

Körper means body, too, but as in "body of water" or "celestial body." It's a quantity of matter, a lump of flesh, subject to the laws of physics like any other piece of material stuff. In this sense, we're literally made out of meat.

We can get bodies wrong in two ways roughly parallel to these two terms.

First, we can see only the Leib. We can focus on its link to our subjectivity and disregard the "made out of meat" part. Especially online, as my ever-perceptive Facebook friend Deirdre Mundy points out,

[O]ne of the alluring things about [Facebook] is that it allows us to play at being disembodied spirits, interacting in the ether, and that is not who we are made to be.

So we can over-spiritualize the body, or we can deem it irrelevant. Or we can imagine it's under our control in a way it's not. To take a trivial example, we can deceive people by posting only edited, filtered pictures of ourselves, or even pass off somebody else as ourselves. Or we can fabricate an elaborate fictional identity and perpetrate a prolonged deception, as Chase Padusniak described a few days ago in The Catfishing of the Catholic Community.  Short of that, we can engage in a truncated kind of communication that excludes touch and hearing.

The more dependent we are on the screen, the more our bodies drop out of the picture. We come disconcertingly close to the kind of world I described in a recent post about

harrowing sci-fi story called “Spectator Sport” by John D.MacDonald [...] in which everyone's highest aspiration is to spend the rest of his days in an underground cubicle (in a disused subway tunnel) surgically attached to a machine that provides you with the sense perceptions of the protagonist of various movies. The working class gets to experience this intermittently; the privileged few become "perms," and don't ever have to stop. 

They might as well not have bodies at all. Virtual reality has no use for them.

The second and opposite mistake is to see the body only as a lump of flesh, and to focus all our energies on making it a cooperative one. We can become obsessed with manipulating it to our own specifications. We eat x grams of carbs, burn x calories, time our ingestion of y to coincide with our ingestion of z. We become incapable of feasting for sheer celebration, running for sheer exhilaration.

Then again, we imagine we can mix and match pieces, "transitioning" from male to female or vice versa, with the help of chemicals and the surgeon's knife. No wonder we're confused. 

My fitbit isn't really out to get me. There's no reason I can't track my steps without deforming my understanding of the mind-soul-spirit-Leib-Körper problem. People do it all the time.

As long as we remember that we're meat. But also more than meat.

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A rare and wonderful thing happened yesterday. The deacon who gave the homily at a Mass featuring the story of the prodigal son actually preached about repentance!

I can't say how many times I've heard homilies on that passage that focus entirely on "the merciful father," who ran out to meet his son "while he was still a long way off." The homilist typically stresses that God's mercy is available even before we repent, and then goes on to urge his listeners to realize that we are called to imitate the father by forgiving those who offend us, even when they haven't repented.

It's a favorite passage of those who preach and teach what I have called dysfunctional or unprincipled forgiveness.

But our good deacon took a different tack. He pointed out that the son's realization of his condition and his decision to turn back toward home were prerequisite to his receiving the grace of forgiveness. God's mercy is ever-ready and super-abundant, but it won't avail unless we recognize that we need it, and then act by moving toward it.

The Father's waiting on our choice and action has nothing to do with bitterness or crabbedness or revenge; it has everything to do with his respect for our personal dignity and freedom.

I say the same goes in human relations.

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