Thursday, June 7, 2012

Why I think I have no "other half"

For Week of Mutuality, in support of Rachel Held Evans

Complementarianism is the view held by some Christians that the Bible requires Christian women to submit to male leadership in the home, church and (according to some) society.  For an interesting view of that movement, you might want to read Kathryn Joyce, Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010).

There are many aspects of complementarianism that I find problematic.  But I want to look at and discuss just one.  It is not, I believe, essential to complementarianism.  Rather, it seems more like a corollary or implication.  I want to look at the view that we are incomplete selves and there is another self out there, our complement, who will complete us.

A clear and interesting statement of that view is expressed in one of Plato’s writings, Symposium.  In the Symposium, Plato writes about a party.  “Symposium” is a transliteration of a Greek word composed of a preposition “sum” meaning “with” and “posion” meaning “drink.”  A symposium is a drinking party.  At the party, in order to entertain each other various famous Athenians give a speech to explain what love, particularly erotic love, is.  Aristophanes, one of the characters, explains erotic love by appeal to a kind of complementarianism (see Plato, Symposium starting at 189d).

Aristophanes says that “in the beginning” humans were of three types: male, female, and male-female combination (he coins the word “androgynous”).  However, they were a bit unlike us.  They were round, had four arms and four legs, two faces on opposite sides of the sphere, and two sets of sexual organs on opposite sides of the sphere.  The male would have two sets of male sexual organs, female two sets of female sexual organs, and the male-female one set of each.  They walked upright, and when they wanted to go fast, they’d spin doing very fast cartwheels.  Because of the speed they could attain, the gods feared these first humans might ascend to heaven, attack the gods, and create havoc.  So the gods devised a plan to weaken the first humans: they’d split them in two.

The gods cut each human in two so each would have two arms, two legs, one face, and one set of sexual organs.  Where the first humans were cut in two, the skin was pulled together, the evidence of which, Plato has Aristophanes say, is our navel.  The gods then changed the direction of our face one hundred eighty degrees so each person could see the wound, recognize one had been cut in two, and thus behave better, not trying to ascend to heaven and attack the gods.  But having been split, each longed to be whole again, to find one’s other half, one’s complement.  When any two would meet, they’d grasp each other to see if this other was their complementary self.

One big problem: the sexual organs were on the outside, so when they’d grasp their complement, they’d hang on until death and no new humans were being produced.  The gods revised their design: they moved the sexual organs from what had been the outside of the original spherical humans to the inside of the split humans.  Now when they’d grasp their complement they could enjoy sexual relations and, if they were originally androgynous, could reproduce.  Those who had been spherical males or spherical females, though non-reproductive, could still enjoy love-making.  And instead of holding onto each other until death, after love-making they’d stop embracing and return to their daily tasks.  “This,” Aristophanes explains, “is the source of our desire to love each other.  Love is born into every human being; it calls back the halves of our original nature together; it tries to make one out of two and heal the wound of human nature” (Symposium, 191d).

While contemporary complementarians might find Aristophanes explanation of erotic love as offensive, silly, even grotesque, there are many who think that a good marriage is one in which each finds one’s complement.  When we do, it contributes to healing the wound, the brokenness of human nature. Side note one: I doubt any Christian complementarians think that there could be male-male complements or female-female complements.  Side note two: Christian complementarians think that males have specific defined roles that only males have, and females have specific defined roles that only females have, which roles complement each other such that each male-female pair can be whole only if each fulfills its own roles only.

Not only do complementarians think a good marriage or otherwise intimate relationship is when each finds one’s complement.  In popular culture there is the view that a good couple is one where each complements the other.  In the film Rocky, when Rocky is asked what he sees attractive about his girlfriend says: “She fills gaps. She’s got gaps. I got gaps. Together, we fill gaps.”  She is a complement who completes him.

Again, I am not saying that it is an essential component of complementarianism that there is another self out there, our complement, who will complete us.  It is a corollary or implication of it.  Before I address what I find problematic about it, let me say some things that I think are right about the view that a good relationship involves some complementary components.

Each one of us is wounded, broken, inadequate.  We do have gaps, often big holes.  I am not very friendly to people who are not well-educated, or attractive, or at least moderately successful.  It is not that I am hostile toward them.  I just ignore them.  My wife, my daughter, and my son are friendly and kind to such people.  I learn from them, and I have gotten better about not being such a snob and elitist.  And even when I am still my old self, I often have someone next to me filling my gap by being kind to others.

If we are having friends or family over for a meal and my wife is organizing it, she likes to have everything planned and organized, down to the smallest details.  Everything is timed out.  If we are starting with a salad, half an hour before we are supposed to eat, it will be all set out, a place for everything and everything in its place.  If I am organizing the meal, I’ll have some general planning in my head, but I don’t think “exactly at 6:30 everyone will sit at the table and we’ll begin the salad.”  I’m not completely lax; I would think “around 6:30ish, depending on where the conversation is, we might begin to move toward the table.”  We learn from each other.  I become a bit more organized, less vague in my planning.  She becomes a bit more relaxed when organizing a gathering.

However, each one of us is wounded, broken, inadequate.  We do have gaps, often big holes.  And to think that all our gaps can be filled by another, that all can be completely filled by another, that we’d be fully satisfied if we just found the right person is all to set ourselves up for disappointment.  Two wounded people don’t make a good relationship; they create the need for a health care system!  If we are looking for another to complete us, we need to remind ourselves of what Augustine said at the beginning of his Confessions I.1.i: “our hearts are restless until they find rest in you Lord.”  We need to put in The Joshua Tree CD and hear U2 proclaim that wherever our search on earth takes us, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.”

If we think we are searching for our soulmate, the person whom we need and who needs us, I am just not sure that is love.  For me to need you and for you to need me is to put demands, obligations on each other.  And I am just not sure that is what love is.  As much as we want to be reciprocated, I fundamentally believe that love does not place demands on another person.  A few years ago, I told someone that I was looking forward to the day when our children didn’t need us, but nonetheless still wanted us.  That is the kind of love I want.  That is what I want my love relationship to be.  One where we don’t, in the grand scheme of things, need each other, but where we deeply and lastingly want each other.  To be sure, there are many times that we need each other.  Yet what sustains us and makes our relationship grow and flourish is that we continue to want each other, freely and mutually.

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