You’ve Already Got Your Quest-Object!


One theme I didn’t get to touch on in my discussion of Gary Thomas’s The Sacred Search yesterday is his attack on the idea of a soulmate, one specific person that you are destined to be with.  (I have to note that xkcd, and Tim Minchin have very funny riffs on this idea).  Thomas says a lot of our rhetoric on this topic draws heavily on a speech near the end of Plato’s Symposium, which is adeptly glossed in Hedwig and the Angry Inch below:

So, in this telling, we’re all on an epic quest of self-discovery and discernment.  Finding that missing part of ourself requires careful self-scrutiny to discover the shape of the hole in our heart.  Reading over Thomas’s critique of this idea, I was reminded of a blog post by Ross Douthat I’d read earlier in the week, riffing on David Bentley Hart’s portrait of modern Gnosticism.

In Hart’s telling, modern Gnosticism retains this “assumption that spiritual disaffection is something to be cured by discovering and decoding some forgotten, half-effaced text inscribed somewhere within the self,” but drops the sense of alienation from the created world and the desire to escape its toils. Instead of seeking reconciliation with an original uncreated realm, a true God beyond all gods, the modern Gnostic seeks salvation through “reconciliation with one’s own primordial depths,” and the sense of consolation that this purely personal experience provides. In this sense, he suggests, Gnosticism has returned in a less radical and more therapeutic form, which calls its contemporary disciples to an essentially self-centered spirituality that offers comfort rather than transcendence.

Douthat goes on to trace the branching influence of Gnosticism on the diffuse spirituality of Elizabeth Gilbert as well as the aesthetics of atheism, but I was struck by how well the soulmate idea fits into this mold.  Here, romance required inwardly-directed knowledge, individually tailored to you.  And that aesthetic is very appealing to a DIYer like me.  There’s something I have to do to push the bound of what is known a little further, and, by wresting that discovery to myself, I earn my happily-ever-after.

In contrast, Thomas’s prescriptions for a healthful relationship don’t rely on personal revelation.  The Church and its philosophical traditions give you plenty of data to be going on with.  We know enough of Christ to decide to pattern our lives on his, instead of trying to discover some esoteric, authentic self.  In the soulmate model, the arrival of another person completes you and transforms you, and you must prepare yourself to receive that revelation.  In the Christian model, we already know Who has come to set us free and bring us peace.  A romantic partner is meant to help you grow in that relationship, just as s/he helps you grow in love and service to your children, but a lover is not a new Testament.

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  • Mike

    “A romantic partner is meant to help you grow in that relationship, just as s/he helps you grow in love and service to your children, but a lover is not a new Testament.”

    Love this line; it’s so counter-cultural. If more people believed this we’d be better off. So much of our culture is so scatter-brained and impulsive it’s a wonder people still choose to marry and settle down.

    Anyway, great blog and boy do you have guts for converting so publicly. Most of my friends don’t even know I am trying to be a faithful Catholic, let alone the world. You’re brave.

    All the best,

    • Joe

      There’s a movie on NetFlix that has a kind of cool take on the “Soul Mate” destined lovers theme. Its called “Timer”. Basically everybody has a timer on them that tells them when they will meet the one they were “meant” to be with. Its kinda of low budget but I got a kick out of it.

      • leahlibresco

        With Anya from Buffy!

      • Maiki

        Love that movie — was just thinking about this.

      • deiseach

        This is exactly the kind of concept that brings me out in hives. Who says everyone has that perfect someone who is their match just waiting for them?

        Suppose your timer is set to “never”? What then? Do you throw yourself off a cliff in despair because you will never, ever have “The One” or do you behave like a sensible adult and see if you can find a “really getting on pretty well, all things considered” partner?

      • It looks interesting–I’ll have to check it out!

  • First-time commenter here, Leah! I became aware of your blog several months ago from a mention on Rod Dreher’s blog, but didn’t have time to check it out. Recently I’ve run across several fascinating posts though various web searches on things of interest, and have become a regular reader with this site bookmarked. Congratulations (belatedly!) on your reception into the Church, and keep up the good blog work!

    Anyway, I’ve always been highly skeptical of the whole soulmate model of relationship seeking, especially as one who married relatively late (36). Certainly, having been married nearly thirteen years with a nine-year-old child, I find the idea of marriage as a shared goal resonates with me more than the notion of soulmates. I think the soulmate concept tends to make people go for people who are superficially compatible without looking at the deeper things, as you’ve pointed out here. What particularly strikes me in the post is the following:

    I was struck by how well the soulmate idea fits into this mold. Here, romance required inwardly-directed knowledge, individually tailored to you.

    This made me think of the old Savage Garden lyrics, “I think I loved you before I met you/ I must have dreamed you into life.” I think it was intended as being very romantic, but I always thought it was actually creepy. In short, the narrator of the song thinks of the beloved as extension of his own personality! “Objectification” as a description of that just doesn’t do it justice! It also puts me in mind of C. S. Lewis’s conceit, in The Screwtape Letters, that the demons want to absorb or annex the individuality of the damned–to eat their souls, in effect. Not that far from “dreaming you into life”! The curative attitude–admittedly difficult for us fallen humans to cultivate–is IMO from Nietzsche in Human, All Too Human:

    What else is love but understanding and rejoicing in the fact that another person lives, acts, and experiences otherwise than we do…?

    Anyway, food for thought.

    • Emily

      I love everything you said in this comment.

  • deiseach

    I hate the soulmate idea with the burning passion of a thousand fiery suns, because it’s so damn stupid. Even if you accept the idea that past cultures believed in soulmates, it was not solely as a romantic partnership. Your soulmate could be a parent, a sibling, a friend, a mentor or the person you mentored, and reincarnation tied in pretty closely with the notion.

    We took that idea and boiled it down to the one Mr or Ms Right out there for us, without whom our lives would be incomplete, which is total buttons of an idea. As the xkcd spoof points out, it’s entirely possible that your soulmate (should he or she exist) is a yak herder in Tuva and never the twain of you shall meet. Or it could be your sister, the one you get along with so well it’s like you have a psychic connection or something.

    The damage this idea does is that if people are always looking for the absolute true one and only, they’ll never be satisfied with the relationships they have right now. It’s a destructive idea, because if you’re not 100% totally happy all the time, then it means you just haven’t found your soulmate and should chuck this romance to keep on looking – but you could end up never finding that elusive perfection and have a trail of wreckage behind you because you could never compromise, never find a work-around, never settle down for “doing pretty good”.

    You can tell I’m jaundiced about romance, can’t you?

  • Nearly all marriages, even happy ones, are mistakes: in the sense that almost certainly (in a more perfect world, or even with a little more care in this very imperfect one) both partners might be found more suitable mates. But the real soul-mate is the one you are actually married to. ~ J. R. R. Tolkien

    • That’s great! Do you have the source for it?

      • It’s from Tolkien’s letters. This one was to his son Michael (father of the poet Michael Tolkien) in ’41.

  • Mike

    Off topic but have you seen the pictures of the rallies held in Paris France this weekend? WOW.

    • jenesaispas

      Didn’t know about them, I know they like a good ‘manifestation’ in France though.

  • Meg

    I’ve spent the last several years trying to disabuse a classroom full of 16-year-old girls of the notion of soulmates (part of their religion class). Nothing else I did as a religion teacher required quite so much time reminding myself that I was planting seeds that might come to fruition when they grew up a bit…
    I do think you can go too far in the opposite direction, where you can convince yourself that romantic attraction is completely unimportant. While I’d imagine that there have been countless successful, loving arranged marriages throughout the world, American culture is so permeated with the Disney version of love and marriage that it’s hard to get past, and most people who’ve been raised here probably needs to accommodate that a bit in their choice of partner. But if you get too caught up in the idea that your partner is supposed to be your soulmate, I think you are setting yourself up for a divorce (or misery) not too far down the road.

  • Ruben

    Does that mean Christians can’t get married to non-Christians? I mean, if your partner is an atheist and doesn’t believe God even exists, how can they possibly help your grow in that relationship with God?
    I don’t believe in soulmate. I never have.
    This post made me think of this song: