This post continues a series on ethics, which began here. My goal is to work my way through an Anglican process for developing sexual ethics.
The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, ‘Follow me.’ Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, ‘We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.’ Nathanael said to him, ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ Philip said to him, ‘Come and see.’ When Jesus saw Nathanael coming towards him, he said of him, ‘Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!’ Nathanael asked him, ‘Where did you come to know me?’ Jesus answered, ‘I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.’ Nathanael replied, ‘Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.’ And he said to him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.’ (John 1:43-51)
How do you begin relationships? So far, I have talked about our need for healthy relationships. Now I’d like to talk concretely about starting them.
The most important thing we can do to start a healthy relationship is to see someone for who they truly are. This is harder than it appears and it takes practice. What’s more, it has to do with one of the most important issues in sexual ethics:
Do not deal with people as objects.
That may seem like a simple directive, but we are both biologically and socially conditioned to orient ourselves to others on the basis of their physical attributes. We deal with men and women differently. We change our behavior based on the apparent race, status, and wealth of the individuals we are dealing with. And here, the Christian concept of soul becomes so important. When I meet someone, I try to see their soul, their truest, fullest self.
Souls happen in bodies and those bodies affect the way the soul operates. I’m not talking about some kind of x-ray vision. I’m talking about listening to the words they use and watching their actions. What does this person’s behavior say about them. Who are they? Who do they want to be? What have the chosen? That is the real person.
Too often, our thoughts when meeting a new person turn to who they could be in relationship to us and to our needs. Sex provides the most obvious example. We are tempted to think in terms of the emotional or physical pleasure we feel when being around people to whom we are attracted. Lust need not be a desire to possess or take advantage of such a person, it can just be a failure to appreciate the person – as someone who has preferences and makes choices. We let our interest in them get in the way of their interests and it stops us from seeing them as people.
It doesn’t just happen with physical attraction. It applies to being interested in someone for their fame or their power or even just their potential to be friend. Or it can work in the opposite direction, when we decide that someone’s appearance or position means they cannot provide us with anything of value.
Christians seek to see the souls of every person. That requires patience and a willingness to enter into conversation with anyone you meet.
This turns out to be one of the dangers of visual pornography. I’m not convinced the the erotic character of pornography is intrinsically bad. I am convinced that pornography often trains people to foster emotional and physical responses to bodies without any opportunity to develop a deeper relationship. It requires an apathy about their souls that can carry over into other relationships. Worse yet, for some it takes the place of truly meeting new people.
As usual, sex provides the starkest example, but their are other ways of flattening out the people we meet. Books have provided us with surrogate relationships for centuries, but television and the internet can heighten our emotionally response and speed up the process of shaping out personalities. Some people are addicted to confrontational environments – sometimes as stark as war or violent games, sometimes only in the form of debate. They are conditioned to seeing people as adversaries. Some people are addicted to non-confrontation environments – always sticking to others who share their views or affiliations. They are conditioned to seeing people as extensions of themselves.
Communities of common purpose can be very good things. Likewise I am a great fan of fiction. At the same time I recognize that the actions of my life make up my personality. Everything I do shapes the person I am, for good and ill.
Thus I try to make all of my relationships even with theatrical, fictional, and historical people, open to a deeper understanding. Who am I in relationship to this person? What impact will our relationship have on future relationships? Remember, relationships with fictional or two dimensional people are not fictional relationships.
It’s all about open-ended attention to the moment and to the souls of the people involved. That may sound heady, but it should be hearty. It is, after all, the foundation of love.