Posted by: dacalu | 27 April 2014

Spiritual Outsourcing

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.

“They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’ He said, ‘I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.’ He said, ‘Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?’ The man said, ‘The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.’ Then the Lord God said to the woman, ‘What is this that you have done?’ The woman said, ‘The serpent tricked me, and I ate.’” -Genesis 3:8-13

Passing the Buck

I have mixed feelings about original sin. I find it a very useful way of looking at my own tendency to selfishness and self-delusion. For precisely that reason, I think it presents too large a temptation to disregard the will and good intentions of others. Whatever you believe about the consequences, the Bible does spell out for us the first trespass of humanity, and I’d like to look at that today.

The initial trespass of Adam and Eve was eating the apple, the one fruit they had been forbidden to touch. Note, however, that God does not punish them immediately. An all-powerful, all-seeing God surely could have immediately expelled the couple from the Garden. Instead God tries to have a conversation with them. God and love are all about relationships, so I would like to suggest that the initial trespass was eating the apple, but the trespass with serious consequences was the avoidance and mudslinging in the passage I started with. Adam and Eve first hide from God, then start trying to pass the blame. Neither one takes responsibility for their crime and neither one is willing to be open with God about it. This has disastrous consequences for their relationships. And to this day, Christians seem determined to pass the buck, either to Adam or to “human nature” or to Eve or to “sexuality.” It might be funny, if it wasn’t so tragic. If there is original sin, we need look no farther than the persistent human tendency to shift the blame.

How can there be forgiveness if there is no communication?

And how can there be repentance if there is no self-knowledge?

Spiritual Outsourcing

One of the most persistent features I see in strong relationships – both healthy and unhealthy – is a division of labor. Each of us finds that we lack some of the skills and resources we need to navigate life. With a few rare exceptions all of us must cooperate with others to get by. As a Christian, I think that is a good thing. I believe we are our fullest, best selves when we are in community. I believe we are only really in the image of God when we are part of the the family of humanity. This need and this benefit appears just as much in friendships and romances as it does in states and churches. We are social creatures.

Healthy relationships allow us to perform where our talents lie and trust on the talents of others when we need to. They build on complimentary skills and wants in a way that leads to communities far stronger than the sum of their parts. Sadly, our selfishness can lead us to take advantage of these relationships, instead of being strengthened by them. We try to take advantage of others by taking without receiving, by threatening to withdraw our contribution, or by dividing tasks unevenly.

So far, this should be straightforward economics, but it applies to our spiritual selves as well. We often look to others to fulfill, compliment, or replace the deepest parts of ourselves: our dignity, initiative, will, or responsibility. I call this Spiritual outsourcing, the attempt to distance some critical aspect of yourself by thinking of it within some other person. Romantic relationships provide the most obvious example, because they involve so few people and can be so intense. Consider the popular and (hopefully) disturbing tale of Beauty and the Beast, a case where the woman has outsourced all initiative and power and the man all responsibility for control and responsibility.

How Much to Give Away?

So far I have presented an argument for integration with others and an argument for not losing yourself. Aren’t the two in conflict? I don’t think so. We must lose our individual identity in order to take on a greater identity. Adam gave up his initiative to Eve when he ate the apple. He let her make a decision for him, and yet he refused to take responsibility for the decision. There are times when we should allow others to define our choices, our actions, even our thoughts. We cannot survive by ourselves. And yet, we must take ownership of the trust we place in others. We must recognize that our identity is shaped as much by the decisions we allow others to make for us as by the decisions we make for ourselves.

Too often our tendency will be to outsource decision making so we can outsource blame. Companies hire temporary workers and contractors so that they can get productivity without responsibility for employees. They don’t have to pay for health care and pensions. In short, they don’t have to care about the people involved, only the services. Sometimes this is the right choice economically. It can even be the right choice morally, when compensation is appropriate. Note, however, that it can only be cheaper if the company can get more and pay less. Let me suggest that spiritual outsourcing provides the same temptation.

We must negotiate our relationships carefully. We must be aware of what we are giving up and what we are expecting in return – spiritually as well as physically and emotionally. How does this relationship affect my identity? How does it effect my relationship with God and neighbor? Am I asking this person to do something for me that I could be doing for myself? And why?

Personally, I believe our highest good can be achieved through being less “I” and more “we.” I’m not a fan of individualism or individuation as a goal. At the same time, we should not enter into relationships without thought and without care. Individualism and individuation can be important steps toward the kind of awareness necessary for the formation of healthy relationships. It can be frighteningly easy to ask more than you understand, or to take on more than you realize.

This is why Christians should be so cautious about sexuality and marriage. They can dramatically merge two people’s identities in a short period of time. And that can be the greatest of blessings when done compassionately. I do not say knowingly; many of these things represent deep mysteries. Knowledge is helpful, but not the key component. We must approach sexuality and marriage with profound care for one another and for ourselves.

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