September 2016

Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship Between Man and Woman.  Edited by Steven Lopes and Helen Alvaré. Plough Publishing House. 168 pages. $12.

The recent Synod on the Family drew much attention from all sides, secular and religious. A less publicized and unprecedented event preceded that meeting: the international interreligious colloquium Humanum, held in Rome and attended by 400 delegates — Catholic, evangelical, Anglican, Pentecostal, Eastern Orthodox, Anabaptist, Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, and Hindu — from across the globe. Not Just Good, but Beautiful offers a representative sample of that event’s many presentations on the complementarity of man and woman.

Taoist Tsui-Ying Sheng provides a brief overview of the concepts of yin and yang and how they are reflected in the balance between men and women. Sister M. Prudence Allen, R.S.M., leads the reader through a careful philosophical explanation of the four principles of complementarity found in Genesis. Henry Eyring, a leader in the Church of Latter-Day Saints, explores the Mormon perspective in what is in large part a paean to the marriage he has enjoyed with his wife of many years: “I have become a better person as I have loved and lived with her. We have been complementary beyond anything I could have imagined…. I realize now that we grew together into one — slowly lifting and shaping each other, year by year. As we absorbed strength from each other, it did not diminish our personal gifts. Our differences combined as if they were designed to create a better whole. Rather than dividing us, our differences bound us together.”

This “binding together” through a God-given, complementary relationship is the unifying strand connecting contributors such as Pope Francis, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (winner of the 2016 Templeton Prize), Gerhard Cardinal Müller (prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith), and the Bruderhof’s Johann Christoph Arnold. Given the ubiquity of countering points of view, it is astonishing how many different religious groups nonetheless conclude that the natural union of a man and a woman in lifelong marriage is the “universal cornerstone of healthy families, communities, and societies.”

Three contributors stand out, primarily for their concrete calls to faithfulness in the calamitous environment in which we currently reside. Jacquiline Rivers speaks of the horrific toll permissiveness has taken on the black family. Rifts in normal kinship ties perpetrated by slavery continue to plague this group. The wounds seem more self-inflicted now but remain devastating. She forcefully calls upon her own Pentecostal church, along with all churches, to defend the young and to stand firm in the biblical definition of marriage, eschewing easy pity in favor of “true compassion that cannot be practiced at the expense of sacred truth.”

Rick Warren also looks to practical applications, advising us to teach the purpose of marriage and to approach the skeptical with joy and winsomeness. We must “keep running the race with our eyes on the goal, not on those shouting from the sidelines.” His words reflect news reports of the conference, which minimized focus on bizarre redefinitions of marriage and concentrated instead on the joy and beauty of true marriage.

Catholic Bishop Jean Laffitte’s contribution is the meatiest, the part requiring the most thought. Secretary of the Pontifical Council for the Family, Laffitte dwells primarily on Pope St. John Paul II’s teaching on marriage. Laffitte writes, “Let us therefore retain the essential point: the example to imitate is Christ’s love, manifested by the total gift of himself, a gift that, because of our sin, has a sacrificial and redemptive form.” Later he adds, “The whole question of the indissolubility of Christian marriage could be formulated on the basis of what it is in truth called to express: love without reticence, which is Christ’s gift to all people. This fact is just as unique as the gift a man or a woman makes of himself or herself in sacramental marriage.”

This book’s diversity of authors and the varying complexity of the entries offer something for everyone. Missing, however, is an overview of the meeting that gave rise to the book. Also welcome would be analysis by editors Helen Alvaré and Steven Lopes, late of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and now bishop of the Anglican ordinariate. Still, these omissions make for a small quibble against a collection well worth reading.

- Elizabeth Hanink





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