“It is not good that the man should be alone,” the Lord said when looking upon the first man. “I will make him a helper fit for him.
I had probably read that verse hundreds of times without grasping its full significance. Almost every time, I read my own preconceived meaning into the text, rather than trying to grasp what is actually said. Now it seems rather clear, even obvious. Adam didn’t need a “soulmate,” for he already had the most perfect lover of his soul already in his Creator. What he needed was a “helper,” someone like himself who could share his burdens, his joys, his humanity. God’s immanent nature was a presence that provided all the love that Adam needed. But God’s transcendent nature prevented him from being the type of companion that the first man would need to fulfill his role in the Garden. Adam needed someone both enough like himself to share a mutual understanding and different enough to provide a degree of uniqueness and mystery.
The institution of marriage, under this model, becomes the joining together in a one-flesh union of two individuals, a physical embodiment of the mysterious paradox of unity and diversity. However, it would be mischaracterizing the role of helper to confuse it with a yin-and-yang style complementarity. Recognizing the differences between the male and the female should not cause us to forget how much alike we are and how many individual needs we share in common. Too often our culture encourages us to buy into the myth that the perfect spouse is one who completes us, rather than one who can aid us in our journey in becoming whole.
But in what ways would this “mutual help” model work in the institution of marriage? On this question I’ve been primarily influenced by the Christian philosopher Herman Dooyeweerd. As philosopher Al Wolters has noted, one of the key features of Dooyeweerd’s thought is the “stress on the priority of concrete lived experience (what he calls ‘naïve experience’) over the abstractions of theoretical thought.” Dooyeweerd believed that God created certain laws and norms of reality that were irreducible yet interrelated. He outlined fifteen “spheres of human life and experience” that, though broadly useful for all areas of life, provide a useful framework for understanding the state of “wholeness” as it applies to marriage.
When taken on their own, these spheres are inadequate and lead to an unfulfilling reductionism. Taken together and in proper proportion, these aspects can lead to fulfillment and the creation of a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Here are twelve of the spheres of life that relate directly to the role of marriage (since Andrew Basden has already developed this line of thought, I’ll borrow heavily from his examples):
The biotic has to do with organic life functions, and health. We fulfill this not only by creating children, but by helping each other to maintain health and caring for the other when ill.
The sensitive/psychic has to do with feeling, emotion, psychology. Helping each other to maintain psychological health is an oft-overlooked aspect of marital life. We fulfill this in such ways as being tender to each other when the other has been psychologically hurt or being sensitive to each other’s feelings.
The making of distinctions is the province of the analytical/logical sphere. By helping each other reason things through, we aid our spouse in making decisions about how to live wisely.
The formative has to do with human construction, creativity, and achievement—including history, technology, and culture. Working together on a project to achieve a goal and valuing what the other has achieved in the past is a primary way in which we carry out this role. It also leads us to value our spouse’s culture and traditions when they differ from our own.
Symbolic communication—speech, writing, signs, song, and so on—is the lingual sphere. This requires not only listening to our spouse and trying to truly understand what they are saying, but also helping them to communicate with others.
Social is the sphere of social interaction, forming relationships and social institutions. This entails being an appropriate part of the other’s web of relationships, ensuring that relationships that I form with the other sex are open and appropriate, and that my spouse is fully aware of them, so that they do not develop in ways that would harm our relationship.
The economic deals with frugality and the skillful, careful use of the household’s resources. We fulfill this by working together to understand what resources we have and in what way each is limited. It also leads us to refrain from becoming frustrated when the actions of our spouse impose limitations on us, requiring us to respond creatively to the economic challenges.
The aesthetic has to do with harmony and surprise, with play and the arts. We should find ways to “play” together with our spouse. And if one has artistic talents, then the other should aid and not impede them, doing so for the glory of God rather for selfish reasons.
Juridical is the sphere of giving what is due, providing justice, recompense, and retribution. We are called to give what is due to each other as husband and wife, but we also must help our spouse fulfill responsibilities both to other family members and to those outside the home.
The sphere of the sacrificial has to do with self-giving love, with agape. “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the Church,” admonished the Apostle Paul. “Wives, submit to your husbands.” The sphere requires that we be self-giving, as opposed to self-defensive and self-serving.
The pistic covers the areas of faith and faithfulness, the ultimate vision of who we are, and true religion and spirituality. Throughout our days on earth we are to help our spouse get to know God in all his fullness, joining together in worship and prayer.
For a culture weaned on the Jerry Maguire-esque myth that others are here to “complete” us, the idea of a mutual help model of marriage will seem strange and daunting. But we can only be completed by the one who created us. We can’t expect a spouse to be our fulfillment. What we can hope is that he or she will hold our hand when we are sick, comfort us when we grieve, talk to us about our fears, hopes, and dreams. What we can expect is a helper. But that will be enough. That is what marriage was created for.
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here. A version of this article originally appeared in Comment magazine, the opinion journal of CARDUS.
The Dooyeweerd Centre for Christian Philosophy
Al Wolters, Christian Philosophy, Anyone?
Andrew Basden, Mutual Help in Every Sphere of Life
Become a fan of First Things on Facebook, subscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.