Fat Soul Theology
Six Characteristics of a Fat Soul
“A beautiful soul is a large soul, one that can overcome the smallness and pettiness of our human condition. A really fat soul can welcome diverse people, ideas, and ways of being in the world without feeling threatened. A fat soul experiences the intensity of life in its fullness, even the painful side of life, and knows there is something still bigger . . .”
"By S-I-Z-E I mean the stature of [your] soul, the range and depth of [your] love, [your] capacity for relationships. I mean the volume of life you can take into your being and still maintain your integrity and individuality, the intensity and variety of outlook you can entertain in the unity of your being without feeling defensive or insecure. I mean the strength of your spirit to encourage others to become freer in the development of their diversity and uniqueness. I mean the power to sustain more complex and enriching tensions. I mean the magnanimity of concern to provide conditions that enable others to increase in stature."
The Tyranny of Thin
I would like to have a wide soul and an open heart. Yes, I would like to have what the essayist and novelist Patricia Adams Farmer calls a fat soul.
I was talking with a friend about fat souls and she said: "Oh, you want a soul with gorgeously big hips." She likes pear-shaped bodies and I do, too. I like other kinds of bodies as well; the whole of our world is made all the richer by different kinds of bodies. Anybody who thinks that there's only one "right way" of being a body is missing out on the beauty of a diversely-bodied world.
Nevertheless, the metaphor of big hips stuck with me; and I did a google search for gorgeously big hips, because I wanted to provide a visual illustration of what I'm looking for. It didn't matter to me whether the hips were male or female or none-of-the-above, but I landed on the Venus figurines. They are among the earliest images of prehistoric art that we have. Here is how they are described in Wikipedia:
The majority of the Venus figurines appear to be depictions of females that follow certain artistic conventions, on the lines of schematisation and stylisation. Most of them are roughly lozenge-shaped, with two tapering terminals at top (head) and bottom (legs) and the widest point in the middle (hips/belly). In some examples, certain parts of the human anatomy are exaggerated abdomen, hips, breast, thighs, vulva.. In contrast, other anatomical details are neglected or absent, especially arms and feet.
We do not know what purpose the Venus figurines had, but some speculate that they had spiritual or religious purposes. Whatever their purposes in the past, the Venus figurines have an important purpose today. They are what Whitehead calls lures for feeling: prophetic invitations to say "No" to a fashion culture obsessed with thinness and to what Patricia Adams Farmer calls the Tyranny of Thin:
Think, for example, of our fashion culture, how it deifies the thin woman. I find the Tyranny of Thin to be highly irritating and sometimes unhealthy—even deadly. I used to teach young women who were dying of starvation, barely able to pick up a textbook, let alone to think. These women with anorexia nervosa were sensitive and smart and perfectionists: a lethal combination in the face of the Tyranny of Thin.
In order to move past the Tyranny of Thin it is important today to proclaim ever more loudly the beauty of a fat soul and the grace of a fat God. This is the kind of philosophy Patricia Adams Farmer is developing in her Fat Soul Philosophy.
By "fat" I do not mean flabby; I mean rotund, robust, stout and strong. As Patricia Adams Farmer explains, Fat Soul is another way of naming what the philosopher Bernard Loomer calls a magnanimous or sizable soul. You will find what he says in the column on the left, as cited by Patricia Adams Farmer:
Six Characteristics of a Fat Soul
If we unpack Loomer's paragraph we find that a fat soul has at least six characteristics:
1. Capacity for Loving Relationships: A fat soul enjoys range and depth in its capacity for loving relationships, helping others to become freer in their diversity and uniqueness. It is open-hearted.
2. Open-Mindedness: A fat soul can understand a variety of outlooks on life without feeling defensive and insecure. It is open-minded.
3. Openness to Complexity: A fat soul has the power to sustain complex relationships and enriching tensions. It does not lapse into either-or thinking but is inclined toward both-and thinking.
4. Tolerance for Enriching Tensions: A fat soul can live with enriching tensions without being overwhelmed. It does not flee from constructive conflict.
5. Personal Integrity: A fat soul does all this while maintaining a sense of integrity. It sticks to its principles and enjoys a sense of individual freedom.
6. Individuality: A fat soul does not lose its agency or self-creativity. It celebrates diversity and delights in uniqueness, and it enjoys unique agency itself.
God with Big Hips
Let's say that God has a really big soul and that we are made in God's image. Imagine that in some way each of the six characteristics have their analogy in the divine life, albeit in a divine way. God is the Soul of the universe: wide with an open heart and open mind, open to complexity, embracing enriching tensions, filled with a sense of justice and mercy, and self-aware. Imagine that faith in God is trust in the largeness and largesse of the divine Soul, which is everywhere at once but much more than everything added together. Faith is trust in a friendly universe, a universe with big hips.
Indeed, perhaps God is just big enough to receive everything as it happens: all the joys and the sufferings, sharing in both, without being bowled over. Maybe this is part of what it means to speak of the majesty of God. It is God as a reality larger than life yet filled with life, encompassing the universe with a wideness of soul and mind.
If this is true, then God is really powerful. God doesn't need to know everything in advance, God is large enough to learn about things as they happen and when they happen, allowing the universe its adventure. too. God is a Soul in process embracing all souls in process, inviting them into the land of range and depth.
Fat Souls in the Making
I borrow the idea of the soul as a process from the philosopher C. Robert Mesle. He was asked to offer a message at a wedding some time ago, and here is what he told the bride and groom:
"I am a philosopher, let me tell you a great secret of life—a soul is not a thing, it is not something which stands untouched by the events of your life. Your soul is the river of your life; it is the cumulative flow of your experience. But what do we experience? The world. Each other. So your soul is the cumulative flow of all of your relationships with everything and everyone around you. In a different image, we weave ourselves out of the threads of our relationships with everyone around us." (A Soul is Not a Thing: A Process Relational Wedding.)
If Mesle is right, then I am led to ask: What kind of fat soul can I grow into? I quickly realize that fat souls are in process and that they come in different body shapes. Few if any are as robust as the divine Soul. For my part, I'm not fat enough yet.
For example, some souls are open-minded but not as open-hearted as they can be; some souls are filled with integrity and individuality but not very open-minded; some souls have a range of love but not a depth of love; some souls have a depth of love without range. There are so many variations.
We might be tempted to be judgmental and say that these souls need to grow in size, as if one size fits all, but I am skeptical. I think that, oftentimes, people are just doing the best they can, given the cards they'be been dealt and their capacities. They may not have a lot of choice in the matter.
The Necessity of Self-Limitation
It seems to me that for some people the only way to maintain integrity and individuality is to shut out certain kinds of relationships and ideas. At the very least, they need a certain amount of inner strength: self-confidence and positive self-regard. And their capacities for self-confidence and positive self-regard depend on many factors beyond our control: family upbringing, genetics, social circumstances, historical conditions.
All of this makes me wonder if, in the journey toward largeness of soul, there are not times when even the Soul of the universe -- even God -- tolerates a degree of flabbiness in one dimension of our lives, so that we might be robustly stout in another. Sometimes we must choose depth of love over range of love, and sometimes we must choose range over depth. And sometimes we must choose standing on conviction at the expense of being open to new ideas, and sometimes we must choose relativizing our own convictions for the sake of receptivity to new ideas. So much depends on the situation.
Adjustable Water Nozzles
I remember one time when the great interpreter of world religions, Huston Smith, visited my college. In informal conversation he compared people's spiritual dispositions to nozzles for water hoses. In order to find energy to live, he said, some people need wide nozzles and some people need narrow nozzles. He added that, for most of us, the kind of nozzle we need will change with circumstances, which means that our own spiritual journey is a process of becoming, nozzle-to-nozzle, relative to what is needed and required at the time.
So I am left with the idea that, in a healthy life, it is important to have adjustable water nozzles. Sometimes we need to open out and sometimes we need to hunker down. And we need be graceful enough to let others do this, too. If we meet someone who seems to us just a little too narrow-minded for our liking, let's be gentle. Let's be open to different sizes of soul and realize that our own souls shift shape from time to time, both in what they can receive and in what they can give.
Finding the Right Spray Pattern
Finding the Right Spray Pattern in the course of a lifetime, or even in the course of a day, is not easy. It requires what Christians call discernment, which is a receptivity to the ideal way of responding to given situations relative to the situation at hand. In my view it is a mistake to believe that we find the right pattern in a calculative way, as if it is there for our taking. I think it is the other way around. The Spray Pattern finds us.
In process theology we speak of the Right Spray pattern as the living presence of God in our lives. This living presence comes in the form of fresh and animating possibilities which we feel in the depths of our souls and which seem right and fitting for the context at issue. It is the Spray Pattern for the situation at hand. It is the Way which is right for the moment.
It takes a listening ear, or better, a listening heart, to receive this Way. Prayer and community, ritual and tradition, can help. The many world religions at their best are ways of helping people place themselves in situations where the Right Spray Pattern, perpetually adjusted to each person, can find its way into their awareness and life, so that they can grow into fat souls. It may take more than a lifetime to do this. That is what heaven is for.
Meanwhile, we do our best to become the best kind of fat soul we can become, no matter what size our bodies and what conditions we face. And there dwells within us, moment by moment, a nourishing stream of hope from the very Soul of the universe, who is powerful enough to adjust to our mistakes and celebrate our achievements, without jealousy or envy, embracing the tensions of our lives and all lives, delighted by the differences. It's enough to make a soul want to grow wide, breaking out of old wineskins for the sake of new wine.
-- Jay McDaniel