What is Fat Soul Philosophy?
By Patricia Adams Farmer
By Patricia Adams Farmer
“How big is your soul?” It is said that Professor Bernard Loomer (1912-1985), a towering figure in process theology, used to toss out this question in his public lectures like a mantra, a challenge, a sort of summing up of everything that matters. I think it might just be the most important question we can ask ourselves. I still remember the day as a young philosophy grad student when I encountered his essay called “S-I-Z-E is the Measure” in a big book called Religious Experience and Process Theology:
"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."
I shut the fat book with a huge smile and thought I’d found nirvana. At the very least, I’d found an idea that took root in my soul and began to grow—to take on S-I-Z-E.
Loomer’s words grew and grew inside me through the years, becoming fatter and fatter, something like THE BLOB (as in the 1958 movie)—only friendlier. Finally, there was no more room for it in my brain: I had to create characters to live it out for me in novels (The Fat Soul Philosophy Series). But such fatness spills over to real life too, as I write essays about BIG IDEAS ideas that might feel uncomfortable to people of thin thinking. Like how rocks are alive and how trees can talk back and how the heart of God is so big and deep and wide that it feels the sufferings of all creation. All of this sounds a little crazy, like a shaman—which is exactly why Professor Jay McDaniel aptly calls it Fat Soul Shamanism (Crazier than Hell: a Whiteheadian Appreciation of Shamanism).
But what is Fat Soul Philosophy? For that matter, what is the soul? When you think of the soul, what image comes to mind? A huge white mass of ghost-like ether inside of you? Think again, this time in terms of a process-relational view of the world. Whitehead’s philosophy dispelled the whole “ghost in the machine” view of identity. In fact, he dispelled the modern mechanistic world view altogether! As far as metaphors go, machines are out; flowing rivers are in. Professor Bob Mesle gives us a particularly lovely metaphor for the soul when he conducted a wedding. He said to the couple:
"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.)
So then, if our souls are the cumulative flow of all of our relationships with everything and everyone around us, that’s one huge river.
But why don’t I just call it a big soul? Why fat soul? Who wants to be fat? Isn’t fat a bad word?
This is the subversive side of Fat Soul Philosophy. A merely big soul sounds benign and friendly even to mainstream thinking, but the term Fat Soul is edgy, for the fat soul dares to get bigger than society deems proper. 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.
But of course we’re not talking about the physical body, but rather the psyche, the soul, the river of experiences that makes up who we are. Yet the same tyranny exists. We are supposed to be focused on wealth and success while keeping “us” and “them” categories neat and tidy. In terms power relations, we are not supposed to think too much about sharing power, for shared power is entirely too fat! Neither are we to waste too much brain power on “the least of these” or the threatened bee population or the way the seas are rising or how gays must feel when denied a marriage license or how Muslims must feel when Westerners demonize them. That’s getting a bit fat in our thinking, isn’t it? Go back to thin thinking! Keep the focus on money, unilateral power, us-verses-them, and the belief that we are wholly separate from nature. Yes, let’s keep our thinking thin.
All the while we are a world dying of anorexia nervosa of the spirit.
Yet as Loomer reminds us, even while enlarging our souls there are limits to what we can take in, for we are not God. The truth is that we are small and flawed and fear things that we don’t understand. But we can embrace even that, can’t we? We can love and accept ourselves even in our limitations—for we are not, in reality, human beings, but rather human becomings. And we can become bigger, even if just a little bit.
All you really have to remember about Fat Soul Philosophy is that a fat soul is a beautiful soul. In the process world view, God is the very Soul of the world, the ultimate instance of The Fat Soul, the One who lures us and all creation toward widening circles of Beauty. God yearns for beautiful relationships of earth and sky and people and turtles. God yearns for us to know that we are all of a piece, all deeply interwoven and wholly beautiful in our differences.
But aren't we afraid of losing ourselves in the process of widening our circles of empathy and understanding? Fat Soul Philosophy would say that striving for a bigger soul does not diminish one’s own identity, uniqueness, or beauty; rather, it strengthens individual identity and uniqueness in the way a single color is brought to life in a painting by the splash of a contrasting color next to it.
Beauty is all about intensity of feeling, the kind that emerges from mutual relationships of respect and reverence and tenderness. Beauty thrives on contrasts and differences for sake of intense harmonies—and that, after all, is what makes the world go round. As one of my fictional characters, a philosopher named Madeline, says to her little flock of tea drinkers and thinkers in Fat Soul Fridays: “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 . . .”
I live my life in widening circles
That reach out across the world.
I may not ever complete the last one,
But I give myself to it.
--Rainer Maria Rilke
Author's Note: I wish to dedicate this essay to the memory of Dr. Patrick Clement (1932-2013) who was a lifelong activist for social justice, including his participation in the Civil Rights March on Washington in August, 1963 where he, in his own words, “proudly stood with Martin Luther King, Jr., and attempted, with Norman Mailer and others, to levitate the Pentagon.” Later, after serving in Europe and the Middle East as a physician for the Central Intelligence Agency and a commander in the Navy, he served as medical director for an inner city clinic in New Haven, CT. A very "fat soul," indeed.
Patricia Adams Farmer is an essayist and novelist in the tradition of process theology. She is the author of Embracing a Beautiful God and the Fat Soul Philosophy Novel Series (The Metaphor Maker and Fat Soul Fridays). She and her husband, Ron Farmer, live and write on the north central coast of Ecuador. Visit her website at patriciaadamsfarmer.com or follower her adventures in Ecuador at Life at Latitude Zero. Other JJB essays include: The Quaking and Breaking of Everything, The Numinosity of Rocks, You, Me, and the Ceibo Tree, and Savoring.