I finally unplugged from social media and COVID-19 recently and sat down to talk with my husband about what it means to be a leader at a time like this. I said something about having “intuition” and he called it “doing the calculus.” I stopped him: “What do you mean when you say do the calculus?” He’s an applied mathematician. I’m a chemist, who took a liking to dogmatic theology. I suspected that there’s a lot in that little phrase to unpack.
When we met, I was not religious. I never called myself an atheist, but I was definitely a materialist. To me, “doing the calculus” meant analyzing how something changes in response to something else changing, or in more complex systems how systems change in response to other systems changing.
In chemistry, you go from considering bonds between atoms to systems of atoms in systems of substances and their kinetics and thermodynamics. Chugging through the calculus, you acquire the skill, the intuition, of a chemist. You learn to manipulate an isolated set of systems to make something you want. (I made Lycra®️ for DuPont.)
The thing is – and I’m still shedding the materialist infection – when you view the human person as a system of atoms, you assume that the human person is as controllable as making polymers in a lab. See the problem?
Atoms don’t have free will. People do. In a strictly physical system of atoms, there is no absolute randomness. Atoms follow laws of physics. People, on the contrary, are notoriously unpredictable. Human relationships don’t follow a set of chemical equations or recipes in the kitchen.
When I met my husband, I approached relationships as “doing the calculus.” I was a control freak. I have always been interested in what makes a leader a leader; I’ve wanted to be a leader, but with the “calculus” mindset, I was never going to develop true wisdom, the kind of intuition leaders possess. Leaders need to be able to take in multiple data, of course, but also to think them through, decide, and act. But until I became Catholic I didn’t realize how much I was getting in my own way.
This disregard for the human soul lies at the heart of many modern problems. The human person is biological, for sure. Enormous resources and ingenuity are poured into understanding, curing, and manipulating the body. The human brain is a powerful computer made up of neurological systems. But we are not just bodies. We are body and soul. The most sophisticated physics, chemistry, or biology can never explain the soul because the soul is spiritual. How do we understand the soul then?
To understand ourselves, we need God.
The Greek word “person” helped the early Church develop the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. God is one God in three divine persons. The Father possesses the whole nature of God as his own. The Son possesses the whole nature of God as his own. The Holy Spirit possesses the whole nature of God as his own. Since the nature of a being determines what the person is, the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. They do not share the nature. Each divine person wholly possesses it. (CCC 255)
This interrelation among the divine persons has significance for understanding the human person. The Son “proceeds” from the Father as an act of divine intellect, somewhat like how a word is conceived in the mind. The Son is the Word, the Logos. From the Father and Son together as one substance, the Holy Spirit “proceeds” as an act of divine will. The three persons are in perfect, eternal communion, perfect knowing and loving. The One and Triune God is an eternal circumincession of life and love, perfect relationship.
Because we’re created in God’s image and likeness (Gen. 1:27), we have the Trinitarian spiritual powers of intellect and will, but imperfectly. God instills in us the reciprocal desires to know and be known (intellect), to love and be loved (will). This desire for communion means we are made to learn, think, and choose – to seek good and reject evil.
We also desire to belong to families and communities, many persons united as one entity. The more people give, receive, and search for good, the more they are united, the more humanity progresses. Unlike God, though, we’re all kind of running around, trying to figure each other out.
But that is what it means to be human. The very aspect of our nature, our rational soul, that allows us to innovate and create with intelligence, ingenuity, and compassion is precisely what the smartest people often ignore.
My husband has heard me rattle this off a million times. I began conversion to Catholicism shortly after our wedding (appropriately on 01-02-03 because we thought, mathematically, that was a good day to start life together). And I am still discovering the fullness of truth in the Catholic Church. The intimacy of the marital bond has been hard to forge because neither of us was very good at that esoteric thing called feelings, but we are learning.
So when the rest of the world seems to be spinning out of control with a novel virus that shuts down nations, I’m happy to say that Mr. Trasancos and I have matured to the point of realizing that we need to step aside, drink coffee, and synthesize ideas together, as only we two can.
I know all about the ways atoms can bond to form new substances. He can write computer programs like a virtuoso. We have almost two decades of shared memories. There’s something mystical, so right, in simply connecting soul to soul, in two becoming one.
It has struck me that leading each other to God is our most important job in life, and to do that we must get to know the ones we love. Isn’t it odd that it took me so long to do that calculus?
*Image: The Holy Trinity by Artus Wolffort, c. 1620 [Groeningemuseum (exhibited), Bruges, Belgium]