Review: “Not Just Good, But Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship Between Man and Woman”

Ecce Libro

In November 2014, religious leaders from around the world attended an interfaith colloquium sponsored and held in the Vatican entitled, The Complementarity of Man and Woman, or the Humanum Colloquium. The conference made headlines at the time for its ecumenical nature: Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, Evangelical Christians and even *gasp* Mormonism was represented. Now the main talks of Humanum have been assembled in a volume named after the title of Pope Francis’ address: Not Just Good, But Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship Between Man and Woman.

I highly recommend the book.

Yes, this is a book with an agenda: the defense of traditional marriage. I admit that I groaned when I heard about the book, not having listened to or watched the talks (which you can do here). I groaned not because I don’t believe in Defending the Family, but because as LDS right now we hear the message of traditional marriage ALL THE TIME, and the theological substance behind the message is simply not there [1]. We get directives and marching orders, but we don’t get much in the way of theological underpinnings or complex scriptural analysis. That’s not to make light of the Proclamation on the Family, for example but I personally find that document is not a particularly complex or theologically engaging: it is a straightforward statement of how things ought to be, with only a very light treatment of the reasons why. Some of you may disagree, finding deep wells of knowledge therein. I envy you. But I am trying to explain why the subject matter of this book was enough to make me not want to read it.

I’m glad I read it, though, because I found wisdom and thought about families that I had never before considered. The rich intellectual traditions of other faiths, Catholicism and Judaism in particular, were highly engaging when brought to bear on topics concerning the family. Jonathan Sacks, for example, gave an address outlining seven primary moments in history, specifically how the bringing together of man and woman are central to history and to our relationship with divinity. Sacks’ exegesis of Genesis was revelatory. Similarly, Cardinal Gerhard Müller explored the complementarity of man and woman, not in a simplistic “one is not whole without the other” sense, but in terms of how male and female aspects help us find deity:

The union of male and female is complementary not in the sense that from it ensues one complete in himself or herself, but in the sense that their union demonstrates how both are a mutual help to journey toward the Creator.

The talks were generally very thoughtful and worth careful consideration. The talks were also an interesting cultural exploration as speakers were represented from around the world. Perhaps more interesting was to read the various addresses as the intellectual and oratorical fruits of the various faith traditions. There is some staggering complexity in the Roman Catholic tradition, for example, that compares quite starkly to evangelical preaching. Elder Eyring’s address similarly gloried in plainness compared to other addresses (see below for the video). This is not to consider them as inferior, but rather to say that this is a book that presents a variety of approaches to questions of traditional marriage. The LDS approach is representative and consistent with our tradition, just as Rick Warren or N.T. Wright’s talks seemed very consistent with their well-known styles. Ultimately the reader can judge as to which approach is most coherent or persuasive. But I enjoyed the book’s interfaith perspective, its international perspective and the positive, affirming messages of how desperately men and women need each other in order to fulfill the destiny laid out for them by our creator. It gives me something meaty to chew on while I consider the place of families in contemporary society.

Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman. Steven Lopes, Helen Alvaré, Editors. 2015: Plough Publishing House.

[1] That’s not to say that there aren’t some very thoughtful treatments on the topic. I think Sam Brown’s book, while not explicitly about traditional marriage, lends itself to a Mormon reading on the topic. But by and large most of the deep thinking on the topic has not come out of the Ensign.


  1. Weren’t there some very public and complimentary comments about Eyring from the Catholic side? I seem to remember a URL being passed around…

  2. Can’t wait to read it. They also produced a video series as part of the colloquium which is really well done. There are seven in total, but this is my favorite:

  3. Erika, really nice,

  4. I really liked the video Erika linked. It will be interesting to me to see what treatment it will get in the comments. It seems to me that every point or explanation made in that video has been made on a blog post somewhere and lambasted as sexist, homophobic, or even misogynistic. The only real difference is that the video is eloquent (whereas your typical newby conservative commenter isnt’) and the tone is persuasive and descriptive, whereas most things the church puts out tend to be declarative and formulaic.

  5. Martin, that’s a very real possibility.

  6. The complementarity of male and female is a very old subject for philosophy and religion, with a rich tradition of ideas. It is only very recently that this tradition has been drafted into the service of political arguments against gay rights and same-sex marriage. It’s a bad match. It does not logically follow that if the union of male and female has special qualities, then same-sex unions must be illegitimate. The Humanum videos are smooth and thoughtful, but they seem to be motivated by this basic fallacy. The most important reason for the progress of gay rights has been the actual experience of gay people who find peace, happiness and love as they accept their sexuality and integrate their lives in a healthy way. The fact that this can be done is abiding evidence against the arguments presented in these videos.

  7. Tom, just thank you.

  8. Tom, yes, politics and religion make poor bedfellows. But it’s still nice to see a little more depth and a little more articulated thought behind the positions.

  9. What is beautiful to a straight man is not beautiful to a gay man. See the post by Leah Marie Silverman. Do we follow the teachings of Christ or of the 15 in SLC. At what level are we unclean?

  10. Ton, we’re all unclean. Not sure your point.

  11. Steve, I’m actually pretty thrilled by a lot of what I saw in the Humanum videos, and I am looking forward to reading the book you reviewed. This kind of material, so thoughtfully and civilly presented, can really deepen the conversations we need to have about marriage, families, and gender roles. I don’t agree with everything in the videos, but I think it’s a good model for how to approach the discussion. There is a lot here that can help us get beyond politics. Except when it comes to the videos’ discussion of homosexuality, which strikes me an embarrassing non sequitur. It saddens me that we allow our preoccupation with same-sex marriage to distract us from the work of defending the family.

  12. Yes, I think I agree.

  13. john willis says:

    I have just finished the book. As with any anthology some contributions are better that others.
    I was particularly impressed by N.T. Wright’s talk and Rabbi Sacks chapter.
    In reading President Eyring’s talk and his tribute to his wife, I remembered the last chapter of his recent biography which discusses how Sister Eyring is suffering from a Alzhiemer like condition which is destroying her memory and ability to function without outside help.

    His tribute was more meaningful knowing this.

    I think this kind of testimony is much more effective in “defending the family” than gay bashing or seeing legalization of gay marriage as a sign of the second coming.

  14. Totally.

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