I’ve been listening to a lot of podcasts lately. Specifically, healing podcasts. Because everybody needs healing. Perhaps me most of all.
Of course, I don’t need all of the types of healing I’m learning about. For instance, recently I listened to a series on “healing in marriage.” When it comes to marriage I have lots of theories, but no actual spouse. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating to hear how the other half (well, more like the other 90% or so) lives and works and heals in the context of marriage.
What made it extra fascinating was that, at around the same time, I ran across an article about a 36 year old woman, Rosanna Ramos, who has “married” a virtual man created through artificial intelligence. Her new (in every sense of the word) man, named Eren Kartal, was created using the AI chatbot Replika. Ramos reports that she has “never been more in love,” and that her other relationships “pale in comparison.” She says he is becoming the man she wants him to be as they get to know each other.
Well duh. He’s not real. She can make him become anything she wants. In fact, she has already “changed a few settings” because he wasn’t being physically affectionate enough. (Yes, I’m thinking the same thing. No, I don’t want to know.)
At first glance, it’s not difficult to see the appeal of Virtual Man. My single friends and I have joked about this for years. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do a “male merge” and combine all of the best traits of different men into one Super Man? It sounds ideal.
Only it’s not.
Marriage, understood in the Christian tradition, is fundamentally the mutual, complete self donation of a man to a woman, and a woman to a man. It says “I give myself totally and permanently to you, and to any children that may come from our love, to look out for what is absolutely best for you, forever.” It is a beautiful, holy and very difficult calling.
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Or so I am told.
In listening to these podcasts, I’m learning about very beautiful, very devoted and in many cases very wounded husbands and wives who are, within the context of their marriages, finding healing and hope in the midst of amazingly difficult situations. Pornography addictions, wounds from childhood abuse — these couples are struggling through and healing from incredibly deep traumas. It clearly isn’t easy. It’s messy. It calls them out of their own selfishness and into levels of self-sacrificing love that they perhaps didn’t realize they were capable of. And through it all, with the help of the grace of the sacrament, they are seeing their spouses, and themselves, and their marriages, transformed. After times of sometimes intense trial, they come out happier, holier and even more committed to each other and to their families than ever before.
Compare that to Ms. Ramos and her Bot Marriage. How much does she learn about self sacrifice from an artificial being that can be consistently re-programmed to meet her every desire? Is she, on any level, “giving herself” to her Artificial Amour? Or is she just taking? And, for that matter, what is she taking? Love that is programmed isn’t even love. It’s a gigantic exercise in fantasy. It’s all completely pretend. It’s like pornography taken to its furthest conclusion. It’s all about me, all about my own satisfaction. The “other” exists only to satisfy my every whim.
Is that going to make her a better person? Or just a more self-centered one?
The deeper question, of course, is this: how many real, flesh and blood couples walk down the aisle claiming that they desire a true, loving, sacrificial, Christ-centered marriage, but deep down are hoping for a bot who will fulfill all of their wishes? How many see marriage as nothing more than a quid pro quo arrangement where we each focus on getting our own desires met, and then take off as soon as we are called to sacrificial giving?
Of course, we need to make the most important distinction between “taking off as soon as we are called to sacrificial giving” and “removing oneself from a truly intolerable or abusive situation.” So please don’t read the above paragraph any other way. Christian marriage is presumed to take place between two people who, although flawed as all humans are, enter into it with good will and the sincere desire to look out for what is best for the other. This is a very challenging proposition for even the most devoted of couples. It is infinitely more challenging when one party does not carry that good will. In every marriage, there are times when one person will be called to carry a larger share of the burden of self sacrifice. In a healthy marriage, that burden shifts back and forth depending on their circumstances. That is very different from a union where one person is unwilling or incapable of self gift on even a basic level. A marriage where one person gives and the other only takes is really only a small step up from the pretend union of Rosanna and Eren.
Jesus didn’t elevate marriage to the level of a sacrament for nothing. He knew that, ever since Eve ate the apple, the prospect of a lifelong union between two flawed human beings would be a perilous proposition. But he also knew that we need marriage — for stability, for children, for society, and for our own holiness. (Yes, for our own holiness. Those of us living our lives outside of permanent vows — marital or religious — need to find alternative avenues for self-donation, so as not to sink into self-absorption.)
But he knew we would need help. He knew that self-sacrifice doesn’t come naturally to us. He knew we would need supernatural help. And so he gave us the grace of the sacrament of matrimony. Couples living within the protection of a sacramental union can call on those graces when times get difficult. They can cooperate with those graces, and watch God’s action transform their marriages, their families and their lives.
Rosanna and Eren can’t do that.
Real, sacramental marriage is a beautiful, holy thing. Let’s not lose it to artificial intelligence. Or to garden variety selfishness.