My last post was a reaction to the current news cycle and how abortion has dominated in the headlines (here) and one insightful individual asked about the Christian theology of life that should ultimately guide us as we deal with topics like abortion. I have decided to take on this challenge, in this post I am laying out the groundwork for my own theology, as of today there will be one more post which continues this theology into how I view life in topics like abortion.
As background one of the travesties of Protestant theology is that until recently theologians have not dealt with the question of conception and humanity’s physical development (at least I am not familiar with major works on the issue). Most of what passes in today’s Protestant churches for theology stems from a watered down version of Catholic theology used to back the political wing of the pro-life movement. As I understand this theology it is built primarily around a few verses:
For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. Psalm 139:13
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
before you were born I set you apart;
I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.” Jeremiah 1:5
Modern Protestants will also cite Luke 1:41 “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” within this discussion as “proof” that life begins at conception. Now frankly these verses are often used as proof texts with little consideration given to the actual meaning of the text. Even less consideration is given to the fact that the entire concept of life beginning at conception is cherry-picked from our Catholic brothers and sisters without taking the entire theology of sexuality and humanity that goes along with it. In fact, many Protestants I know will laugh at the Catholic idea of sexuality being influenced by Genesis 38:9 without recognizing that is where much of the significance of conception is drawn from.
But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother. Genesis 38:9
We must recognize that for Catholic theology the sexual act is sacred because it produces life and therefore any interruption of the process of creation is violating the sacredness of the act and transforming it into lust. This means that every effort must be made to allow for conception to happen if God desires it. Thus, the conception of life as part of the sacred act, is itself sacred and can be seen as the moment when new life is created. Because Catholic theology begins understanding the sexual act as sacred because it is productive each of the other above verses can be read as referring to a living soul within the womb– a distinct human.
However, it is important to remember that our Jewish friends also read these verses and approach them very differently. Jewish theologians begin their reflections with:
Then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being. Genesis 2:7
They interpret life beginning with a baby taking its first breath. With this as a starting point the above verses from Jeremiah and Psalms can be interpreted differently. These verses are still important, but they then reflect God preparing for a human in the womb instead of caring for a human in the womb. Both the Psalmist and the prophet would then e reflecting on gestation as a time when God was preparing to give life to a person, not as a living person waiting to enter the world. This will strike many Protestants as an odd or even heretical approach to these verses, but it is a valid interpretation and I would submit that it only seems heretical because of forty+ years of political conditioning.
I find each of these starting points to have striking features that each clearly have advantages and each clearly have deficiencies. The difficulty is further compounded because scientific evidence is equally fuzzy. Let’s face it, when it comes to humanity we can each recognize a person when we see one but creating a universal definition is virtually impossible. The only people who think that the development of life and defining a person are easy are those who have not had to actually do it.
To explain what I mean let me deal with a topic I know nothing about ectopic pregnancy; from what medical people have told me this condition never results in a child and is fatal to a woman. Yet, ectopic pregnancy is still labeled a “pregnancy”, still meets the requirements for “human life” by most Protestants and all Catholics, and is treated through an abortion. Conversely, scientific evidence (ultrasounds) reveal that a fetus (I’ll catch flak for using that term but it is scientifically accurate here) at 39 weeks development is the same as the child who has emerged from the womb. What science has empirically shown is that what theology has always said implicitly needs to be made explicit, we do not have a great definition for the exact moment the materials which generate life become life. It seems to me that both theologically and scientifically it is impossible to know when a person becomes a person and so we must use all of the best data in front of us to create a theology which respects God and understands in humility our own limitations. From this theology we can build a political ethic which then (hopefully) helps shape a civil discourse.
There are many theologians, Biblical scholars, medical experts, and even educated laity who are more qualified than myself to engage this project on a large scale. But, because I do not feel it is right to bring up the topic without some answer, I will share how I approach the issue of “when is a person a person”. I do not like the idea of upsetting my Catholic friends from whom I have learned so much, but there are too many ways in which a fertilized egg can result in something other than a viable fetus (again technical term) for me to think that life begins at conception. Yes, I realize that I am allowing science to influence my theology and the reason is the Bible simply is not clear. One must come to the Scriptures with preconceived ideas in order to read “life begins at conception” into its pages as well. A jumble of cells is the potential for human life –yes– but so is dirt in Genesis and while God uses one more than the other, it is still only a building block. I do not see this as downgrading the sacredness of marriage or sexuality, simply a recognition that though intercourse leads to babies it is not a 1 to 1 correlation. For me we can deem a fetus to be a person when it has the potential to live in this world. I may be very wrong on this and would be happy to have the discussion, but I think the Jewish theologians are more accurate here. An ectopic pregnancy is not a person it is a medical condition.
Rubber meets the road time. Yes I am fully aware of what my definition of “human” does to my political stance, I now have to agree more with those who would promote abortion than my Catholic friends. I must give in when they discuss abortions that I might morally disagree with because the abortion happened at a stage that would not meet my definition of “person” and that is hard. But, for my Catholic friends aborting the ectopic pregnancy and other conditions which are fatal to the women experiencing them are sin and that should also be hard. In other words, there is no simple or easy way out. I realized this when I was dealing with my wife’s pregnancies, there are times in this world that put us in moral dilemmas for which static answers are less than useful. Abortion is one such situation, and we must wrestle with it because our medicine has the power to save life and take life.