Toward a Theology of Life: part 2

In my last post I began an explanation of how I approach the topic of abortion (here). In this post I want to trace more of the basis for my views on life and how that influences my life. But with these posts please recognize I am working out my own theology and while I do have some level of education and interest in the topic I am not an expert to the level of professional theologians.

My journey on this issue began when I learned that the current conservative Christian theology on life is rooted in Catholic theology and the recognition that in Catholic theology the ideas “life begins at conception” and their position on birth control are inextricably linked. I began to think through the issue of birth control, the command to reproduce in Genesis 1, and ultimately how we define life. All of this happened against a backdrop of discovering the scientific understand of humanity (both biological and ancestral components). I will also admit that learning the unsavory origins of the Moral Majority has negatively impacted my thinking of much of the “pro-life” movement, but I do not think that negativity has impacted my theology other than to spur me to think through questions more completely.

Any theology of life should be rooted in the creation accounts of Genesis 1 & 2 or at least cannot contradict them. These passages lay out the following points:

  • Human life is sacred based in the image of God
  • Humanity, both male and female, equally carry the image of God
  • God is responsible for the creation and sustaining of human life

I would like to say, “the creation of Adam shows us that the building blocks God uses are not essentially human in and of themselves and life begins at first breath.” but this would be to miss the point of Genesis 2 and so I have to do more work. But the Bible says remarkably little beyond this on the origins of human life, in fact, if we are to take the Bible “literally” [I prefer to say literalistically highlighting that such readings are missing the point of the verse] there are only two true references to life before birth Hebrews 7:10 which says Levi was “in the loins of his ancestor” and Exodus 21:22-25 which deals with the death of a fetus. But we cannot read the surface level of Hebrews 7:10 which implies the entire person is contained in the man’s sperm and therefore implies future generations are alive now in their father’s and grandfathers. The Exodus verses are slightly more helpful because they do not speak of the “miscarriage” as a human life which would be punishable by death but as an incident punishable by a fine. But presumably this is because there would have been no way to know if she would have a live birth or stillbirth. In other words neither of these passages is very helpful in creating a theology of “the beginning of life” because neither is truly discussing the topic, but are merely incidental to it. The verses often cited to talk about the origins of life– Psalm 139:13 & Jeremiah 1:5– only talk of God piecing together the building blocks of life, not the individuals being fully human [to say nothing of the fact they are poetry]. (If anything they seem to say that in the womb God stitches together various pieces which are not human into something that is human, but even that is a stretch.) To say humans are formed in the womb is a truism and again these verses do not make any mention of when a person becomes a person and not just the building blocks. I am not saying these verses should not be used to inform our theology but they are far from saying the things they are used to defend.

I find that many of the justifications for the view that “life begins at conception” seem more based on ancient or early modern scientific logic and thoughts around conception than Biblical authority. When I ask people about this issue the “theology” they use is that there is a logical and traceable trajectory between the reproductive act and birth. Such logic is backed up with the incidental mentioning of Luke 1:44, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy.” (Life begins at conception and proof is this fully formed fetus praises God.) I am sorry if that last line comes off as dismissive but that is how the logic sounds to me.

But how do I construct my views when the Bible does not speak directly to this issue? First, I need to emphasize life is sacred and human life is uniquely special. There is a reality that defining “human life” is trickier than it sounds at first, whether we talk in biological (DNA, genetics, etc.), cultural, or behavioral, terms it is difficult to define a human; we recognize a person as human when we see one but larger definitions are difficult to come by. Science is both helping and hindering our definitions of “human” but science must be placed into a philosophical framework to be of any use to us. Science tells me that a fertilized human egg will not always result in a viable human embryo. With my established theological constraint that life is sacred in place I must ask myself can I consider a non-viable fertilized egg in the same category as human life? My answer is no and so I have difficulty making the category statement “life begins at conception”. Yet, I do see an difficulty with dismissing Luke 1:44 from the discussion and so I do recognize that human life does begin at some point within the womb. But I am not able to say much beyond this, how am I to pin down the moment a clump of cells becomes an independent person.

Yes, I understand there are a whole host of issues with such an approach to the issue and taking this approach will lead to a less black & white debate about issues like abortion. But I do also believe this approach best unifies the story of Scripture with the world around us. Am I saying the cellular building blocks of life are unimportant or can be jettisoned without thought, by no means; rather, I am trying to make a clear distinction between what the Bible says and therefore mandates and what it does not. What most Christians never recognize is that a theology of life is messy because life is messy. We sanitize these issues by simplifying them with clear black & white definitions that do not reflect the world around us. We then are able to point to these easy definitions and avoid the real mental work, while still maintaining we have a valid opinion. The Bible says human life is sacred and needs to be treated as such, it says that human life comes from and is dependent on God, but it does not state when life is life. We need to recognize this fact and be somewhat generous with those who disagree with specific definitions.

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