mother/woman/human

As usual, controversial moral issues such as abortion are discussed as mere differences of political opinion. Scratch the surface, though, and you see that they expose fundamentally opposed ideas about the nature of reality and the human being.

Woman is both blessed and burdened by her peculiar role as the bearer of children. The biological necessity of Man’s physical proximity to his child ends at conception, while Woman must remain physically close at least until the child is weaned, if the child is to survive. In fact, Woman must literally house her child within herself for nine months, the two bodies as close together as two bodies can be, the two lives inextricably intertwined. Man’s responsibility for his offspring is largely a moral, social one. Woman’s responsibility is necessitated by biology and resides in the very make-up of her body. Add to this the fact that biology also enables Man to initiate and even force the conception of children on Woman, with little risk to his own future and with great risk to hers. This results in a greatly unequal responsibility for children between the sexes.

Humans have typically interpreted this natural inequality by keeping Woman confined within the sphere of child-bearing and child-rearing. This is understandable, especially in rustic settings, since the survival of children is dependent on the attention given to them by Woman and since biology makes this non-negotiable. Also not surprising is that fact that, due to humanity’s ability and tendency to see meaning everywhere, we have abstractly considered “bearer of children” as essential to defining “Woman.” Thus we have traditionally understood womanhood and motherhood as nearly synonymous. If you will suspend your modern, First World assumptions for a moment, this will probably become obvious.

(Though granted much more freedom of movement, Man is not therefore unbound by biology and free to seek his own welfare exclusively. During pregnancy and nursing, children depend directly on the Woman for sustenance, keeping her close to them. This makes Woman herself dependent on the labor of Man, placing the responsibility for her survival largely on his shoulders. Again, we have therefore usually imagined “provider of food” as essential to defining “Man,” making manhood and bread-winner nearly synonymous. Genesis 3:16-19 succinctly summarizes these facts about the human condition.)

But, then. Our society experienced an industrial revolution which has enriched us beyond our ancestors’ wildest dreams, creating less rustic environments in which we have unprecedented control over our surroundings and over our bodies. For the first time, less worried about survival and with lots more free time, people suddenly possessed the luxury of questioning our assumptions about Man and Woman. For a female to be “fully a woman” (abstractly, of course), must she always be a mother? Is there something pernicious in taking the two things as synonyms, thereby limiting Woman forever to the realm of home and children? With millions of women now able to prevent pregnancy and able to live comfortably with fewer children or no children, what is Woman after all? For that matter, what is Man, if Woman is equally capable of the non-physical labor that makes up most of the modern industrialized economy? Modern affluence disrupted our ancient lifestyle patterns based on gender. This in turn caused us to lose our footing in how we conceive of the archetypal categories “Man” and “Woman.”

The implications of these historical developments can and should be investigated in regards to all our modern problems of (trans-)gender, sexuality, marriage, parenting, family, masculinity, and femininity. For now, let’s consider the original topic of abortion. Here is where we find the conflict between fundamental beliefs about reality.

For the secular person unconcerned with transcendence, there need be no inherent connection between womanhood and motherhood. Equal parts Gnostic and Darwinist, the contemporary secular worldview is free to utterly divide one’s biological identity (“bearer of children”) from one’s abstract identity (“woman”). The abstract identity is meaningful only insomuch as human minds assign meaning to it, anyway. Add to this no reason to believe in the inherent value of human existence (even apart from human personality) and the prizing of unrestrained personal freedom as the key to happiness, and you have created the pro-choice person. A purposeless natural world enables us to separate meaning from biology, motherhood from womanhood, and thus the human body inside the womb from the human body around it.

What about the Christian who believes in transcendence and cares about God’s will for the world? The Christian worldview cannot so easily disentangle biology, or what God has created, from what it means abstractly, or the meaning the divine mind has assigned to it. A woman’s pregnancy is no mere physical accident divorced from the way she conceptualizes her personal identity. Put another way, she is not an enlightened mind inside an animal body. Rather, she is soul and body, made by God. Her capacity for pregnancy, and her pregnancy itself, say something about who she is.

We all see the danger in too closely associating “woman” with “mother.” Childless women have been shamed and even despised for millennia. Civilization has suffered from the historical exclusion of women from public spheres. Great injustice has been done to untold numbers of women who could not bear children or who would have been greatly useful outside the domestic realm if given the opportunity. We know very well, then, that a woman is a Woman (and first, a human being) whether she bears a child or not. For the Christian, that is basic imago Dei doctrine.

But do we see the danger in separating “woman” from “mother” entirely? Are women in the first stage of motherhood–i.e. pregnant women–still not truly mothers in any sense, such that their children are mere bundles of disposable tissue and not children at all? Is the biological fact of their pregnancy totally unrelated to their femininity or to their personal identity? (Furthermore, can a male really be called a woman if he is without the remotest capacity of ever bearing or nursing a child and if his body does not every month prepare for the possibility?)

For me, as a woman, as a believer in transcendence, and as a person deeply interested in the well-being of all women, abortion denigrates women by utterly severing the tie between body and soul, between biology and identity.

These topics deserve further discussion, within the Church and within broader society. I would love to hear from you.

the problem with Santa’s list

A big difference between juvenile fiction and adult fiction is the complexity of the characters. In most juvenile fiction, there are two fairly clear groups: “good guys” and “bad guys.” There are heroes, whom we root for, and villains, whom we root against. Good guy-bad guy stories are fun to read and easy to understand. They do little to illuminate truth about the human condition, however.

The mythology of Santa Claus follows a similarly simplistic breakdown of the world. According to the songs, Mr. Claus divides all the children of the world into two camps: naughty and nice. The nice children get toys, the naughty ones get coal. Not that I have ever heard of children whose parents had the heart to follow through with the threat of coal in return for bad behavior, but still, that’s what we say.

For the Christian, Santa represents one way of viewing the world. Santa may know if you have been “naughty or nice,” but all he can see is your external behavior. He can tell whether you did chores or threw a tantrum, but he has no way of knowing why you did either of these things. To him, the child who does chores is good and deserving of a reward while the child who throws a tantrum is bad and punishable. It’s simple. Too simple. A worldview which breaks the world down into camps of “naughty and nice” people, like Santa’s list, does not, and cannot, address the heart.
The same is true of our judgment of each other. On their website Mark Driscoll and the guys up at Mars Hill church in Seattle say this:
Religion says that the world is filled with good people and bad people. The gospel says that the world is filled with bad people who are either repentant or unrepentant.
People who understand the gospel understand that we are all more alike than we are different. They consider the sin in their own hearts as more weighty than the sinful behavior they see in the people around them.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. 1 Timothy 1:15
The Bible, thank God, does not fundamentally follow a good guy-bad guy/naughty-nice dichotomy. Its anthropology is much more sophisticated. Like good novels and honest biographies, the Bible exposes the contradictory truths about the human heart through both evocative story-telling and well-reasoned teaching.
It does make distinctions between the “righteous” and the “wicked,” especially when speaking of things such as oppression, abuse, and other evils perpetuated by people who have no reverence for God or people. We also must make such distinctions, as people concerned with holiness, justice, and righting the world’s wrongs. God forbid that we “call evil good, and good evil” (Isaiah 5:20) for the sake of appearing non-judgmental.
But we may not leave it at that. God says, look at yourself. Look into your own heart and see the evil there; if your circumstances have prevented you from seeing the darker side of your own depravity, consider what you might be like had you grown up differently and lived in someone else’s shoes. We’re more alike than we are different.
David, a man who wrote often about the wickedness of the wicked and the righteousness of the righteous nonetheless referred to himself as “feeble and crushed” under the weight of his own sin (Psalm 32:8). He stole another man’s wife and conspired the man’s murder; his children committed rape and murder against each other, largely because of his monumental failures as a father; throughout his life the man was prone to lust, pride, fear, and complacency.
Why would human authors, on their own, choose to include such despicable details of the life of their greatest king and hero? For that matter, why would David publish his private poems of confessional prayer, to be read and studied throughout his nation? Even today we are still studying his failures and confessions.
It is because the Bible’s anthropology does not fundamentally break the world down into good guys and bad guys, or naughty children and nice children. “No one is nice, no, not one” (paraphrasing Romans 3:10). All need atonement and grace; none are disqualified from receiving it.
Jesus makes Santa’s list irrelevant. That’s the gospel. As my pastor loves to say, “The ground is level at the foot of the cross.” Or, since it’s almost Christmas, “The ground is level at the foot the feeding trough.”
Gospel people treat Santa’s list as irrelevant too. That’s the gospel applied. No more treating outsiders as outsiders, as people who will never “get it,” or as people who need to clean up their act (and appearance) before they come to church.
Such Santa-ish thinking is exactly the opposite of what the church is here for.

thanksgiving for beggars

Can you hear what’s been said?
Can you see now that everything’s grace after all?
If there’s one thing I know in this life: we are beggars all.
Beggars by Thrice

To me, Thanksgiving is the best holiday. Christmas and Easter commemorate more important events – the most important events of all – but they have been almost completely secularized and commercialized in this culture. Celebrating them in honest and faithful ways can be difficult. Thanksgiving is, perhaps, in this sense, the “purest” holy-day. It is simple and the idea behind it is beautiful: a day set aside expressly for purpose of counting one’s blessings and expressing gratitude (to God) for life and the good things in it.

In the Christian understanding of the universe, life, breath, and everything exist only because God continues to will it so. Jesus is, now, upholding all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3). We, as creatures, create and sustain nothing. Whatever we have, we have received. The truth of our humble state is total and absolute dependence on the creation and sustenance of God – whether we acknowledge this or not. “We are beggars all.”

A person cannot receive even one thing unless it is given him from heaven. John 3:27

Christians understand this, and it is for expressly this reason that they understand sin as being so heinous. The more one has received, the more wicked one’s ingratitude and wastefulness becomes.

We are prone to live out of a deeply felt sense of entitlement, not gratitude – and none more so than my generation of American young people. We grew up, practically speaking, wealthier than any other generation that has ever lived, with an almost incredible level of affluence and ease of living that has been handed to us by the sweat of our grandparents and parents. We are more educated and more childish than every generation preceding us. We feel fervently entitled to happiness. Ridiculously so.

Gratitude is the opposite of entitlement. Gratitude looks at the gifts of God in awe and humility and praise. Entitlement feels constantly deprived and resents every perceived lack, meanwhile ignoring the grace in every undeserved gift. Which one do you live by more often?

Thanksgiving for the Christian is truly sweet. We are privileged in that we know exactly who it is we are thanking (how does an atheist celebrate this holiday?). We personally know the Father of lights from whom every good and perfect gift comes (James 1:17). We alone can say, “Thank you, Father – Abba – Papa – Daddy.”

The privilege of our relationship with God and our status in his eyes, mediated by the death and resurrection of Jesus, which removes our sin as far as east is from west and brings us as close to the Father as the Son is to him, is of course the greatest grace of all. It is absurd that entitlement-minded sinners can call a holy God “Daddy.” Yet, it is so, because Jesus suffered the cross and tore the curtain in two. The thing for us to do, therefore, is pray, write songs and poems, make spontaneous art, lift our voices, and thank God.

G. K. Chesterton wrote of St. Francis that Francis saw the world upside down. Heavy palaces and cathedrals, usually thought of as being more firmly rooted on the earth and more permanent than anything else, are instead most in danger of falling off completely, precisely because of their weight. The mere fact that God continues to hold the thread by which our world dangles moved Francis to a profound sense of gratitude and dependence which lasted his entire life.

Thanksgiving really is a way of life,  a way to see the world. It is a habit of prayer. To always pray “with thanksgiving,” following Paul’s commands in Philippians 4:6 and Colossians 4:2, changes how you process life. It reverses entitlement and transforms it into grateful humility, which is in every way a more joyful place to be. To stay thankful when loss threatens saves the soul from total despair because to stay thankful is to remain steadily at rest in the immeasurable grace of God. And – thankfully – thanksgiving keeps you on speaking terms with God, no matter what.

Jesus told his disciples, “Freely you have received; freely give” (Matthew 10:8 NIV). The logical successor of gratitude is generosity, since whatever you have, you too have received as a gift. Beggars become givers in God’s kingdom.

To close I’ll share with you all I poem I love that repeatedly stirs me to gratitude towards God, even in the face of humanity’s violence and destruction.

The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

God’s Grandeur by Gerard Manley Hopkins, 1877, discovered here.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.