Comments: A pregnant pause

The wonderful writer of speculative fiction, Connie Willis, has a fine short story about the journey to Bethlehem. The setting is a 20th c church during choir rehearsal and general chaos of getting ready for Christmas. The protagonist, a harried choir member {I think - read it a while back] finds a raggedy young couple at the back door. She thinks they are homeless people who missed the evening bus pickup to take people to the shelter. The woman is visibly pregnant. They have no English ... and you've guessed it - they are on the way to Bethlehem, which the protagonist figures out ... about the time the reader does. I won't spoil it. The lost time travelers do get set on their way. If I can run down the title of the story and the book it was in, I will post them, The book was a collection of Christmas short stories, and it was funny and sharp and surprising.

If you can find the book and/or the story, I commend them to you.

Posted by Cynthia Gilliatt at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 5:53pm GMT

"St Luke gives few insights into the unborn Christ, telling us briefly of how John the Baptist, himself yet unborn, leaps in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary visits. But that account, taken with the story of Gabriel’s visit, is enough to establish that the Son of God did not take on human form at any point later than conception."

This conclusion regarding conception does not necessarily follow as a matter of logic.

Assuming this event is even *literally* true, and not simply meant as metaphor instead of some sort of scientific statement, all one can be certain of is that Jesus became present in the fetus at some point prior to this womb-sensing-womb encounter with the fetus of John the Baptist. It decidedly does *not* rule out other approaches (also found within the catholic tradition) to determining when the fetus attains personhood, such as quickening or ensoulment at about 3 months into pregnancy.

Assuming that Jesus-in-fetu had already passed that mark, Luke's description of the encounter in no way privileges "personhood-starts-at-conception" over "personhood-starts-upon-quickening."

Indeed, I have assumed above, for the sake of argument, that the reaction of John-in-the-womb is supposed to indicate a *current* presence of Jesus in Mary's womb, but the text itself is uncertain. All we are told, after the angel's visitation to Mary, is that Mary "arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste," to where Elizabeth and Zachariah lived. It's not clear how long after the angelic visitation this occurred, but in any event, when Elizabeth proclaims that "Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of the things which have been spoken to her from the Lord!," she refers to a *future* fulfillment, and so it's not even clear Mary has yet actually conceived. (Do we presume to assume that it was immediately upon the Annunciation? What scriptural support for that simultaneity exists?)

In short, let's be cautious about reading into this episode from Luke anything of potential relevance to the theological debate as to when the soul enters, or to the socio-political debate on abortion.

Posted by Viriato da Silva at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 6:56pm GMT

Mr. Walker engages in an anachronism – I think deliberately – when writing about the Nativity stories.
The writers of the Gospels did not know of sperm, egg, cell division, metabolism, chromosomes, DNA. Reproduction was understood to be the male implanting “seed” in the female womb, which was seen as akin to soil. It’s no accident that the English language refers to a woman’s ability to carry out reproduction as either “fertile” or “barren”. Those are agricultural terms. The male provided the totality of the reproductive force. Modern science states that all developing fetuses start out female, then the Y chromosome kicks in, and male fetuses diverge. But, at least in Greek culture, as I understand it, women were seen as men who did not develop properly. In that time, Mary may have been a whole-heartedly willing participant, but she was seen as a receptacle, no more and no less. And an imperfect one at that. One that had to be perfected at her conception. To me, the Nativity story makes sense only in a metaphorical way. But the only way it makes sense literally is if you understand the reproductive concepts of the time. Jesus was implanted whole, with no "dirty" sex, no corrupting physical influences of any kind, into a pure vessel that merely allowed him to grow, much the same way a pot merely allows a plant to grow. The pot does not have anything to do with the plant’s outcome.

So I applaud Mr. Walker’s bold assertions, the first I’ve ever seen, by injecting modern science and sensibility into the Nativity story, that state emphatically that Jesus’ genetic character, his humanity, his physiological nature, was influenced by Mary. To state boldly that Mary participated as more than a pristine vessel. If Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine, there can be no other outcome.

Posted by peterpi at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 8:49pm GMT

I didn't read in this post what Viriato da Silva read. I read that Jesus was fully human, growing from a single cell which divided etc., just as we each did, and therefore from the first instant subject to all the perils of being human, including the possibility that the pregnancy could spontaneously abort (sometimes called miscarriage) or be stillborn, or die in utero, or at birth, or the pregnancy at anytime result in the death of the mother. I read David Walker saying that to fully participate in our humanity this child of God had to be at risk for all that, just as we are, and just as he was at risk from the minute he took his first breath, as well, and that God didn't "fix it" so none of that would happen.

In fact, I preached something like this yesterday and I could see the puzzled look on one parishioner's face as he considered another point of view, that God made sure everything went perfectly for this one time. But I'm with David Walker. I guess I'm just dense that I didn't see what VdaS did.

However, if what VdaS read is indeed what DW meant to say, I hope DW will set me straight.

Posted by Rev. Lois Keen at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 9:16pm GMT

I'm told by some to be mythological about all this kind of material, but it's not just that I find this so unlikely, it is superfluous. There really is a departure here, and the more I encounter material like this the less I want anything to do with it.

Posted by Pluralist at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 9:23pm GMT

peterpi: "Mr. Walker engages...". Er, that's "Bishop Walker", if you please.

Posted by Simon Kershaw at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 9:45pm GMT

"Just as the creed affirms that at Easter Christ descends to hell to save the dead, so, in these nine hidden months God works the salvation of the many that will never see the light of day: the miscarried; the aborted; the stillborn."

Rev. LK, if Bp. DW didn't intend the reading I give him, I too should like to know it. But including the reference above to "the aborted" presumably needing salvation, and indeed too the miscarried and stillborn, this passage, taken in combination with the one I cited regarding the Lukan account being "...enough to establish that the Son of God did not take on human form at any point later than conception," rather suggest a position of conception (rather than, say, quickening) marking the start of the human personhood of Jesus.

I hardly think you "dense," my dear Rev. LK, but the text does speak for itself, and if its clear implication is not what Bp. Walker intended, I should be most curious to know so.

Myself, I do not find that the text yields other plausible readings, and indeed, if I recall correctly, the theological stance of the C of E with respect to the question of abortion remains (unlike TEC's stance) basically that of the RC Church, with perhaps a little extra give, e.g., this 1980 statement of the C of E:

"In the light of our conviction that the foetus has the right to live and develop as a member of the human family, we see abortion, the termination of that life by the act of man, as a great moral evil. We do not believe that the right to life, as a right pertaining to persons, admits of no exceptions whatever; but the right of the innocent to life admits surely of few exceptions indeed."

Thus, we should not be at all surprised to find, if indeed it be the case, that Bp. Walker holds human personhood to begin at conception.

Posted by Viriato da Silva at Monday, 22 December 2008 at 10:44pm GMT

"In that time, Mary may have been a whole-heartedly willing participant, but she was seen as a receptacle, no more and no less. And an imperfect one at that. One that had to be perfected at her conception." - Viriato da Silva -

'No more, no less? Except, of course, that Mary was God's chosen vessel (imperfect though she was)the one whom God had already determined would be the Mother of God's 'Only- begotten Son.

Mary's honorific title among the Orthodox is that of Theotokos, or God-Bearer. This, surely, makes her pretty special as the unique prototype of all bearers of the Divine Image and Likeness - as fellow human beings.

Any discussion of genes and chromosomes, I feel, is unlikely to completely explain the mystical reality of what actually was going on in the process of the Incarnation of Jesus. Suffice, perhaps, for Christians, at least, to understand that God was doing a 'new thing' in the Christ-event; bringing together humanity and divinity in a way that was both observable and yet mystical (unknowable), so that to subject this epochal event to scientific obersvation might be both frustrating and unhelpful.

'Christus natus est: ex Maria Virgine' still thrills me to the core, and evokes my worship of the Creator, God. Deo gratias!

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 1:09am GMT

"She is no passive incubator of the divine child but fully part of his formation."

She is, as they say, the Mother of God.

Posted by Malcolm+ at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 4:15am GMT

"Mr. Walker engages in an anachronism – I think deliberately – when writing about the Nativity stories.

"The writers of the Gospels did not know of sperm, egg, cell division, metabolism, chromosomes, DNA. Reproduction was understood to be the male implanting “seed” in the female womb, which was seen as akin to soil. It’s no accident that the English language refers to a woman’s ability to carry out reproduction as either “fertile” or “barren”. Those are agricultural terms. The male provided the totality of the reproductive force."


Yet from very early on, the Church has spoken about the Logos taking on our humanity from the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother.

Posted by Malcolm+ at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 4:17am GMT

Simon Kershaw, I meant no disrespect to Bishop Walker. But I see nothing in the Thinking Anglicans article to indicate that +David Walker was a Bishop. I would certainly have referred to him as such if I had known. I know that in these posts, a "+" indicates Bishop, "++" indicates Archbishop. My humble apologies to Bishop Walker and all here present.

Posted by peterpi at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 4:34am GMT

Thanks all for the comments, which suggest a few words of explanation may help.

This piece began with the research finding that maternal behaviour during pregnancy affects the physiology of the child. It added to my sense of Mary as “co-worker” in the story of salvation, and hence through her to you and me as co-workers with Christ. Such is not to claim equality with Christ but is what St Paul speaks of as “completing” Christ’s work in our own bodies. I used that in a homily to our ordinands at the Eucharist before their Christmas lunch. It felt especially appropriate to those being “formed” for priestly ministry.

Reflecting on the unborn Christ then led me to think about his growth in utero. The vulnerability of Jesus in the womb is the key point. If I’d had more space I would have mused over whether God was “first time lucky”, whether the unborn Christ was protected from miscarriage by special providence, or whether the Word became flesh several times before one child was born alive. But that is a lengthy if fascinating digression.

For me the RC view that personhood might begin later than conception inevitably leads into a body/soul duality that I cannot accept on wider grounds. What lies in Mary’s womb is not at first merely material and only later divine, both natures must be present from the beginning (even at the risk that Mary might have twins!) That leads, via the quote from the Fathers, to the notion of Christ’s salvific work from the womb. I would like to think that there are words of hope in that for those who have lost unborn children; for whom Christmas can be pretty ambivalent.

I draw no theological conclusion about medical abortion. I actually believe legal abortion is better than the illegal alternative, but would always see it as a last resort, after much thought and counselling. When we were having children Sue never had those tests that identify disabilities early in order to afford the option of termination. Continuing to parallel Christ on the cross with Christ in the womb I can see how he works forgiveness even for those who harm the unborn. But I speak from an English Anglican perspective, where abortion is not an emotive political issue.

Posted by David Walker at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 8:30am GMT

Well my view is we have no idea about Jesus's upbringing, never mind what happened in the womb. We do not have the information as to how the man came to meet John the Baptist. We have the flow of ideas and political/religious culture that engaged them and framed the missions, followers and service.

We don't talk about how Lenin or Gandhi existed in the womb, and I have not heard it regarding Buddha.

This is all mythology, like whether God was 'first time lucky', and this is supposed to be an expression of reasonable Christianity. It's why other academic areas ignore Christianity more and more, because it lives in a little world of its own with causalities that defeat sense.

Posted by Pluralist at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 10:15am GMT

I wonder whether Pluralist is conceding territory unconsciously to fundamentalism. By allowing himself to get tied down to 'we have no idea about Jesus's upbringing' statements, he risks perpetuating that rather fruitless discussion about 'what really happened' and the usual fundamentalist tactic that 'if it didn't happen like that it is valueless'.

Of course we have no idea of what Jesus' upbringing was like (apart from what may be inferred from our knowledge of C1 Palestinian society) - but we've always known that we didn't know, haven't we? Certainly the NT imagines rather than records, and we were happy enough with that for centuries.

The sort of explorations which are to be found in (say) David Brown's 'Discipleship & Imagination' show the probable dead-endedness of a line of argument based on 'what really happened' - by which is usually meant 'what the video camera would have seen', not 'what is the real significance of this story?'

Posted by mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 11:13am GMT

"We don't talk about how Lenin or Gandhi existed in the womb, and I have not heard it regarding Buddha."

Well, there's your problem (as American auto mechanics might say) - Jesus isn't a political figure like Lenin or Gandhi, or a even a spiritual teacher like Siddhārtha Gautama. Jesus is Lord.

"It's why other academic areas ignore Christianity more and more..."

Much less is is Christianity an "academic area."

Posted by BillyD at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 12:01pm GMT

I think the implications for abortion are interesting and difficult. If God was not somehow the author of this conception (virgin birth?), then the Second Person would have entered or assumed somebody else's body -- presuming we can use 'somebody' to describe an early stage of gestation. If the foetus is in no way 'personal' then, even though a human body was assumed, no one/no person was violated, as it were. If the latter is true, then the theological need for a virgin birth to protect God's agency is not absolute. Protecting God's agency does seem crucial, though, otherwise we'd have humans causing the incarnation (saving ourselves), which doesn't work for loads of reasons. I've tended to he happy with the virgin birth as a good symbol of God's agency and Mary's crucial cooperative agency in the matter. The matter is theological and not reducible to biology though.

I too have been struck by the riskiness of foetal existence, early childhood and human life in general with regard to the Incarnation. Had Jesus died early on, say as a child (or before), or even accidently as an adult, we might not have known anything of him. And yet, orthodox Christianity maintains that there could only be one incarnation: there was only this one shot. Unless Jesus was providentially protected, we might have been saved without knowing it -- which has some tricky but very interesting theological implications. An alternative would be to have an omniscient God forseeing that this incarnate person was going to make it to adulthood (passive foreknowledge), but that raises (at least for me) too many questions about foreknowledge (how can God know what doesn't exist? The future cannot be known because it, by definition, does not exist...): traditional theological explanations (everpresent-now stuff) fail to convince (again, fail to convince me, at least). And yet the whole logic of the incarnation seems to require a full taking-on of the riskiness of being human, otherwise he is not truly like us.

Some rambling here, admittedly, but arguably some wrestling too with what we're celebrating at Christmas....

Joe

Posted by Joe at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 1:02pm GMT

""In that time, Mary may have been a whole-heartedly willing participant, but she was seen as a receptacle, no more and no less. And an imperfect one at that. One that had to be perfected at her conception." - Viriato da Silva -"

Nay, Fr. Ron, 'twere not I who penned that.

Bp. Walker, thank you for your clarification, but I admit still to some dis-ease. As Joe points out, "the implications for abortion are interesting and difficult." Even if such implications were not intended by you to be teased out, they exist nonetheless, brought into being by the words chosen.


"I draw no theological conclusion about medical abortion. I actually believe legal abortion is better than the illegal alternative, but would always see it as a last resort, after much thought and counselling." But surely these positions must rest on having thought through when personhood begins? I respect that you "speak from an English Anglican perspective, where abortion is not an emotive political issue," but it is and has been a theological issue within the C of E, has it not?

Having found so much else of your meditation above to be though-provoking and wise, I would love to know your thinkings-through of the further implications of that meditation with respect to when personhood begins, and when the Second Person entered into Mary's womb, for these matters have relevance today. Perhaps this comment section is not the place, and now is not the time, for such further reflection and thought, but I do hope someday to benefit from your thinking on this matter, taking into account the responses to it here.

Posted by Viriato da Silva at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 4:12pm GMT

To accept the infancy narratives in the way that David Walker does here is the New Testament equivalent of Creationism. It's time that our clergy and our bishops stopped talking about this myth in this way, just as they have stopped talking about a six day creation in this way. We use the creation stories to draw some theological truths, but we are always careful to say that they are not factual accounts. The same caveat needs always to be added when we try to draw theological truths from the infancy narratives. Having said that, I don't think that, even if he had added that rider, David Walker has added much to our understanding of anything in this piece.

Posted by toby forward at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 5:43pm GMT

"To accept the infancy narratives in the way that David Walker does here is the New Testament equivalent of Creationism. It's time that our clergy and our bishops stopped talking about this myth in this way, just as they have stopped talking about a six day creation in this way. We use the creation stories to draw some theological truths, but we are always careful to say that they are not factual accounts. "

I'm comfortable with a position that says one does not have to accept the account of the Virgin Birth and Nativity as factual accounts. I don't think that there's a place for me in a Church that says taking them as factual accounts is forbidden, or ignorant.

Posted by BillyD at Tuesday, 23 December 2008 at 7:33pm GMT

I don't think I've ever had any real problem in believing in the theological efficacy of the conception, birth and childhood narrative of Luke about the Incarnate Word, Jesus. Like BillyD, I have no viable alternative explanation for how the Creator could have mediated the divine personhood into the human condition, except by a direct intervention.

Luke's assertion voiced by the Angel Gabriel must, in my book, be given some credence - in what is basically a theologically-based exercise -when explaining the other bit of the story, about Elizabeth's surprising pregnancy - "For nothing is impossible to God".

Herein, for me, lies the paradox of myth and mystery. Faith does, after all, require some degree of 'sight-unseen acceptance'. Otherwise, what's this Faith business all about?

Posted by Father Ron Smith at Wednesday, 24 December 2008 at 12:11am GMT

Good - I very much appreciate what Toby Forward has written and I am even more wondering if you are the same Toby Forward as I encountered for a short period in Hull years back not so far from the university (I occasionally accompanied an ex-Unitarian who escaped to the Anglicans for a short period).

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 24 December 2008 at 1:27am GMT

It doesn't matter that Christianity is not an academic area, it is that it makes statements that academic subjects ignore. Theology might draw on economics or sociology etc., but they don't draw on it.

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 24 December 2008 at 1:30am GMT

"Faith does, after all, require some degree of 'sight-unseen acceptance'. Otherwise, what's this Faith business all about?"

Exactly. Faith with evidence isn't faith, it's knowledge.

Posted by Ford elms at Wednesday, 24 December 2008 at 1:25pm GMT

"It doesn't matter that Christianity is not an academic area, it is that it makes statements that academic subjects ignore. Theology might draw on economics or sociology etc., but they don't draw on it."

I know what P means here, but I am reminded of the discussion between Dawkins and Ward where Dawkins objected to Ward's arguments on the grounds that they were philosophy, not theology.

If by theology P means the outworking of Christian philosophical ideas in the world, well, OK - but which areas of 'academic theology' do not interact with the academy? Biblical studies, patristics, ancient languages, literary theory, church history, philosophy of religion...? You CAN say the odds-and-sods left over which do't interact with other disciplines comprise 'theology' but it's a highly selective and self-fulfilling-prophecy definition of the discipline don't you think?

Posted by mynsterpreost (=David Rowett) at Wednesday, 24 December 2008 at 4:54pm GMT

What I'm getting at is causality. Theology departments do lots of things and have many views, but in including ideas that there is a God causality it draws upon other departments like social science and science to add ballast to its ideas. It's the other departments that don't: you don't get a sociology paper that asks what God might be doing here, or a history paper that wonders if God altered an event in any way. They discuss devout human beliefs as causes of change, but they never do that shift of perspective.

Posted by Pluralist at Thursday, 25 December 2008 at 3:48am GMT

"It's the other departments that don't: you don't get a sociology paper that asks what God might be doing here, or a history paper that wonders if God altered an event in any way."

I hope Christopher Schell is reading this, and that's not a snide jab. As I understand arguments he's made in the past, it is precisely this fact that he considers a flaw in modern scientific enquiry. Christopher, if you're out there, please correct me if this is a misrepresentation of your position WRT the position of God in science.

Posted by Ford elms at Thursday, 25 December 2008 at 3:42pm GMT
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