Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Thoughts about life

For reasons which will be obvious to anyone who follows the news, I've been thinking a lot recently about what it means to be 'pro-life' - and also what it doesn't mean.  What is a distinctly Christian approach to the ethical issues surrounding the beginning and end of human life?  Here are some thoughts, not all well developed at this stage.

1.  The theological foundations of a Christian pro-life stance are creation and Christology.  The doctrine of creation teaches us that each human being is made by God, in his image, and belongs to him.  Life - including my own life! - does not ultimately 'belong' to any of us, but to God.  That is why a human being cannot arbitrarily take another human being's life - consider Genesis 9:6.  Christology comes in because it is, if you like, the highest compliment that could be paid to human nature that God the Son took it on himself and became incarnate.  If we doubt the value of human life, the doctrine of the incarnation should be a sufficient rebuttal of those doubts.  We could also add that, de jure, each human life belongs once again to God, this time not only by right of creation but by right of redemption.

2.  The ethical implications of these foundations are sometimes very clear, and sometimes not so much.  I think that anyone who celebrates the Annunciation - I don't mean necessarily by keeping the feast, but by being gladdened by the angelic news of the incarnation - ought to recognise that Christ in his incarnation sanctifies human life from conception.  We ought to be pro-life in the narrower sense of 'against the deliberate ending of life in the womb'.  But we need to recognise that issues around end-of-life care just are more difficult.  There can be a moral difference, for example, between deliberately ending a life and withdrawing treatment - although both will end in death, and are undertaken in that knowledge.  We ought not to act or talk as if this stuff were simple and straightforward.

3.  To be pro-life is not the same as being anti-death.  One aspect of recognising the sanctity of life is recognising that the mystery of its end does not lie entirely within our power.  Thanks to medical advances, we can often delay death - but whether we ought to do so in every case is surely very doubtful.  Especially for the Christian, who believes in and looks for the resurrection of the dead, being pro-life ought not to mean 'prolonging life wherever possible regardless of other considerations'.

4.  It seems to me that many people - especially, I have to say, Americans - muddy the waters by confusing more than one issue.  For example, in some of the tragic issues involving children which have come up in the UK, American commentators have been quick to equate being pro-life with believing in absolute parental autonomy.  Some talk as if parents own their children's lives, something which I can't accept on theological principle (see 1, above), and some import the distinctly American (but not Christian) idea that the community and the state ought to have no input into tough decisions involving children.  This is an unhelpful blurring of issues, and particularly when it is being shouted across the Atlantic sounds a lot like real-life tragedies here are being used as ammunition for ongoing culture wars there.  (And as an aside, if the sanctity of life means anything, it means that issues of life must not be used in this way).

5.  A distinctive of Christian engagement with this issue ought to be a certain amount of calm.  Don't get me wrong: there should be anger when the sanctity of life is not respected, and there should be grief over individual tragedies and systemic horrors.  But there needs to be somewhere behind that the faith in God who raises the dead and gives each one his or her due, so that we can engage without bitterness and frenzy.

6.  Life is a gift.  It is all too easy to present life as a burden - and then say that you have to carry it anyway, because hey, we're pro-life.  Life is a gift.  There should be joy in being pro-life, joy in honouring the greatest thing the Creator has made, joy in the fact that Christ came that we might have life, and life to the full.  The Christian pro-life position is full of gratitude, seeing goodness where nobody else can see it, the joy of glimpsing the imago dei even in the briefest flickers of human existence and the hardest moments of human being.  Tone matters, because it betrays what is really going on in our hearts.


  1. Timely and very helpful. Thank you.

  2. All very well said, Dan!

  3. Some musings, not in disagreement as such:

    -Agreed about the ambiguities of withdrawing treatment, at least for the elderly. To some degree I feel that this is a red herring for the church... regardless of what the right thing to do is, why does the church expect non-Christians to live Christianly in the first place (beginning of Romans 8, end of 1 Cor 2)? The gospel tends to be obscured.

    -Certainly every life is a blessing. But there is a minor seam of something like anti-natalism in the Bible - i.e. Job and Jeremiah's wish that they'd been aborted, Qohelet on the vanity of life. Even if that's not the ultimate perspective that we are to reach, it is something to at least acknowledge so that we/others have a sense of being saved from that ultimate futility.

    -A tough one with regards to the state's role. In some cases I'm glad the state intervenes... and yet it always concerns me, too, given that it is an unrighteous kingdom. Extend the notion of intervention to prevent harm to children as preventing 'radicalisation' or what have you, and it's not hard to see the state taking away the children of Christians in a decade or two.

    1. Well, we don't expect non-Christians to live like Christians, but there is still such a thing as a universal ethics - because Jesus is King everywhere, and reality reflects that truth... But I think we've probably gone over that ground before.

      I do also agree with the need to be very cautious about state intervention in family life. I do see the potential for some of the stuff you're talking about, although I think we're probably (hopefully?) not yet on a course that makes that likely. Maybe.

    2. I'd say that the ethics of the kingdom hold all accountable for their actions... but, like the OT law, the NT law of the Spirit is all of one piece, rooted in love for God and recognition of Jesus Lordship. So I don't think we can isolate one part and hold non-Christians accountable to that without the gospel, as tends to happen - Romans 8 and 1 Cor 2 would paint that as futile, I think, as they still wouldn't be doing good overall. It's the difference between saying 'repent of abortion, or we throw you in prison' or 'repent of abortion, follow Jesus as Lord, and you'll have salvation and true hope for the future.' So many errors have stemmed from seeking to make Christianity a 'universal ethic'...

      Take a look at Scotland Yard chief Mark Rowley's recent speech for some of the vague language that points in that direction. The anabaptists faced that - you can still visit the orphanages where the State churches put the 'illegitimate children' of the heretics...

  4. Interesting thought from my friend Duncan on the previous (and different) case:

    NOT saying that your own perspective on this different situation is necessarily skewed like this, just an interesting angle.

    1. I've seen this 'blog shared a few times on Twitter today - I'll have to take a look!

  5. Thank you Daniel, an important and timely post. In general I would not disagree with your argument overall. However I would add some qualifications. In regards to point 6, while I agree that life is a gift, I think that it is vital to balance this with a recognition that it does also come with a great burden of responsibility. An unqualified focus on the joyfulness of life can ignore the very real fact that for many people, their pregnancy may legitimately be a burden of insurmountable weight. And sometimes the birth of a child can bring significant long-term suffering for both parents and child, for instance in the case of severe incurable disabilities.

    Personally, I would prefer to see the pro-life movement work harder to recognise why many choose to pursue abortions, perhaps due to rape, incest, or ill health, or for other, less obvious, though no less real reasons. And after recognising the often agonising suffering that many people are burdened with, to then be able and willing to support them more effectively in that suffering. After all, God does not meet our suffering with a reminder that life should be joyful, but He recognises our helplessness to cope on our own and comes down to suffer alongside us.

    In regards to point 1, while life ultimately belongs to God, as does all of creation, do we not also believe that we are His appointed stewards of creation? We are given the ability and authority to manage creation, and an intrinsic part of that, I think, is to act as judges of life and death, though always under God’s ultimate sovereignty. This is an awful and terrible responsibility and never to be taken lightly, but it is part of being made in God’s image and we should be careful not to wash our hands of it, either at the beginning or the end of life. Not to say that you are, but I have certainly seen arguments from conservative Christians that tend towards this position.

    Finally in regards to point 2, I don’t think I’m convinced that the Annunciation is evidence of life necessarily beginning at conception. The Annunciation tells us only that Mary will conceive and give birth. We are not told at what point God united Himself with the flesh within Mary’s womb and became Jesus. And I don’t think we are ever told clearly in scripture at what point the biological material of the parents is transformed by the grace of God into a new human soul. I would argue that without clear scriptural guidance, we must tread with caution on this matter.

    1. Thanks Mike, that's helpful. You're right, of course, that life can be a gift and yet at the same time be experienced as a hardship. That does need to be acknowledged. I think organisations like Life are actually doing great work of the sort you mention in your second para, but sure there's room for more.

      On my point 1, I was careful to say 'arbitrarily' - after all, Gen 9:6 envisages capital punishment for murderers precisely because human life belongs to God. You're right that we have to make decisions, and that is a weighty - even, as you say, a terrible - responsibility. Recognising that life doesn't belong to us actually adds to the weight, I think.

      With regards to the Annunciation, certainly the church has traditionally interpreted it that way (hence calling Mary God-bearer/Mother of God), and I think there's enough in the story to bear the weight. But actually one thing that encourages me is that God, being personal, isn't bound to a mechanistic view of things - it's up to him when there is a person! I think that's all I'm saying: that when it comes to the beginning and the end of life, we're dealing with a holy mystery, and we should tread very, very carefully indeed.

    2. To chime in, it's worth noting that the historical arguments against abortion were more rooted in not working against God's work than in terms of when the soul joins the body. Sripturally, God opening and closing the womb, knitting together in the womb, knowing us before we were born, giving children as a blessing... all suggest a very direct role in the creation of a new life. So to deliberately disrupt that at any stage, so the reasoning went, was to blasphemously work against God's good purposes, erroneously taking the Lordship over life and death into your own hands at that stage.