In a very different world, before the Coronavirus pandemic, before the summer of fire, before the milenium drought (and the big one that came after it that didn’t earn a ‘street name’), and even before September 11 and the ensuing ‘war on terrorism’, I wrote a book called Playing God. It was a work on Christian bioethics, well recieved but now long out of print.
Last night I had reason to re-read the last chapter, because of a conversation with a friend about those ordinary, extraordinary decisions people have to make about family formation in this era. What struck me was the way it spoke into this strange, anxious, dangerous moment that we are having as a global community. Our sense of what the world is like, what can be expected of life, who we are, has been dislodged. We find ourselves nose-to-nose with the contingency that is ordinarily suppressed within us – so that we can just get on with life. (That phenomenon is discussed in chapter four, if I remember correctly.) This is something that people experience, one-by-one, in many different seasons of their lives – a sudden bereavement, a divorce, losing your job, becoming homeless… In chapter seven of Playing God I worked through it in relation to childlessness.
I’m posting it here just to contribute to the conversation, because we’re experiencing this “ontological shock” (Tillich) not one-by-one but altogether at once.
It’s a really long post (because it’s a whole chapter) but, I figure, this season is going to take a really long time.
My love to you and the people you care about.
PLAYING GOD WITH FERTILITY
Lived experience, journeying bodily through chance and change in life and history, works on the Christian imagination. It provokes new questions about God. It stimulates new insights into the human good. It has us groping around for “the way of light”. Looking back, that way is broad and clear. It is “the tradition”, remembered and celebrated in different ways in the various parts of the universal church. But looking ahead, the way is obscured by shadows, undergrowth and blind corners. We take the next step, but know that the one after that will have to be worked out when we get there.
We saw this process at work in chapter five in the surprising way tradition was being transmitted through one church’s teaching on abortion. We observed it from a different angle in chapter six, seeing the way movements in history and society could lead Christians and theologians to take up an unexpected position in relation to voluntary euthanasia. And now, in this final chapter, we will approach it from yet another perspective. This time we will be putting our own feet on that path, and ask ourselves about the next step. We will begin with the experience of playing God with fertility – something recognised most readily in emerging uses of reproductive technology, but which is to be discerned in far more mundane aspects of modern sexuality and procreation. We will investigate this lived experience for insights into the nature of God and the human good. And we will attend at last to the question of what must be done if we are to continue in the way of light in this generation.
Is This Where We Are?
A colleague of mine used to love to tell how his daughter, when she was very small, would wake in the middle of a long car journey, sit bolt upright and ask, Is this where we are? Then she would slump back in her seat unconscious. Is this where we are? The question expressed disorientation, confusion on waking up in a strange place. It had a delicious profundity about it too. That is what delighted my colleague so. Is this where we are? It could only be answered truthfully in one way, with the most reassuring of answers, Yes.
In my capacity as the chairperson of the South Australian Council on Reproductive Technology I have regular contact with reproductive medicine units – with the doctors, nurses, counsellors, embryologists and, from time to time, the patients. When I meet with groups of infertile people and hear them talk about their experiences I am often reminded of that little girl’s question. As they describe it to me, the experience of infertility commonly includes the loss of life’s sequence and structure. The assumptions you had always made about yourself, about your partner and your future are stripped away and you lose confidence in life’s orderliness and reliability. It befuddles. It disorients. It rattles people. You wake up with a fright.
You might be riding your motorcycle up West Terrace and you are visited by childhood recollections of your father. It suddenly occurs to you that he must have been thirty-four or thirty-five – the same age as you are now. Maybe he is sitting at the dinner table with you and your mother and all your brothers and sisters. It is the mid-sixties, when families are still big. And he is your age.
Just by looking you can see who he is. His life is defined in that remembered domestic scene. It tells you all you need to know about his happiness – the source of his sense of purpose and fulfilment. There is the obligation to provide and care for his children. It is the fundamental, stabilising truth that orders his days and weeks and gives a pattern to his career, his life. His marriage relationship too has grown around the shared project of parenthood, organically and with beautiful solidity – the way the trunks of two trees will grow around a plank placed horizontally between them to make a garden seat, each incorporating the plank into its own living self and, in that way, being bound forever to the other tree. There is his dinner table. There is his family. There is his life. That is who he is. And he is your age.
Is this where we are? As you lean the motorcycle to the right and accelerate into Hindley Street, past the McDonald’s drive-thru, you realise that your father is a complete mystery to you. You cannot imagine what his life was like when he was your age. And you see that he can have no idea what your life is like. He has no experience of what it means to be a mature man but not a parent, to be a woman’s life partner but without children. He has no knowledge of that state from which you can learn, no skills in it that you can copy. You have got no pattern, no role model, no plan to follow. You are old enough to be your father, but it turns out you are someone altogether different. A complete stranger.
He is still there in your mind’s eye, this familiar stranger, as you slip down into the basement of Wilson’s Car Park. Is this where we are?
What’s Wrong With Them?
I regularly hear comments that betray the perception that there is something wrong with people who have to turn to reproductive technology to have any chance of becoming parents – something over and above the problem of infertility. They make us nervous. Their undignified intensity can remind us of Rachael’s outburst, “Give me children, or I shall die!” (Genesis 30:1) They worry us. I mean, how desperate would you have to be to put yourself through the intrusion, discipline and physical demands of assisted reproductive technology? And desperate people make us uncomfortable and suspicious.
Turning to that sort of medicine is not “normal”, I’m told. They would have to be a bit obsessed, one-eyed. Why else would they need all that counselling? They must have lost their sense of proportion or priorities or reason. And if they were eventually successful, you would have to worry about the poor child. Some people are just not meant to be parents, people tell me, but they cannot accept it.
And this is not merely over-the-back-fence analysis. It appears in otherwise careful and informed commentary. For example, the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of Scotland produced a very helpful study of IVF and embryology in 1996. Nestling in the body of the report was this quite revealing comment:
Should a childless couple reach the desperate or even obsessional stage…an irrational element can take over in their thinking. What makes a postmenopausal woman in her sixties want to have a baby? What makes a couple consider a surrogate mother? The Parental instinct can be transformed from a God-given gift to help bring up children, into a relentless tyrant.
Notice the language being used here. Desperate, obsessional, irrational, slaves to instinct – this is a “stage” some infertile people reach. And, by implication, infertile people who turn to assisted reproductive technology in their desire to become parents are all somewhere on a gradient that leads to that stage. There is something wrong with these people, over and above the problem of infertility. They are, in some ill-defined sense, unsuitable. For their own sakes, and especially for the sake of any children they might have if they get access to reproductive technology, we need to sift them out from the prospective parents who are more… more what? What would be the more suitable alternative that we would look for in prospective parents? People who are more relaxed? Indifferent? Rational? Masters of nature? People who are more suited to playing God?
Perhaps there is something wrong with infertile people. There is certainly some hurt, some wounding. There is a feeling of social dislocation and alienation. There is a loss of sequence and pattern, a loss of trust in the reliability of life. There is something decidedly abnormal about the experience of infertility. But there is nothing in the least bit odd about the decision of an infertile couple to try reproductive technology.
What’s Normal, Really?
In modern societies – the kind in which assisted reproductive technology tends to be more readily available – there is nothing abnormal about seeking a technological solution to a problem, even a fertility problem. Rather, it is the widespread suspicion of people who turn to reproductive technology to try to become parents that is strange. In modern societies, when it comes to fertility the basic imperative is that it should be controlled and the organising myth is that it can be controlled. Just consider what we regard as “normal”
It is normal to use contraception. In fact we make sure that our children learn about contraception in school – not because it is academically interesting or intellectually improving, but because it is a necessary life-skill. Conversely, it is not normal to be unprepared to use contraception. It might be common, but it is not normal. Only foolish or lazy people risk unwanted pregnancies. And only irresponsible, dangerous people do it deliberately. Similarly it is normal to postpone pregnancy in a long-term relationship. Even a young married couple would be considered eccentric – if not culpably foolhardy – if they conceived too early in the marriage. You should give yourselves a chance to get to know each other properly, we advise, to build the relationship. You could get better established in your careers, perhaps buy a house and make some inroads into the mortgage. You should, in other words, practice contraception for at least the first year or two. Indeed there would be nothing abnormal about postponing pregnancy for five years or more – just until you are ready for it. You should control your fertility, and you can. It is quite normal.
In due course they will probably decide that it is “the right time” to “start a family”, as we say. But this does not mean that they cease to control their fertility. Quite the opposite. The normal thing to do is to plan the pregnancy. For the first month or two you might just “let nature take its course” – perhaps experiencing a little resurgence of that “natural” energy that reminds you of the start of your relationship, long since mellowed by familiarity, responsibility and the rest of being grown up. But when nature does not get you anywhere, and the novelty of “unprotected” sex starts to wear off, and the start of each new, unwanted menstrual period begins to feel more like loss than frustration, it is time to get serious about planning the pregnancy. Then it’s charting ovulatory cycles. It’s taking temperatures and testing mucous. It’s off the grog and coffee. It’s folate tablets for her and zinc supplements for him. It’s fresh vegetables, early nights, brisk walks. It’s taking control of your fertility. You would be naïve not to realise it was going to be necessary. You would be just lazy not to bother. And ignorance is no excuse either. There are books on this stuff in the newsagency, columns in the magazines, talk back on the radio, specials on TV, sites on the internet. “Letting nature take its course” is just a waste of time. It is far more sensible to plan the pregnancy. When it is “the right time” to “start a family” you should take control of your fertility, and you can. It is quite normal.
For most couples this will eventually achieve the desired result. They will become parents. But for a substantial minority it will not work. Six months, a year, perhaps longer and the shared project of planned pregnancy has become something to survive, by whatever means. There are tears and fights at home. Friendships are queered by incomprehension and resentment. Sex has become a joyless duty. And the constant disappointment has turned into relentless cycles of grieving. Time to give up and accept nature’s way? Maybe. We would understand if you did. But wouldn’t it be only sensible to consult your doctor to find out what is wrong? That’s what doctors are there for, after all. In fact, you would probably be a bit of a coward not to go. There’s no need to be embarrassed. It could be something really simple. And you’ll always wonder if you don’t go and find out. Of course, having gone to your doctor you will probably be referred to a fertility specialist who deals with this sort of thing day in day out and has all the latest treatment options ready at hand. No point in mucking around. The specialist will have a solution to your problem – one way or another. You’ve come this far, it would be pretty pointless to quibble about the specialist’s suggestions. You may as well go on the program – unless you did not really want a family in the first place, in which case, just stop whingeing.
Little steps – baby steps – from using contraception, to postponing pregnancy, to planning pregnancy, to consulting your doctor, to being referred to a fertility specialist, to entering an assisted reproductive technology program. It can take a decade. It could take two. The last step is just as tiny as the first one, and just as normal. Is this where we are?
Playing God, Because We Must
In chapter one I described the way that playing God – human beings taking their lives and destinies into their own hands – is characteristic of contemporary western culture. It was the great modern project, to give us control over bodily life and nature. And we now enter the age of biotechnology under the promise that it is all about to be delivered. In chapter one we saw that even though we usually have in mind the biomedical heroes when we talk about playing God, it is in fact almost always ordinary people like you and me who are required to make the decisions that will determine our destinies and those of the people for whom we might be responsible. The decisions are ours. The risks are ours. The responsibility for the outcome is ours – like it or not. We are playing God, because we must.
So when I called this chapter “Playing God With Fertility” I was not thinking about scientists or fertility specialists playing God. I was not thinking about an elite minority playing God out of conceit, or for personal advantage, and with arrogant disregard for the rest of society. I was thinking about ordinary, average, normal people. I was thinking about us.
In our society, when it comes to fertility the basic imperative is that it should be controlled and the organising myth is that it can be controlled. And if we discover situations where we cannot do what we should – where we are not able to control our fertility – those who have the gifts (the specialists, the experts, the biomedical heroes) go out in search of technological solutions on our behalf. It is the modern way. When it comes to playing God with fertility, we are all involved.
Contraception and Christian Tradition
Even the Christian churches are involved. One of the fascinating stories of twentieth century Christianity is the way the churches participated in the modern project of controlling fertility. Christian teaching on the use of contraception has been generally uniform throughout the history of the church. But in the twentieth century, in the space of a single generation, the churches moved from universal disapproval of contraception to an almost universal acceptance of the use of contraception within Christian marriage.
The Bible has no particular interest in the matter. The Old Testament reflects the understandable preoccupation of ancient peoples with fecundity – not only of families but of flocks and fields as well – and a profound anxiety about “barrenness” and, especially, about the dreadful possibility of dying childless. In that sense the Old Testament might be regarded as pro-natalist, finding in procreation and the nurturing of children the organising principles for society and culture (and religion). Against that background the tone of the New Testament is strikingly different. Its disinterest in procreation and willingness to weigh up the pros and cons of marriage for Christians – implying, in a shockingly counter-cultural way, that the single life and childlessness might be preferred by those who are particularly serious about being Christians – has even led some to suggest that it is anti-natalist. This is certainly an overstatement, but the contrast between the Old and New Testaments on the matter is stark all the same.
Christianity’s attitude to contraception forms later, and is related to the understanding of sexuality that became dominant in the church. Relying on the categories of Stoic ethics (as St Paul had done in relation to other aspects of the Christian life) Clement of Alexandria (c150-c215) taught that the sole purpose of sexual intercourse, and of sexuality more generally, was procreation. This teaching was later applied even more rigorously by Augustine of Hippo (354-430), who was explicit in naming contraception as a sinful misuse of sex. In the medieval period Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) took a more moderate line. He accepted that non-procreative sexual intercourse could still be legitimate – for example, in infertile marriages or when the partners were aged. But he, and the medieval church, continued to teach that it belonged to the order of nature – and must therefore be complied with – that sexual intercourse involve the deposit of semen in the vagina. So it was not only a contraceptive practice such as withdrawal that was rejected on this ground, but also masturbation and oral or anal intercourse.
In the sixteenth century Protestants made it a mark of their movement that their clergy would marry and have families. This changed the tone of teaching on sexuality and marriage among Protestants, from the abstract theorising of a celibate caste to reflection on lived experience of the joys and sorrows of marriage, parenthood and family life. And from the very first generation, Protestants asserted the intrinsic value of sexuality – regardless of its procreative potential or intent. They continued to oppose the use of contraception, but their arguments had a different basis. It was no longer a concern for the integrity of an impersonal order of nature that informed them, but a concern over some of the contraceptive methods in use at the time and their potential to harm the woman or foetus.
The modern period in Europe, and especially the nineteenth century, saw increasing popular support for the application of reason to all things, including family formation. It was recognised that the attainment of health, education and prosperity was inversely proportional to the number of children in a given family. And with industrialisation, urbanisation and the creation of slums this was not an idle observation but crucial data for developing a response to poverty and disease. By the end of the nineteenth century the use of contraception was widespread among the middle classes and heavily promoted among the poorer classes – especially in France, where it provoked conflict between priests and people.
Christian Teaching on Contraception in the Twentieth Century
In 1908 the international gathering of Anglican bishops at Lambeth resisted the social trend and upheld the traditional condemnation of the use of contraception. They did so again at their next conference, in 1920. But at its next meeting, in 1930, the Lambeth Conference became the first influential church council to approve the use of contraception in Christian marriage – when the partners have “a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence.” This was hardly a sex-education-in-schools resolution, but it was a startling innovation nonetheless. It created heated debate.
Pope Pius XI reacted immediately to the Anglican reversal of Christian teaching by reasserting the traditional prohibition of contraception in his encyclical Casti Connubii (1930). But the modern shift was now unstoppable. Virtually all the Protestant churches had followed the Anglican example by the nineteen sixties, and the leading theologians of the time lined up to offer theological substance to the new teaching – Emil Brunner, Karl Barth, Reinhold Niebuhr, Helmut Thielicke and many others. A new Protestant consensus was in place just in time for the appearance of the contraceptive pill.
Even the Catholic position was under review. New emphases in Catholic teaching on marriage had emerged from the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and, subsequently, a papal commission had been formed which advised that the church’s teaching on contraception be changed. So, in 1968, when Pope Paul VI issued the encyclical Humanae Vitae, again condemning the use of contraception, there was confusion and controversy within the Catholic Church. Humanae Vitae affirms that responsible parenthood may require that a couple limit the number of children they have, or at least space their births, but not by “artificial” means. Natural law requires that “each and every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life.” The so-called “rhythm method” of family planning – avoiding sexual intercourse on those days in the woman’s menstrual cycle when she is most likely to conceive – is a legitimate just because it respects and cooperates with nature. The encyclical also names specific risks associated with the use of “artificial birth control” such as the encouragement of promiscuity, making women perpetually available to their male partners and thus reducing them to sex objects, and the potential for the misuse of chemical or surgical sterilisation by totalitarian governments.
The controversy has not abated in the Catholic Church, and some theologians have argued that Catholic people may conscientiously dissent from the encyclical’s teaching. However, Pope John Paul II reaffirmed the prohibition and went on to develop the teaching in a distinctive way. In Evangelium Vitae (1995) he wrote of a “contraceptive mentality” that has been fostered in modern societies and culture, devaluing the lives of the weakest and making abortion and euthanasia more acceptable. It has corrupted our moral imagination, distorted our moral vision. Indeed, he saw the uncritical acceptance of the normality of contraception as a key component in the “conspiracy against life” that involves not only couples and individuals “but goes far beyond, to the point of damaging and distorting, at the international level, relations between peoples and states.” This radical approach to population policy brought the Catholic Church into unexpected alliances with other dissenters from the modern project – for example, lobbying in coalition with Islam and some feminist networks at the World Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994. Is this where we are?
All of Us, Playing God With Fertility
In our society, when it comes to fertility the basic imperative is that it should be controlled and the organising myth is that it can be controlled. Believing that fertility can be controlled, and agreeing that in some situations it should be controlled, the Anglican and Protestant churches came to teach that Christians may use contraception to control their fertility. There is a subtle but distinctive difference here between what the churches teach and what is normal is our culture. In practice, however, the pattern of contemporary Christians’ decisions about contraception is indistinguishable from that of the surrounding society – whether they are Anglican, Protestant, Orthodox or Catholic. We are all involved in playing God with fertility.
In fact, even those Catholic people who decide to follow their church’s teaching and eschew artificial birth control have still decided to do that. They could have chosen otherwise. The decision was theirs. The risk was theirs. The responsibility for the outcome of that decision is theirs. They have taken their procreative life and destiny into their own hands. That is, they are playing God with fertility. It is just what we do.
But let me be clear about this. When I say that we are all involved in playing God with fertility I do not mean it as a criticism. I am not going to start scolding you about it and telling you to Stop that this minute! To begin with, if we are playing God because we must – because we cannot do otherwise – then it is not something for which we can be condemned. Paradoxically, it is compulsory that we exercise our freedom to choose. That is what makes us the “risk society” that I described in chapter one.
But further, in chapters two and three I began to explore the possibilities of a positive interpretation of playing God based on what we know about human play. We recognised in play a living source of growth, healing and integration that fits us for living, not only in childhood but throughout our lives. And we saw too that human play is a good analogy for what is going on in bioethical decision-making, from the negotiation of public policy and the expert management of clinical situations to the impossible personal choices being made daily by ordinary people. Using skills developed and maintained through play we are able to make decisions we can live with – as communities, families and individuals. When we play well, playing God can be very positive indeed. It is, after all, God that we are playing.
But in chapter four we saw an interesting thing. We enter the age of biotechnology under the promise of receiving “power over nature and the fortunes of mankind [sic]”. But this God whom it is promised we will play is the very God in whom most modern people have ceased to believe – a God who is control of everything, who achieves every purpose, for whom there is no risk. At the same time the God whom we find ourselves having to play is not like that God at all. The God whom we find ourselves having to play when we have to make challenging reproductive decisions – after genetic counselling, for example – is not about power and control, but about risk and responsibility. I want to take this a little further now. I want to test the possibility that there is something quite positive about playing God with fertility. In particular, I want to propose that by playing God we can come to know God afresh in our generation.
As a teacher of theology I get to spend a lot of time ruminating on different doctrines. As you might expect, I have a few favourites. But I must confess that sometimes a doctrine becomes a favourite not just because it concerns something important but especially because it sounds good. Total Depravity: that is one of my favourites. It sounds sordid enough to be the name of a new band, but it is actually one of the core doctrines of the tradition to which I belong – a distinctively Reformed version of the doctrine of the fall. Another of my favourite doctrines is called zimsum. I like it because saying it makes your nose tickle. But aside from being an occasional source of sensual pleasure during a tiring afternoon class, it says something important about God.
Zimsum is a Yiddish word that means contraction and focus. As a doctrine it is concerned essentially with the way God can be self-limiting without becoming less than omnipotent, or all-powerful. It originates in Jewish theology. First developed under this name by the legendary “sacred lion” of the sixteenth century Kabbalistic movement, Isaac Luria (1534-1572), zimsum harks back to the ancient doctrine of the Shekinah (dwelling) which gave an account of how it could be that the infinite God, who cannot be contained even by the created world as a whole, can somehow be focussed to dwell in the confines of the Temple. The Christian theologian Jürgen Moltmann has explained the relevance of this doctrine of zimsum to the idea of God as Creator.
He observes that Christians want to maintain the idea that God creates the world and everything in it out of nothing – ex nihilo. Although, strictly speaking, this is not a biblical doctrine the affirmation that God creates out of nothing preserves the insight that the creation is just what God wanted to create – God is not constrained by having to work with any pre-existing matter, but creates out of nothing. Bodily life and nature, in this view, is not to be regarded as evil, not even as a necessary evil, but as inherently good – a particularly important affirmation at various times in Christian history, including our own. Further, because God creates out of nothing the creation is not to be regarded as an extension or projection of God. Rather the creation is itself, a true other whom God has created for friendship and communion.
Yet, Moltmann says, to maintain this important doctrine of creation out of nothing we have to deal with the question of where the nothing came from out of which God created the universe. For, before there was a universe there was just God – omnipotent and omnipresent, all-powerful and present everywhere. There is simply no space for nothingness. There is no space, that is, unless God makes that space. There could be no nothing out of which to create the universe unless God created that nothing – by limiting herself and ceasing to be everything. As Moltmann puts it, the universe “only comes into being because – and in so far as – the omnipotent and omnipresent God withdraws his presence and restricts his power.”
So this is how the doctrine of zimsum applies to the idea of God as Creator: To create a universe and all its creatures to love and enjoy friendship with, to create a genuine other, a not-God, who is not an extension or projection of God but a reality that can stand beside God and to which God can reach out in friendship, to create us, God chose to restrict and confine herself, to be a God-within-limits. And those limits are the limits of love.
A Godly Hospitality
I remember the first time I explained that idea to a class one of the women said, That sounds like planned pregnancy. That’s what it’s like when you go off the pill and make yourself open to conceiving a child, a stranger. Your body stops being all yours and you get ready to share it. You become smaller in a way, and more vulnerable, but there’s a bigness in it too. And power. But a different kind of power.
And on every other occasion when I have described the doctrine someone says much the same thing. It is usually one of the women and always someone born since the mid-fifties – someone who has grown up playing God with fertility. These students have taught me that the nearest human analogy to this idea of God as Creator is the experience of the woman or couple who plan a pregnancy, something that has only become the normal experience for people of the last couple of generations – who have been playing God with fertility for as long as they can remember.
There are all the preparations as the couple start restricting themselves to make space for the child they plan to conceive. They are engaged in a deeply generous hospitality – hospitality of the whole self, of their whole relationship. And as the doctrine of zimsum suggests, it is a Godly hospitality – self-limiting, self-giving, other-welcoming. It is the experience of this generous hospitality, extended to the other in their other-ness, which is at the core of the Christian sense of marriage as sacramental – a visible sign of invisible grace, of that hospitality and generosity by which all things live and which is the source of all hope. The reality of this self-giving God is to be encountered “in, with and under” the material details and processes of marriage and especially, perhaps, in the way a couple makes plans to conceive, actively preparing to welcome the longed-for stranger, their child.
Maybe we could turn the office into the visitors’ room and the visitors’ room into the nursery. The computer can go in our room. You’ve got to cut down on caffeine now. I know it’s still three months till we start trying, but it takes that long for the sperm to grow. Let’s have our holiday at home this year. We’ll save a fair bit of money, and we would have time to paint the baby’s room ourselves. I’m worried about work. Could we get by if both of us went part time? I want to be involved too. The baby won’t just need things, she’ll need us.
The rationing starts early as they marshal from their current resources the materials, the money, the time, the attention that will be needed by the baby whom they hope to have. They are creating a child-sized space in lives that would otherwise fill everything. And we all know how impossibly full ordinary lives have become. There will be no room for a child unless they make room for a child. So they are focussing, withdrawing, becoming smaller to receive a true other whom they can love. They are choosing to restrict and confine themselves, accepting the limits that love requires. They are turning their relationship into something different, giving it to a child who does not exist except in their openness to her and commitment to her, who is a stranger to them, and who may come into their life like the springtime…
…or like a natural disaster. It is a sublime risk. It is analogous to the divine risk of creation. As we saw in chapter four, the conversation between theology and science has been bringing this sense of God to the fore. God creates a physical universe that exists and unfolds by the interplay of chance and law. It is not an extension or projection of God. It is not a puppet dancing under God’s control. It is itself, a true other whom God befriends and, through that friendship, encourages towards life and all its fullness. God is like an explorer. God is like a gambler. God is like a composer – no, an improviser. The conversation between theology and science is giving us glimpses of God taking risks in creation. Not careless, irresponsible risks, but just those risks that are necessary to achieve the communion that is hoped for and longed for. And, most strikingly, it is God who at risk in creating out of nothing. As the scientist and theologian Arthur Peacocke says, God’s risk in creating all things was to become “vulnerable to what the emergent entities might do or become.” When they play God with fertility, and begin by creating a nothing in their life and relationship, a welcoming space for the child to enter into, they are really playing God.
And if you doubt that process, just ask a couple who have planned a child who has never arrived – an infertile couple, or a couple whose child dies. That space that was so lovingly created does not close up again easily, and certainly not painlessly. Indeed it may never close up at all. It becomes an absence, a gap, a loss, a hole, a nothingness that is held in place by being crusted all around with frustration, hurt and disappointed hope.
A woman I know works in a library. To mark Collectors’ Week a display was being planned to illustrate the variety of things people collect and the different ways people come to take up collecting. The woman asked her partner if he would be willing to contribute his small collection of little wooden boxes to the display and to write a brief account of his “career” as a collector. It was all a bit of a rush – his fault – and he ended up dashing off a few lines during morning tea and emailing them to his partner at the library. This is what he wrote:
The first box was going to be thrown out. I couldn’t believe it. I was in my teens. My father was looking after the estate of an elderly neighbour who’d died, which mostly meant cleaning out her house. She had no family. The box was with some other precious rubbish – photos, letters, and a souvenir handkerchief printed with a map of Europe after the treaty of Versailles (I kept that too). I couldn’t bear the thought of it being thrown away. It was otherworldly with its tiny joints, honey coloured varnish, and transfer of a scene from the Old Country which the lady probably was taught to call Home. What kind of world could it have been where that much effort went into a cotton reel package? Even if it had been made simply to be thrown away, compared to the junk being generated by the consumer society I knew, the cotton reel box was a work of art.
The other boxes came later, after I’d put the first one back to work holding odds and ends that were in daily use. The other boxes were rescued from second hand shops. I like them. They look nice. I’ll keep them.
And when I die maybe someone else’s kid will rescue the boxes again. Or maybe they’ll just be thrown away at last.
The woman read the email and wept. They had spent the last decade or so trying to “start a family” – by every means available to couples these days. It had been fruitless. And it had been by stages disappointing, frustrating, painful, dehumanising, traumatising. When even reproductive technology failed them they had finally dawn a line under that part of their life and started to move on. The last two lines of her partner’s email were profoundly sad and saddening – at best, rescue by “someone else’s kid” or, more probably, “thrown away at last”. She recognised it in an instant as something they shared. Whether he knew it or not he was talking about everything they valued, not only material things and not just the little boxes. Of course this is something that all childless people have to come to terms with one way or another. With no children and no possibility of grandchildren, there is the realisation that there is no one to be interested in the things that mattered to you, that you cared about and looked after. There is no one to be interested in you as a continuing part of them. And no one wants your stuff, your “precious rubbish”, unless it turns out to have some cash value. It all ends with you.
Clearly “moving on” was not going to be simple for my friend and her partner. The nothingness, lovingly created in their lives and relationship to welcome the hoped-for child, had become an abyss. And as the man expressed it, it was an intimation of some greater, ultimate nothingness to which he sensed they were now consigned.
In his explanation of zimsum Moltmann notices that the nothingness that comes into being by God’s self-limitation and withdrawal is “God-forsaken” in a quite literal way. It is where God has chosen not to be, in order that there can be room for a genuine other to befriend. He says, “The nihil in which God creates his creation is God-forsakenness, hell, absolute death; and it is against the threat of this that he maintains his creation in life.”
My friends’ efforts towards “starting of family” never really got past the creation of a hopeful space in their lives and relationship – hopeful space that has come to nothing. Is this an intimation of hell?
An Intimation of Hell
It does not have all the features of hell that have traditionally dominated the Christian imagination. It is not a place of punishment staffed by demons. Yet it does have other hell-like characteristics. It is a space of banished hope, of eternal loss and perpetual separation. But it also has at least one feature that distinguishes it from most familiar images of hell. Hell is typically crowded. Dante’s vision is of a very busy place indeed! But this couple’s “hell” is precisely empty. It is all absence, intractably so. That is what makes this nothingness hellish. And this hell is just what my friend and her partner risked when they embarked on “starting a family”.
So here is another characteristic of this couple’s hell that distinguishes it from traditional images and expectations. Those who suffer this hell are not its occupants. It has none. Rather, they suffer hell who created this nothingness in the first place, seeking to allow their own friendship and communion to overflow in the creation of an other, to befriend and nurture into life and its fulfilment, only to find that their other, so tantalisingly real in their creative imagination and hope, would not be drawn out of the nothingness into the reality of their welcome and embrace.
Let me make the theological dimensions of this couple’s intimation of hell explicit. This hell is not a place where sinful creatures are sent by their angry Creator to be punished. It is a space marked out to the precise dimensions of the creatures who should be there – in eternal and intimate communion with the triune God – but are not. They are absent. And God suffers that absence. It is God’s hell. It is the hell that God risked in creation – that it would all come to nothing.
It is a concept something like this that Robert Jenson has in mind when he says, “To sin is to achieve precisely…nothing.” Righteousness, the opposite of sin, is to be who we are created to be (out of nothing). Jenson summarises it in this way: righteousness is “to form one community with each other and with the persons of the triune God, in which each of us takes her or his unique place and uses that place as an opportunity to love the rest of us.” That is, it is living the life of friendship, generosity and hospitality – the “way of light”. All those sordid entries in the vast and fascinating catalogue of “sins” are, Jenson says, “simply one or another way of refusing to do this.” And further, since this divine and created community is what brings us into being and holds us in being (out of nothing) sin, the rejection of this community, “is always a diminution of being, a declension from reality.” Sin, the rejection of divine and created friendship, is the movement away from being towards nothingness. It is “the highway to hell” – as AC/DC discerned in one of their more inspired moments of nihilism.
In creating the universe and all its creatures to befriend, God risked rejection – that it would all come to nothing. Hell is a name for what God risks.
But God is still God – all-powerful, with the (eternally) persistent and patient kind of power that encourages all things to tend towards life and its fulfilment.
The Taiwanese theologian C S Song has looked for distinctively Asian insights into the Christian Gospel. In an early book, Song used the Japanese concept of tsurasa to throw light on the idea of salvation. Tsurasa describes a feeling of sorrow or tragedy, the pain that love can cause. Song said, “the God of tsurasa is definitely much more expressive of oriental pathos than is the God of wrath.” He wrote,
Yahweh was in the garden looking for Adam and Eve who had hid themselves because of their fatal disobedience. “Adam, where are you?” God’s voice echoed in the garden, conveying the tsurasa of the one who has lost the loved ones. This is God’s search for humanity which He has created in his own image. The Bible taken as a whole is a witness to this search of God for humanity. …Salvation, as the witnesses in the Bible understand it, is God’s love seeking its lost company. At the same time, it is the homecoming of human beings to the love of God. Sin makes human beings homeless and God lonely. The homeless human being and the lonely God – in these we see the powerfulness of sin.
Tsurasa is a good word to describe what my friend and her partner were experiencing. Their painful experience of loving creativity coming to nothing throws light on the biblical story of God’s saving work.
Song’s mention of Adam and Eve, the lost humanity for whom God is searching, is helpful too. According to the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient baptismal confession of Christian faith, Jesus Christ “descended to the dead” after his crucifixion and death – to hades, or hell. It is the place of shadows where, in the solidarity of Adam’s sin, everything that dies comes to nothing. Everything is destined to annihilation (literally, to be brought to nothing, the nihil). Death utterly extinguishes the person and, the Creed affirms, Jesus Christ died this absolute death too. So Christian icons of Christ’s descent into hell characteristically include the figures of Adam and Eve. They represent the whole human race and the whole sorry story of the corruption of God’s good creation – which has come to nothing. Christ’s presence with Adam and Eve represents his solidarity with them, and us all, even in this annihilating death. It is an episode of profound sorrow and so when some churches mark this moment in the Christian year, on Good Friday and Easter Saturday, all the banners are removed, the candles are extinguished and the statues and images are veiled in black. It is as if we are all holding our breath. This cannot be it. This cannot be the end – nothing. We fear for ourselves. We grieve with God who is suffering (tsurasa) the Son’s descent into hell. The sending of the Son has come to nothing.
The triune God suffers the Son’s descent into hell, to nothingness. But God is still God – all-powerful, with the (eternally) persistent and patient kind of power that is on the side of life and its fulfilment. And so, on the third day, God raises Jesus Christ from the dead, from hell, from nothingness. In his solidarity with humanity and all creation in the annihilating death, the risen Christ is affirmed as the “first fruits” of the dead. (I Corinthians 15:20, Colossians 1:18) Called from nothingness to life and communion with God he is the “first-born” of a new creation. It is a new creation ex nihilo – created out of nothing once again, but this time created out of the nothing which is hell. Indeed, he is affirmed as a second Adam, “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” (I Corinthians 15:22) And Easter Sunday is all light and colour and flowers and Alleluias!
Lived experience includes intimations of hell. For Christians the intimation of hell is an invitation to hear afresh the Gospel of salvation, life and its fulfilment.
The God We Are Playing
The generation who have grown up playing God with fertility understands the doctrine of zimsum intuitively and all that it suggests for interpreting the Gospel today. By playing God they have equipped themselves to know God. And this is what we know.
First, we know that everything is connected together, in God. For all things, not only us, “live and move and have our being” in God the Creator, in that space which has been made within the being of God in which we have been created to be just what and who we are. (Acts 17:22-31) This is a fundamentally bioethical insight. For Christians it links human values (ethics), which have their source and guarantee in relationship with God, with bodily life and nature (the bios). We can recognise the intrinsic worth of all things, one another and ourselves in God’s love and decision to create us. We matter just because we are, not merely because we are decorative, or amusing, or useful to something or someone else.
Second, we confidently affirm the irrevocability of God’s love and longing for us and all things. God will always be our Creator, as a parent will always be a mother or father regardless of the age or condition of their child. As the theologian James Mackey put it so elegantly, the doctrine of creation out of nothing assures us that “the meanest thing to which God gave being can never again be nothing to God.”
And third, from this sense of the value of the creation to God we infer the absolute dependability of God’s urge to bring wholeness and healing wherever there is brokenness and wounding – wherever it is threatened that it will all come to nothing. The powers that exploit and manipulate and violate will not have the last word on us or on any of God’s creatures. Since, ultimately and eternally, there is a power which is on the side of life and its fulfilment.
The generation of Christians who have grown up playing God with fertility are able to grasp intuitively the self-limiting, self-giving, other-receiving, Trinitarian nature of God the Creator. We did not invent the doctrine, but we can grasp it in a way that is distinctive of our peculiarly modern God-play. And we can proclaim it with the conviction of those who have seen for themselves what was always true: God loves us. God loves us all. God loves each of us, no matter what.
Not Really God, Not Really Playing
Playing God with fertility, we hope that we will have healthy children at the right time in our lives. That is also what people hoped for before it was possible to play God with fertility in the way we do. But they hoped for those things knowing full well that babies came in their own time (and number) or perhaps not at all. They knew that babies sometimes came sick and sometimes with impairments. They knew that sometimes the baby was injured or died. Sometimes the mother was injured or died. Sometimes they both died.
And here is something important: none of that has changed, even though we now play God with fertility. For in spite of all the scientific and technological tools available to us some people will still be childless, some babies will die, or be sick, or be impaired. The numbers of sick, damaged and dead babies and mothers are smaller, far smaller, but that only makes it more important that we acknowledge that the worst still happens. It does not matter how careful or disciplined you are. It does not matter how much money you have. Remember, we are only playing God. It is not as if we are God. If we start thinking we are God we are not really playing any more. Any child knows that about play. We would just be deluded. And that can be dangerous.
It is dangerous. In our society, when it comes to fertility, the basic imperative is that it should be controlled and the organising myth is that it can be controlled. There is something in the combination of myth and imperative – in ideology – that can cause real harm.
For all our God-play there is evidence that large proportions of women still have unplanned births. I remember talking to a specialist who cares for women who suffer from diabetes, for whom pregnancy poses serious medical risks. Of all people, these women have much to gain from carefully planned and managed pregnancies. And yet, he said, the majority of the women he sees became pregnant “by accident”. This kind of anecdotal evidence is borne out statistically too. According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, in the last five years of the twentieth century about 30% of births in the United States over 50% of births in Japan and about 40% of births worldwide were unplanned. Added to this, pregnancy termination rates point to an inability to control fertility. They are much the same all over the world, despite differences in abortion law and in the availability of modern medical services. The Alan Guttmacher Institute estimates that annually 39 per 1000 women in the developed world and 34 per 1000 women in developing countries undergo pregnancy terminations. (The really big difference is in the rate of abortion-related maternal deaths – 0.2-1.2 per 100,000 in developed countries but 330 per 100,000 in developing countries.) The painful decision to terminate a pregnancy is less likely to result from the ante-natal detection of foetal “defects” than from the fact that the conception was unplanned in the first place. It is less likely to result from playing God with new diagnostic procedures than it is to result from an absence of, or lapse in, contraceptive God-play.
The fact is that even if we should control fertility and even if we could control fertility, usually we do not and probably we cannot. We are not really God. And, because we seem as a society to have deluded ourselves into thinking that we are in control, or at least on the verge of controlling fertility, we are not really playing either. It is something more serious and potentially sinister that engages us. We have attached a social imperative to a social myth, that is, in the matter of fertility we are ideologically committed. The ideology may be quite benign in general, but people can easily be hurt.
People who remain childless or whose children turn out to have unusual needs can experience profound disillusionment. Unrealistic expectations may be generated that then impact negatively on children or mothers or families. This doesn’t happen. The world’s not supposed to be like this. This shouldn’t happen. Someone’s to blame. Someone will pay. There is potential for our communities to become even more unwelcoming of the “imperfect” child or adult, and a deeper lack of hospitality may be reflected in discriminatory social policy.
We Know We Are Capable of It
We know we are capable of it. In 1999 the Australian government created a new class of refugee, who would be allowed to remain in Australia on a temporary protection visa (TPV). The TPV was created to deal with refugees who do not apply from offshore to enter Australia but enter illegally, risking hazardous and arduous sea voyages rather than delaying their escape from the place of danger. Upon arrival these people – children as well as adults – are placed in secure “detention centres” in isolated parts of the country where they languish, sometimes for several years, while their application for refugee status is assessed. If they are successful they are now given a TPV that permits them to remain in Australia for three years, after which it will be determined whether they may stay permanently. People who have received a TPV are refugees. That is what the visa confirms – that they are entitled to “protection”. But they are not treated in the same way as other refugees or migrants. They are denied the assistance of official resettlement agencies. They do not have access to public housing. They are refused job search assistance. And they are excluded from the free English lessons that are offered to all other refugees and migrants. Not even the children are allowed to participate in these courses that are provided so that the new arrivals may learn the language of their “host” country.
Even after decades of developing anti-discrimination legislation and encouraging the creation of a new ethos of inclusiveness in Australia, it turns out that we are quite capable of putting in place mechanisms designed to exclude sections of the community and to penalise them for just being there. And that is a sobering realisation.
In the week that I write this, Professor Grant Sutherland, whose research at the Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital was the only Australian contribution to the human genome project, was interviewed for the ABC Television program, The 7.30 Report. Professor Sutherland had spent fifteen years on the project and believed that it would eventually lead to the eradication of more than 4,000 genetic diseases. He told the interviewer that we would always have to respond to anyone born with one of these diseases “with compassion [and] understanding”. Nonetheless, he said, “if we can prevent the birth of handicapped individuals, then I think that society will be better off.” By “prevent the birth” he meant primarily terminating pregnancies where the foetus had been found to carry a genetic disorder or, in IVF programs, testing embryos for genetic disorders and using only those which appear to be “normal”. He did not mean diagnosing genetic disorders and then treating the individuals who had inherited them. Our society would be “better off”, that is, if those individuals who are genetically “abnormal” had never been born.
This is the sobering thought – and the one that, happily, made Professor Sutherland’s comments a matter of controversy and dispute in the Australian community. A society that thinks that it would be better off if its members who have physical impairments had never been born will soon exhaust its reserves of “compassion [and] understanding”. It will eventually mandate a government that will penalise the parents of those individuals for ever delivering them and, finally, penalise those individuals themselves for ever being born. For they will continue to be born – or created, since most “disabled” people do not inherit, but acquire their impairments through injury, illness or ageing. We know we are capable of it.
What Kind of Church Do Our Neighbours Need?
When it comes to playing God with fertility, when it comes to medicalised contraception, conception and assisted reproductive technologies, the primary ethical issues are personal. But they are not personal in the privatised, individualistic way that we have come to think of personal things. They are personal in the social, political, communal way that real persons actually experience bodily life.
It is not primarily about whether a particular biomedical research initiative should be allowed to proceed. It is not primarily about whether people should have access to a particular medical procedure or technological service or legal arrangement. Different communities will reach different conclusions for equally sound reasons. It is not even about whether decisions like this are determined in some way by the individual or couple being Christians. As we have seen, different Christian communities reach different conclusions that commend themselves as equally mature, spiritually and theologically. When it comes to playing God with fertility, the primary ethical issues concern the kind of society we are building. And for Christians they concern the kind of church we are forming and the contribution it may make to our society’s vision of itself. For Christians, that is, the primary ethical concerns are ecclesiological – concerning the nature, function and organisation of Christian community and friendship.
And some of the most important contributions to bioethics have been in ecclesiology. For example, in his famous essay on “Why Medicine Needs the Church” Stanley Hauerwas argues that “given the particular demands put on those who care for the ill, something very much like a church is necessary to sustain that care.” The “particular demands” to which he refers are the demands of caring for the sick by being present to them in their pain, regardless of the likelihood of being able to “cure” the person and for as long as that person suffers. The church, he says, at least claims to be “a people who have so learned to embody such a presence in their lives that it has become the marrow of their habits.”
This is an important reminder. The historian Gary Ferngren has shown that the life and structure of the early church were shaped around the needs of the sick and poor in the Christian community. Care for any in need was seen to be the appropriate response to the love of God demonstrated in the incarnation, suffering and death of Christ. The doctrine of the imago Dei (image of God) was related to this. No matter how defaced by suffering or sin, each person was seen to be inherently precious as the bearer of God’s image and as one for whom Christ died. This orientation found biblical expression in the well known story of “the sheep and the goats”, in which those who inherit the kingdom are those who have fed the hungry, given water to the thirsty, shown hospitality to the homeless, clothed the naked, and cared for the sick and imprisoned. For in serving each of these needy people they have unknowingly encountered and served the king himself. Those who have not shown such care for the person in need have unknowingly rejected the king and, accordingly, forfeited their inheritance. (Matthew 25:31-46)
So, as it developed, the church struck a contrast to the surrounding society. The interests of the powerful determined the structures of the society surrounding the early church, and the idealised human form of that classical culture was that of the triumphant male athlete. But the structures of the early Christian community were being determined by the interests of the weak and needy, and it always kept before it the image of that tortured, crucified Christ in whom it discerned the meaning and promise of all things. Motivated by this vision of the world, Ferngren says, “the local Christian congregation created, in the first two centuries of its existence, an organization that was unique in the classical world in effectively and systematically caring for its members who were suffering.”
When Hauerwas says that those who care for the ill need “a church”, he does not mean primarily an institution or denomination. He is thinking of a community of Christians in the most traditional sense. And by “something very much like a church” he does not mean a welfare agency or centre for ethics or choral society. He means a community of people that organises its common life in ways that express core Christian values such as mutuality, hospitality, generosity and the desire to care for and be with any in need. That’s what kind of church medicine needs and, indeed, that’s what kind of church all our neighbours need.
What kind of church would be like that? The details would have to be worked out again and again in different times and contexts. A form that works well in one place may not work well in another. A system that serves one generation’s response to the call to care for our neighbours in need may fail the next generation. But Colin Gunton has argued forcefully that there are some general principles that may be named. It must be a church that discloses the source of its being in the triune God. So it could not be a hierarchical church, with patterns of control and domination. It could not perpetuate any divisions based on race, sex, culture or social standing. Rather it would have to be an egalitarian, participatory and deeply voluntary community – “a temporal echo of the eternal community that God is.”
So long as we remember that we are only playing, playing God with fertility can help us to know God. From our experiences of chosen, planned and even technologically assisted reproduction, accepting all the risks that that involves, committing ourselves to the long haul with this stranger whatever their gifts and needs, this other whom we long to create, we can discern the extraordinary grace and love of God for us and for all creatures.
For, in fact, playing God with fertility is not about controlling outcomes or fixing problems. Some outcomes are quite unpredictable. Some problems are utterly intractable. That is, there is nothing you can do about some babies. You can only receive them, welcome them, love them for the stranger that they are. It is a sign of true humanity in people, a sign of true civilisation in communities. This capacity for mutuality and generous hospitality is the image of God in which we are created. Playing God with fertility is about shaping ourselves and our relationships, and about shaping our communities and society, so that strangers will find a welcome with us – all kinds of strangers, and especially the strangers who are our own children.
Chapter Seven: Playing God With Fertility
Alan Guttmacher Institute Issues In Brief 1999, “Abortion in Context: United States and Worldwide”, accessed October 1999 at http://www.agi-usa.org/pubs/ib_0599.html
Church of Scotland Board of Social Responsibility Pre-Conceived Ideas: Christian Perspectives on IVF and Embryology (Edinburgh: St Andrew Press, 1996) p 14
Andrew Dutney “Hope Takes Risks: Making Sense of the Interests of the Child in Assisted Reproductive Technology: The South Australian Experience” in Assisted Reproduction: Considering the Interests of the Child Edited by Sandra Webb (Perth: Health Department of Western Australia, 2000) pp 31-39
Andrew Dutney “Contraception” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) pp 134-135
Andrew Dutney “Reproductive Technology” in The Oxford Companion to Christian Thought Edited by Adrian Hastings, Alistair Mason and Hugh Pyper (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000) pp 614-615
Gary B Ferngren, “Medicine and Compassion in Early Christianity” Theological Digest Vol 46, No 4 (Winter 1999), pp 315-326
Colin Gunton, “The Church on Earth: The Roots of Community”, in On Being the Church: Essays on the Christian Community Edited by Colin E Gunton & Daniel W Hardy (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1989) pp 48-80, at p75
Stanley Hauerwas Suffering Presence: Theological Reflections on Medicine, the Mentally Handicapped and the Church (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986) pp 63-83, at pp 75 and 80
Robert W Jenson “Introduction: Much Ado about Nothing”, in Sin, Death & the Devil Edited by Carl E Braaten and Robert W Jenson (Grand Rapids, Michigan and Cambridge, UK: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2000) pp 1-6, at p 2
James P Mackey The Christian Experience of God as Trinity (London: SCM Press, 1983) p 261
Jürgen Moltmann God In Creation: An Ecological Doctrine of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1986) pp 86-89
Jürgen Moltmann The Trinity and the Kingdom of God (London: SCM Press, 1981) pp 108-111
Arthur Peacocke God and Science: A Quest for Christian Credibility (London: SCM Press, 1996) p 16
C S Song Third Eye Theology: Theology in Formation in Asian Settings (London: Lutterworth Press, 1980) pp 59-64