Wednesday, April 1, 2015

All Life Is Precious--A Conversation With Dr. Roman Miller

I sent the following draft of some reflections and questions to EMU biology professor Roman Miller for his response: 

This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby, 

Kneeled down in the dust

Toiling over a lump of clay

Till he shaped it in his own image; 
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul. 

 - James Weldon Johnson's "Creation", from God's Trombones--Negro Sermons in Verse

According to the Genesis creation account, human life begins with the creation of Adam from adamah, or dust. God forms a human prototype, adam, (Hebrew for man) from ordinary clay (adamah), then that God-formed soil becomes a living, God-breathed soul, Adam.  So the progression is from adamah (dust) to adam (generic human) to Adam (individual soul/person.

I understand that in the Bible, a "soul" is not something that comes to inhabit a person, but is a term synonymous with the essential person one becomes, a whole, living human being made "in God's image".

So from the creation event on we might think of human life not so much as "beginning", either at conception or when exiting the womb, but as continuing, in a sequence involving distinct forms somewhat like a swallowtail evolves from pupa to chrysalis to an individual butterfly.

From my perspective, human life at each stage of development is to be respected and guarded as God's special creation. But just as there is a difference between sperm/egg life and fetal life, is there a similar difference between a body in formation (still on life support in the womb) and soul life, or whole life? And might the original creation account offer some helpful perspective?

Certainly neither God nor any other creature would have dreamed of terminating the sculpting and designing process the Creator was engaged in when God "made" the first human adam. All the organic elements of body life were being "knit together", much as they are during each pregnancy. As with the first "adam", we humans are fearfully and wonderfully "made" in that process, formed from existing organic material (adamah, or dust), and with all of the complex physical parts and organs required for human existence.

It is then, after God makes this first human creature (complete with all of its organs and other body parts), that God creates something amazingly wonderful and unique, as in, "And the Lord God formed man from the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being (or 'living soul')." (Genesis 2:7).

The actual Hebrew word for create ("bara") is used only three times in the six stanzas of the original creation hymn (Genesis 1-2:3), first when creating something from nothing (the "heavens and the earth"), then when creating living creatures (sea life), and finally when creating human life (Genesis 1:26-27). In all of the other steps in the creation account, the text uses terms like "Let there be," as if the Creator were setting things in motion and watching them develop. Or the text describes God as having "made" things, presumably with existing material, as in the case of both the heavenly bodies and of human bodies.

Interestingly, I recently learned that the Celtic theologian Pelagius disagreed with Augustine's view that God created everything in the world ex nihilo; out of nothing, but rather that God created the world ex Deo, out of the very essence of God's being.

At any rate, to create is usually thought of as bringing something entirely new into existence. And so it is when God breathes spirit into the generic adam, since it is at this point that the human being (formed from adamah) appears to become a living soul and is named Adam, a formal name that distinguishes that person from all others, including Eve and every other human creature. Thus human beings, male and female, are indeed a special species, bearing God's image.

So should we see pregnancy as a similar process of a human in formation, of our being assembled with all of the amazing organs and body parts needed for the soul life which comes with God's "breath"? Thus we would never dishonor organic (physical) life, would always treat it with utmost reverence and respect, and experience any termination of that form of life (via a miscarriage) with a deep sense of loss and the greatest of regret, especially as it represents the loss of a dream of all that this life could have become. But are there understandable differences of degree between that and the mourning the death of a child or adult who has actually lived and breathed among us?

Societies and cultures from the beginning of time have all seemed to recognize that "difference of degree" in one way or another. For example, we seldom name, christen, or have formal memorial services and burials for a miscarriage in the early stages of pregnancy. Not because we regard this or any form of human life as mere tissue to be discarded. No, an embryo or fetus represents something fearfully and wonderfully God-formed. And we grieve and mourn whenever a life doesn't continue to full term, and never has the opportunity to realize its full potential.

The Torah makes clear, in Exodus 21:22  that any human-caused miscarriage is a wrong that must be atoned for, "When people who are fighting injure a pregnant woman so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no further harm follows, the one responsible shall be fined what the woman’s husband demands, paying as much as the judges determine."  (NRSV)

Meanwhile, while Christians have long been divided over whether the willful terminating of a pregnancy is murder, I pray we would no longer be divided over whether we protect and preserve human life at whatever stage, from the womb to the tomb.

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What follows is Dr. Roman Miller's helpful and thoughtful response:

1) Interesting to link embryonic development to forming adam.  Never thought about it quite in that way before.

2) Using the Johnson's poem creates beautiful imagery which may not necessarily depict reality.

3) Suggesting human life "as continuing" (your 2nd paragraph) resonates with the biological reality.  Living cells (sperm and ova) merge to form a living zygote (single cell) which subsequently divides to form a ball of cells (morula) which hollows out (blastula) and then implants into the maternal endometrial wall as a trilayer early embryo that undergoes continual development forming a fetus and then is birthed as an infant.  In all of those processes, biologically speaking at least, life does not begin, rather it continues.  Usually when people say "When does life begin" what is meant is what is the origination of individualization or sometimes when is the emergence of personhood?

4) Subscribing to the "breathe" idea as central (paragraph 7), i.e. "God breathes spirit into the generic adam" resonates with many Jewish perspectives who see protection for the developing person only when he/she draws a first breath.  (Personally, I disagree with that perspective and think it is short-sighted.)

5) You talk about ensoulment--i.e. becoming a living soul -- (Paragraph 7).  Traditional Roman Catholic view was that God inserts a soul into the developing embryo at some stage -- while the debate is "when" -- but most Catholics put it rather early in development.  In contrast I would think of "ensoulment" as an emergent property of embryonic/fetal development that corresponds with other emergent properties -- e.g. migration of cells to form distinctive tissues and organ seeding, development of sensations, increasing brain activity, complex movements, etc.  All of these happen pre-birth.

6) I think the crux of the discussion on abortion -- embryonic stem cell research etc is really hinged on the concept and value of the embryo (especially the early embryo).  Your discussion values the embryo (more than simple tissue) but probably doesn't value it enough (in my view)!  You refer explicitly to two scriptures (the Genesis creation passage) which is the focus of your piece and then make a side comment about Exodus 21.  Maybe a fuller view of how Scripture portrays the unborn would be helpful?  For example, Luke 1:41 personifying fetal movement or reflecting more on the meaning of the incarnation.  So what was the earliest point (time-wise) of Jesus of Nazareth?  "Quickening"?  Parturition? Or is there another view of ontogeny here?  I think there is and by reflecting on the meaning of the incarnation (assuming a divine conception) we gain an insight into the nature of development. (Consider Luke 1:35; Matt 1:20 for example as starters.)

7) My personal approach (you don't need to buy this) is to talk about personhood as a mark of individual originalization.  I'm not talking about "functional personhood" as frequently described, i.e. cognition, reflection, etc, as evidence of soul or individualization, rather I'm talking about biological personhood establishes the identity of a new individual -- while entirely dependent upon another, still expresses its own individuality.  I think that individuality, soul, personality, thinking, etc are all emergent properties that occur in utero but find fuller expression in infancy, childhood, adulthood, and maturity.  Finally those emergent properties (instead of continual flowering) begin to decline with aging and exit into another existence at death.


Here's a link to a post on evangelicals and abortion
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