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Healing the Elephant in the Womb (Part 7)

As we come down the home stretch in this extended Wisdom inquiry into the abortion issue, I’ve tried to draw together here some of the most important implications and “business arising” out this exploration. Most of my following “top five” have already been touched on in previous blogs, but a few are new (though obviously following from points already raised.) Here we go:

  1. Reframing

FramesThe whole conversation around the abortion issue needs to begin with a comprehensive reframing of the metaphysical assumptions on which it rests: away from a substance-theology-driven fixation on nailing down the precise moment when “life” begins (implicitly understood as meaning an individual human soul) and toward a wider appreciation of the entire life journey as a single, interwoven dynamism of “soul-making” in which each stage of the journey is equally vulnerable and precious. When does a daffodil become a daffodil? Is daffodil the bulb? The shoot? The bud? The flower? It is all of the above, yet none insofar as a stage is taken in isolation. In the traditional Wisdom maps—confirmed as well as in the more dynamic relational models emerging from the leading edges of biophysics and evolutionary theology—the term “pro-life” can no longer be usurped by any single phase of the journey, for the soul is the fruit of the entire life journey, not merely of the moment of conception.

This Wisdom understanding of “pro-life” assumes that the boundaries demarcating an individual life from the greater relational field that has supported its gestation/individuation —and will continue to do so for the entire course of its life— are always a bit indistinct, marked by considerable reciprocity at each step of the way. Attempting to establish identity by separating an individual element from the whole is an old, old metaphysical habit that no longer matches the shape of our dynamically interwoven universe. At every phase life makes its way juggling difficult balances and hard trade-offs. To be pro-life not merely “pro-birth”—implies an acknowledgement of that challenging terrain and the willingness to bring forbearance and mercy to the entire unfolding.

  1. Compassionate speaking

compassionate heartAs an important initial step in that direction, we need to become much more forbearing and merciful in our use of language. Precision is necessary—“soul,” life, and “individual essence” are NOT synonyms, and when used as if they are, they result in creating what Arthur Lovejoy once defined as emotional pathos—language wielded for sentimental and/or manipulative effect. Christianity is already vulnerable enough to that sort of emotional manipulation; it has been standard devotional and even theological practice for centuries. We need to tread extremely gently here, and to be doubly alert to well-worn rut tracks of associative thinking,

Above all, it seems to me that the word “murder” has no place in any helpful discussion of the abortion issue. Technically, yes, abortion terminates an incipient human life. But when connotation—not merely denotation—is factored in, murder typically implies malevolent intent; it already presumes a crime. 1 (see footnote) To impose this set of associations on a decision-making process which virtually always unfolds in the realm of human anguish is inflammatory and cruel. Is it also murder to “put down” a pet? To withdraw life support from a loved one following a catastrophic stroke? Do these decisions—which also terminate a life—always presume malevolent intent?

At very most, we are speaking here of “fetal homicide.” My own preference would be to recognize that in those great liminal zones surrounding birth and death, where life is not yet (or no longer) fully viable on its own, we need a whole different way of languaging those painful but sometimes necessary decisions to end the life of another sentient being. I am not suggesting euphemism here, but rather an honest and compassionate clarity that would serve the goal of healing—not simply anger and blame.

  1. Acknowledging the shadow

That being said, abortion does end the life of another sentient being, and such a decision is never easy or pain-free. It inflicts deep wounds on the human psyche (I believe this is true even in the case of putting down a pet), and these wounds are long in healing and reverberate on many planes; in that sense, abortion is a karmic act. Because of the harm it invariably engenders (to self, fetus, relationship), it is never simply a medical “procedure,” let alone a “normal” method of birth control. It should always be considered exceptional: a “least preferable” option to be invoked only after alternatives have been carefully weighed and rejected. 

Since the clearly documented shadow side of abortion still tends to be under-acknowledged in pro-choice presentations, there seems to be an obvious need for a more balanced emphasis in sexual education, together with a concerted effort to make standard forms of contraception readily and blamelessly available: the only strategy to date that has yielded a conclusive and consistent success rate. And yes, here again, it’s a trade-off between high principles and sustainable results. From my admittedly pragmatic angle of vision, it seems that if the Catholic Church could ever see its way clear to constraining the rights of the “potentially conceived” in favor of those already conceived (i.e., contraception as the only realistic “preferable alternative” to abortion), I suspect that the vast bulk of its pro-life agenda would be instantly achieved.

  1. Safeguarding legal access

While abortion is never the preferred option, I believe it needs to remain a protected legal option. The Wisdom model provides additional validation for doing so in affirming the equal importance all stages of life and exposing the implicit Catholic/evangelical theological bias at work in the presumption that the rights of the unborn take precedence over the rights of the mother. In an increasingly pluralistic America, where many religions and no religion offer competing moral compasses, it is more important than ever to establish a legally protected space in which difficult personal decisions can be arrived at through personal conscience, not through the legal imposition of sectarian dogma. I return here again to my earlier proposal of a “two-tier” system stipulating that included among the fundamental ‘first tier” rights is:

the right for a woman to control her own body and to hold the decisive vote as to whether a new life will be formed within her body.

Beyond that baseline—at what I’ve called “second tier”—adherents of specific religious paths would have the full freedom to practice a higher level of moral observance according to the understandings of their particular faith tradition. It simply would not be universally binding. 

  1. Creating a wider ethical forum

DiscussionBeyond those immediate issues raised by the abortion issue itself, the even greater challenge has proved to lie in figuring out a way to hold this conversation at all! And I’m not just talking about the differences of opinion and occasionally painful give-and-take as challenging new ideas are collectively pondered; I’m asking why thoughtful pondering of the kind we’ve been sharing here is such a painful rarity in our cultural conversation nowadays. As I racked my brains to think of a journal, a publishing house, an academic or retreat setting that might sponsor such a discussion, I quickly realized there were none. “Too far afield” for traditional theological journals; “too political” for academic or contemplative specializations; “too provocative” for retreat or even Living School fare, where one wishes to avoid giving offense to those who might be challenged or made personally uncomfortable by the exchange—“Cynthia is misusing her post as a teacher to wander into such dangerous personal ground.”

It has seemed to me for a long time now that the most urgent long-range need facing our country today is for some cultural forum—beyond an internet blog series—where the important questions and issues impinging on our common humanity can actually be weighed and discussed. A Wisdom chautauqua, as it were. But what sort of forum would that be, and where would it take place?

Traditionally issues of ethics and morality have been discussed and enforced within specific faith traditions. But today there is no longer a single faith tradition undergirding our civic morality, and given the prevailing contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment, it is no longer easily acceptable to teach subject matter traditionally identified as belonging to the “religious” sector in a secular educational setting. The big questions that have traditionally guided human ethical progress—“Who am I?” “What am I here for?” “Who is my neighbor?” “Is there anything beyond self-interest?” “Is there a higher purpose or coherence to the universe?”—are perceived as spiritually booby-trapped (alas, often true!) and hence off-limits for the purposes of public education. Meanwhile, given the continuing hemorrhaging in most mainstream religious denominations, it is far from a foregone conclusion that younger generations of Americans will be exposed to these ideas even within a religious setting.

The vacuum is lethal—filled, by default, simply with the clichés and role-modeling available from the entertainment and marketing sectors. The highest and finest of what has traditionally made us human has effectively been closed out of our cultural transmission.

This becomes particularly pressing when we attempt to explore the concept of a developmental soul, for it clearly presumes a sacred context for the human condition, a meaning to life not realized in personal self-maximization but in cosmic obligation and the sense of participation in a larger coherent whole. It is here and only here, the great sacred traditions unanimously affirm, that the ultimate meaning and satisfaction of human life are to be found. It is here and only here, one might add, that the attitudes, vision, and practices that can carry our planet safely into the future are to be found. And it is only at this scale—against the wider backdrop of the meaning of all of life, considered as a unified trans-cosmic whole, will the meaning and gravity of fetal abortion finally come into a rightful perspective. If we are not able even to raise these questions—let alone, wrestle with them, grow into them— what hope to we have in steering our planet wisely through these turbulent times?

Like many citizens in our country today, I’ve come to hate gerrymandering—that political sleight of hand that hacks up functional geopolitical units in order to create political firewalls. But even more than political gerrymandering, I loathe cultural and spiritual gerrymandering, which chops up the unified terrain of the human heart into a thousandfold denominational and academic fiefdoms in such a way that the great river of our collective human wisdom can no longer flow freely through it. The tragedy, of course, is that it is only our collective human wisdom that will save us.

Any bright ideas as to how such a container might be created?daffodil

footnote: 1 Black’s Law Dictionary defines “murder” as the unlawful killing of a human being by another with malice aforethought, either expressed or implied. A “homicide” is defined as the act of a human being in taking away the life of another human being. 

Comments (11)

  1. Thank you for venturing into this subject of abortion that causes such pain and discord. I read this entry almost dispassionately until I reached near the end where you refer to “the unified terrain of the human heart”, and I choked up. This realization is what causes much suffering, I feel. We know on some level that our hearts are one heart, and yet we keep building firewalls around that one unified heart knowing. I have no answers other than to keep looking for that one heart in everyone I converse with. And, that is so difficult for me when the words of conversation devolve into fear laden opinions.

    1. Hello,

      Yes, looking for our common one Heart in everybody I meet is also all I can offer at the moment.
      I am greatful for this article and this discussion on such a painful and important topic.

      Much love,

      Annalisa

  2. This seems like a good topic for a different kind of Wisdom School, perhaps one that, in addition to the Work component had small groups wrestling with the issues together. Perhaps a book of essays could come out of that, like a prism that looks at different angles. Your opening up the topic of the soul in what seems to these Western ears is provocative and has great possibilities for all kinds of work in moving forward. Maybe each of these topics is a Wisdom School. So much to ponder . . . .

  3. I have little in the way of wisdom to offer for a way forward. I resonate deeply with your attempt to address public ethical concerns from a Wisdom perspective.
    As a pastor, I do not feel that I am being faithful to my calling if I fail to speak to these larger societal issues. And yet doing so is fraught with land-mines and pit-falls. I agree that the vacuum is lethal, and I am grateful that you have risked such a careful example of weighing such responsibilities.
    Next month, I will experiment with a weekly Wisdom practice of gathering with chanting and silence, and then moving to a discussion of Miroslav Volf’s book, Public Faith in Action, in an attempt to raise the bar for our consideration of ethical issues. Sharing will be along the lines of those in Living School Circle Groups–deep listening, vulnerable and unrehearsed sharing, no cross-talk, fixing or correcting. Thanks again for your courageous and wise leadership.

  4. I like your original outline, Cynthia and I definitely resonate with the discussions of the developmental soul. These ideas are relatively easy for those of us in the wisdom community. In order to effect change in law, wouldn’t it be necessary to popularize these ideas in some way? You mentioned the entertainment and marketing industries. I believe both of these have been used to popularize ideas. Why not this. Wisdom students in these industries could over time get across some ideas about the soul so it would become easier to have public discourse. I know there are women who owe their spiritual beginnings to Oprah. Just saying, I know it sounds crazy.
    I believe we also need to be diligent with language and make sure that when two people say soul, they mean the same thing.
    I’d love to be part of continuing discussions on this because I have struggled with it for a long time.

  5. What a wonderful and long trail you’ve left for us to consider! And thanks to the many interesting reader comments, especially about the Asian traditions. I would like to suggest that the starting point for coming together is what you said early in the second essay:
    “[T]he liminal zones bordering life and death—i.e., what happens before birth or after death—have been regarded as a Mystery entrusted to the great spiritual traditions.”
    You went on to suggest that spiritual practitioners eventually acquire some familiarity with these liminal zones. But I would suggest that while there is an arguable uniformity to many reported experiences of the earthly life-to- death zone, there isn’t a similar body of expressed knowledge in respect of the entry into earthly life. Even in Catholic tradition, and harking back to Aristotle, the idea of “delayed ensoulement” held sway for fourteen hundred years ending only in the late 19th century. Views as to when this “ensoulement” happened were not consistent. The diversity of opinion compounds exponentially if we throw in reincarnation. In other words, leave this issue as a “mystery” about which there are various opinions.
    At the same time, virtually every religious tradition views the human experience on earth as a journey of actual or potential spiritual development—whether described as an expansion of being, a change of consciousness or adherence to the will of God. Most see this in the context of at least some degree of human freedom.
    My suggestion for a dialogue then is to acknowledge the mystery and to place it in the context of human development and freedom and then to ask a broader question about our experience:
    In a world of evolution, transformation and death, what is the meaning and practical application of the Fifth Commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” ?
    –What about personal, communal and national defense? When is killing justified? (We’re killing a lot of people these days.)
    –What about economic activities with toxic materials that kill unspecified persons-our neighbors- over time?
    —What about ecocide and climate change?
    —What about systems that deny life-saving medical care for economic reasons (e.g. HIV drugs in Africa, the US insurance system)?
    —What about crushing poverty that “kills” the potential for a human’s development?
    –What about coercive cultures and virtual slavery that do the same?
    —What about economic and technological invasions that left unregulated threaten to “kill” ensouled, older cultures (including fundamentalist communities)?
    I think that a wide-ranging dialogue between faith leaders would remind us that in almost no context is the commandment, absolute; that countenancing preventable physical death is commonplace; that room needs to be made for competing clams to “life”, importantly including spiritual life ; and that not the least of these is the claim and right of humans to use their own physical bodies as instruments in their own development.
    I think such a dialogue would also force us to confront the realities that we are in a new era where human power to control the material universe and direct individual and collective physical evolution is unprecedented and where the fate of all are visibly and irrevocably intertwined. A dialogue would humble all of us and make it easier to compromise in the face of uncertainty; it would require us to make more subtle discernments and build on our commonalities. Then, much of what you have suggested might come to pass.
    Who can start such a dialogue? A more difficult question.

  6. I found this in my practice this morning; how strongly it speaks to this blog series. From Teilhard’s Divine Milieu:

    “The masters of the spiritual life incessantly repeat that God wants only souls. To give those words their true value, we must not forget that the human soul, however independently created our philosophy represents it as being, is inseparable, in its birth and in its growth, from the universe into which it is born. In each soul, God loves and partly saves the whole world which that soul sums up in an incommunicable and particular way. But this summing-up, this welding, are not given to us ready-made and complete with the first awakening of consciousness. It is we who, through our own activity, must industriously assemble the widely scattered elements. The labor of seaweed as it concentrates in its tissues the substances scattered, in infinitesimal quantities, throughout the vast layers of the ocean; the industry of bees as they make honey from the juices broadcast in so many flowers– these are but pale images of the ceaseless working-over that all the forces of the universe undergo in us in order to reach the level of spirit.

    Thus every man, in the course of his life, must not only show himself obedient and docile. By his fidelity he must BUILD — starting with the most natural territory of his own self– a work, an OPUS, into which something enters from all the elements of the earth. HE MAKES HIS OWN SOUL throughout all his earthly days; and at the same time he collaborates in another work, in another OPUS, which infinitely transcends, while at the same time it narrowly determines, the perspectives of his individual achievement: the completing of the world. For in presenting the Christian doctrine of salvation, it must not be forgotten that the world, taken as a whole, that is to say in so far as it consists in a hierarchy of souls– which appear only successively, develop only collectively and will be completed only in union– the world, too, undergoes a sort of vast “ontogenesis” (a vast becoming what it is) in which the development of each soul, assisted by the perceptible realities on which it depends, is but a diminished harmonic. Beneath our efforts to put spiritual form into our own lives, the world slowly accumulates, starting with the whole of matter, that which will make of it the Heavenly Jerusalem or New Earth.” (p 23-24; emphasis Teilhard’s)
    The both/and, the inclusion of matter and spirit, the building of a soul and the part played in the simultaneous building of the world: how do these become experiential, realities in our lives, rather than remaining separated, conceptual? I feel it happening inside me, things that were once conceptual have become visceral experience. Viscerally then, how to hold what is so broken, so wounded, also part of the whole evolving creation.

    How do we grow our capacity to experience wholeness day to day? Notice, experience– consciously — our connection to the vast spectrum of this reality in daily life, and then live it, bring it forth, translate them into our actions and interactions? How do we nourish and support, contribute to, the changing matrix, the new paradigm? How to address the wrenching, heart breaking divide in the midst of such potential beauty? I remember talk of the myriad ways we, as individuals, were each going to respond to these times. The value of those differences, the necessity of them.

    I notice myself drawn to keep returning to the basis, to the root, as I interact, in what I do. Listening for something moving in a situation, in a conversation, what is articulating. It has been physically riveting. Listening for how remembering becomes the act of re-membering in any given moment. Leave the cliché and open to the sensation of it. Daily, often very acutely, I consciously feel the loss when I stray from that root; it is a teacher. I am aware of the sorrow, feel the homesickness of being lost, nuts in a crazy world. More and more I am aware of both things at once, the experience of separation and of wholeness as one. Learning to talk about this- how that awareness of the ground, which is inclusive of all matter and spirit, becomes the source of our actions. Noticing that ground at work around and within us. Felt sense. Without needing to be said. There is something already at work. How do we take this up- at the time- right now. Ancient wisdom, but how to experience the truth of it now, live it, in these times, each day.

    I appreciate the challenge you are putting forth Cynthia, to create, to act, to converse in ways that acknowledge a greater context, a wholeness of a greater reality that is right here, right now. I loved how Teilhard’s words this morning dovetailed with this discourse. How to not divorce the experience of insight from our living, ongoing, not even necessarily to speak of it directly, but keep it at the heart, the root and ground, of our actions, interactions, responses.

    1. Laura,

      Thank you SO much for ferreting out this Teilhardian offering, which somehow I’d overlooked in DM. It’s a brilliant way of talking about incremental personhood without having to hinge the whole case on the developmental soul, which I know is going to sound too esoteric for many traditionally formed Christians. Both Teilhard and Boros were inching their way toward something already hidden in plain sight in the Christian tradition, which Ilia Delio has now named “whole-making.” Her latest book is brilliant on this!

  7. I just read this essay for the first time today, Oct 1. Thank you for addressing this difficult subject. I don’t think I have answers and even my opinions are not clear to me, and yet I do have some comments to share. First, I don’t see the soul as the fruit of the entire life journey — I see it the other way around — the journey of life is the fruit of the soul. Second, I do see soul, life, and individual essence as synonymous and would like to understand your saying they are not. Third, I think you said malevolent intent is part of murder. To me, malevolent intent isn’t required for murder to be murder. Like with the dog owner murdering his or her dog, the intent may be benevolent and yet it is murder. Last, and this one is most difficult, is about the woman’s right to control her body. I agree that a woman has that right. Once she is pregnant, a baby is developing within her and all kinds of things are happening to her and with that baby, and my thinking is that she doesn’t have the right to control the life of the baby. My thinking is that at that point she has the right to deal with the baby while it is growing within her and deal with it after it is born.

  8. Dear Cynthia,

    This is quite a piece of writing, and certainly quite a topic to take on. I felt as I read that this article could be used by any and every contemplative group – and by any congregation of any faith as an attempt to transcend everyone’s and anyone’s personal beliefs and feelings, and stay in it long enough to at least just begin to see something that might arise in a new or different way that might just add to the conversation or take it to a different dimension.

    Clearly the “truth” has not yet made itself evident in an undefinable “ah-ha” where we can all sit back and say “that is the truth – discussion ended.”

    I think here about Colin Kaepernick’s behavior of kneeling during the National Anthem as he became a martyr of sorts while the conversation has reached almost epic proportions with even the President of the US getting involved. Kaepernick can’t get a job in football, but now everyone seems to be weighing in. Where was the place to hold this conversation? Right in front of everyone. But the price to call the meeting so to speak for Kaepernick was very high.

    I suspect that the conversation really might be much larger (i.e. How does “thou shalt not kill” figure into capital punishment for instance) and wander into the realm of something that might include Neale Donald Walsch’s Conversation with God which says something like, and I paraphrase from my own understanding, “nobody does anything to anyone without their agreement” and “there are no victims and there are no villians”. That said, and that being true or at least a pointer to another dimension to bring into the conversation, (and I understand that this perspective could make a lot of enemies), if there are no victims, there are no perpetrators. Collaborators yes. Will there ever be a place for an intelligent look into the possibility of this sort of truth or happening to be included seriously in this conversation? And if not, might there not be many other options or possibilities that could be a part of this that transcend our cultural understanding of right and wrong?

    I think you have taken a huge and courageous step Cynthia and I hope that we can see a continuation of this both from you and in our own circles. Thank you for this invitation to begin.

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