Faith Is Important
But Only If It Is An Option
And Not An Imposition
After my wife and I retired, we did what many retirees do which is whatever we wanted. We went where we wanted, whenever we wanted and we sat around watching TV snacking as we pleased. It was great at first but the downside became apparent rather quickly.
Not having a schedule or a plan got old and we couldn’t figure out how to get paid sitting on the couch so we decided to look around for some temp work.
The casual lifestyle also caused another problem. All the snacking created a need for a new wardrobe.
About the time we were coming to our senses, my wife noticed an ad for a local charity and it seemed like a fit. It was seasonal work and it paid a little so it met our criteria. We weren’t looking to be consumed by a job so this was a way to work a bit, get paid a little, and in this case, it was a way to give back too.
We had to fill out applications which is fairly standard. What we didn’t know is the application also involved a level of scrutiny not usually associated with part-time, casual, no-skills-required work.
It wasn’t long after submitting the paperwork before we got a screening call. It was a surprise. There was no advance notice of a call and the caller abruptly hit us with two questions we didn’t see coming:
One, do you believe life begins in the womb?
And two, do you believe the Bible teaches marriage is only heterosexual?
The wording was a little different but that was the essence and it really bothered me. The questions were offered in the spirit of interrogation like the caller was daring me to disagree.
But aside from being irritated, I actually had a question of my own (more than one) which I didn’t share in the phone conversation but have thought about ever since.
- In what way do these questions qualify anyone to do charity work?
- If the people who do charitable work must qualify in this way are the people who receive the charity required to think this too?
- If so, must they agree before receiving charity? Are material goods dangled scintillatingly before the eyes of the needy till they comply?
- Is charity provided to meet genuine human needs or is it used as leverage to force a point of view on unsuspecting but needy people?
This conversation didn’t sit well with me. I’d spent over thirty years doing missionary work in South Africa and had witnessed first-hand religious groups preying on the desperation of very needy people, providing material goods just to maintain social/religious control. That type of charity is neither biblical nor liberating.
Jesus certainly never did anything like that.
The caller and the questions came across a little heavy-handed and my wife and I decided to give the job a miss but we did go through the in-person interview which was the next step. We wanted to put eyes on the people and organization that took this approach. I would have been in my right to do so but I wasn’t going to just call and say no thanks.
This experience also provoked a deeper dive into a bothersome issue.
In the past, I had always just gone along with the fundamentalist ideas about abortion and marriage.
I differed on some issues and moderated on others marginally, and had shared a few ideas about those differences with others but when it came to abortion, I had usually acquiesced to popular opinion.
Before anyone becomes too judgmental about the apparent prevarication, consider the fact that religiously people aren’t given the option to choose freely what they think. Thinking is generally not allowed. Compliance is required. Anything else is heresy.
The phone conversation, as I said, didn’t just irritate me, it motivated me to do a deeper dive and look at the issues more closely. Unfortunately, I can’t say I came up with the absolute answer. In fact, the conclusion I came to was there is no absolute answer and that is important. We can’t just motor on in the same vein unless we can dispel every possible doubt. Uncertainty must be factored into the discussion.
The Real Question
What I realized is we’re actually asking the wrong question. The question we got was “do you believe life begins at conception?” That’s a fair question but it isn’t the right question.
The right question is at what point do you believe the fetus becomes a living soul? Life is one thing. A living soul is another.
There’s no question there’s life in the womb. Life is all around us everywhere and it’s all special. Life in any form is an expression of the creativity of God and much of that life is invisible to the naked eye. We walk on it, breathe it, eat it, it’s on our skin, and it lives inside us.
One quote from the Smithsonian gives perspective to this idea.
If you weighed all the living organisms in the ocean, 90 percent of that weight would be from microbes.
Not whales. Not any of the many oversized species of aquatic life that make humans look small by comparison but microbes, the things you can’t see without a microscope.
All forms of life, both large and small, are special and complex and the smaller versions apparently outweigh the larger ones. When I discovered this truth it occurred to me that microbial life, though small, is also more self-sustaining and smaller than the fetus (zygote) at conception.
So the question is not, does life begin at conception but at what point does that life take on the qualities that identify it with humanity? The answer to that question is not settled with a heartbeat. Animals have hearts and they beat in utero too. Even insects have hearts.
A heartbeat represents life but it does not qualify life as human in the special sense of the word.
It’s not about being formed by God either. Yes, David exclaimed he was formed by God – You formed my inmost being. . . I was fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:13-14) — but isn’t that true of all creation? Isn’t everything formed by God? Isn’t that the point of creation and is it misleading to say every created thing is fearfully and wonderfully made?
And, yes, God even told Jeremiah, before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, but don’t overreact. The two significant concepts expressed here – the power of creation and foreknowledge – are way beyond our ability to comprehend. We can’t fully define or explain either and when we try, we usually end up humanizing the concepts and miniaturizing God. In the process, the true meaning is distorted and extrapolated beyond limits.
Abortion, of course, relates to creation. In this case, the creation of life so I’ll focus on that for the moment and leave foreknowledge for a later discussion.
We are created beings. We didn’t exist before being created and the creative process involves several stages. A conception, a gestational period, and a birthing. Even after birth, growth continues.
The important point is this. We like to make much of fetal life in the womb, and it is significant, but the womb is the beginning. No individual exists in eternity past. It’s also important to note that God used no less power in the creation of an amoeba than He did in the creation of a human fetus. In a biological sense, fetal life is special but no more so than any other form of life.
So back to the question. At what point does a living fetus become a living soul? At what point does it graduate from biological life to fully made-in-the-image of God?
Honestly, I can’t answer that question. Not exactly. Nor can you. Nor can anyone else. Any attempt to answer the question is speculative at best. Arguments suggesting an absolute answer could never survive in an unbiased courtroom.
Whatever opinion a person adopts may lean on science a little but it is still based mostly on a whole lot of faith.
If I can’t provide hard evidence, anything I say is a matter of faith.
Faith is important but only if it is an option and not an imposition.
Faith vs Legislation
One of the freedoms championed in the US is religious freedom. Different belief systems are allowed and legally protected as long as none of those beliefs transgress the laws of the land.
Each religious system invites people to believe. No one can be forced or coerced. Faith is an option, never a requirement.
If you want to be a member of a particular religious group, you must subscribe to their faith system. That’s fair but the particular tenets of faith can never be required of non-members.
You may not think it but religions vary quite a bit. Even among Christian religions, a few ideas overlap but the list of differences is still quite long.
Too long to mention here.
Where religion goes wrong is when some particular idea becomes paramount. It is believed so strongly that believers are moved to make it a law, make it something everyone must live by, religious or not, believing or not.
The consumption of alcohol is a case in point. Prohibition was largely motivated by religious interference and Billy Sunday – pro baseball player come evangelist – no doubt influenced this outcome.
He preached pointed messages against the production, sale, and consumption of alcohol endlessly. He claimed he would do that throughout his life and once dead, he wanted his skin wrapped across the head of a drum and the drum beaten across the land against alcohol.
He was animated, emotional, articulate, and quite effective but was his approach the right one?
With prohibition, religion won the argument and the losses were much worse than the gains. The lesson learned is you can’t force individual views of righteousness on the whole group.
Today, there are plenty of laws regulating the consumption of alcohol but none of them disallow it entirely.
Bible Arguments For Tolerance
A question I’ve always tried to answer on any difficult issue, especially ones involving social/cultural matters is does the Bible shed light on the issue? And in every case it does. Even in the case of abortion. But what does it say and where do we find the answer?
There are many verses strung throughout the Bible all of which are important but none can be used to draw an absolute conclusion. In fact, you could spend a lifetime debating those verses and still not have an answer. You might win the debate and still miss the point.
To make sense from a biblical perspective we must visit the formation of the first human being, Adam. The first mention of an issue in the Bible is the most important. We could argue and debate our way through all the other pointed but vague verses but the best place to start is the first place, Genesis and the creation of Adam. The Bible says three important things about this event.
- God formed Adam from the dust of the ground.
- He then breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.
- And then Adam became a living soul (Genesis 2:7).
There’s a simple order expressed here and it is clear. Formation first, breath of life second, and then living soul. One thing happens before the other. It’s not simultaneous.
The formation probably took only minutes, if that, but that’s the equivalent of conception and gestation. Don’t forget, God also created time and then, instead of doing what He easily could have done – think Adam into existence instantly – He used time and followed a process.
He did in Adam’s case what He did with all of creation. He worked in stages each of which developed over time. And the last stage is where Adam became a living soul.
His conception wasn’t typical but he had to have a beginning and what would we call that other than a conception? At conception he was alive. During gestation he was alive. That’s true for all of life.
But it was only after being fully formed that the breath of life was administered and it was only then that Adam qualified as a living soul.
Before the breath of life, Adam was alive biologically but as yet not a living soul. The breath was the last step in the process. He didn’t start as a living soul. He became a living soul.
What does that mean for us? Is this passage proof that a fetus only becomes a living soul once it takes its first breath? I’m not sure. That is definitely what happened with Adam and we would be well within rights to make that argument for humans born afterward.
But even if you refuse to accept that idea, it is enough to create doubt. You might think fetal life qualifies as a living soul before birth takes place but there is no clear biblical statement suggesting that and it would be difficult to prove at what point in the process living-soul status is achieved.
There are, of course, many people who don’t believe the Bible and will dismiss this argument out of hand but, sadly, there are many believers who ignore the uncomfortable reality of this example also.
They won’t hear it but, like it or not, Adam’s experience maps out the process by which fetal life eventually becomes a living soul.
A Reasonable Response
If you’re a hard-right fundamentalist, you’re probably not convinced and I’m not surprised. Fundamentalists have never been accused of responding thoughtfully to questions about their most revered ideas. Adamant, boisterous, defiant expressions is what we’ve typically come to expect. Such outbursts, however, don’t qualify as arguments and have little chance of adding value to the discussion.
Your personal rights in the matter are clear. You may choose to believe that a fetus is a living soul but you can’t prove that. Not even the Bible says that exactly.
Any church can disallow abortion in their by-laws and exclude from membership those who think and act differently.
Individuals can hold memorials for miscarried fetuses.
Pro-lifers can whip up violent responses by comparing abortion to the holocaust (that’s even worse than an emotional argument).
What you can’t do is impose your faith ideas on the greater community and that’s really what has happened with the recent overturning of Roe vs Wade.
Unfortunately, Pro-life is to abortion what prohibition was to alcohol. Prohibition didn’t work and pro-life won’t either.
A Righteous Huff
If you don’t like abortion, join the crowd. No one likes abortion, but laws aren’t based on what we like or dislike. Many people hate alcohol and for good reason. Hard-hitting arguments can and have been made about the destructive effects of alcohol on society.
In spite of that, opposers have learned to tolerate the rights of others in this matter. It’s fair to say that pro-lifers should do the same when it comes to abortion.
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