On Personhood

I want to offer a thought or two on personhood. What got me thinking was the recent pro-abortion rally in Washington, D. C. Though it is tempting to rant on some of the excesses in evidence at the rally (not the least of which was not allowing the women who’d had had abortions and were now against abortion to have their own space to assemble), I’d really rather discuss the issue of personhood. I will make some connections to the matter of abortion, but I also want to speak about personhood in a way that goes beyond the abortion polemics.

My friend, Tripp, would want me to assert that the issue of abortion is more complex than any one aspect on which one might choose to focus. And while I admit that the issue of abortion is not a simple logical syllogism one can work out, I do think that the entire abortion question rests squarely on the question of personhood. Address the question of personhood adequately and appropriately, and you will then have a clear and immistakable response to the abortion question.

But of course, personhood is itself a very complex matter. (And Tripp, I think, would be glad to hear me say that.)

First of all, let it be noted that the question of abortion is fueled primarily by two notions: personhood as understood in fundamentally (though not necessarily exclusively) individual terms, and the mother-unborn child relationship as one of adversarial rights. But it seems to me that Christians cannot, due to the very nature of the Gospel, understand human persons or human relating on those terms.

For Christians, I do not think it can be the case that they view personhood primarily from the standpoint of the individual. I do not want to deny the uniqueness of each person–which uniqueness highlights a person’s individuality–but I do want to say that individuality is not what primarily defines us. Rather, what primarily defines a human being is koinonia, or community.

We have this on good authority: Humans are made in the image of God. God, himself, is a Trinity of Persons, so God’s unity is radically plural. Furthermore, it takes both male and female humans to adequately image God. And finally (to be brief), the standard unit of human relating has been, from creation, the procreative union of husband and wife. A man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife. And the two will become one flesh. So a baby is a sign and symbol, as well as the reality, of the union of two persons. And each person is a sign and symbol of the reality of the Triune God.

I am choosing to primarily orient myself around the the creational norms to indicate that this reality I’m describing is not merely one religious viewpoint among many–that is to say, if I have adequately represented the Scriptural and Traditional view on the matter–but is, in fact, a reality built into the very nature of the universe. It’s not as though we can look at personhood and describe it in individualist terms or in communal terms, whichever one makes more sense to us. Rather, I am asserting that one cannot but view personhood in this way. Personhood is this reality, apart from whether we believe it or not.

And the Gospel understanding of personhood only intensifies and underlines this reality with the advent of the new community, the Body of Christ. Each unique member of the Body of Christ is indentifiable, but at the same time, no member of the Body of Christ is so in isolation. We are saved as persons, and we are saved together. There is no salvation outside the Church, because there are no Christians outside the Body of Christ (God knows who are his, and he calls them by name). We are one in Christ: we in him, just as he is in God. In other words, in Christian terms, there is no such thing as a human as only an individual. Even our individuality is communal, plural. Whether in terms of creational norms or in terms of Gospel truths, human personhood is radically communal.

So Christians must rightly reject the false dichotomy which pits an unborn child against its mother. This is what makes the abortion question–and it’s presumed answer in arguing for abortion rights–so seductive: it purports to solve a complex and irresoluble problem with a false alternative; it makes the theoretically difficult, the theoretically easy (though clearly no one would argue that an abortion is an easy answer to anything).

Furthermore, the Christian paradigm is not one of rights. I do not want to deny the legitimate claims we have on one another as human beings, nor to deny the legitimate claims we have on one another in the Body of Christ. These claims, to the degree that they are legitimate, are binding and valid. But the Christian paradigm is not one of rights. Christians are forbidden to go to secular courts against one another (though presumably not forbidden to have their claims handled intra ecclesiam). More to the point, the Christian paradigm is Christ himself who did not hold on to his legitimate right to the privileges of the Godhead, but took the form of a servant, became man and died for us. The paradigmatic icon of the Christian husband–who, let it be noted, is given headship in the family–is not the Roman paterfamilias, who asserts his rights accountable only to himself or to the empire, but is again, the Christ who gave up his life to make holy his Bride. Thus to assert the mother’s right to choose (to kill her unborn child) over the unborn child’s right to live–or even vice versa let it be noted–is not the Christian mindset.

Rather the Christian notes that life is a gift given, not owed, to one. We neither assert any right to keep it beyond what God ordains, nor to give it up outside of what God wills. It is a gift to be treasured, so long as it is given to us. And given that we are a community of persons, we understand the gift of our own life to be a gift also given those to whom we have also been given in koinonia. Certainly the unborn child owes the gift of its life to God and its mother and father, and cannot assert that gift in such a way so as to deny the gift of life given its mother and father. But neither can mother or father deny their child that gift. All our life is a common gift given each of us uniquely, a treasure for which we are responsible to those with whom we are in koinonia. Similarly, as mother and father, the life we engender is not a gift we can return or ask to be returned. The life we engender is as much our gift to the child as the child’s life is a gift to us. We are responsible one to another for this gift, and none has the right to demand that life from the other. We are all responsible to cherish that gift and ensure its growth.

There is no adversarial rights relationship. Rather it is a communal relationship suffused with humility and self-sacrifice.

Given that more than 95% of the stated reasons for abortion do not have to do with rape or incest or the health of the mother (note my earlier post), then clearly the Christian understanding of personhood sketched out above, would preclude almost any abortion decision. And even in terms of the very difficult cases of rape, incest, and mother’s health, I think the Christian understanding I’ve outlined gives far more fruitful ground for considering the matter, than individuality and rights. Indeed, even in these cases, abortion (understood as an action intended to kill the unborn child) would not be a very viable alternative. Rather, birth and adoption (in the cases of rape and incest), or medical actions which intend to save the life of the mother (which, though it may also result in the death of the unborn child, is not abortion), would be the compassionate, life-affirming responses. Indeed, in the case of the health of the mother, the mother may also choose that which may well be life-endangering to herself as a gift of life to her unborn child. These considerations seem naturally to flow from the Christian understanding of personhood, but do not seem to follow from individuality and rights.

But let me also consider the mother in my paradigm. If we focus on the pregnant mother as primarily an individual with rights that are opposed to the individual within her and its rights, we put the mother in an untenable situation; essentially adding to the burden she already carries. She’s “on her own” as an individual with this abortion decision. Listen to the rhetoric for proponents of abortion rights: no one can make this decision for a women; it’s her decision alone. But how uncompassionate. In a moment such as this a woman, it would seem to this man, would need to know that she is in fact not alone. That this is not her decision, but is rather a decision shared by all those with whom she is in koinonia, including the unborn child in her womb. A woman faced with the choice of abortion is faced with a decision about death. Either she and her way of life “die” or the child itself (literally) dies. But a woman under the Christian paradigm that I’ve outlined, though faced with a most difficult decision and all its physical consequences, can affirm that whether she decides to parent the child herself or allow another loving couple to parent the child, she has made a decision of life. Of course, even in that decision, there are “deaths” to be experienced, but what a difference.

Consider also the father–the largely forgotten person in this conversation. In the abortion rights scenario of individuals and rights, he is completely cut off from any of the decision making. Indeed, though clearly the killing of the unborn child is the most tragic wrongs done, the condemnation of the father to moral and parental exile is a great wrong as well. If the father has no say in a life-and-death decision involving his unborn child, then why would we expect him to think he would have a role in raising the child? And if he himself would seem to prefer it this way, by abanding the mother and his own unborn child, then how do we remedy the situation by eliminating the reality of the gift for which he bears responsibility, and indeed, the gift of life that that unborn child will be giving back to him? It has not been unheard of in the history of the human male that otherwise self-centered automatons experience redemption through fatherhood. It’s not a given. But do we dare deny a father-to-be the chance of salvation and life?

I hope I have described the Christian understanding of personhood well enough, and laid enough of a sketch of a proof as to assert its plausibility, such that it can clearly be seen that the consistent Christian stance with regard to abortion has to do with affirming life (and standing against the practice of abortion).

Now many will by now be almost unrestrainable in wanting to assert: But you haven’t asked the most pressing question of all! When do fetuses become persons? I would hope that given the convictions outlined above, that this is understood to be a question without an answer, under the Christian paradigm, because it fails to understand the underlying reality. It’s like asking your physician at your annual physical: But what about whether I should itemize on my taxes or not? It’s a question that doesn’t make sense because it asserts presuppositions the Christian doesn’t accept. There is no point at which a fetus becomes a person, because in the Christian paradigm, we are always already born into community, and thus persons, and it is community that marks our personhood. When do we become a person? Precisely when we come to be. And we only come to be in the conjugal union of man and woman, who themselves were always already in community when they came to be, and so on back to Adam and Eve, and beyond them to the very life of the Trinity.

But this is the Christian conception–or at least I take it to be so. What about those who are not Christians? How can we persuade them to change their minds and accept our views, and–most importantly–get the laws changed? I would submit that, given the conception above, this, too, is a question that does not make sense. If one is not part of the Christan community, why would they want to accept its premises? Should Christians try to persuade them? Yes. Should Christians try to get the laws changed? Yes. Of course. But we must understand that this is a corollary of the premise: we must extend the life of God to those who are dead, so that they, too, may live. Changing laws can change people’s hearts. But changing people’s hearts is the fundamental task.

But more specifically, we need to reframe the abortion question in Christian terms. It will not do to stay within the paradigm of individuality and rights. We must put new wine into new wineskins. But of course, we must then live the life we talk. It will not do to talk life and live death–seeking affluence, shrugging off sexual immorality, accepting a divorce rate equivalent to those outside the Church. It’s time to demand more of ourselves, and to live the humble sacrificial life we profess. We must take in women in crisis pregnancies into our own homes. We must pray for them. We must adopt their children. If all they know of us is our shouting and picketing, we are not preaching life to them. We must also stand alongside them before they get to the abortion clinic.

We must change our thinking on abortion to conform with the Gospel. Our words and our lives must image the life we have been given. We must show them what personhood in Christ really means. Some accept the life-giving Gospel. Some will not. We are only called to be faithful.

12 thoughts on “On Personhood

  1. An interesting post, and one I largely agree with, however I think you are giving short shrift to the question of how this Christian concept of personhood should influence a non-Christian as it regards abortion and the law. I totally agree that the Church should do much more than merely protest (though there is a place for that) and that truly living as the Church-as-it-should-be would do much to change our society. But once again, what will that do in the meantime? How will such an influence change the laws? You say we should not allow this debate to remain in the realm of individual rights, but that is now a foundational assumption of our society and an idea that most everybody buys into in one way or another. Living as we should in Christ will affect this paradigm, but can it truly change it? It took over three centuries and an emperor on the Church’s side to change the Empire, and even then there were large sections of the population that were throwbacks to earlier times. What kind of momentous event will it take for this society in this time to change?

  2. Urggle.

    This is a huge post, my friend. Well done, but huge. you should have finished that thesis by now…(He says avoiding his own.)

    Here are a couple of questions:

    “Adversarial relatationships between mother and fetus” is something I too have struggled with. Preganancy is no mere consequence of sex. It is no mere accident. Yes, it has physical corolaries (spelling), but I think we may need to attach another topic within this.

    Why is it that we are havig sex? I am not suggesting polemics of “procreatoin vs. hedonism.” I would say that both are incomplete and mistaken approaches to sexual intercourse and/or intimacy.

    How do we talk about sex? We can say that it belongs within matrimony. Okay. But married people have abortions for several differing reasons (as many as there are people), and birth control is one plausable reason. Why then have sex? If sex is a life affirming act, a love affirming act…a “sacrament” if you will…then why let the act end with simple intercourse? It should be allowed to continue into pro/co-creation.

    I think our sexual ethics are incomplete and that complicates the abortio issue. So much of the abortion issue stems from a preceives societal control over how women live as seperate and different from how men live. I think this is unchristian, as you would probably agree. Christian virtue is shared. There are no “masculine” Christian virtues (courage?) or “feminine” Christian virtues (chastity?). Sopciety has done this. The pro-choice folk are rebelling aginst this as well. More coservative Christians have often inappropriately adopted gender specific (exclusive?) sexual virtues.

    A man demonstrates his virility.
    A woman her chastity.

    This is not a Christian position, but it is societal. So, is it an issue of Christian feminism?

    Blah…circle the airport, much?!

  3. Tripp:

    If we take my sketch of personhood as normative, then sex is both about procreation–how could it not be?!–and about koinonia. There is intimacy, “knowing” one another in all that that metaphor captures. But it is designed, it naturally is the case, that sex is procreative. When we put human barriers in between sex/knowing and sex/procreation, I submit, we diminish one another’s personhood.

    Yes, there are hard cases which you allude to. But hard cases make bad law. We must understand and articulate what is normative–that is to say, designed by God–and live that way. If that means big families, so be it. Since when did Christians have to go along with the secular mindset that small families are somehow normative? For all the hard cases, there are 95% more of the total cases that are regular cases in which it boils down to willful rejection of God’s design. (That was awkwardly worded, but hopefully my point comes through.)

    And yes, dear friend, I am seriously rethinking this whole contraception issue precisely in light of what I’ve articulated above.

    Re: Christian virtues. I do admit that much of what haunts the Christian mind nowadays is reconstituted Victorian principles (not that these were all bad, mind you). So we would do well to rethink this matter. But in that we humans are always embodied as male and female, then, it just makes sense that males and females will have particular virtues associated with their sex. I cannot, for example, embody the virtue of motherhood. Sure I can embody the virtue of nurture, but such emodiment will always be one of fatherhood. This is why men and women are not replaceable in terms of childrearing. I could teach Sofie about being a women, but only Anna can embody it for her. I cannot.

    For all of modernity’s attempt to make men and women interchangeable, you can’t fight sex. And sociological parenting studies back this up again and again–which is why you have to dig to find them.

  4. Nathan:

    I’m not sure I have any credibility in pontificating about what sort of historical/societal event(s) it will take to change the individual/rights paradigm to person/community paradigm.

    But let me suggest the planks for such a change have been laid in “postmodernity.” (I’ll not take the time now to explain the scare quotes.) One of the buzzwords of pomo’ity is community. Pomo’ism is rejecting the radical individualism of modernity, and seeking a better vision.

    I’m not a fan of the em-church movement–for a variety of reasons–but the one thing they have legitimately, and praiseworthily, have tapped into is this felt need for community.

    The mindset on abortion is changing, too, according to the polls. Polls are well just polls. But the shift away from a pro-abortion stance has been in measurable and steady movement for some years. And that shift is taking place largely among the “yoods.”

    All of which is to say, it seems to me that now is a good time to preach the Christian understanding of personhood.

  5. Okay…I think we agree in some of this.

    But if we are going argue with a non-Christian political lobby from a Christian perspective, we shoul be perpared for a couple of things.

    1. we should know the “Secular” pressures that are being rebelled agaist. Everyting from macho-ism to “the wife MUST stay at home because girls are made that way” attitudes are carried out in secular communities. They have also been adopted by Christians as well. Thus we have to, I believe, clearly articulate how the faith is not about machoism nor about controling women and not men etc. This is not something that groups like Promise Keepers have done well. And that is what I am getting at.

    The same research that expresses difference between genders is the same reaseach that suggests that women are not genetically better cooks, should wear skirts, are bad at math etc. Some of this is cultural stereotyping and unChristian.

    So, if we want to argue that the church is a safe place to be a woman (a person) and that we do not think that abortion is right/good etc, then we have to ally ourselves with women in other aspects of feminist critique.

  6. Tripp:

    I’m not sure about this, but you and I agreeing . . . I think it’s a sign the Rapture is immanent. (Strapping on my Superman cape.)

    While I’m not high on Promise Keepers–for different reasons than thou–still attributing something like misogynism to them is, my brother, something of a cheap shot. For all the secular hysteria over Promise Keepers, no one I personally know (nor any of the accounts I’ve read in the media) justifies that Promise Keepers was about women being home, pregnant and in the kitchen, nor about controlling women. Nor was Promise Keepers about machismo. Ever seen or read about one of their “altar calls.” Men weeping everywhere, brother.

    That said, Christians do need to come to a better understanding of what it means to be a Christian man and a Christian woman. The Saints’ lives seem an appropriate place to begin.

    The sociological studies I alluded to were about parenting, and not about sex roles. I did not understand them to be so, nor did I intend to come across as asserting they were about sex roles. But that parenting is embodied in the specific sexes is both self-evident and reiterated by such research.

    I agree with you that the “men are good at math and leadership” and “women are good at nurturing and following” are suspect. And because many non-Christians and secularized Christians get hysterical when we start talking about sex-embodiment, we would do well to articulate our Gospel carefully and winsomely.

    I hope this is what I have done.

  7. Excellent writing! A way to think about this further is to take the image of Christ hymn in Philippians and apply it to the woman. That hymn is not for men or the husband only. The prochoice argument I hear is “how can you ask a woman to bear a child for nine months that she truly and honestly doesn’t want?” As Christians, we may have to ask a woman to imitate Christ’s self-givng and self-sacrificial love. A pregnant woman gives up her own life for nine months, in a sense, and if we don’t acknowledge that could be a real hardship for a woman who doesn’t want to be pregnant, we’re at fault. We need an answer to “why should I do this?” I think the answer could be “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”

  8. MAybe I have misrepresented the Promise Keepers. I have probably read do much opposing polemical stuff there. Nevertheless, the problem exists. The Christian husband who feels it is his duty to correct his wife since he is the head of the hous as Christ is the head of the Church needs to meet the saints.

    We were talking about two different studies.

    Trish is better at math than I am. Thank you, Jesus!

    You have a Superman cape? Wow. The Orthodox church is cool. I just get an oversized towel.

    Jennifer: The Christ hymn is for all. Yes. But what do you do with the anti-martyrdom attitude that exists in many main-line traditions? “Jesus died. I don’t have to.” quickly translates to “Jesus suffered. I do not have to.”

  9. I haven’t encountered that attitude in the mainline churches that I attend(ed), but I would re-educate them on what baptism is (death and rebirth of self into the body of Christ) and read them the Gospel of Mark and say, Get behind me Satan.

    Sorry for just a quick answer. Gotta run to lunch.

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