(This is part 5 of an ongoing series that starts here…)
To be human means to have a history. Our histories have profound effects upon who we are and what we are like. This is so evidently true that all languages have hundreds of words that make distinctions based upon personal history. A widow is physically indistinguishable from a divorcee. A father from a bachelor. A victim from a perpetrator. An orphan from an heir.
Our histories also affect our legal status. Immigrants have different status by virtue of origin. Seniors have certain rights by virtue of age. Victims have standing in a court while non-victims do not. Debilitating accidents may cast our self-determination upon others.
At least in my reading, most evangelicals writing about beginning-of-life issues make the assumption that “an embryo is an embryo is an embryo.” All embryos with human DNA are “human beings”, period. There is no recognition whatsoever that embryos themselves have narrative histories. There is the assumption that whenever an embryo exists, “someone’s” personal life history has begun. I am not certain this is true.
What are the salient features of the narrative of the beginning of life in the Bible? Adam was formed directly by God, (body from the earth) and then inbreathed by God as a separate, remarkable action. But prior even to this, God determined to make Man. Man existed first in the imagination of God, as an end of his forming of man. When God made Eve, the same elements are found: imagination, purpose, forming of matter, but not, this time, the separate breathing. God then commands them to reproduce and "fill the earth." But for Biblical man, this was never a matter of simple determination like it is for God. Man couples, but it is always understood that God opens the womb. The life narratives of adult husband and wife do include attempts to beget children, but do not include the actual beginning of any of their offspring’s' lives. These lives begin in secret, in the dark womb, as God's action. This is a deeply important concept in the scriptures, worth emphasizing. Children are not simply made, by the will of man or woman, but are given by God, originating in his mind just as did Adam and Eve, where is known their entire narrative, "all their days, before there is yet one of them." We see this over and over, from Sarah and Rebecca to Hannah, Bathsheba and Mary.
The narrative of each of our lives, then, originates not in those of our parents, but in God's. Our parents' lives are the setting, or context, but not the source of our own lives. The story of one's life originates in God.
This is the point made in Psalm 139, which is commonly reasoned backwards by evangelicals. The adult psalmist traces not only his origin but also his entire life story back to the mind and purposes of God. He is marveling not at the power of his own embryo to self-assemble and develop into a baby, but at God's sublime action in purposefully forming him through all the stages of his physical development. He sees his life as coming from God, who conceived him in His mind before he was even a single cell, and formed him in his mother's womb (of stuff he couldn't begin to understand; but the nature of that stuff is not his point, the Builder is.)
To close today: The zygote or embryo is not the origin of the narrative of any human life. That narrative begins in the purposes of God. This, I think, is the witness of all the Bible narratives, and meditations, from front to back. This distinction has several implications for how we view embryos, which I’ll begin to develop next post.