When I woke this morning, it was sunny for the first time in weeks. I believe everything is interconnected, interdependent, so I took the sunshine as a signal that my mental and spiritual condition would reshape itself today, and I shouldn’t stand in the way of that process. The sun is struggling a bit, and so am I, but I am open to what comes.
In that frame of mind and spirit, I sat to journal for the second time in, well, months. Last year, I took a class in journaling and learned to create a regular space in time to sit and write on a single word or phrase or idea without stopping for 15 minutes. While I practiced that technique, I discovered it was much more than a way to record my thoughts at any point in time, although it is that. It also took me on journeys into myself to places I wouldn’t otherwise have reached.
When I put things into words, it makes conscious what was unconscious and amorphous. I can get hold of an idea, turn it and consider it and follow its lead to shape another word or thought. Making something conscious is a creative act, and it leads me on a journey to other words, drawing other thoughts from that amorphous place that is unity. Sometimes we call that unity G-d.
In the first chapters of Genesis, G-d creates with words. Consider that for a moment. The “earth” is “tohu va-vohu,” formlessness and emptiness. G-d speaks, and shapes emerge through the differentiations language provides: light and dark, waters above and waters below, land and sea and vegetation. G-d fills those environments with life, using words: sun, moon and stars, creatures of the land and sea and air, and finally, a human being. Words are creative. Words give shape to “tohu va-vohu,” and they transform unconsciousness to consciousness. Words create the world and the life in it.
I’m thinking about consciousness today because when I sat to journal, what I wanted to write about is a set of labels we created in our country, “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” and my thoughts led me to consider consciousness.
A teacher once said to me, religion is the language of “as if.” That being the case, our juxtaposition of pro-life and pro-choice creates an orthodoxy of extremes, and we are living today as if that alienated state of being were ultimate truth.
These labels we have chosen set out the terms of a complex moral dilemma in a framework that invites conflict. These words as we wield them fail completely to take us on a journey into ourselves. They fail to strengthen our connection to the unity in and behind all being.
Words are powerful and creative, yes, but they also differentiate. There is a balance, and we cling to these phrases in a way that our words only differentiate us, forcing us into limitations of thought that drive us further and further apart from each other and from whatever idea of G-d we hold.
In Starting Thought, I shared this idea about food: “As we gather raw ingredients, prepare food and eat, we embrace the central moral paradox of human existence, that it requires taking life to sustain life. How we respond to that paradox defines us as human beings.” In an age of “alternative facts,” this is one incontrovertible fact for all of us. In order to live, we must take life.
Our profound and primary moral dilemma as human beings is to decide what life to take. This dilemma presents itself to us in every moment. Every religion deals with this dilemma and provides its own tools to navigate it. Because religions are complex responses to complex human experiences and dilemmas, the answers within any religion are never black and white but rather nuanced, showing us a path for exercising consciousness, thinking and decision-making. Any seemingly clear-cut statement demands interpretation and exceptions.
Some of us prefer not to deal with moral dilemmas and follow what we perceive to be clear-cut prescriptions in religions. Or we remove the reality of these daily choices from our field of perception. Factory farms are an example of this path. Picking up a package of meat in plastic wrap at the store effectively separates us from the reality that we allowed suffering and caused the death of a creature.
Using words as labels to say who we are and what we think instead of using them to explore ourselves and others, instead of using them to create, is another way to escape struggling with the moral dilemma at the root of our existence in the world. And to be sure, not one of us can give each second of our existence the focus and thought it requires if we regard it as a dilemma between taking and giving life — so we accept certain norms and engage in certain rituals that don’t require minute attention.
And so I wanted to think about these labels today when I sat to journal: pro-life and pro-choice. In sharing my thoughts, I’m not focusing on individual experiences and dilemmas, stories of personal suffering and joy. These stories are at the foundation of any discussion, and our experiences shape us — but it’s not where I am going to focus in this post.
I also don’t want to sink into consistency or a debate framed by specific theologies. Of course my religion and my culture influence my thinking profoundly, just as my experience does. Those are facts of human existence for us all.
What I want to do is simply share some (now elaborated) random thoughts I had this morning and encourage responses — because while words make us all creators, words we exchange with others create in a different way.
PRO-LIFE & PRO-CHOICE IN THE BIBLE
Today we use “pro-life” as a label, but I want to explore broader meanings. I believe for many who assign the label to themselves and use it as a litmus test for others, it really means “pro-birth.” Joan Chittister, a member of the Benedictine Sisters of Erie, PA, a noted international lecturer as well as a former fellow at St. Edmund’s College, Cambridge University, England, author of numerous books and articles and co-chair of the Global Peace Initiative of Women, a partner organization of the UN, captures this thought with her words: “I do not believe that just because you’re opposed to abortion, that makes you pro-life. In fact, I think in many cases, your morality is deeply lacking if all you want is a child born but not a child fed, not a child educated, not a child housed. And why would I think that you don’t? Because you don’t want any tax money to go there. That’s not pro-life. That’s pro-birth. We need a much broader conversation on what the morality of pro-life is.”
Certainly the Bible is pro-life, but the conversation is framed very differently from the way we frame it today. I suggest the framing, through stories, is more nuanced, richer and less polarizing than our current framing in a label. “Choose life that you may live.” (Deut. 30:19). Contemplating the meaning of this phrase is a lifelong journey in a world where the one incontrovertible fact of our existence is that we must take life in order to live.
The phrase also highlights that the Bible is fundamentally pro-choice. This phrase doesn’t compel us to choose life, however we understand the word. It tells us to choose it and informs us that choices have consequences. Chapter 3 of Genesis makes the same points about life. The first human beings receive instructions. They make a choice that gives them moral consciousness when they eat from the Tree of Good and Evil. And there are ambiguous consequences of their choice: warned that if they make the “wrong” choice, they will “surely die,” when they do make that wrong choice, they are cast into life. Would it have been better for human beings not to have moral consciousness, indeed, not to live?
So the biblical text is perhaps not as unequivocal as we thought. It is pro-life and it is pro-choice. Choosing has consequences, the consequences play out forever, and categories of right and wrong aren’t always that clear. Indeed, we might even call these categories labels, and this is one reason I think the Bible presents a richer and more complex framework for thinking about these issues than we provide in our modern cultural and political debate.
CONSCIOUSNESS IN THE BIBLE
As I thought further, connecting word to word during my 15 minutes this morning, I came to the word, “consciousness.” It’s a word we toss around a lot these days with phrases like “conscious choice,” reminding ourselves to think about our actions in the world, about how our choices affect not just ourselves but the world beyond ourselves. Three things occurred to me about consciousness in the Bible:
- Consciousness is creative.
- Consciousness is fundamental to choosing. Without it, choice is a non-issue, a moot point.
- Consciousness is also fundamental to life. If there is no consciousness, is there life? Conversely, is there life without consciousness as we define it?
The Bible suggests all three premises in the first chapters of Genesis in the nuanced way that stories do. The words resist precise definition, and we should as well, at least during a thought and discussion process.
That third point in particular, the relationship between consciousness and life, seems a little tricky. There are definitely things in the world we say are living, but we wouldn’t necessarily go on to say they are conscious. On the other hand, perhaps that is a matter of definition. While plants perhaps don’t have consciousness according to our current definition, they react to their environment and communicate among themselves. Similarly bacteria and amoebas react to their environment, live in colonies and communicate among themselves.
In a beautifully nuanced story, the first three chapters of Genesis tell us that all of creation is an outpouring of G-d’s consciousness and creativity. Similarly, G-d requires creativity from all creatures. When G-d creates land, sea and air creatures, G-d tells them, be fruitful and multiply, which we can understand as, be creative. And G-d uses the same words when G-d creates humans. That vegan world exalts life, the result of G-d’s creativity through the use of words, a product of consciousness.
Humans are creative beings before they are conscious beings. Even in their pre-conscious state, they possess freedom of choice. When they exercise their freedom of choice, they gain moral discernment and responsibility and are thrust into life, assaulted with its reality.
Not until human beings eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil do they become conscious, and not until they are ejected from the Garden, thrust into life, do they have opportunities to exercise it through conscious choice-making. Eating from the Tree is not a moral action since human beings are not conscious. This suggests pre-conscious human beings are not responsible, although their actions nonetheless bring consequences.
So the Bible associates consciousness and moral responsibility with life in the world, not necessarily with an abstraction of life, a pre-conscious life, life that is not confronted with choices. In fact, the Bible associates consciousness with all creatures, because all creatures live outside the Garden in the world along with human creatures.
Yet even as we associate consciousness and life, we can’t be too quick to say there is no life before entry to the world. At the same time the Bible associates consciousness with life in the world, it allows for a time/space where there is life without consciousness.
With consciousness, choice and responsibility, we are in the image of G-d. This suggests that a fetus, while as much an expression of G-d and consciousness as anything in the world, is not yet in the image of G-d. And life itself is ambiguous. G-d tells the human beings if they eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they will surely die. Yet when the humans beings did eat, choosing not to follow an explicit instruction from G-d, they gain consciousness, and both they and their fellow creatures are thrust from the Garden into life, an environment of birth and death and choice and responsibility.
There were consequences for all creation in that human action. Was the action good or bad? The consequences of it? And it is these nuances, this ambiguity of meaning, that prompts us to think more deeply about what life is as we contemplate decisions of life and death.
The Bible presents us with a nuanced tale that, among other things, explores the relationship between ultimate unity, life and consciousness, choice and responsibility, a complex interweaving in which all these ideas, expressed in the words of a story, are inextricably linked.
CONSCIOUSNESS & HUMAN LIFE ACCORDING TO SCIENCE
As I wrote in my journal today, I wondered, when does consciousness begin in a human being? An article in Scientific American provided me with these facts:
- Babies lack self-awareness, although they have some basic level of unreflective, present-oriented consciousness.
- The substrate of consciousness, the “thalamo-cortical complex that provides consciousness with its highly elaborate content” begins to be put in place during the 24th to 28th weeks of gestation.
- In the third trimester, the infant is almost always in one of 2 sleep states, active and quiet 95% of the time, the remaining 5% a transition between the two.
- Do infants dream, a different kind of consciousness? We don’t know.
- At birth, the dramatic events of a birth, some would say an assault, cause the infant to wake up, draw its first breath and begin to experience life.
Other writers say:
- A human fetus begins to develop a corpus callosum (inter-hemispheric communication) and the sulci (ridges that are a sign of intelligence) only after week 13 and the myelination and rapid synapse growth happen during week 23 and 28 respectively. So the fetus cannot be called a sentient, self aware, conscious being until this point. It is more of a reflexive low level organism until then.
- Different people define it in different ways, so it is anywhere from Week 23 in gestation to 15 months after birth.
- Our best guesses suggest it’s somewhere between formation of brain-matter appropriate to cognition and “other-awareness.” The measures we gauge by tend towards the beginnings of the ability to communicate or differentiate.
An article in Wired describes research showing that “babies display glimmers of consciousness and memory as early as 5 months old.”
As I read these comments and consider the science, I can’t help but be struck with the insights of the first chapters of Genesis into life and consciousness, pre-conscious states, language and creativity, both reflecting the scientific information we now have and enriching our understanding even further with a nuanced story.
We live in the midst of an ethical dilemma. The natural process we are part of requires taking life to sustain it. This, indeed, is the focus of my blog, to think “out loud” about these issues in direct and oblique ways.
Some point to the biblical prohibition against murder as a way to justify a prohibition against abortion, which some interpret as murder. I have tried to raise here, though, some questions about life and consciousness to consider. There are many ways in which a fetus is not the same as a conscious human being. If our category for judgment is, on the other hand, life, “life” is in everything. If it is sacred and worthy of preservation, we must think about it on a continuum not in terms of life is here, not there. It isn’t possible to live in the world without taking life.
But even if we were to apply the murder prohibition only to a fully conscious human being in the world, there are questions that demand thought and interpretation against other moral considerations. In our law code, we allow self-defense. Killing a person because they threaten your life is not murder. Further, all creatures, even humans, have had to deal with what to do with weaker fellow creatures in hostile environments in the course of our history. Should we judge others in circumstances we can’t imagine for choosing life so they may live? Issues of life and death demand thoughtful, informed discussion, not labels.
With regard to our national debate on abortion, framing our discussion in terms of “pro-life” and “pro-choice” not only oversimplifies, blocks creative thought and discussion and causes alienation, it utterly neglects to address important ethical dilemmas like the moral value of life at one place in the continuum and life at another place on it, why the decisions we make about life and death are important to to the moral foundation of a society and so concern that society as a whole, how we can balance the fundamental necessity of human freedom and choice with living in community and more.
Science provides insight into questions of life and death and consciousness, things we can consider as we weigh these issues. On the other hand, sacred scriptures of all religions offer a better framework for considering issues of life and death than the one we use in 21st century America with its juxtaposition between pro-life and pro-choice, as if they are opposed.
DEFINITIONS & LAWS
Even as our definitions in any discussion of life and death will inevitably have illusive boundaries, living productively and creatively in the world requires that we interpret and define. We must have guidelines for behavior, even laws, if we are to live together as a community.
While there is a reality beyond our immediate cultural and religious context, a continuum of life, of consciousness, a unity, we connect to that experience of unity, that pre-conscious state, in a variety of ways. Even with full knowledge of the unity that surges through everything, our every day world requires that we make choices, often centered on the claims of moral issues that bump up against each other. Rarely but occasionally, the moral choice is clear. Other times, several moral issues bump up against each other, and we call that clash of issues an ethical dilemma. Life itself is, as we have seen, founded on an ethical dilemma, taking life to sustain life.
For the most part, we make decisions about these ethical dilemmas alone or in discussion with a close group of others concerned with the same set of issues or who might be impacted by a decision. Issues like life and death that impact society and our ability to live together require a more broadly based consensus or legislation. Most societies have written law codes and create some mechanism for interpretation and revision.
Legislation becomes even more complicated in a modern world where societies are multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-racial and multi-gendered. Moral codes are born out of specific historical and personal experiences and deserve respect in any conversation about legislation that impacts the lives of us all.
Just as the words an individual uses in writing or speaking represent a creative process, so are laws the result of a creative process of exchanging words with each other and making choices. Even if we believe our laws were not a human process, that a supernatural G-d delivered the words to the inhabitants of earth, the process of understanding and interpreting the words is. This process is an answer to questions about how can we live together in community, still leaving people room to exercise that fundamental aspect of their nature as conscious human beings, choice. Laws are not a final resolution of what is right and what is wrong.
How can we talk and legislate on a label like “pro-life?” Certainly we can talk, trying to get at what it means, or at least what it means to ourselves and to others. It is useless for legislation, though, because as a slogan, it can have no meaningful definition.
Everything lives. One person’s choices on that continuum are not another’s, and not one of us can say for a fact where “life” begins and where it ends. Similarly we cannot say with certainty what consciousness is and which aspects of creation evidence it. All we know with certainty is that there is a paradox at the root of our existence, and in the course of our lives, we will take life to survive. Perhaps we are not aware that we’re making that choice — but we are, in each moment.
Do these dilemmas and our multi-ness mean we cannot make any laws? Of course we must, we can, and we do. But legislation is based on careful definitions, not slogans, and on broad-based consensus. We’re not even close. We haven’t even begun to have meaningful discussions.
For a person shaped by a biblical perspective, human moral dilemmas and the responsibility to make moral decisions are an emblem of being in the image of the creator. In the world, in the face of moral dilemmas, our choices aren’t always clear, and the choices we each make are shaped by our unique circumstances, only one aspect of which is the society in which we live.
These dilemmas require more than labels from us. They require us to use words creatively to search ourselves and our neighbors and to make choices and laws as best we can based the insights we gain through caring, thoughtful, open conversation. Using words to create meaningful lives is, from the biblical perspective, another emblem of being in the image of the creator.
I always return to my own sacred text as my best framework for framing words, creating thoughts and ideas and practices and making moral decisions. I encourage others to share the riches and wisdom of their sacred texts or any source of wisdom or information on which they draw to help us think together about the deepest paradox of life, that we must take life to sustain life. At the same time, we must find ways to live together in our world as moral human beings, each making our own conscious choices to sustain ourselves while keeping our footprint as small as possible.
*Note: In this discussion, when I write about what the Bible tells us, it is shorthand for this is how the text speaks to me. I put my comments out here for your consideration in thinking about these issues and shaping a framework for conversation.
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