When does life begin?

This piece by Cynthia Bourgeault is the third in a series beginning with “A Surprising Ecumenism“, her response to Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism in the USA: A Surprising Ecumenism“, an article published by La Civiltà Cattolica. The second is “Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal“.

In this third installment of what now looks to be shaping up as five-part series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul; for it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.

Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather than “the Wisdom perspective”, for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding; specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.

The beginnings of life

The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception – “life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest: a myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens – volitionally – rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.

There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.

Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs: “The egg opens to a single sperm”, she explained, “then closes”. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then, all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. “‘Ignition!’ we all call it”. Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”

However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars”, Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.

Life not Soul

So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of life do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.

But hang onto your hats – this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that Life – which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before – is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.

In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “X-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul”, the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice – in acknowledgement of which it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.

In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical road map (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology”, long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the pro-life rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul, and they need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways; hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.

The Wisdom tradition – at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in – would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul but, rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning, it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.

The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here: it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next post. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees all stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.

Stay tuned for the next installment – to follow promptly.

15 replies
  1. Ed Valentine
    Ed Valentine says:

    Thanks, Cynthia. I am wondering about the role of science in our discussion.

    I’m certainly no scientist, but I’m led to understand that science validates the ultimate “unknowability” of how things work. I have no capacity to explain quantum entanglement, uncertainty principals, or probability waves, but they seem to lead in the general direction of unknowability. And again, as I understand it, “unknowability” does not refer to something we just don’t understand now, but rather it refers to the mathematical certainty that it cannot ever be known.

    If any of this is so, then we can probably rule out the egg/sperm/baby explanation of life and introduce the unknowable x factor which animates the ingredients in mysterious and maybe quantum ways. I’m wondering if the nature of the x factor prohibits our pinpointing at a physical level the moment of life conception and at a metaphysical level the moment of soul development. If both of these (life and soul) exist everywhere all the time as ideal phenomena awaiting a particular iteration, then actually nothing changes at the moment of conception or over the course of a life lived. It is just alpha and omega made manifest. But if we view these two things as sequential and, in the case of soul, somehow earned, then we introduce the whole temporal debate that surrounds the pro-choice/pro-life conversation. Both pre-suppose an order of events from no-person to person and both define a temporal moment when a particular act is appropriate or inappropriate for temporal reasons (not yet a person, already a person). Both assertions presume a linear forward-only perspective on time, a perspective proven scientifically to be false. If time is either malleable or illusory, then so also is everything that is defined by when it occurred. My head is hurting, but I’m wondering if science invalidates a lot of things, but actually validates nothing. If so, science is difficult to cite as support for either side of this complex debate.

  2. Patricia Harte
    Patricia Harte says:

    Thanks Cynthia I eagerly await your next post– I have heard of those who believe that even though the fetus is physically removed, its spirit or soul contines to grow and develop ‘in spirit’ to the extent that some persons have claimed to have ‘seen’ their child or have had him or her revealed or appear to them at differing stages of its development!

  3. gail
    gail says:

    Here’s one that’s far out on the edge…. what if….we each exist potentially in the implicate order awaiting the moment of arising at some unknown point in time. At birth we are an emergent from the flow of the implicate order to life with a swat on the butt! Before that gateway entrance we are still in some way potential…. At that first agonizing gasp of breath, spirit ( the developmental soul…I like that!!) enters and we’re off on the unknowing journey of a lifetime.

  4. Eben Carsey
    Eben Carsey says:

    Are there other ways to think about the “evidence… that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm / egg / baby but, rather, sperm / egg / X / baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry”? Perhaps X is not necessarily a third force that is an “infusion” from “beyond” biochemistry but instead a third force that is biochemically inherent in the potential synergy that erupts from the procession of the dance of egg and sperm together in the environment of their dance floor? Isn’t there impenetrable mystery present already WITHIN all of this without having to call upon some mystery from beyond?

  5. Sioux Messinger
    Sioux Messinger says:

    Big Respect, Cynthia, for sharing your truth so bravely. Few would enter this conversation in the way that you are! Eagerly awaiting your next post. With Love, Sioux

  6. Lawrie Okurowski
    Lawrie Okurowski says:

    Thank you, Cynthia, for the love and wisdom you impart.
    I was born into a large old Philadelphia Quaker family. As such, I have no memory of being without a sense of my soul, or “That of God” in me. Our Oneness with all was conveyed in everyday living along with our eternality (“developmental soul”). This sacred continuum ( “And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever”) deserves a heartfelt intention of non interruption even as life’s circumstances may prevail.

  7. Emma Harley
    Emma Harley says:

    The thing that strikes me most about this discussion, about ‘when’ life begins, is the very way in which it seems to get bound up in linear time, and almost cleaved by the concept of death. In taking us into a discussion on the nature of the soul, and its relationship to matter, or incarnation, I sense that there is much fear that is evoked in terms of doing harm to God’s Will. It seems that there is a fear that irrevocable damage can be done to God’s plan, that the endless birthing and blessing of God’s essence as it spills forth through spirit, and into soul and then matter, can be abruptly halted by our human choices? That indeed death is real, and more final than Creation itself. So it seems a question of Trust.

    That is not to minimise the significance of the question of what happens when conception, creation is ‘refused’ – i.e. what is the impact on one’s own conscience and relationship with the Divine of refusing God’s Will (though how could we presume to know for another, what God’s will or need is in any given situation?) – and I’m sure that most of us do that every day (fail to heed God’s will that is), numerous times (!).

    With more gravity, certainly, the symbolism, and the relationship to one’s own being and body of choosing to ‘terminate’ is indeed a significant and weighty matter. I worked with a young woman recently on this matter – she is quite spiritually-thoughtful but she and her very young partner felt in no way that they had the wherewithal at the moment to have their baby and they chose a termination. It seemed at the time at which we met that their decision was already a given and would not be swayed – and therefore that at least in trying to understand the real spiritual and psychological implications with honest conscience and held in compassion – there was more hope for growth and healing than a framework which feared irrevocable damage to God’s plan could hold.

    I think the real question is not the matter of destroying a soul (as if we humans were really so powerful), but the matter of how we relate to God’s Will and how we live in conscience with ourselves without the judgment of others.

  8. Rose Marie Doyle
    Rose Marie Doyle says:

    I rely on the biblical record of the Visitation. Jesus, newly conceived in the womb of Mary communicates the Holy Spirit to John the Baptist, a six month pre-born child, and he leaps for joy in his mother’s womb. That settles it for me! 

  9. Catherine Swan Reimer
    Catherine Swan Reimer says:

    The Navajo people believe that the fetus is a person at conception. Mary experienced the child as Jesus at conception. As a mother the different children exhibit different tendencies early in the womb! We are God’s very act of creation….scripture said He knew us in the womb! The awesome miracle is we are enveloped into consciousness by the Great Consciousness tenderly hovering over our us from our alpha to our omega moment in time!… and we are totally there in our unique consciousness!…the soul is created at conception!

  10. john davies
    john davies says:

    This is exciting… x Maybe the soul enters at quickening certainly all becomes much more animated at that point.. x love you cynthia .. x

  11. Rudy Hwa
    Rudy Hwa says:

    I really like that idea of “the potential to develop a soul”. The concept of potential is very much in line with quantum physics. Is it a particle or wave that initiates the “ignition”? Because of the uncertainty associated with that duality, the moment of ignition is also uncertain. It is then quite reasonable to regard that moment as the beginning of a “potential” to develop a soul. As the title of your post suggests, life is not discrete that can be counted digitally. Teilhard has said that the creative process is continuous. I eagerly await your next post.
    Thanks for sharing your deep thoughts on a difficult subject.

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