Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Multiplying Fruitfulness: Meaning and/or Nihilism in Procreation

by Andrew Van’t Land

North American Christianity has increasingly taken some heat (though perhaps not enough) for the ways in which it has promoted the family as the normative institutional shape for social life. These polemics come in response to the last several decades’ common refrain of “biblical family living”, a not-so-subtle idealizing of the 20th-century nuclear family unit as the “basic building block of society”. There are countless reasons why I love the institution of the family, and I am grateful for its mediating role between individual and society and between the private and the public domains. Yet recently, I have begun to wonder whether North American family-praising is complicit in the nihilism (erosion of meaning) which surfaces in some overly reductive biological portraits of the ends and means of organic existence.

In emphasizing the family’s importance, many Christians insist obsessively that “children are a gift from God.” The truth of this truism is rendered suspect by the cliché’s blind disregard for circumstances (viz., Richard Mourdock’s horrifying response to pregnant rape victims). North American Christians (NACs) have gained a reputation for loudly trumpeting “family values” and unchecked childbirth overtop the melodies of other types of relationships and commitments. Irksomely, the children-as-gift motif is often trotted out to shut down the gift status of other good things, such as other relationships and projects which childlessness might allow people to pursue more deeply.

A multiplicity of mindsets seem to have given rise to the phenomenon of North American family idolatry: Calvinist covenant theology, Catholic natural law theology, Evangelical biblical literalism, and others. These attitudes differ in their fundamental commitments, but they share a basic sense that the purpose of life is to generate life. I think that this is a profound—and profoundly correct—position; however, I also worry that overly narrow interpretations of this claim devolve quickly into nihilism. I suggest that we creatures re-gift life to each other in many other ways besides merely procreating: not only do humans negatively offer each other life by striving not to kill each other, but we positively offer each other life by caring for one another (viz. getting first aid training, throwing parties to celebrate an individual, giving each other gifts). To be sure, some of this positive life-giving involves sustaining life at the purely biological level (e.g., building a healthcare infrastructure to keep peoples’ bodies functioning properly). However, much of life-giving transcends the biological in order to care for others’ emotional well-being (e.g., tactfully approaching others in times of grieving) or for others’ aesthetic appreciation (e.g., sharing in artistic experiences). NACs often pay lip service to this multitude of life-giving practices, but we often undercut the variety of vectors in which creation flourishes by subordinating them to the foremost activity of creating children.

Take, for instance, the evangelical Quiverfull movement, the quintessential NAC organization dedicated to the expansion of the family. Quiverfull lists on its website “Ten Great Reasons to Have Another Child.” Some of these reasons (e.g., 2. “to bring joy into your life”, 6. “so you... won’t be lonely in your old age”) succumb easily to accusations that procreation is simply narcissism or vicarious living, whereby parents create clones of themselves out of self-love and/or fear of their own deaths. Other reasons (e.g., 7. “because people are our greatest resource,” 8. “to contribute to the economy”) might be criticized as functionalist, thereby ideologically legitimating and perpetuating the social status quo. However, not all of these reasons given can be considered either selfish or utilitarian (e.g., 1. “to join with God in the creation of an immortal soul,” 10. “to help populate heaven”). These last reasons seem to exhibit the very grace and gratuity which is God’s signature: the act of creation is good per se—it gives life abundantly. However, this is undercut by the article’s claim that “children are God’s greatest gifts.” This mis-translates the organization’s namesake scriptural passage, which claims that “children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from Him” (Psalm 137:3-5 NIV). Notice the difference between Quiverfull’s superlative emphasis (“greatest gift”) and the Psalmist’s emphasis on children being one gift among many (“a heritage”, “a reward”).

Elevating one gift above all others in this manner ultimately results in the devaluation of all gifts (including child-bearing). If the purposive end of all a given organism’s actions (means) is merely the procreation of new organisms, then it seems that life is meaningless. The purpose of existence in such an account reduces creatures—human beings, no less—to a series of dominos, each tipping the next over. What is lacking in this imaginary is a sense of entelechy, the state of a being which is fully actualizing its nature here and now, fulfilling and enjoying the work which it is created to enact. In this reductionistic account (which I think underpins both evangelical family-idolatry and evolutionary biologism), there is no sense in which a being’s telos (end, goal) can co-exist with its means: beings exist only to create more beings, which exist only to create more beings, and so on. Devoid of any immanent purpose, this dynamic is merely a viral proliferation, a cancerous generation, existing only to replicate itself. How many horror or sci-fi movies share this premise? And yet the church and the academy often adopt this nihilistic spiral of endlessly deferred significance as their default anthropology.

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Permit me to shift from ecclesiastical matters to scientific ones for a moment. A prominent variety of biological reductionism hinges on this same assumption, that life exists only to propagate life. According to evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, “We are survival machines—robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes” (The Selfish Gene, xxi). Procreation is an unquestionably crucial feature to creaturely existence: part of the way in which we receive the gift of life is by re-gifting life to others. Yet biological reductionism assumes that this gifting ultimately occurs only via sexual procreation: organisms exist merely to reproduce likenesses of themselves. The theoretical issue which troubles me is neither the evolutionary process by which new forms of life emerge, nor the significance of sexual activity in the life of an organism or community—these truths offer important descriptions of the variegated richness of life in creation. Instead, I am concerned with the word “merely” which tends to arise in overly reductive accounts of biology, evincing a “nothing-buttery” whereby any given effect is “nothing but” the sum of its material and efficient causes.

The problem with biological reductionism is that it assumes that the non-biological factors are simply superfluous epiphenomena, the mere products of biological interactions lacking any existence independent from the basic factors of organic matter in motion. Although I agree that the biological mode is a foundational dimension (a necessary base for all other modes of being), there is no reason to assume that it is fundamental (“more real” than all other modes of being). Instead, we can take the bull by both horns and assert that we are meant—teleologically purposed—to engage in the reality of many different functions simultaneously. To fail to include the rich panoply of other functions in life as purposive elements of life itself—that is, to be biologically reductive—puts the cart before the horse. One does not eat (devour other life-material) merely to perpetuate one’s own life, nor does one have sex merely to perpetuate one’s own genetic material. To refute these claims easily, simply reverse the propositions: one perpetuates one’s life in order that one can continue to experience gustatory pleasure. One procreates (perpetuates one’s own genetic material) in order to reach new complex levels of intimacy and pleasure with one’s spouse (which relationship grows as new relationships emerge with one’s children, who are themselves meant for eventual sexual relationships and a great deal many more good things to boot). To assign sex and food the status of means while assigning life itself (whether one’s own or that of one’s offspring) the status of end is to miss half of the causal spiral at work in creation.

This insufficient means-ends rendering empties life of its very vitality, leaving in its place the bare fact of existence (that something exists) without any hope of essence (exactly what it is that exists and why). Again, I’m not rejecting the importance of the purely biological—I’m simply saying that such biological “purity” is an impossible concept, because the form of life is always-already bound up with life’s varying content (meals, lovemaking, etc.). No life-action is more fundamental than any other; rather, all human functions can and should partake in “the chief end of (hu)man(ity)” as described by the Westminster Catechism: “to glorify God and to serve him forever.”

My purpose in addressing this issue is not to condemn or to straw-man the aforementioned scientistic attitude. Instead, it is to call us in the Christian church/es to task for creating the conditions for the mass popular acceptance of this bio-reductionistic nihilism. It seems plausible that Christianity’s idolizing of childbearing as the single summum bonum of human life (reducing all life functions to the process of procreation) has created the conditions for overly-reductive biologists to make the next logical step: eliminating any transcendent meaning for even this utmost of functions. Yet we need not interpret the circle of life as a vicious cycle which vacuates into nothingness. Instead, by emphasizing the plurality of good gifts found among God’s multi-faceted creation, we can interpret the life cycle as an ever-growing spiral of (pro)creation emanating from, and returning to, God’s infinite plenitude. I suggest that God’s call to “Be fruitful and multiply” is not necessarily two ways of saying the same thing (Genesis 1:38). Rather, it might be better understood as a single way of saying two things, quantitatively and qualitatively: make more life, and make life better. I propose that we all—familial reductionists and biological reductionists included—meditate on God’s twofold invitation.

Andrew Van't Land holds an MA in Social and Political Philosophy from the Institute for Christian Studies. His research focuses on the twin traditions of ancient philosophy and classical rhetoric, and their re-appropriation by postmodern philosophy and theology. Living in the Chicago area, he serves as the Support Community Liaison for the Friends of ICS and teaches philosophy and political science at Trinity Christian College.

First image by Ezra Katz, used from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ParentChildIcon.svg. Second image used from http://www.amazon.ca/Full-Quiver-Family-Planning-Lordship/dp/0943497833. Third image by Zephyris at English language Wikipedia, used from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:A-DNA,_B-DNA_and_Z-DNA.png.

1 comment:

  1. As I read this post I began to wonder if anyone had replied to it, and before I scrolled down far enough to find out, I thought it probable that no one had. (And I was right.) My intuition was telling me that this is a dangerous topic. Is this the reason it's not being discussed?

    My intuition is also telling me that the theological and evangelical roots of "family ideology" (FI) proposed are not sufficient explanation for the phenomenon. We humans seem to crave purpose (among other things such as pleasure and hope). Is it possible that FI has risen in response to difficulty in satisfying the need for purpose by other means? For example, one is frowned upon for promoting one's own faith -- "saving souls" -- nowadays, in part because it seen as disrespectful to those who already have different faiths. Is it possible that FI is basically a retreat into something that one can assert as purpose safely and with satisfaction? If this is so then FI is both a possible path into nihilism and an attempted escape from it.