Defining human existence (Psalm 139)

To be is to be known by God. God’s omniscience is knowledge not only of everything but of everyone. There is no one whom God does not know. My existence resides in the fact that God knows me. My identity is this: I am who God knows that I am. And since God speaks, and speaks truthfully: I am who God says I am. Or, since it is more appropriate to speak to God than to speak about God: I am who You say I am. (Some of us sing a song about that.)

Human personhood and human existence can be hard to define in worldly terms. It can be hard to say when human life ends. It can be hard to say when human life begins. These are controversial questions in bioethics and in human decision-making. If my heart stops beating and I turn stiff and cold, I am dead. But what if my brainwaves go flat while my hearts keeps beating? What if I have brainwaves but I sink so far into dementia that I do not remember who I am, or who my loved ones are? What if my brain is damaged at birth in such a way that I will never develop the cognitive capacities that are normal for humans? What if I am an infant, unable to walk, speak, feed and dress myself, use a toilet, or understand what anyone around me is saying? Am I a human being? Now shift it: what if I am a thirty-year-old who has never become able to walk, speak, feed and dress myself, use a toilet, or understand what anyone around me is saying? Am I a human being? Or what if I am an infant five minutes prior to birth rather than five minutes after? Or five months? Or eight months?

These questions torture us when the capabilities and incapabilities of contemporary medical technology put us in the position of having to make hard decisions that humans in earlier ages never had to make. The science that enables this technology cannot answer the questions that it forces upon us. We are driven back to our most basic intuitions and commitments. For Christians, that means that we are driven back to scripture, and we are driven back to God. We are driven back to: I am who you say I am, and this other person before me—this person who doesn’t know me, and whom I cannot know, is who you know they are.

With regard to dementia, by the way, this is the central, deep insight of John Swinton’s book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God

Psalm 139 is known in Christian tradition as one of the penitential psalms. It fascinates me. I have reflected on it before in this blog. The Psalmist is in a tight spot. The circumstances are not specified, but (as often happens in the Psalms) The Wicked are out to get him. His existence is threatened. Or is it? Can The Wicked or The Righteous or anyone else really get to him? The psalmist has no secret abilities, no superpower that will enable him to escape and triumph, and no mortal cavalry will come riding over the hill to save him. Nevertheless, he is secure because he says to God:

I am who you know I am. You know everything about me. You have always known everything about me. You knew all about me before anyone else knew there was anything to know about me, before anyone else knew that I was on the way. You know all my thoughts, for good and for ill. You know them before I know them. You know my body and my mind; you are the architect of both. It is only because you know me, and have always known me, and know me thoroughly and absolutely, that I have being, and I therefore know two other things: (1) the wicked cannot get to me and cast me into the realm of nonbeing, because the realm of not-being is the realm of not-being-known-by-God, and they cannot change the fact that you know me; and (2) you know not only the wickedness of those others who are out to get me, but also the wickedness that may be resident in my own heart and life, and you do not on account of that wickedness choose to forget me and abandon me, but to the contrary, you extend the offer to lead me out of it and into the way that is everlasting.

This, I take it, is the message—the counsel and consolation—of Psalm 139.

You could stop there. But will you go with me a step further? I have to ask, because some among us attempt to derive from this Psalm not an unshakable foundation for our entire orientation to the world but a specific piece of data which we think will give us a shortcut answer to one of those hard bioethical questions referenced above: when does human life begin?

Some say: from this psalm we learn that human life begins at conception, because the psalm imagines God shaping the embryo within its mother’s womb. So it does! But let me ask this: it’s clear that the psalmist confesses that God knew him before he was born. Do you think that the psalmist would say that God did not know him before he was conceived? Are we to derive from this psalm a biotheological schema in which every time a human sperm fertilizes a human egg, God says: “Whoop! Another one! Didn’t see that coming. Better get a plan together quickly now for this one too!” Would the psalmist commend such an interpretation? Would anyone with any reverence for God tolerate such an interpretation?

What then are we to make of Ephesians 1:4, to take just one obvious text: “According as he hath chosen us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before him in love.” If to be is to be known by God, and to be known by God is to be, does my human personhood spring forth from nothing at the moment of conception? Or is that notion just as implausible, theologically speaking, as the notion that it springs forth from nothing at the moment of birth? What does it mean to be chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world? On this account, being knitted together by God in your mother’s womb isn’t the beginning; it’s just another stage along the way.

So how are you going to expand your political agenda to show your commitment not just to the unborn but to the unconceived? And I hope you have a more profound answer than: ban birth control! Do you really believe in God’s sovereign foreknowledge, and even predestination, of everyone whom God calls to eternal life, but also fear that these can be defeated by a divinely unforeseen condom? OK, now I’m dealing in nonsense. But this is where we land when we twist scripture to make it answer the questions that we want it to answer rather than the questions that the Spirit who inspired its writers wants us to ask.

In my view it’s quite valid and even necessary to advocate for the unborn, and also for the unconceived. We should not be making decisions about the economy or the environment or anything else as though the only people who matter are the ones already living! But I don’t think that either Psalm 139 or Ephesians 1:4 gives us a quick and easy shortcut answer to any of the bioethical questions that we face around the seasons of birth and death. Abortion and euthanasia, as far as I can see, run counter to a consistent Christian ethic. Psalm 139 provides a small but significant part of the context in which these judgments are made. But it cannot in isolation provide a quick and easy answer to our scientific and ethical questions on these topics.


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