Finding a ‘Third Way’ when Things Fall Apart – Dr Joseph Thomas

Being agents of transformation at our workplaces and in society

Detail of the painting “God reprimanding Adam and Eve” by F. Zampieri (1625)

Things fall apart:
“And I was afraid because I was naked, and so I hid.”

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe is an excellent book1 and part of the compulsory reading for the postgraduate program at Regent College.

‘Things fell apart’ when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, as written in Genesis 3. From the idyllic and perfectly created world where God said, “It was all very good” (Gen 1:31), to the many curses on the created order – the land, plants, animals, and humans (Gen 3:14-24)- everything fell apart.  The natural and normal order that was supposed to be was no more. 

None of us are exempt from “things falling apart” in our lives. It is a sad day though, when everything falls apart, though eventually, things may slowly get back to some form of a new normal. (Editor: COVID-19 comes to mind.)

The story and title of Achebe’s book has stayed with me, and aptly describes what happens many times in a day as I talk to pregnant mothers who have been given bad news. The challenge that I and many of the families who have faith (and often those who have no faith as well) have is to understand what God’s role has been, and what God says, when “things fall apart”.

Making sense of the falling apart:
“And God said, “Let there be…”

The oft-repeated saying at Regent College is that Scripture was “written for us and not to us”, and that the literal reading of scripture would mean reading it as it was meant to be read by the Hebrew people five thousand years ago in his/her cultural context.2 Similar to the error in reading scientific data, missing the meaning of the text on the one hand, and imputing meaning to the text that was never meant to be there on the other hand, happens when we from the 21st century world ‘read Scripture’ as word-for-word translation.3 John Walton, in his book The Lost World of Genesis One, carefully details why the account in Genesis is not about material creation but about functional roles.4 

Therefore, though we call the Bible the Word of God, we cannot seek answers for all questions from the Bible, nor should we use the Biblical passages to make a scientific/biological treatise. I am delighted to state that we are all “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that “I was knit together in my mother’s womb(Ps 139:13-14).  However, I cannot use this text to answer a question on fertilisation or human embryology, any more than an astrophysicist should state that the sun “rises at one end of the heavens and makes its circuit to the other” (Ps 19:6) to prove that the sun rotates around the earth! How then should we be applying what the Bible says in terms of human reproduction and the current abortion debate?

Digital artwork by a colleague at the Mater Maternal Foetal Medicine department
for a talk “Theology of Reproduction”

The reproductive processes in place:
“And God said, “It was very good.”

God in all His wisdom made creatures with both asexual and sexual reproduction. He made creatures which are hermaphrodite; creatures who are gender fluid choosing to be male or female based on population numbers,5,6 and finally, among the vertebrates, males and females who are chromosomally and structurally different. He designed them to be complementary, in that one cannot reproduce without the other – almost mandating interdependency for procreation.7 With unimaginable complexity, the reproductive process begins with haploid sperms and ovaries carrying the instructions for human formation (DNA), implanting into the uterus with its primed endometrium, and continuing through an orchestra of hormones and intricate cell-to-cell communications before ending with the still-not-well-understood processes of labour and parturition. The result is a very vulnerable baby who cannot survive without ongoing dependency.

So, God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it(Gen 1:27 & 28).
Creation of Eve (Sistine Chapel Ceiling)

The pathology(?) of reproduction:
“And God said, “It was not good.”

The pathology of reproduction starts with the unequal status attributed to the woman as being created second and having sinned first, though Adam was with her at that time (Gen 3:6).

Though there is much controversy regarding the “Human Origins Debate”, much of it is resolved if we read scripture literally as an ‘Ancient Near East’-inspired text. Then the account is not about methodology or chronology on the how and when man was created, nor about how and when the woman was created.8

“So, the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh” (Gen 2:21).

Biologically speaking, the process would be similar to cloning which would result in another male from the rib/skeletal/somatic cells of Adam!  The missing rib in man so far has not been found! The account is therefore not about God being the first anaesthetist or about the first surgery being performed. The account in Genesis chapter 2 is likely more about the functional roles and relationships between humans and the created order, and between man and woman.9 One is tempted to think that the translations, interpretations, and Pauline teaching (taken out of context) continues to favour male dominance and female discrimination. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner” (I Tim 2:13-14). Other than the very few matriarchal societies in the world, most patriarchal societies are rife with examples of female exploitation and male dominance.

The beginnings:
“Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image…”

Our DNA is not our destiny, and though we are not fully clear what being ‘made in the image of God’ (Imago Dei) means, we are sure that there is something inherently special about human life. Biologically speaking, the definition of a human either by chromosomal number, by anatomic structure or by function is fraught with pitfalls.10 The pathologies of reproduction (in addition to miscarriage) include twinning, molar pregnancy and twin reversed arterial perfusion (TRAP). These raise challenging questions if we are to state that value or Imago Dei has to be attributed to each conception as a potential human. More challenging is the notion of considering a molar pregnancy as a potential human or a TRAP mass which will cease to live once the pump twin is delivered. We have more complicated instances of conjoined twins when there are shared intracranial structures or a shared cardiac pump.

The potential of becoming human for ongoing normal pregnancies begins at conception, though this can only be a retrospective statement once the child is in its mother’s arms. It is hard not to accept the potential for a human beginning as starting at conception, but with the numerous pathologies that we see in foetal development, labour and delivery, the potential is seen to have been achieved only after birth. The Psalmist in 139 has every reason to praise God, having been, “Fearfully and wonderfully made… when I was made in the secret places… woven together in the depths of the earth.” However, this praise cannot be made by the molar pregnancy, or the anembryonic pregnancy, or even the TRAP twin. Sloane argues that, “Psalm 139 does not (and probably cannot) do the work that advocates of a conservative pro-life abortion ethic need it to do…  and does not allow us to claim that human personal life begins at conception.” Psalm 139, he concludes, ought to stay out of the abortion debate.11

Aaditya Hirachan – Pexels

Shared biology:
“Then the Lord God said, “…for dust you are and to dust you will return.”

The concept of shared biology with the rest of creation is humbling and confronting. However, to then hold onto the uniqueness of being human, made in the image of God – Imago Dei, is both uplifting and challenging. Science may never be able to explain this mystery of being human. 

Maybe we need to find our answers in theology or philosophy, where the concept of ‘ensoulment’ of the embryo or ‘embodiment’ of the soul gives the status of human to the conceptus or embryo.12 The conservative Catholic view is that this occurs at conception; the Jews believe that this happens around 10 weeks gestation; and the Islamic belief is that this occurs at 16 weeks.13-15 Therefore, the conservative Catholic should not consider termination for any reason; while termination according to the Jews before 10 weeks and Muslims before 16 weeks is permissible.

Another view is that of Jones, from the Bioethics Centre at the University of Otago, who postulates that since we use the definition of brain death as a finality in adult medicine, viable life may be considered to be a reality once coordinated neurological activity (seen around 22 weeks) is demonstrable in a foetus.16 The Hindu thinking of souls being reincarnated several million times (depending on the good works of their previous life), results in consideration of souls being embodied in any living creature.

Although there are several references to the soul in the Old Testament, most often this is in reference to the inner person, or the personality, and not a reference to a ‘disembodied ethereal entity’. Wright in Surprised by Hope expands this to emphasise that the Christian hope is the bodily resurrection of individuals and not the existence of disembodied souls.17 The integrated body-mind-spirit/soul is likely consistent with Judaeo-Christian views rather than a dualistic view of separate body and soul and therefore neither ensoulment nor embodiment may be scriptural.

Barbara Ribeiro – Pexels

Reproductive process fell apart:
“Then the Lord God said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe.”

My focus in this article is to highlight the falling apart of reproductive processes. The issues as to why terminations are chosen when contraception should have been used; or why terminations are performed for socio-economic reasons, and how they should be addressed is beyond this article.

I am conscious of the prevalent thinking that all reproductive processes would have been perfect, with nothing going wrong before the Fall. However, the very nature of sexual reproduction has built-in randomness in fertilisation (e.g. why do we need 120 million sperm programmed for the possible fertilisation of one ova?). God has put in place a wonderful, beautiful world.  However, this is not a world without laws, and not a world where his people are endowed with superpowers: if Adam jumped off a rock, he would always fall downwards, and would experience pain if he fell in an awkward fashion.

It is the increaseof pain that is mentioned in Genesis 3, rather than the beginning of pain (since we presume that Pacinian corpuscles, axons and the sensorimotor cortex did exist before the Fall). We must assume that our world was created perfect, but not necessarily created ‘safe’ or ‘pain-free’.

“We must assume that our world was created perfect, but not necessarily created ‘safe’ or ‘pain-free’”.

The increase of pain in childbearing starts with the disruption of the relationship between man and woman, resulting in the issue of male dominance and extending to domestic violence. The consequent epidemic of single mothers (some by choice, many without choice) and various other combinations of parenting and family in the modern world have destroyed the harmonious interdependency that was built into the sexual reproductive model.

Donor sperm, donor egg; assisted conception, in vitro fertilization; surrogate mothers; birth mothers; adoptive parents; and so on, have become part of the ever-growing vocabulary where science and technology have been used to help fix processes that fell apart.

Add to this the pain of early pregnancy loss; the pain and uncertainty of prenatal diagnosis; the dilemma and anxiety of decision-making in the face of uncertain outcomes; the pain of ongoing pregnancy complications; the pain of perinatal loss of both babies and mothers – these are only part of the story. Did the increase in pain also include the consequences of childbirth with blood loss, perineal tears, loss of pelvic supports and consequent stress; as well as the ongoing trauma of sexual dysfunction and divorce? It is only an increase of pain that is mentioned. Suffering is an additional dimension of pain that remains lifelong.

Pulling together what has fallen apart:
“The Lord God made garments of skin … and clothed them.”

I can only be silent when I meet the agony that families face when they are told of a scan which has shown major and serious anomalies that will either result in perinatal loss; or, if the baby is born alive, that will be life-limiting. I can extend this complexity to other equally-challenging disruptions that may occur in families with the unthinkable/unimaginable instances of rape or incest where serious injustice and harm has been done.  We can only scratch the surface of the pain and guilt a mother must have in passing on a familial genetic disorder. Even our Lord when faced with the unbearable pain and suffering before enduring the cross prayed, “If it is possible, let this cup be taken away from me” (Matt 26:39).

“How then, when our own Lord and God allowed the first humans the choice that determined destiny for the whole world, would we deny choice to a mother that would determine a pregnancy outcome?”

I am certain that our great God could have easily placed the ‘tree of the knowledge of good and evil’ in an inaccessible place so that the humans could never have had access to that tree – that would have saved us all from this disaster. However, such was not the case, and humans were given the freedom to choose – a freedom, of course, that was misused, not just that once, but throughout the course of human history, and in everyday living in each of our lives. How then, when our own Lord and God allowed the first humans the choice that determined destiny for the whole world, would we deny choice to a mother that would determine a pregnancy outcome? Does this make us ‘pro-choice’ and not ‘pro-life’?

In a deeply polarised world with ‘pro-choice’ and ‘pro-life’ as the only two positions to be taken, I am challenged to take neither. Joshua met a ‘man’ with a drawn sword near Jericho and asked him, “Are you for us or against us”? (Josh 5:13-15) and the intriguing response was “Neither”. Joshua was asked to take his sandals off since he was on holy ground. Neutrality and/or a ‘third way’ should enable us to see through a broader lens which would otherwise be missed, and like this ‘man’, be able to bring a message for the situation. Walter Winks, in his article The Third Way, elaborates how our Lord sought out and advocated for the third way.18

In John 8, the woman caught in the act of adultery (adultery involves two people – whatever happened to the man!) was brought before Jesus for stoning to death as per the Mosaic law.  Attempting to trap Jesus, they asked “Now what do you say?” (Jn 8:5) – essentially, “Whose side are you on? Are you on the side of the upholders of the Law, or do you support this sinful woman?” Jesus was silent. I wish what he wrote on the ground was recorded!  When he was eventually pushed to take a stand, he stated, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). All of them left without stoning the woman. What Jesus did and said in that situation was transformative. Mercy and compassion covered everyone – the accusers, and the accused. This was consistent with what God the Father did in Eden, clothing the scared and naked Adam and Eve after their act of disobedience.

Is it possible for us to remain silent in the face of overwhelming human suffering and tragedy when “things fall apart”?  Are we able to be not so caught up with being ‘pro-choice’/’pro-life’ or ‘pro-abortion’/’anti-abortion’, and instead find a third way? Are we able to be both redemptive and restorative as our Master was when confronted? Are we able to find the mercy and compassion bestowed on us by our God and pass it on?

Maybe then, just maybe, we could be agents of transformation at our workplaces and in our society.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: I want to gratefully acknowledge the numerous families who have given me the privilege to be part of a painful chapter in their own lives. I want to thank my wife Grace, my family, and friends both at church and at work who have shared many discussions that have helped me in seeking a ‘third way’.

Dr Joseph Thomas
Dr Joseph Thomas trained in Christian Medical College Vellore,India. He worked in several charitable mission hospitals in India before moving to Adelaide, where he trained in Maternal Foetal Medicine. He has been working at the Mater Mother’s Hospital as a Specialist in Obstetrics and Maternal Fetal Medicine since 2008. The challenges in foetal medicine and the desire to integrate faith and practice led Joseph to complete a Masters from Regent College (Vancouver) in Leadership, Theology and Society.  Dr Thomas believes that our faith is best evident in the ‘marketplace’ and for that we need to constantly challenge ourselves to see life as a whole: Monday to Friday, and the weekends.


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