Shouts of rejoicing and expressions of anger and grief rolled across the U.S. in the wake of the Supreme Court´s Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision.
Realistically, as a white, male Baby Boomer – no matter how empathetic I might seek to be – I cannot fully share the visceral emotions so many are feeling.
I am not a woman who dreads the intrusion of strangers and implacable legal mandates into deeply personal decisions about my own health and future and who mourns the denigration of her moral autonomy.
I am not a “pro-life” activist who has struggled ceaselessly to vanquish a “holocaust” of murdered babies, but who fears that the practice may cross state lines or simply go underground.
I have never been a mother confronting the feelings accompanying an unexpected pregnancy, or a father who accompanied his partner in the painful decision to terminate a nonviable pregnancy, as Greg Adams recounted at Good Faith Media on June 30.
These feelings are real and powerful and, as a human being, I am not immune to them. But these are not my personal experiences.
However, as a member of the body of Christ, I am called to identify with my sisters and brothers – even those with whom I disagree – and to “weep with those who weep” and “rejoice with those who rejoice.” And I am called upon to seek the shalom of the reign of God.
This specifically Christian perspective on the experiences and dilemmas of the day, in addition to producing compassion, yields concepts and actions.
When we consider our actions and behaviors in the light of the gospel, we are doing ethics. If we examine the concepts that underlie our actions – individually and collectively – we are doing theology.
Theology is not simply abstract analysis. It guides our behaviors and our policies, implicitly if not explicitly.
And I would submit that the current tragic impasse in the Christian church – and in the secular culture beyond the churches that is still shaped by residual Christian influence – is at least partly the result of bad theology. We are in a theological dilemma.
The Shema declares, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and all your might” (Deut. 6:4-5).
Theologian Paul Tillich speaks of God as our “Ultimate Concern.” Only the Divine Reality is absolute. All other concerns and values are penultimate.
To raise any other value or concern – even human life itself – to ultimacy is precisely the sin of idolatry.
In fact, the very high value of human life and humanity´s unique role in the divine creation (Gen. 1:26-28) are a direct implication of our relationship to the Ultimate, and not a sign of unique intrinsic value.
Jesus comments on the Shema – “the greatest and first commandment” – adding that “a second is like it: ´You shall love your neighbor as yourself´” (Matt 22:38-39).
So, what could be a clearer demonstration of love than protecting unborn life? Or, alternatively, protecting a woman´s dignity and right to make her own decisions (see John 8:1-11)?
Love recognizes that in a broken world with myriad competing perspectives, unambiguous moral clarity eludes any human project – no matter how noble – which is raised to a putative ultimate concern.
In such a world, there are precious values and competing courses of action that are mutually limiting if not mutually exclusive. And every course of action in such a world will appear to privilege some and ignore or marginalize others.
For instance, when life in utero and a prospective mother’s well-being – or even her survival – are in conflict, we are called upon to make contested, often agonizing, decisions in light of the Divine Ultimate, whose love embraces us all and continues to embrace us beyond this present life.
We also are compelled to make difficult judgments regarding war and peace; the interplay of local, national and global economics; short-term human wellbeing – food, shelter, power supply – and the viability of the global ecosystem on which we all depend, etc. We could multiply examples endlessly.
Cleaving to our true “Ultimate Concern” in humility and faith gives us both comfort and courage in the face of these vexing dilemmas. But two characteristics of American Christianity make the ultimacy of God problematic in our context.
First, we have elevated the individual to ultimacy, both in popular culture and theology.
Jesus called individuals to faith and discipleship, but he did so in the context of his teaching of the reign of God, which locates our destiny and fulfillment in God´s shalom for all of us together.
In God, the abiding Absolute, in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28), we are in, and of, one another.
Second, our linking of putative godliness to health, wealth and power in this present age runs directly counter to Jesus´ call for simplicity, his skeptical take on the power of “Caesar,” and his embrace of those on the margins of society – women, children, the ill and afflicted, the scorned by polite society.
We trust our own righteousness and pursue political power as a means of imposing that presumed righteousness on others at our own peril.
Finally, since the rhetoric around abortion contrasts the mottos “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” we are compelled to recognize that there is neither viable life on earth nor a meaningful range of choices to be made for enhancing that life if we do not invest all of our God-given ingenuity in cherishing and caring for the global ecosystem of which we are an inextricable part and upon which all life on Earth depends.
Adjunct professor of theology at Palmer Seminary in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He served previously as senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Portland, Oregon, and as professor of theology and ethics at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Wheeler appeared in the EthicsDaily.com documentary, “Sacred Texts, Social Duty.”