I’ve always been under the impression that IUDs were not a desirable topic for casual conversation. Call me a gen X-er, but peoples’ contraceptive choices—especially intrauterine devices—are something that I tend to leave in the realm of private information. I was wrong.
Once, after picking up the final youth group member for the carpool to an event, her IUD became the central topic of conversation. It was awkward. We were headed to some kind of retreat, which means that there was at least two hours of time to kill in the car together. To have a conversation about how “…the gynecologist needed to reinsert my uncomfortably placed IUD so my mom took me today…” with a sixteen-year-old who didn’t know half of the people in the car wasn’t on my radar for possible youth retreat icebreakers. But teenagers have never been very good at the kind of conversation that leaves people feeling comfortable.
And the North American church hasn’t been so good as of late at being uncomfortable. Our adventures in bioethics have convinced teenagers and adults alike to take their reproductive issues to the secular “liberals” of our society. I once served with a pastor who had spent years as a fundraiser for Planned Parenthood—but even he was quiet about his leanings when it came to casual conversation with lay folk in his mainline suburban context.
Two roads diverge here, often demarcated by the aforementioned (and overstated) conservative vs. liberal categories: churches either bludgeon a moralistic code around bioethics into the brains of young people or avoid the topic altogether. Shame and silence leave little room for rich dialogue and meaning-making—leaving teenagers with little reason to employ their faith in their decisions about having sex with an IUD or choosing to terminate a pregnancy.1 Thankfully, this has not trickled down to youth ministry carpool conversations…yet.
I am both a female and a pastor, so these biological/reproductive kinds of conversations seem to follow me around. It’s as if people—especially teenagers—are a bit haunted 2 by the eternal implications of the fleshy, physical space that bioethics occupies: ‘What will my pastor say if I talk about my IUD in the car on the way to the church retreat?’ ‘Can I talk to a pastor about the abortion appointment I just made?’ The role of pastor seems to cling still to a mystical order that is somehow beyond a “worldly” frame of reference. As such, the response of the pastor to biological questions usually gets conflated with the response of God to young peoples’ concerns.
The biology of it all is rather straightforward, of course. One can prevent pregnancy with contraceptives. Even if it’s not legal, one can terminate a pregnancy when social logic or medical opinion states that abortion is a better option than carrying a baby to term. These are things we are capable of controlling all by ourselves: the chemistry of copper as a functioning spermicide or a dilation and evacuation (D&E) as an effective abortive procedure. But when we make these decisions—even the most secular among us—we bump up against an ethical dilemma: will these decisions make my life more full, we ask? Will the sex this IUD allows me to freely have leave me fulfilled? Will this abortion give me the freedom to fulfill my dream of providing well for my other child or children? Will it help ease the mounting medical hurdles into which this pregnancy has devolved? Asking questions that touch on meaning-making feels awkward in a society grounded in the scientific sentimentality of the autonomous self. So we ask our pastors.
Fullness of Life?
Underneath the question of what constitutes a life that is full lies what the philosopher Charles Taylor would call a “cross-pressure.”3 A cross-pressure is a “felt need for fullness”4 in our current historical moment—or what Taylor coins as our now Secular Age. What is this secular age? The age in which, for first time in human history we live in an “immanent frame.”5 To live in an immanent frame is to occupy a space in which our entire perception and any significance therein is connected primarily, and wholly, to the material world. The immanent frame is a world where the hard sciences reign supreme. There is nothing beyond, no truth that is not “enclosed within the material universe and the natural world.”6 In other words, what we understand to be true is present here and now under our noses, in the space we occupy.7 What you see is literally what you get—and what you “believe in.”
When meaning-making has been stripped of any and all transcendent enchantments, we are left in a disenchanted, anthropocentric, buffered world.8 Why would we need God if we can determine everything ourselves?
My cousin recently quipped on a Facebook thread that his belief system consists in this: “If I can create it, then it is real.” I wanted to respond with a picture of the Himalayas and ask if he had a hand in that, but I resisted. Toto, we’re not in Christendom anymore.9
All of us, even those of us who claim a Christian identity, are subject to our beliefs being caught up—or nailed down—to this immanent frame.
Grief and the Immanent Frame
About eleven weeks into my second pregnancy, I started to bleed. Nothing can really prepare you for the silence of an ultrasound technician as they look for a baby’s heartbeat. We’d told many of our family and friends about our pregnancy at the ten week mark. The bleeding started shortly thereafter, as did the ultrasounds. It was the fourth ultrasound and the end of the first trimester when I sat in the public hospital lounge crying my eyes out and waiting for the midwife to tell me over the phone that I’d lost the baby. My greatest takeaway from the bleeding, the waiting to schedule a D&E, and the pre/post operative experience was how badly I needed a pastor to walk me through the grief—and how incredibly pastoral my obstetrician was. How pre-modern of me.
People get weird when you bring up miscarriage. Miscarriage is a reminder that we’re not all autonomous selves determining our futures with our sheer will and dominance. The science of a miscarriage is pretty straightforward: it’s natural. I’m as capable as the next person of engaging in a conversation about how amazing it is that bodies often reject abnormalities in a fetus, resulting in spontaneous loss of a pregnancy.10 But did you catch that? To live in an immanent frame—as (gasp) even I do—is to be able to claim the natural state of the world, and the capacity of bodies to act according to the laws of nature.11 However, I’m torn from the immanent when I consider the effect the miscarriage had on the fullness of my life. It’s the question of human flourishing that the immanent and the transcendent share. Could my life have been more full had I carried this baby to term and given birth; even if this baby had some kind of genetic abnormality? Enter a cross-pressure. And enter a teenager who wanted to talk to me about my miscarriage.
Teenagers and Transcendence
When my fifteen year old niece, Sofia, found out that I’d had a miscarriage, she began texting me. She confided via text that when she first heard I’d lost the baby, she needed to somehow express everything she was feeling. She told me that she’d written a poem in the style of spoken word and that she’d been texting it to one of her friends. She asked if she could share it with me. Below is an excerpt of what she wrote:
"My cousin died and it ripped me up from the inside out. My cousin died and I didn't even know his name. Or her name…My cousin died and I don't know how I can pretend like it was meant to happen…he never got to love, she never got to hate, he never got to smile, she never got to cry. My cousin died and I never met him. I never even spoke to her. So why am I so torn up inside?... Was it all part of the grand scheme to pluck a flawless infant from the womb of an expectant mother? …the twisted mind that came up with that plan doesn't deserve my trust... I guess I should try, though, try to forgive whoever decided to take my cousin from our family.
…The church is the hospital and God is our doctor. And we bring our wounds and we bend at the knee, the floors of the sanctuary an operating table for the Lord to come and fix us if we let him. He cuts us with his truth and makes us bleed with his grace. And stitch by stitch in and out he sews us back together again, that we might be new in him. My cousin died. He or she never really got to live. And this wound cuts deep into my family's heart. But God will stitch us back together again."
Sofia’s words point to two things: her struggle with an immanent frame and her astounding capacity to be vulnerable. Her struggle with an immanent frame leads her to ask questions about the concrete experience of living, breathing, speaking, etc… that her cousin will never know. How can an in-utero human being know fullness if it does not know the fullness of this immanent life I’m experiencing right now?
Her vulnerability is more complex. It points to a transcendent understanding of God. While this God is defined by the role of a doctor, it is in more of a cosmic, ethereal sense. Sofia’s vulnerability strips away the logic of her own identity as an autonomous, self-determined being. All of a sudden she finds herself bound up in a story she cannot create or control. Her words carry the sacramental renunciation of individual striving. Transformation punctures the goal of human flourishing.12 The biological reality of miscarriage has opened the door for her to articulate her faith.
The point here is not to argue about whether or not IUDs, abortion or miscarriages are good, bad, or natural.13 To do so would be to remain inside the immanent frame of our secular age. The point is that young people have an uncanny ability to sniff out the transcendent—to force us to see the holes that puncture our sense of freedom from the enchantment of the universe.
Young people use their uncomfortable IUDs as a gateway to conversation about discernment, identity, and discovery in sexual intimacy. Young people want to know if the God of creation uses miscarriage as some sort of cosmic sign. They want conversation beyond that which the natural world provides, and they are prepared to be unsettled by answers that cast their eyes upon the cosmos.
Is the church?
And so we ask with Sofia: is fullness something that this world has to offer, or is fullness perhaps beyond this world? Is fullness about my own autonomous human flourishing, or is it about something else? Are we simply to flourish, or are we to be transformed? These are the questions of young people—the questions with which ministry leaders are called to wrestle. What uncomfortable questions for those of us in this immanent frame! But then again, teenagers have never been good at the kind of conversation that leaves people feeling comfortable.
This article was made possible by Science for Youth Ministry in association with Luther Seminary and the John Templeton Foundation. Learn more at www.scienceym.org or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/scienceforYM.
1. When I use the phrase “meaning-making” I am referring to the way we construct significance in our lives: the process of deciding what is “in” and what is “out” for our sense of identity and purpose.
2. See James K. A. Smith, How (Not) to be Secular (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014), 61.
3. This notion of cross-pressuring leads to what Taylor would describe at the “Nova Effect” or an “explosion of options for finding or creating significance.” Smith, 62. So then, fullness is defined and grasped at from multiple sources and outlooks. In other words, Christianity no longer has the market capital on meaning-making, and perhaps had a hand itself in the decentralization of meaning-making.
5. Ibid., 26.
6. Ibid., 48.
7. See Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 18.
8. Smith provides an interesting discussion of the buffered self as “insulated and isolated in its interiority” on p. 30 of How (Not) To Be Secular.
9. I realize that the citing of Christendom is loaded. My use of it here reflects how Taylor references Christendom on p. 14 of A Secular Age as “a condition where…people lived naively within a theistic construal.” For a continued discussion, see Smith’s How (Not) To Be Secular, p. 60.
10. For the definition of miscarriage from which I’m operating, see from the Mayo Clinic website: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/pregnancy-loss-miscarriage/basics/definition/con-20033827
11. We could also argue about what, exactly, an “abnormality” is—but that’s another article.
12. On p. 16 of A Secular Age, Taylor suggests that the most disturbing (and rejected) question for those in the secular age is: “does the highest, the best life involve our seeking, or acknowledging, or serving a good which is beyond, in the sense of independent of human flourishing?”
13. …or whether it’s okay to use the words “fetus” and “human being” interchangeably in an article about contraceptives and miscarriage.
Abigail is the Director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary, and an ordained PC (USA) pastor of the Philadelphia Presbytery. She has had the opportunity to work with youth on three continents and in six churches, and served most recently as the Associate Pastor at Carmel Presbyterian Church in Glenside, Pennsylvania. Abigail is a graduate of Valparaiso University (B.A. in Music and Theology) and Princeton Theological Seminary (M.Div). She and her husband Thomas live in Doylestown, Pennsylvania where Thomas serves as a co-pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church. Abigail and Thomas have two daughters, Dorothy and Solveig.