I’m working on a new post to reflect specifically on some of the issues I think our current approach (or lack of approach) to contraception raise, but I thought it would be helpful if I directed attention to this paper which lays out some of my primary thinking on this subject.

open handsThe problem arises when people begin to feel such a sense of security is the natural state of humanity, when in reality the natural state of humanity, and the state in which the majority of humans still live, is one of powerlessness. Rowan Williams rightly points out that it is through the pursuit of unassailable security that horrible injustices are perpetrated; as he states:

“the more we seek—individually, socially, and nationally—to protect ourselves at all costs from intrusion, injury, and loss, the more we tolerate a public rhetoric incapable of affirming our mortal uncertainties, errors, and insecurities, the more we stand under Ezekiel’s judgment for ‘abominable deeds’—the offering of fleshly persons on the altar of stone.”1

The part of our nature that seeks to control events and destroy or submerge any evidence of weakness—to sacrifice on an altar of stone—can be seen as an aspect of the spirit of rebellion and pride. Just as the first instance of this sin was closely linked to shame and fear, so too does fear play an important role in the desire to bury all evidence of weakness. Indeed, such a desire can be seen as a sort of spiritual backlash to the effects of the fall; resentful of the consequences of our sin we have two options: one, reconciliation with God, leads to life. The other, the further election of self, leads ever more down the path of decay and death. This spirit of rebellion takes many forms and the policies that combat or are animated by it cut across the political spectrum and stands in stark contrast to the spirit of the Gospels, the spirit of liberation and life, through which we are truly unable to find a cure for our restless souls and assurance even in our weakness.

The abuse of persons by others because their weakness serves as a reminder of our own powerlessness is seen through all stages and states of life. It begins in our own day with a devaluing of prenatal life and touches multiple aspects of our society. That this devaluing touches so many aspects of our society is unsurprising given that a rejection of children reflects a rejection of the future and hope—a society that rejects or marginalizes children is a society that is existing in a state of spiritual despair. Such practices exhibit tendencies that become more accentuated at other stages of human development.

Sometimes it is hard to welcome children. As Jeremy Taylor observed in the seventeenth century “Poor men are not so fond of children . . .”2 Yet its not so much that children are hard to welcome as it is that we’ve come to the position of conceiving our entire lives without the interruption of children, and have medicated them appropriately. As Amy Laura Hall has commented, many North Americans simply don’t desire the interruptions that children inevitably create. A rather pathetic indication of this is found in her statement that presently “the average father in [her] social class spends twice as much time each evening watching television as listening to his children.”3 Hall has written extensively on issues surrounding the welcome our culture shows—or does not show—children. By highlighting problematic assumptions underlying the pursuit of new medical and reproductive technologies, Hall hopes to demonstrate that the type of welcome we offer to the helpless and dependant infant will condition the welcome we offer to others whose limitations lay claims upon us. Other commentators have observed that children impinge on the vision of what Christian counselor Charles Taylor has called the companionship model of marriage that seems to have become the primary model in our society. As Ragan Sutterfield observes:

Children, undoubtedly, often keep one from doing what one may want to do. With children, travel is limited and more complex. Schedules become more regular and less spontaneous. Time and attention must be concentrated on activities outside of our list of wants and goals. Children interrupt the ideal modern marriage in which both partners want the same things and share the same goals. In short, children inevitably break the modern ideal of shared selfishness.4

In the end, the failure to recognize children as a blessing and receive them as such merely sets the stage for further abuses.

But the importance of the kind of welcome we offer to children does not begin or end with the question of simply welcoming their births. In Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement Rowan Williams builds upon the theme that a disordered sexuality is one that refuses to recognize the dangers inherent in human relationships—relationships which by definition include opening oneself up to rejection and emotional pain—and is to refuse participation in reality and to objectify other people by seeking pleasure without the attendant risk. By extending a similar analysis to issues surrounding children, Williams offers a deep critique of the manner in which our advertising culture targets children in a manner that limits their growth and understanding.5

According to Williams children within western society, being consumers, are economic subjects; by extension they are also sexual subjects. The fluidity of this barrier—if there is one–testifies to the extent sexuality is seen as a sort of currency. According to Williams the effect of the advertising culture is to shape children into pseudo-adults lacking understanding of the consequences of their choices. The rapid social aging engendered by the loss of free space in which to master appropriate choice-making results in developmentally disadvantaged or disabled children; these consequences aren’t limited to children however:

In this context—but also in many that are supposedly more ‘privileged’—the effect of blurring the boundaries of childhood and limiting the choices of adults is a situation in which adults revert to child-like behavior, uncommitted and fantasy-driven, and children and adults can come to see themselves as rivals in a single area of competition. Sexually, socially, economically, the child may seem to be bidding for the same goods, and the difference between a child’s and an adult’s desires is not grasped.6

This situation is perpetuated by the culture of scarcity, in which even the wealthy are conditioned to feel as though they lack something. Because children are seen as competitors for scarce resources we have created a contraceptive culture that cannot conceive of children as an intrinsic blessing. So internalized have our relations become that a child’s worth—indeed anyone’s worth—is simply a function of how much “I” value them—the statement becomes “how wonderful to have a wanted child” rather than “you must be so thankful for your child.”

{Read it all}

  1. Rowan Williams, “Hearts of Flesh,” in A Ray of Darkness, ed. Rowan Williams (Cambridge: Cowley Publications, 1995), 35-36. []
  2. Taylor, 261 []
  3. Amy Laura Hall, “Naming the Risen Lord: Embodied Discipleship and Masculinity,” in The Blackwell Companion to Christian Ethics, ed. Stanley Hauerwas and Samuel Wells (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2004), 93. []
  4. Ragan Sutterfield, Weddings and Wrong Choices [Internet] (The New Pantagruel, Vol. 1.2 Spring 2004 [cited); available from http://www.newpantagruel.com/issues/1.2/weddings_and_wrong_choices.php. []
  5. This argument is discernible in much of Williams’ writing on marriage, sexuality and the body, but is perhaps most noticeable in his essay “The Body’s Grace” and in his homily “Unveiled Faces” in A Ray of Darkness. []
  6. Rowan Williams, Lost Icons: Reflections on Cultural Bereavement (New York: T&T Clark, 2000), 28-29. []