4 Now the word of the LORD came to me, saying, 5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you….”
— Jeremiah 1: 4-5a (ESV)
Every single person is the intentional creation of God, known individually and fashioned deliberately.
I’ll pause here for objections. There are some pretty big ones. First and most obvious, while the above might follow if the quoted verses applied to everyone, it isn’t clear that they apply to anyone aside from Jeremiah. Second, even if the verses did apply to everyone, it might be unreasonable to interpret them as I have. Third, interpreting them as I have can produce some fairly significant philosophical issues.
Let me unpack those one at a time.
Objection 1: “Jeremiah might be a special case.”
It’s pretty obvious in the text that these verses are directed to Jeremiah specifically. God isn’t talking about everyone; he isn’t even talking about a small group. He’s talking to one man, one of the major prophets, someone who was rather unusual and somewhat remarkable. It might make sense to say that God’s relationship or involvement with Jeremiah was atypical.
Also, the Old Testament might be seen as a history of God treating certain people differently than others. He chose one nation out of the world to call his own, and that nation was derived from one family that came from one man, Abraham. If God is the sort to give preferential treatment to some over others, then that might create a world-view in which it makes sense to talk about one man (Jeremiah) being specially formed and known.
That isn’t actually God in the Old Testament though; it’s more of a caricature. God is instead described as consistently concerned for the whole world and all of his creations in it, even the plants and animals. Any sort of “special treatment” tends to arise from his commitment to involving his creations in his efforts: he wanted Israel to participate with him in reaching out to the rest of the nations. Israel was supposed to be a nation of priests, a light on a hill, or in modern parlance, a missionary and an advertisement, joining with God in saving the world.
Now, at first it might seem that using one nation as missionaries is still a sort of preferential treatment–why not use another nation or reach out to all nations simultaneously?–but not upon examination. The selection of some particulars is just a logical necessity, since reaching out to everyone at once would preclude the involvement of anyone. It’s also by no means evident that the choice of Israel was arbitrary. After all, it’s possible (and not unlikely) that God employed Abraham and his descendents because Abraham was willing to listen. Had someone else been willing, the story could have been different.
In fact, one of the most remarkable features of the Old Testament is how much God generally ignores the sort of preferential treatment to which human beings are so inclined. He sets shepherds equal to kings, impoverished people equal to rich ones, foreigners equal to locals. He’s as likely to employ farmers as aristocrats, and as likely to defend outcasts and widows as heroes and kings. Rather than creating an environment in which it makes sense to say that Jeremiah is uniquely created, the Old Testament actually fosters an overwhelming awareness that everyone and anyone is important to God.
Also, and I throw this in as a coda, the New Testament ought to hint to us that when a birth is actually unique and special, like Jesus’, God will let us know.
So it seems that, while the verse is clearly directed to a particular person, it makes sense in light of the rest of the testimony to claim that it can be applied more generally.
Objection 2: “Isn’t this a bit far fetched?”
There are two related doubts that come together as we consider whether it’s reasonable to think that God individually crafts each person. First, the idea is overwhelming because of its massive scale–there are seven billion people in the world, and that’s just right now–while simultaneously suspicious because of it’s small scale: why would an omnipotent and omniscient deity bother with such a minor and monotonous task? Second, we know how human reproduction works. While the idea of God forming everyone is somewhat counterintuitive, biology is relatively evident. (You know, at least until you have to try to explain it to your kids; then it’s a frustrating minefield of mystery and awkwardness.) Both are derived from our own experience.
In the first case, we get overwhelmed with large tasks because we get tired and bored of them, and we get frustrated with small tasks because we want to direct our limited resources (or dignity) toward more important things. We superimpose these objections on God, then imagine that he would feel the same way.
The problem is mortality. Our own limitations have become rather central to our general experience. When we try to infer from ourselves to God–I’m like this so God is like this–which is a perfectly worthy endeavor by the way, we sometimes forget to remove our limitations in the process. God doesn’t get tired or bored. He doesn’t need to marshal his resources; they’re infinite. His dignity isn’t tarnished by humility. In fact it’s rather magnified by it.
(Humans don’t naturally invent meek gods, one who would be willing to humble himself before those who refused to humble themselves before him, but this is because humans tend to imagine lesser gods who aren’t as good. In fact, the Christian God is unique among world religions in this respect, which might be evidence of Christianity’s truth: it isn’t the sort of thing we would have invented. But I digress.)
The issue of reproductive biology is a bit trickier. The basic argument is that a man and woman make a baby, which follows naturally from their activity, so there is simply no room to say that God made the baby. At best God might respond, but the actual formation of the baby is through natural processes, the irrefutable sequence of cause and effect, not divine action. (And then, since all the baby’s genes are determined during the part before God’s involvement, we might as well say that he can’t do much to form the baby after his involvement either.)
This sort of thinking reveals how thoroughly we’ve all been indoctrinated into a naturalist worldview, one which (incidentally) is antithetical to Christianity. It’s also illogical. On the one hand, it confuses necessary conditions and sufficient conditions. (Conception requires a man and a woman, but that neither implies nor even suggests that conception requires only a man and a woman.) On the other hand, and this is the more important part, it confuses proximate and ultimate causes. (A man and woman making a baby doesn’t preclude God making that baby, any more than me tripping over a toy precludes me tripping because I’m not watching where I step.)
Furthermore, do we really want to say that we’re in some way forcing babies on God, that we could make babies that he neither intended nor wanted? That seems to be the upshot of a purely natural explanation.
I think a broader and more consistent theology defuses the objection again. God has time, attention, energy and resources to deliberately create a world full of people every second, so the rather more modest rate at which humanity reproduces wouldn’t be an issue. Similarly, our own understanding of how reproduction works doesn’t actually limit God’s actions at all. If anything it points instead to the idea mentioned above: God wants to involve us in his work, even the work of making babies.