13 For you formed my inward parts;
you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
my soul knows it very well.
–Psalm 139: 13-14 (ESV)
I’ve said a couple of times now that each person is individually created by God, and that no one exists apart from a specific, deliberate, divine, creative action. This has been the Christian testimony for two thousand years, preached first into a world that viewed only certain people as important, and preached now into a world that views nothing as important. What does it mean for us though?
The Scripture I quoted first–“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you” (Jeremiah 1:5a, ESV)–is most commonly leveled against the practice of abortion, which is fair. The Christian belief in individual creation renders abortion inevitably, irrevocably, incontrovertibly, and entirely repugnant. No Christian can support it without denying, at least in part, his or her Christianity, because abortion is something that Christianity will and must always righteously oppose. If the pregnancy was started by God’s deliberate action, then ending it is an equally deliberate rebellion.
Admittedly there are times when such rebellion is emotionally appealing. Pregnancy is arduous at the best of times, too frequently torturous, and far too frequently fatal. (In my conception, being fatal once in the history of humanity would be too frequent, and it happens far more than that.) Pregnancy can cause a staggeringly diverse array of crippling hardships for all involved. Pregnancy can even at times be the result of violence and abuse, so that the normal burden of it is magnified by its association with egregious traumatic evil. All of these things can be truly and deeply terrible and the cost of one vaguely formed, vaguely human, vaguely living fetus can seem small compared to the cost of enduring those terrible things.
It’s hard to do good in the face of evil. Sometimes we choose merely a lesser evil, which is as good as we in our weakness can be. God isn’t weak though. Christ isn’t weak. I said last time that maybe God does good even when he knows evil will come of it because he refuses to let evil stop him. We’re inclined to let evil stop us because for us evil seems large; it seems final. God might recognize it as small and passing, whereas his good is infinite and will endure forever.
From our perspective, sometimes the moon blocks the sun, but not because it’s equal to the sun.
In the truly terrible situations, Christians still oppose abortion because we have faith. We believe that God’s goodness in creation can be trusted in spite of the evil we see. That is to say, we believe that the moon may block the sun, but only for a moment.
Here’s the interesting twist though. Saying that a belief in individual creation opposes abortion is legitimate, but small. It’s like saying food is a convenient tool for preventing empty plates; its true but not ultimately the point. We were not created individually so that we could have a right to life, we were created individually so that we could live life, and even more, live it individually. The fruit of individual creation is confident diversity.
But here it’s important to be careful. Diversity is a hot topic nowadays, but largely misunderstood. Sometimes we can mistakenly believe that diversity means never saying any action or belief is wrong. We imagine that wanting diversity requires us to abandon notions like objective truth, or at least to abandon any specificity with regards to it. Even Christians fall to this temptation: reducing the Christian message until it doesn’t offend anyone. (Or at least until it only offends conservatives, who clearly aren’t enlightened enough to value diversity.) This makes it feel like a way of being generous and open-minded; it’s actually the opposite.
Diversity is best understood as a byproduct of God’s creative action though. An infinite God can create infinite goods without needing to repeat himself and without needing to dabble in evil. Diversity in that sense is a value–something good we can say as a result of God’s creativity–but not in itself a virtue. The diversity is good because all of the diverse things are good. If diversity becomes the goal rather than the result, God might make evil things as a way of doing something different, and we would have to praise even evil things as good because of it. I might thank someone for doing something horrible to me, because it increases the diversity of my experience.
Imagine that three friends each gave me a present: one gave a book that I had long wanted; one prepared my favorite meal; one gave a bag of stinky rotting trash. I could value the trash as unique and equally valid, but only by devaluing the consideration and effort that made the book and meal special. To be generous and open-minded to the friend that gave trash to me, I would need to be rude to my other friends and close-mindedly determined to ignore the actual content of the gifts lest any seem inferior. Diversity without judgment belittles everything.
Christian diversity is about the abundance of right though, not the absence of it. Having accepted that some things are true and some false, some things are good and some evil, some things are right and some wrong, Christians are greeted with pleasant surprise. Because an infinite God is on the side of truth, goodness, and right, the depth and complexity of those things is also infinite, even though they seem narrowly defined. We aren’t actually limiting diversity by excluding certain things, we’re just identifying the proper basis and source for it.
This can be seen in the history of the Church. From the beginning Christians have labored to define right belief–orthodoxy, to use the technical term–and to distinguish it from wrong belief: heresy, to use another technical term. As time passed and challenges continued, the Church produced a steadily more sophisticated and narrow understanding of the message it bore.
At the same time though, it began to venerate saints, and to preserve stories of people who it saw as bearing faithful witness to Christ. One of the interesting truths about the saints though is that no two of them are alike, even when they seem to be doing the same thing. In different parts of Europe at around the same time, Saints Francis and Dominic independently started largely similar revolutions in Christian piety, which became the mendicant orders most commonly known by their names, but could any two men be less similar than the rushing poet and the quiet teacher?
The Church thus simultaneously defended the idea that the truth was identifiable, exclusive, and narrow, but that there were as many ways to follow it as there were to be human. Having accepted that it was possible to be wrong, and that being right was incredibly important, it was able to see that there were infinite ways to go about it.
That’s the sort of diversity implied by a belief in individual creation: an infinite God creating an infinite variety of good people. As finite people we can’t possibly create the sort of variety God can, or even imagine it, but he does it naturally. Even more, just as he creates us individually to be individual, he’ll continue to form us into that perfect uniqueness unless we stop him. This is part of the importance of the boundary Christians defend between right and wrong: submission to the Truth of God–conformity to Christ–is what it looks like when people don’t resist God’s good efforts.
(The alternative, relying on our own efforts to produce diversity, is necessarily less successful. Rejecting God is a reduction; we become less unique by doing it because we turn away from the one who’s defending our uniqueness. Those who submit to being conformed to Christ will ultimately experience a staggering and beautiful diversity. Those who reject God–even in the name of diversity–reject that diversity; eventually they’ll all be the same.)
So this (finally) is the true upshot of the belief I’ve been discussing. If we believe that we’ve been deliberately and intentionally created by God, we can embrace the differences we find in each other–the ones that can be purified and perfected by God–because they reflect the infinite imagination of the God whose idea we are. In the light of God’s Truth, I can be amazed and thankful that my wife doesn’t see the world like I do, and that my neighbor sees it in a third way, and that the stranger I meet sees it in a fourth way, and that the billions of people on the planet see it billions of other ways.