Friday, January 18, 2013
Rethinking Artificial Contraception
I’ve intentionally titled this lecture what I have to dispel any notions that my plan is to stand before you and condemn anyone who ever has or ever intends to use a contraceptive. While I firmly believe it to be wrong, it is in Anglican thinking one of the areas where the Christian conscience must make a decision to exercise its freedom or to not. What I hope to present to you today is a compelling case for abandoning artificial contraceptives and truly embracing a culture of life. To do so, we will examine relevant scripture on sexuality, the purposes of marriage, and the role artificial contraception has played in promoting the culture of death in which we all live. From a scriptural perspective, Genesis 1 &2 presents us with a fascinating picture of why men and women were created. “God created man in his own image in the image of God created he him, male and female he created them. And God blessed them and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply.” We were made to be the image bearers of God; to be reflections of the divine. This image entails much that we cannot broach today, but it certainly includes the ability to make choices. Of these wonderful choices we are given to make, the conscious decision of giving oneself wholly to the other ranks very high. Indeed, this is what Genesis 1 demands of us. Adam and Eve were made with the express purpose of giving themselves to each other in order that human life might be perpetuated. Notice, the propagation of the human race is considered the priority within marriage, even before the broad ideas of companionship or friendship. In Genesis chapter two, we are told that there was a mate found for every creature in the garden, save Adam. It is there that we read the account of God taking the rib from Adam’s side and forming his wife, Eve. This passage has given rise to the oft quoted thought on Eve’s creation “not made out of his head to rule over him, nor out of his feet to be trampled upon by him, but out of his side to be equal with him, under his arm to be protected, and near to his heart to be beloved.” Genesis two can be read as both heart-rending and heart-warming; Adam searching helplessly for a mate and, through an act of God, given one. In every way his equal, Eve emerged onto the scene of history to be the helper and lover of Adam. Yet it has been well said that marriage and conjugal love were instituted for two reasons, babies and bonding. There is an “inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative cannot break, between the unitive and procreative significance” of sex. Genesis one and two support this thesis, but the priority is given to the procreative part of the formulation. In fact, the Book of Common Prayer supports this reading of the opening chapters of Genesis as well. When we read through the liturgy for the Solemnization of Holy Matrimony we find that marriage is not something to be entered into lightly but in deep reverence “duly considering the cause for which Matrimony was ordained. First, it was ordained for the procreation of children, to be brought up in the fear and nurture of the Lord, and to the praise of his Holy Name.” (BCP 490) Indeed, the ideas of companionship which we are most wont to associate with marriage aren’t even listed until third in the “purposes” section for marriage. As the liturgy indicates, procreation presents us with one of the greatest opportunities for evangelism and expansion of the Kingdom. The point is very simply this, while the dominion mandate of Genesis 1 does not specifically forbid the use of contraception, it clearly teaches as normative that marriages were made for the creation of children who would grow to love the Lord. We were made male and female to make this a biological possibility. Have you ever wondered why it is that God forbids homosexual unions? It is not because God is a killjoy. It is not because God does not want all people to have companionship. Rather, the most logical explanation for the injunction against homosexuality is that the Lord expects at least the possibility of life with each act of intimacy. This is not to intimate that heterosexual couples using something like the pill are committing the same sin as homosexuals do, rather it is to point out the priority of procreation within the marriage covenant. Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, puts it this way, “Every marriage must be open to the gift of children. Even where the ability to conceive and bear children may be absent, the will to receive children must be present. To demand sexual pleasure without openness to life, is to violate a sacred trust.” Now as I said, this does not prove that God frowns upon contraceptives, just that procreation should be a significant consideration in marriage. I would like now to transition to a consideration of God’s people as Bride. Whether you consider the prophecy of Hosea or our Lord’s teachings in wedding parables, the Scriptures have established an analogous relationship between matrimony and the salvation that has been brought by Christ. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in St. Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians. After laying out the pattern of Christ as head of the Church and the husband as head of the wife, and the responsibilities this entails for the woman, Paul writes “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.” By his description of marriage as a participation in the love of Christ for the Church, a paradigm has been set up. Christ gave up his own body in order that we, the Bride, may have life. Indeed, that is what we hear each time we come to communion “This is my Body broken and given for you”. And St. John reminds us that this Body is given “for the life of the world.” If our earthly marriages are to be reflections of Christ giving his Body so that humanity might have new life, so too the possibility of life must be present in the conjugal act imitating it. The husband and wife must fully surrender themselves to each other, imitating Christ’s surrender to death in order to bring life. He held nothing back. Husbands and wives should not withhold the ability to create life from each other. Doing so violates the paradigm set up in the Scriptures. It is also undeniable that the Scriptures present children as a blessing from the Lord. This is not an injunction against contraceptives, but a test of our opinion of children. The Psalmist, depending on your translation, refers to them as “gifts” or a “heritage”. It is truly baffling why we have chosen this area to deny the blessings of God-to turn them away. The Lord calls “happy” the man who has a quiver full of children. I am well aware of the stressfulness that children can cause. Whether it be through stubborn behavior, an increased financial burden, or a lack of space in your home, it seems that being open to children can be anything but a blessing at times. In response to these objections, however, I remind that the same God which calls children “gifts” promises to supply for our every need, and he gives perfect peace to those whose minds are stayed on him. Why then, in light of these promises, should we reject the blessings of God by intentionally trying to frustrate his purposes? Furthermore, since the Lord is ultimately the one who opens and closes the womb, can a couple practicing contraception fully say “we wanted this blessing”, when the contraceptive fails? I know many babies are conceived this way and their parents love them dearly. But without an openness to God’s gift, would not some of the joy of the new life be diminished? Wouldn’t it necessarily be an intrusion, albeit one that ultimately would be welcomed? We should want children. I hope that, in reflecting on these passages, you have seen that sex between married persons should be open to life. It is here that we have to call to mind the story of Onan. Onan was commanded by his father to go into his brother’s wife, Tamar and conceive a child. But you may recall that during the sexual act, Onan intentionally spilled his seed on the ground. The author informs us that this angered the LORD who slew Onan for his act. Now this is clearly a case where Onan failed to be Tamar’s kinsman redeemer. You can ascribe many sins to Onan here including disobedience and selfishness. But I think it is impossible in the light of other Scripture to see God winking at the act of spilling the seed. This was the thought of John Calvin who wrote in his commentaries on the tenth verse: I will contend myself with briefly mentioning this, as far as the sense of shame allows to discuss it. It is a horrible thing to pour out seed besides the intercourse of man and woman. Deliberately avoiding the intercourse, so that the seed drops on the ground, is double horrible. For this means that one quenches the hope of his family, and kills the son, which could be expected, before he is born. This wickedness is now as severely as is possible condemned by the Spirit, through Moses, that Onan, as it were, through a violent and untimely birth, tore away the seed of his brother out the womb, and as cruel as shamefully has thrown on the earth. Moreover he thus has, as much as was in his power, tried to destroy a part of the human race. When a woman in some way drives away the seed out the womb, through aids, then this is rightly seen as an unforgivable crime. Onan was guilty of a similar crime, by defiling the earth with his seed, so that Tamar would not receive a future inheritor. Calvin is clear even though many have tried to hide his thoughts on this matter. His commentary has been edited in virtually all modern editions, omitting his thinking on verse 10. But no words are minced, Onan did what he could to destroy a human life, which leads well into the next part of our discussion: Contraception has fostered greatly the culture of death. In his encyclical letter Evangellium Vitae Pope John Paul II, while distinguishing between the evils of birth control and abortion, nevertheless demonstrates how closely they are tied one to another. He asserts that “the pro-abortion culture is especially strong, precisely where the Church’s teaching on contraception is rejected.” The rationale behind his statement is not particularly difficult to figure out. When having children is seen as an evil to prevent, in order that an almost hedonistic life-style can be continued unfettered, what recourse other than abortion is available to those who have been failed by contraceptives? John Paul II had the advantage of hindsight. He was able to see the havoc wrought by wide-spread acceptance of artificial contraception. One of his predecessors, Paul VI, wrote his encyclical letter entitled Humana Vitae in part as a warning about what would follow a society’s practice of contraception. It would not just be an increase in abortions, though that has certainly proven to be the case. Rather, a general decline in sexual ethics was what he foresaw. How many of his predictions have proven prophetic? Paul VI was clear that this would lead to “marital infidelity and a general lowering of moral standards.” “Another effect that gives cause for alarm is that a man who grows accustomed to the use of contraceptive methods may forget the reverence due to a woman, and, disregarding her physical and emotional equilibrium, reduce her to being a mere instrument for the satisfaction of his own desires.” It would be hard to dispute that these claims are in many cases a reality. Again, you could argue that sexual immorality or abortion can be divorced from a discussion of contraception. Birth control can be safely practiced without falling into any of these grave errors. But it is undeniable that separating sex from procreation has, at the very least, conditioned our cultural mindset away from life and toward sin, and in many cases death. We’ve discussed the culture of death in terms of abortion only. It extends far beyond that. “Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions—limits, let it be said, which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed.” This statement from Humana Vitae is a reminder that once we take control over something we shouldn’t, it is only a matter of time before someone else (the public authority) will wield this same power we’ve taken, over us. It is precisely this topic which C.S. Lewis addresses in his lectures turned book, The Abolition of Man. In speaking on contraception, Lewis writes “Each new power won by man is a power over man.” The freedoms of scientific progress always have a cost. In this case, by dictating who will be born and when, artificial contraception means that we have the power to withhold existence from a future generation. Indeed, the powers that be could bind us to do so. How close does the HHS mandate of the Affordable Care Act come to doing this? Lewis seeks to make plain that taking this power over nature will, in the end, result in natural forces and impulses taking power over men. You see Lewis was concerned about changes in the education models of post WWII England. Believing these changes would usher in a new era of Subjectivism and a rejection of Natural Law, Lewis feared what would govern man in the future. Once the Natural Law was gone, only the aggregation of power would matter. One of these powers was the ability to manipulate future generations. Through selective breeding, a race of men would be born wholly subservient to the generation which had permitted them existence. You see, man would be exercising power over man. This combined with a lack of Objectivity in education, would allow the generation practicing contraception to produce children who were slaves both to the men who allowed them existence and to the impulses of their nature. In short, humanity would be stripped from their posterity. It’s not simply that artificial contraception can lead eventually to a culture of death by abortion. It is all by itself a culture of death because it seeks to prevent life and the life that is eventually allowed is not free, but born a slave. It seems that everywhere we turn we are confronted with sexual sin. The explosion of pornography, aided by the rise of the internet, the widespread problems of marital infidelity, homosexuality and other aberrations from the biblical norm, all speak of a culture saturated in sex. While there have been some successes, on the whole the Church has failed in responding to this tide. Could it be that the reason we have such trouble countering the sexual revolution is that we have nearly without question, accepted one of its central tenets? The Anglican Church was the first branch of the Church to officially condone the usage of contraceptives at the Lambeth Conference of 1930. I think if we heed the biblical evidence, the tradition of the Church (both Catholic and Reformed) and look at the very clear consequences the contraceptive culture has produced and will continue to produce, we will see that it is high time the Anglican Church and all men of goodwill reconsider and rethink the usage of artificial birth control.