Against “Life”

When Isaiah, speaking of the planet, or Mother Teresa of Calcutta, speaking of some poor child found abandoned in the trash, says, “Look, there is life in her!” – something is said that reaches beyond the boundary of “life science,” or biology.

We have passed beyond the technocratic or mechanical consideration of how things work, to the appreciation of miracles. That it was a miracle may impress itself on a sentient person who is dying, but I don’t think as a biology lesson.

Indeed, what is said cannot be classified within any science or reasoning. This is so much the case that, when the princes of the Church try to found their reason on science, they become merely plausible, and ultimately unconvincing – for plausibility is a denial of faith.

This comes with arguments about the origin of life – which Scripture, and the saints, have characteristically avoided. They say things that imply, or assure, that God created the world, but give no hint of how He did it. They “proclaim,” and do not prove, as scientists try to do. But “proofs” will not outlast the day.

A baby, by when he or she has been formed, is a substantial thing, whose life we are wrong to question. This, anyway, is obvious to me. The child is not “life” in some abstract or argumentative sense, any more than he is “organic.”

In fact, we do not commonly decide whether we should eat him, or if so, which parts. The child is made of whatever (sugar and spice, in the case of girls), but of nothing belonging to someone else; even to a medical professional.

The Church, in our modern scientific age, “post-Vatican II,” has been telling us that the child began at conception; that that’s where it “came from.” I don’t think this will do, though I would rather not contradict Joseph Ratzinger, or any other former or future pope.

Could we say that this is true of animals in general? That they come into being, as it were, spontaneously, from the encounter of their parents? Do animals, like humans, have a beginning? Even they strike me as miraculous in some other way.

The zygote stage in the development of a fetus does not last very long. If that is where we are inclined to place the beginning, it might also be appropriate to place an end. The female ovum divides or multiplies; becomes many distinctive cells. The paths of development become many, and the plot – even for qualified obstetricians – will not be predictable.

This is where we must choose between simplicity (which would be meaningless), and complexity (which would also be meaningless). For in order to make an objective observation, we must find an external place from which to observe.

But there is no external place for us. We are caught up in the action of our own birth, life, death – all of which I would count as part of the sacred continuum. We are bound into the story, by our living souls. Are we a product of nature? Scripture and our own instinct say, No.


Conceivably, this could be said of a fish, or an ox for that matter: the gifts, given to our husbandry and possession. We should be kind to them, for they can feel pain, but we cannot befriend them. The most we can summon is a strong affection, which the weak-minded may mistake for love.

There are people of course who will insist that we can love everything, equally; but these are the people who worship “life.” We draw deeper into the perversely sentimental and are lost to the clear thought – even about what is unthinkable – that the Christian must be heir to.

God prepared us for language, and out of language for culture and art. We are alone among his biotic creatures, in this respect. It is plain and obvious, and can’t be shaken off. From conception, or before, it is there in our potentials. Humans are human.

The difficulty in understanding this came about with the Enlightenment, and later: approximately when biology in its modern form began to be expressed. That is when, in religion as well as outside it, “life” began to appear as an idol – an abstraction that we worship.

God created the world and sustains it. It lives, in the presence of God. His Creation is not something to which WE may assign a beginning and an end. What emerges in our world, and what ceases in our world, is part of His creation.

In no sense can we stand outside it.

And so, in no sense can we analyze it.

This is not the only argument that “science won’t let us win.” Indeed, I am persuaded that “science” won’t let us win any argument at all, for the cosmos was not constructed for the convenience of science. Indeed, the cosmos was not constructed, by human hands to a human purpose. Nevertheless, it exists.

To say more, I would have to be not merely a biologist, but great beyond measure, and pass entirely through metaphysics (having discovered its end). But I can obtain only fragments by my fishing, which seldom fit together; and my most confident assertions are piffle.

I am told that Ivan Illich, who is one of my more anarchic heroes (at one point actually a Catholic monsignor), once tried to shock a Lutheran convention in Chicago by pronouncing an explosive curse on “life,” formally three times, and condemning it as an “idol.”

His audience wasn’t impressed, however, and continued in the “pro-life” mode, even before abortions had made that a fighting term, and it was taken more politically than religiously. It has long been difficult to find people who will discuss ideas in America, or risk-taking them seriously (as if our thoughts were important).

Yet “life” must be one of our most eccentric devotions. That God is living, and that his creatures live, is a commonplace.


*Image: Galacidalacidesoxyribonucleicacid by Salvador Dalí, 1963 [Salvador Dalí Museum, St. Petersburg, FL]. The portmanteau title of the work by the devoutly Catholic artist combines the names of Dalí’s wife (Gala), names of God, and the full, scientific name for DNA. The painting embodies the artist’s “nuclear mysticism.” Dalí wrote: “As announced by the prophet Isaiah—the Saviour contained in God’s head from which one sees, for the first time in the iconographic history, His arms repeating the molecular structures of Crick and Watson . . .”

You may also enjoy:

Joseph R. Wood’s Creation, According to Ratzinger (and a couple of other guys)

Gerard Manley Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: