You might have noticed that my blog posts have been somewhat sporadic over the past months. I do have a reason: my husband and I just had our first child last week. The experience of pregnancy and childbirth has got me thinking about how these experiences have been interpreted theologically. A few intriguing examples stand out: the idea that on the cross, Christ gives birth to the church from the wound in his side, out of which “water” and “blood” pour; the fourteenth-century mystic Julian of Norwich’s image of Christ as a nursing mother, who feeds us with “his” milk; the thirteenth-century mystic Meister Eckhart’s statement that “We are all meant to be mothers of God,” bringing God to birth in the world (see this book). Of course, there are biblical examples as well: the apostle Paul speaks of all of creation groaning in travail in Romans 8, and of himself as a mother suffering birth pangs in Galatians 4. There is a perplexing image of a woman clothed with the sun giving birth to a male child in Revelation 12; all of these suggest that the coming of the Kingdom of God, the new era of God’s reign, the new Creation, is like childbirth. And then there is one of the central stories of the Christian tradition, which revolves around not only one but two pregnancies: the Christmas narrative. I found it especially poignant to be pregnant during the season of Advent and Christmas this past year, as the entire Church celebrated the relatively ordinary (if scandalous) pregnancy of Mary of Nazareth, and awaited the birth of the Christ-child, so my husband and I were awaiting the birth of our own child. To me, this connection speaks to the holiness of every child, the sense of incarnation, of the enfleshment or embodiment of the image of God, in every human being.
There are two modern-day, feminist theological interpretations of childbirth which I’ve found powerful, which I’d like to share here. The first comes from Mary Grey’s book, Feminism, Redemption, and the Christian Tradition. She quotes Matthew Fox as saying, “Birthing requires the refusal to be victim, and it will help to bring an end to our long living with violence,” which she interprets as follows: “This is far from being a call for women to have more children to save the world. Nor is it a glorification of motherhood at the expense of fatherhood. What I am arguing is that as Christianity has now had two thousand years of death symbolism, it is at least possible that the slaughter perpetrated in the name of Christendom is related to its symbols of death, blood-guilt, and sacrifice, and that an alternative way of encapsulating the redemptive events might stimulate more compassionate lifestyles” (p. 175). In other words, images of redemption as birth instead of death and sacrifice lead to lives of compassion and peace instead of violence. On this basis, she goes on to describe birth as an instance of “a letting-go of self – in pain and struggle – for the creation of new being. […] We are in the dark, alone, in that primeval womb of chaos from which all life emerged. And yet, in that very darkness we can meet God as creative center. We are held by that nurturing center: from this being-torn-apart, this sense of loss, together You and I wordlessly create new life” (186).
The second comes from the memoir of Dorothee Soelle, the German feminist and liberation theologian. She too differentiates between the pains of childbirth and other types of pain, including the pain of violence. She argues against the idea that God is unable to suffer, because in her view, “pain is a part of life because pain is a part of love. I do not wish to have a God free of pain, for I could not trust such a God. […] The culture I seek is not one of domination and of having to win; it is one of compassion. The Christian religion could help people get ready for such a culture, because it derives its intensity from pain. It has interpreted the deepest pain as a pain of birth” (77). Here she turns to Paul’s words in Romans and Galatians: “By making the pain of women in labor his central image, Paul explains what is meant by Christian hope. The pain of women during birth is pain on behalf of life. A Christian relation to pain cannot fall below the level of what women experience in labor pains. The crying and groaning Paul speaks of refers to the last stage of giving birth; it is the labor of hope of those who in the hopelessness of ‘this’ world wait for God. The Messiah does not come without the labor pains of messianic time” (78). In conclusion, she asks, “How do we approach our pains so that they do not torment us like pointless kidney stones but, as pains of labor, prepare the new being? […] How does our pain become the pain of God? How do we become part of the messianic pain of liberation, part of the groaning of a creation that is in travail? How do we come to suffer so that our suffering becomes the pain of birth?” (78).
In the work of these two creative theologians, as well as in my own reflections on my recent experiences, I’ve glimpsed the paradox of the fragile human body pregnant with and bearing the very image of God, I’ve glimpsed the paradox of pain bringing forth life because it is tethered to the profound vulnerability of love, and I’ve come to truly agree with Meister Eckhart’s definition of faith’s tenderness, fleshliness, and ferocity: “We are all meant to be mothers of God.”