Life Before Death

Let our society truly choose life, with all its competing moral claims and obligations to minister to the weakest among us.

BY: Forrest Church


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With respect to abortion, did you know that 300,000 fewer abortions were performed during President Clinton's eight years in office than have already occurred during President Bush's five. In part, this is surely due to the cutback in funding and the restriction of birth control and family planning services in health education and sex education programs.

In light of these numbers, one could argue that a pro-choice agenda serves the anti-abortion cause more effectively than does a so-called pro-life agenda, which limits contraceptive options and restricts sex education to the moralistic platitude of "Just say no." Even apart from such evidence, a pro-birth stance outlawing all forms of abortion and an anti-death stance outlawing all forms of euthanasia (though rarely extended to capital punishment and war) does not, in my opinion, add up to a pro-life policy, especially when questions addressing the quality of life--after birth and before death--appear to evoke respectively little moral intensity or compassionate solicitude from self-described pro-life crusaders.

Beyond this, if we are truly to choose life, we must weigh the competing demands for our moral attention in the scales of equity and justice. An encompassing pro-life position would weigh into the balance poverty and malnutrition, equal health care and education, and all the many facets of human rights and dignity, with as much care as today's pro-life crusaders devote to abortion, euthanasia, and Gay marriage. To choose life is not, regardless of the cost, to mandate birth or to prevent death. To choose life is to nurture and enhance the quality of life for the entire human family. This entails moral choice and requires moral compromise. No responsible civil ethic can be fashioned that does not allow prioritizing the competing claims on our moral attention. To choose life- reverently and thoughtfully, unbiased by sentimentality-we must resist the siren's song of moral absolutists, for whom both choice and compromise are anathema.

I recognize that I've been talking about ethics on what many would define as a metaphysical occasion. Before mounting my spiritual charger--as all these trumpets seem to call for--and galloping off toward the ether, let me say a word about our approach to religion here. We Unitarians are sometimes accused of having a thick ethic and a thin metaphysic. Even on Easter, I will rush to say, "Guilty as charged." We test our faith by deeds not creeds. As Henry David Thoreau put it when asked about the afterlife, we take things one life at a time. Our book of revelation is the book of nature. We read the story of our lives and the story of life itself in its rich and luxuriant pages. As Jesus himself did, we follow the spirit not the letter of the scriptures.

Love to God--the ground of our being, being itself--and Love to Neighbor are our two great commandments, summing up all the law and the prophets. We see ourselves as being saved in and for the world, not from the world. Whatever we may think about life after death, we devote our full spiritual attentions to life before death, seeking to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. When pondering the life and death of Terri Schiavo or Jesus of Nazareth or our own life and death, we look not to the supernatural for meaning or rescue. Instead, we peer through life's veil in search for the super in the natural, that our lives may be touched by awe and blessed by grace.

Religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. We are not the animal with tools or the animal with advanced language. We are the religious animal. Knowing we will die, we question what life means. Question of ultimate meaning are religious questions. One may answer them, of course, with non-religious answers. Just make sure these answers are not too glib. For instance, whenever someone boasts to me that she doesn't believe in God, I ask her to tell me a little about the God she doesn't believe in, because I probably don't believe in him either. If fundamentalists of the right enshrine an idol on their altar, an impossibly petty, tyrannical, and tiny God, fundamentalists of the left strike that idol from the altar and believe that they have done something creative or important. Both remain in thralldom to the same tiny God.

Theology is poetry, not science. It almost has to be. By cosmologists' latest reckoning, there are some 100 billion stars in our galaxy and ours is one of perhaps 100 billion galaxies. Divide the stars among us, and in our galaxy alone, every individual alive on earth today would be the proud possessor of seventeen personal stars. In the cosmos itself, the star to person ratio is 1.7 trillion to one.

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