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Purpose, Predestination and the Aesthetics of Conception



As I've mentioned before, beauty isn't a thing or even the quality of a thing. Beauty is the relationship between two dimensions, working together in harmony. We call this relationship beautiful because it satisfies, brings pleasure, and is enjoyable. We are most glad when things work as they should. The two dimensions that conspire to together to incite beauty are the moral realm and the aesthetic realm. One is conceived in the mind, the other is produced in the material.

In a previous post I wrote the following:

"The relationship between the moral dimension and the aesthetic dimension is vitally important. In fact, the aesthetic dimension depends upon there being a moral dimension and cannot exist without it. A moral dimension can exist without an aesthetic and actually, necessarily precedes an aesthetic. Yet the moral desires an aesthetic. And its value (beauty) depends upon, in large part, achieving an aesthetic expression (though not always, and not entirely). For instance, what good is the desire to be kind to someone (moral dimension) if the opportunity is never taken and the desire never acted upon (aesthetic dimension)? Or, where is the value in a painting that was imagined yet never created? Or, where is the beauty of a song never written? I might imagine a pleasing melody in my mind, but if I don’t even attempt to play it on an instrument, how can it possibly be appreciated? That melody is in a sense, effectively worthless, on account of the aesthetic component being absent".

This idea came to mind again recently when listening to a podcast conversation about abortion.

During the podcast, as is usual in discussions about abortion, the conversation eventually led to the 'when does life begin' question. The guest was explaining quite succinctly how he believed that life begins at conception. He is a medical doctor and related how in the scientific community this is the standard scientific belief. The host was in no way antagonistic to this 'pro-life' understanding. However, it was clear that he was not quite able (though not necessarily unwilling) to consider the 'zygote' (fertilised egg) a fully-fledged human being (in the sense of its intrinsic value). He spoke about how the cells so early on in development don't look like a human and developmentally, the embryo is far from the characteristics of what we do clearly know as a human being at the stage of birth and beyond.

For all intents and purposes, I think the host of the podcast had an aesthetics problem with discerning when life begins. Fair enough to a certain extent, I think. A zygote, as he so frequently referred to it, doesn't look like a human whatsoever. When a baby is born at full term, happy and healthy and normal, despite its size, shape, colour, capacities, and faculties, it's very clearly a human baby. Compare the new born with other human beings spanning the age ranges, from 8 - 80, and you'll be able to discern simply by looking, that the new born is a part of the same species as the pink-cheeked child and the wrinkly, grey-haired octogenarian. The freshly conceived human in embryo form, with minimal biological development, looks nothing like a human in comparison. And when you have an evolutionary understanding of biology like the host of this particular podcast has, you can understand how he might end up asking this type of question; just when does life begin, exactly?

To my mind, however, there is a parallel between my description of beauty above and the process of child development. The parallel does two things. Firstly, it helps us to discern that life does indeed begin at conception. Secondly, since we know that 'The heavens declare the glory of God' (heavens as representative of the whole created order, in this case, referring to a human being) we are to understand that something about God is being communicated through the process of how humans come into existence. Therefore we have cause to look for parallels between how life comes into being and any spiritual concepts revealed to us specially in scripture. In the same way that marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, what might conception be a picture of?

Moral gives birth to aesthetic

To the best of my understanding, as articulated throughout this blog, there are two components to beauty. There is the moral dimension and the aesthetic dimension. As I try to explain above, the aesthetic component is an expression of the moral. Since we're talking about conception, we could say that the moral gives birth to the aesthetic. That's actually as clear an analogy as I can think of to explain the relationship between both dimensions. Just as conception leads to birth because the complete amount of genetic information is contained within the fertilised egg as is contained in the new born, so the moral gives birth to the aesthetic because the same information is contained within each dimension.

For example, I am (was) currently writing these thoughts down on paper, with a pen. The pen has black ink, and the words are appearing in my unique handwriting and in English. And so as I write, what I am looking at is the aesthetic expression of my ideas. But not merely an instinctive, automatic response to the operation of my cognitive faculties, these words are also the expression of my sincere desire to share those ideas with other people. For our mutual benefit. Which could come through agreement or disagreement with said thoughts. And the existence of others, and a desire to engage with them according to my human nature, which is the driving force behind a moral realm pursuit of aesthetic expression.

And it's this moral idea coupled with desire, purpose and intent which pursues aesthetic expression. The ideas are wrapped up in love for God and for other people, and I sense a burden of responsibility to edify and encourage. The moral real is information driven by intent. It seeks aesthetic expression because other persons exist.

If there is no aesthetic expression of my ideas, their moral value is diminished. Indeed, there are many thoughts and ideas I have that don't make it beyond the realm of my prefrontal cortex. I deduce them to be inferior and of not enough value - to other people -  to be articulated, and probably I forget those ideas. Even with the good ideas, if there is no aesthetic expression of them, I make them effectively worthless (there are caveats to this, though) if I decline from seeing them expressed. Say I invented a cure for cancer but kept it to myself, the inherent nobility of that information is corrupted by my lack of willingness or ability to share it. We would lament that! So in principle, the moral real instinctively seeks aesthetic expression!

Likewise, aesthetic expression is meaningless without a moral counterpart. (In fact, aesthetic expression - to my mind - is completely incongruous without an epistemological framework that begins with an intelligent designer). If I simply covered my eyes and pressed random keys on a keyboard, no information will be communicated. Sure I might accidentally type a few real words, but even then the combination of letters would be purely coincidental and the word not really a word (because no word has inherent value or meaning without conscious designation which is corporately agreed). It would still be meaningless because I had no desire for it to be there. And the point is that valuable aesthetic expression presupposes purpose, intent and intelligence. If purpose, intent and intelligence are not present in the moral realm, any aesthetic instance is worthless because it is meaningless. It would be accidental. Accidents are the antithesis of purpose and are usually discarded or corrected.

It's also worth noting that aesthetic expression can change and develop. However, the subjective nature of aesthetics does not undermine the objective nature of morals. What I mean is, the beginning of aesthetic expression of one particular moral entity might look different to how it ends, even though the moral dimension from which it is born is, of course, the very same. As I mentioned earlier, these thoughts originated their expression in black, ballpoint ink. Handwritten by me in my unique form, on off-white paper with grey lines on it. You are reading them now as a more formally structured layout as digital text situated within the confines of my blog. The colour of the text is black (#000) and the typeface is Times New Roman. There are no scribbles, no crossed-out sentences and no lines pointing me from one paragraph to another one indicating that I ignore the one in between. The individual moral entity led to an aesthetic expression that developed and changed, but the moral idea being communicated was always the same and toward the same end. The goal of the aesthetic expression never changed. And the end goal of the aesthetic expression was a revelation of what would have otherwise remained hidden in the moral realm. Again, as mentioned, the moral conceives and gives birth to the aesthetic. But let's think that through a bit. Conceiving, in relation to making babies, refers to the instance the correct biological material combines to initiate a process that will lead to childbirth. But the word conception literally refers to the mind - we conceive ideas. A concept is an idea that has not come to fruition yet. We call conception (sperm meets egg) conception because we imply purpose, intent, intelligence, and design behind that. And actually, whilst we could simply say moral gives birth to aesthetic, birth is part of a process. The human exists at the moment of conception and (hopefully) will grow old and wrinkly with grey hair before their end is complete. And it's worth saying that like with conception itself, there is very often not much of a gap if at all) between a moral realm idea occurring and some form of aesthetic expression of it. There is something of instinct about aesthetic expression. Like when a new idea comes to mind, I grab the nearest pen and paper to put down the rudimentary articulation of it.

And so, at conception, we do in fact see the complete amount of information required in the cells of a 'zygote' to consider it a full member of the human species. It is a baby. Indeed, it is a boy OR a girl. And that's how we know that life begins at conception. Even if a pregnancy was unplanned, there is enough purpose in God's design of our bodies to understand that it was intended to happen. And intent really is key here. Human conception has never ever produced anything other than a human. And it never will. There is one thing which conception has been designed to produce, and one thing which has been intended to be produced by conception. By design, the process begins - the information begins processing - when the previously separated sets of information are brought together.

As I write these things down, I am struck by how reliant my description of beauty is on God being the beginning of all things - the intelligent designer, the first cause. And I am pleased about this. Because without a belief in God, I never would have understood beauty in this way. So even though this description of beauty serves as a logical framework of understanding, it must be noted that it is, at heart, merely a description of how God operates through the created order - a reflection of the creator himself. Therefore, the logical reasoning presented for why life begins at conception is not mere logical alone it is the logic of God, the description of how God has ordered creation. Indeed it's a reflection of God himself and how his plans and purposes, designs, and intentions work!

The intent then, to my mind, proves that life begins at conception. For instance, no couple thinks to themselves "let's create an embryo" or "let's create second-trimester human" or even "let's create a 33-year-old man". They say, let's create a baby. But they presuppose that the baby will start off as a pin-head size embryo and will one day become a mature adult. Just like how a parent's intent refers to the end result which includes the progression of development to that end, the intent hidden within the moral realm of God's idea for humans to exist, is what lies behind conception, behind in-utero fetal development, birth after 42 weeks, and every other stage of human existence. And it's the same, single idea behind every stage. The same moral entity behind that progression of aesthetic expression. It's not one idea for conception, another idea for foetal development and another for the newly born. If that were the case, the question of when life begins would be anyone's guess. And perhaps we get a hint at this when Eve proclaims "with the help of the Lord I have brought forth a man". A man, not an infant! The really cool thing about how God does operate within the created order is that he reinforces his ideas through the composition of creation. In this instance, in case people were left with any philosophical doubt about life beginning at conception or not, the Lord ordained that the full and complete combination of biological information needed for the 33-year-old was present at conception. It's not even as if new information was added. The person who dies at 99 dies with the same DNA as they had 99 years and 9 months previous at the point of their conception.

So, in this regard, the description of beauty as presented is a very important one. Not just for its logical coherence and how elegantly it can explain such 'mysteries' as when life begins. But also because it serves to demonstrate the mind of God, how he acts and who he is - what he is like as a person. Conception can indeed be described as beautiful. And, just to reinforce how special, deliberate and important 'multiplying' is as a reflection of God himself, - the perpetuation of the image we are called to bear - The Lord integrates a particular physical sensation into the process in question, one which demonstrates the supreme beauty of this noble duty. As I've written previously; beauty is the satisfying harmony of relationship between a moral entity and its counterpart aesthetic expression. Very tangibly demonstrated through the process of conception!

Conception as a picture of Predestination

So, what specifically might conception and indeed the entire human development process, tell us about God?

What spiritual reality might conception be mirroring for us in order to help us have greater confidence in the unseen? Well, Romans 8 seems to describe something that works in a similar way to the process of how human life comes about.

When seeking to give assurance to Christians - those who, as Jesus said, have been born again - the Apostle Paul confidently asserts ch8 v28 that "we know all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (my italics). Paul then goes on to explain, v29, that those he foreknew he also predestined. Predestined to what? To be bearers of his image. Then, v30 those he predestined he called and those he called he justified and those he justified he also glorified. What Paul describes here is a purpose that ultimately leads to a glorified person. That is, a person who has received salvation through the forgiveness of sins, received by faith in the blood of Christ - to the extent that they are a new creation - no more in condemnation. But not just a new creation - a fully developed new creation, whereby there is no going back. No reverting to immaturity or sinfulness once again.

It's important to really know what this term means. Glorified is what Christians will be when Jesus has returned to calls his people home and marry his bride, the Church. Christians who are alive now are not experiencing what it will be like to be glorified. However, Paul very helpfully used the past tense of the word when describing believers he is seeking to give assurance to. Instead of saying 'he also glorified' Paul could have said 'he will also glorify' and still have been theologically correct from the point of view of human experience. However, Paul says glorified in order to demonstrate the certainty of salvation. In God's eyes, the not yet glorified are glorified because there is no way in hell he won't glorify those he has predestined for glorification! Christians are categorically glorified - complete in God's eyes. Yet in effect, we are not. Not yet at least. So, to give confidence and not focus too much on the not-yet part and cause weak brothers to worry, Paul wants us to think of ourselves as glorified. He wants the knowledge of what we are categorically, to inform our experience, to help us with the incongruity Paul himself knows all too well (Romans 7). You may know that we call this aspiration toward glorification in experience as sanctification - the development of spiritual maturity in a believer.

So, we have this end goal, the fully matured saved person - the glorified person. As Eve might well say 'I have brought for a man' so might the Lord say about those who have put their faith in Christ 'I have brought forth a glorified man'. And we also have intent here, don't we? We have purpose and predestination. Two words used by Paul to articulate the mind of God regarding saved people. And we have a progression in between. Actually, we know of even more progression than is revealed in this particular passage. Because, of course, with the salvation of every man and woman is the change from being a sinner into a believer. That is simply assumed by the Romans 8 text. Do you see the comparison then?

Just like people become people by design, through a specific process, so do people become saved!

Moral realm: God's design/mum and dad plan baby. Aesthetic: conception; foetal development; birth, childhood; adult.

Moral realm; purpose/predestination/foreknowledge. Aesthetic: called by God; justified by faith; sanctified; glorified.

What links childbirth and new birth is that the beginning inevitably leads to the end. Just as sure as conception is supposed to lead to the birth of a human being, so is being called by the Lord through the Gospel intended to secure salvation for us. Just like mum and dad intend to bring forth a man or woman (eventually), not just a baby, God doesn't just intend to bring forth a partially sanctified person, but a fully justified and thoroughly glorified person. That's our sure and certain picture of salvation, as mirrored by conception! No wonder then, that Jesus describes salvation as being born again. The apostle John, even before retelling the account of Jesus meeting with Nicodemus says about Christians that: to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And because God is working salvation, it is an even more sure thing for the person being saved than even the child being born. Knowing that in our fallen condition, some aspiring parents experience the heartbreak of the process not completing as planned. Even when a child is born, things outside a parent's control could end the life prematurely. Indeed, the language of new birth is only required because we morally die. Our moral failure is represented by our aesthetic failure in death. This is why death is the least beautiful thing there is. Yet, where salvation is concerned, the Lord never fails or allows the process not to complete! That new, second, spiritual birth will NEVER lead to death!

We're told Hebrews that the Lord Jesus has died and that he's only going to do that once. But because he has risen from the dead to become the firstborn from the dead, we can be confident that the new birth we have through faith in him will not fail. Jesus' resurrection is the symbol of the new covenant in effect. It proves that the old things have passed away and that man, who was never supposed to die, can enjoy that same resurrection, to become the glorified person he was always intended to be! And that's why now, everything that happens up until we're glorified has been purposed to be for our good in order to cause us to progress into a sanctified and then a glorified person.

The language of physical birth therefore we are to understand as a picture of a believer's spiritual birth. In the same way, that marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, as Paul has told us, I think it's fair to say that being born is a picture also of being born again!

That's why we describe the birth of a newborn as beautiful, right? It's a beautiful thing? How many things in the world thrill our souls as much as the sight of the newborn? How many things make our hearts burn within us as the knowledge that someone has been born again? Birth and new birth fit the criteria for beauty because they are moral ideas and intentions with aesthetic manifestations which produce joy!

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