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Interview: Agnes R. Howard, humanities professor

14 August 2020

‘In our era of foetal imaging, it’s stunning to imagine Jesus as an embryo’

Pregnancy is a moral and spiritual business. This seems obvious to me on several grounds. First of all, in the living out of embodiment this way, with someone else’s whole self and soul enclosed inside of a person aware that this is happening. Also, the childbearing woman is physically present at the creation of a yet unknown human.

The spiritual character of pregnancy may have been acknowledged more in earlier centuries, if not always in positive ways. Liturgies for the “churching of women” sought to bless new mothers, but also may have implied that birth was a taint. Folk practices of women around childbed included prayers and rituals, some of which were disapproved of as superstition.

I teach in an interdisciplinary honours college: Christ College, at Valparaiso University, east of Chicago. A cross-disciplinary approach fits pregnancy — my special interest — very well, since it’s a liminal experience, and as a subject for study.

When I began this research, I hoped to discover vast riches of Christian meditation on pregnancy and birth. There are some riches, including reflection on the incarnation, the visitation, the doings of Jesus in utero. Mixed in with this is a discouraging measure of misogyny and suspicion of sexual misbehaviour: impediments to wonder at carrying a body-in-a-body.

In recent decades, we’ve gained excellent reflection about pregnancy and birth. Good care has made birth safer for many women, though not all. What we may have lost is awe and awareness of the gravity of birth beyond calculation of risk.

The Western culture of pregnancy and childbirth shapes how we think about how we came to be. Consider what might be communicated when parents tell a child: “We went to the hospital and we came back with you.” It’s conventional to note that birth, like death, has been privatised and medicalised. We don’t usually watch each other do it; so we never may have seen it before we have it happen to us. Doctors do great, impressive things for us, but we tend to entrust the whole experience of pregnancy and childbirth to medicine, which is more than doctors may wish to provide. This medicalisation of our coming into the world means that we get left without an interpretation in common.

With scientifically assisted pregnancies, we should be glad that people exist, and not second-guess the way they have come to stand in front of us; but, of course, if having a baby “the old-fashioned way” has become not the way, but just one possible option among many, the meaning of that “old-fashioned way” changes significantly.

Great sorrow and loss can be part of infertility, but that does not translate into a human right to bear and birth a child. To guarantee it as a right implies misunderstanding, as though a parent knows what she is going to get, and has the right to claim it.

Taking care of young children can de-centre one’s prideful selfish self. It doesn’t just happen by instinct. And it’s a mistake to view pregnancy as just a warm-up or preparation for the “real” work of mothering a live child.

People who choose to have children and those who choose not to have them both get accused of selfishness. People choose childlessness for all kinds of reasons, including environmental ones, but also reasons centred on comparative ease of achieving one’s personal goals. A contrasting model — old, but not exhausted — is that children are not things to have, but emerge from the united love of parents.

Western culture teaches a biomedical understanding of pregnancy and birth. I don’t romanticise the traditional for its own sake, but we might learn from other cultures that retain gestures of respect for mothers-to-be and birth. Some mothers in Mexico, China, and Japan are welcomed with a post-partum month of special caretaking and rest.

My personal experience of pregnancy shaped my research. Bearing and birthing my children helped to spark interest in the first place. They sometimes have found this embarrassing.

Pregnancy, and the babyhood of my first child, was startlingly wonderful. I assumed there would be lots of sources to interpret childbearing for me, but I’d look up “pregnancy” in books I thought must treat the topic, and would find nothing. It took me a long time to figure out where these parts were hiding — often under the index entry for “embryology”, which explains a lot.

John Saward’s Redeemer in the Womb contemplates Jesus as an embryo. We see yet another way Jesus on earth was just like us; also, that Jesus was, even then, interceding on our behalf, active as our Redeemer. In our era of foetal imaging, it’s stunning to imagine Jesus that way, and to imagine an ordinary human foetus active and called by God.

The Church can certainly contribute to better human understanding of pregnancy and childbirth by recognising this work of care, and by considering generosity and gift in embodiment. Since institutions attending well to pregnancy are scarce — the obstetric or midwifery suite are the only places where many women find it taken seriously — there’s clear need.

Theology can develop insights into birth more seriously. In the last century, theologians have addressed it more, and feminist theologians are bringing fresh insights. Thinking theologically about birth often starts with the metaphor of new birth. Reconsidering the pregnant body might allow us to put flesh on these considerations, to move beyond metaphor.

Controversy over abortion is relevant to reflection on pregnancy. One reason for writing the book, though, stemmed from frustration over abortion polemics: that people often seemed interested in the astonishing phenomenon of pregnancy only as it related to abortion. Routine pregnancy seemed to become eligible for moral consideration only when it was problematic to start or end it: that is, in relation to assisted-reproduction technologies or abortion.

Abortion controversies are frustrating when well-meaning people tend to talk past each other; so I especially appreciate it when real exchange occurs, like a book by Bertha Alvarez Manninen and Jack Mulder, Civil Dialogue on Abortion.

I grew up with a warm, lively mother, and two brothers and two sisters. My husband and I met in graduate school, and we have three children.

I’m not sure what my absolute first experience of God was, but I remember a childhood Good Friday when the real ugliness of my anger at my brother seemed connected with Jesus staggering under the weight of the cross, and I was flooded with remorse and relief and gratitude.

That sense of God has developed over time with joy — “And can it be, that I should gain?” — and in worship. Lately, I can’t get over the immensity and intricacy of creation taken together: contemplating what is enormous and also minute and complex, all at once.

An experience that demanded courage was at the end of a pregnancy that I miscarried. My husband and I learned at an ultrasound that there was no heartbeat. He brought me to hospital after a weekend with that knowledge. That delivery was structurally the same as other births — on a maternity floor with other birthing women — except we knew in advance our son was no longer alive.

I’d like to improve my Italian language skills to do research on women religious, especially in Orvieto, Italy, where I sometimes teach.

Waste makes me angry.

Many things make me happy. Good gardens, good wine, public libraries, new snow, sun on my back.

My mother phones me to play “Happy birthday”, by piano or accordion, on my voicemail every year. That’s a great sound.

Students give me hope for the future. I love to see how much growing takes place during a few years at university. I love their fresh enjoyment of their energies and capacities, and how hard they reach to do something good.

I pray most for church unity — and mercy.

I would be lucky to be locked in church for a few hours with Caritas Pirckheimer, the 16th-century Clarissian sister in Nuremberg who resisted closure of her convent, and, with help of a sympathetic Philip Melanchthon and friends, persuaded the city council not to shut them down. Wise, witty, responsible, she had insight into both sides of current Catholic and Protestant arguments, though she stood her ground.

Professor Howard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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