October 30-31, 2015
As celebrated by the churches during the liturgical season of Christmas, the birth of a child has the character of a gift. What is the significance of our being born, of our ‘begottenness,’ for our nature as human beings, and what is its impact on how conceive of human flourishing and the good life?
This consultation takes as its point of departure three characteristics fundamental to human beings that are constellated by birth: fragility, insufficiency, and givenness.
Though human beings are, arguably, fragile throughout the whole of our lives, the entrance of the human being into the world and the beginning of life points up our fragility in a particular way: as a vulnerability intrinsic to our creatureliness, one that ought not be too easily regarded as negative but, rather, that signifies a certain preciousness to God and our fellows.
Our fragility is closely tied to the insufficiency so readily displayed in the time-frame with which this consultation is concerned: inclusive of life in utero and extending through the first couple weeks of life. In utero we are part of and connected to someone else, and after our births we are thrown into a set of relationships and a context not of our choosing. This being derived from another that is fundamental to ‘begottenness’ has important ramifications for the whole of life.
Finally, as emphasized by Biblical stories of once-barren mothers like Hannah and Elizabeth, and as pointed up especially during the season of Christmas, the birth of a child represents a profound gift—and not only on the side of the child’s parents or community. What does it mean that human beings receive our very selves as a gift, that everything we are and have is a gift given to us?
Our investigation takes stock of the analyses of birth given by philosophers such as Hannah Arendt (as in her account of ‘natality’), phenomenologists like James Mumford (as in his recent book Ethics at the Beginning of Life), and psychoanalytic feminists such as Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva, as well as theologies concerned with the cluster of doctrines treating the birth of Christ himself. What difference does it make that human beings are born, and how ought we bring that crucial difference to bear on an account of the good life?