Birth and Human Flourishing

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?

Contributing Scholars

Michael Banner
University of Cambridge

Michael Banner is Dean, Fellow and Director of Studies in Theology and Religious Studies at Trinity College. He was previously the Director of ESRC Genomics Forum and Professor of Ethics and Public Policy in Life Sciences in the School of Molecular and Clinical Medicine, University of Edinburgh, and from 1994 to 2004 was F.D. Maurice Professor of Moral and Social Theology, King’s College, London. His 2013 Bampton Lectures were published in 2014 by Oxford University Press as The Ethics of Everyday Life: Moral Theology, Social Anthropology and the Imagination of the Human. Amongst his other publications are The Justification of Science and the Rationality of Religious Belief (OUP, 1990), Christian Ethics and Contemporary Moral Problems (CUP, 1999), and Christian Ethics: A Brief History (Blackwells, 2009). 

Tina Beattie
University of Roehampton

Tina Beattie is the Director of the Digby Stuart Research Centre for Religion, Society and Human Flourishing at the University of Roehampton. Much of her research focuses on the relationship between the Catholic tradition and contemporary culture, particularly in areas to do with gender, sexuality and reproductive ethics; Catholic social teaching and women’s rights, and theology and the visual arts. She has a keen interest in Marian theology, art and devotion, and in the relationship between medieval mysticism, sacramental theology, and psychoanalytic theory. Her latest research monograph, Theology After Postmodernity: Divining the Void, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013.

Tina Beattie, “A Mother is Born: A Reflection in Four Parts” (pdf)

Lisa Guenther
Vanderbilt University

Lisa Guenther is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics of Reproduction (SUNY Press, 2006) and Social Death and its Afterlives: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement (Minnesota University Press, 2013). She facilitates a weekly discussion group at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee.

James Mumford
University of Virginia

James Mumford is the Nicholas Wolterstorff postdoctoral research fellow. He earned his PhD from Oxford in ethics and religion, published in 2013 as Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A Phenomenological Critique (Oxford University Press). His research interests include bioethics, political theology and modern Catholic social thought. Mumford was an undergraduate at Oxford and a Henry Fellow at Yale. From 2010-13 he worked for leading British political/social policy think-tank, The Centre for Social Justice. He writes on a range of ethical, political and social issues for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, Demos Quarterly, The Huffington Post, The Spectator, The Hedgehog Review, The American Conservative and Standpoint.

James Mumford, “Dependency and Begottenness

The God and Human Flourishing consultations are sponsored by the McDonald Agape Foundation.