To Have or Not to Have: Childlessness and Imago Dei Identity
Last month, Time magazine explored this phenomenon in their cover story entitled, "The Childfree Life: When having it all means not having children." And then earlier this week, Emily Timbol wrote a piece for Her.meneutics, a blog of Christianity Today, explaining why she and her husband do not intend to have children (and why she’d appreciate you not judging her for it.) Now, couples choosing to not have children is nothing new; but what I do find interesting is why they are choosing this. The current argument seems less rooted in the classic appeal to overpopulation or the desire to commit oneself to extreme callings or even a worry about bringing children into a terribly broken world. Instead, it seems that more and more couples are choosing to not have children in order to pursue certain lifestyles and careers unhindered. And while it’s easy to chalk this up to Millennial selfishness, (see here for a piece that rightly challenges the temptation to make Millennials the scapegoat for every societal ill), I don’t think it’s that simple. At the same time, the question of whether to have children is going to be increasingly pesky one for Millennials for a couple of reasons:
- 50+ years of reliable birth control has successfully divorced children from sex and created an entire generation that is functionally illiterate about reproduction and child-rearing. We may know how NOT to have children, but we have not been schooled in how to have them.
- A growing Gnosticism that separates gifting from biology and links it to intangibles like personality and intellect. We simply don’t view gender and the capacity to have children as gifting in itself.
- The belief that aforementioned intellectual gifting is somehow necessary to the. future. of. civilization. Getting sidetracked by mundane things like children wouldn’t be in the best interest of greater human flourishing.
- Increasing inability to think generationally. In a society obsessed with youth, we don’t have categories for aging--whether that is our parents' aging or our own future aging. This means that we also don’t understand children as the bridge that connects generations, stretching back to the past and on into the future.
Among Christians, I think it’s also fair to recognize that that the question of childlessness is heavily influenced by the gender debate. Since 2nd-Wave Feminism, conservative Christians have responded by elevating the calling of a wife and mother. But because this sometimes came as a reaction to feminism, it also sometimes devolved into an idolization of motherhood and wifery, of understanding women only in terms of biology. To be fair, conservative Christians aren’t the only ones capable of this. In this brave new world of IVF, surrogacy, and egg donation, we brazenly reduce women to their reproductive capacities at every turn.
So how should we navigate the choice to have or not have children?
The first thing we must do is clarify what we are actually talking about. When we broach the subject of human reproduction, we are not talking about “babies” or “children” as if they were pets or diminutive, lesser versions of adults. When we broach the question of human reproduction, we are discussing the unique capacity of human beings to create new image bearers of a transcendent God. By definition, this is not reproducing the same way plants and animals do. And the difference lies, not in the mechanics of reproduction, but in what we are creating in our procreation.
Ironically, one of the arguments in favor of childfree living is that we need to view women first as people, as image bearers, and not simply in terms of their reproductive capacities. And while I understand this impulse, I’m concerned that it is often based on a one-dimensional understanding of imago dei. Instead of some nebulous, idealized autonomy, imago dei is better understood as the convergence of the relationships in which we live. We must understand ourselves, as Anthony Hoekema suggests in his book Created in God’s Image, through 1) our relationship with God; 2) our relationship with each other; and 3) our relationship with Creation as its steward.
What that means for the question of children is that we cannot properly discuss the how and when of having them apart from these relationships. Unlike we've been taught, this is not simply a matter of personal choice. Consider how the very act of conception mirrors a relational understanding of imago dei. When 1) a man and woman unite their bodies in dependence on 2) God’s sovereign will, they act as His representatives in 3) stewarding Creation by being fruitful and multiplying. Here in this one moment, the three planes of imago dei identity align and allow God’s nature to shine through their lives like light through a prism. What before was invisible to the naked eye, suddenly bursts forth in a rainbow of color, incarnated through the very process of conceiving, birthing, and nurturing new life.
Of course, this is not the only way human beings image God, but we cannot continue to talk about reproduction apart from it. Unfortunately, in our culture, babies and children are more associated with the cutesy-ness of baby showers, miniature haute couture, and the tallying of “firsts.” And parenting is reduced to a sort of pastime that some couples undertake. Worse still, babies and children, when not wanted, are seen as barriers to self-fulfillment and personal goals. So the message that many young couples receive is that having children is something that you can pick or choose if you like it or not. And if you’re not quite ready to pull the trigger, get a puppy. Because, after all, there’s not much difference between human child and canine one, right?
But what if procreation isn’t simply a hobby but as the Scripture actually speaks about it, the creation of new image bearers? What if, when Adam fathered sons and daughters in his own likeness, he mirrored God’s first fathering man and woman in His own likeness? And what if, bringing a life into being and sustaining that life is one of the most God-like things human beings could ever do?
I don’t think this demands that every individual become a parent—clearly some will not and are no less capable of experiencing imago dei—but I do think that it changes the tenor of the discussion and how we view children. So that ultimately, the decision to have children is not one we make simply because we “feel” like it or don’t. It’s not a choice we make out of sentimentality (maternal ache notwithstanding); and it is not one we avoid out of fear or the desire to be unhindered.
Instead, the choice to produce and nurture a new image bearer is directly tied to our own status as image bearers, and as such, it is a choice that we make in context of relationship not stark autonomy. It is a choice made in prayerful dependence on God, in loving relationship with others, and as a steward of Creation who rules with the same life-giving authority and the same open-hearted generosity that God Himself does.