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When Does “Life” Begin? (blog by Cynthia – part 3)

This is a continuation in a blog series by Cynthia Bourgeault. Below is the complete list of blogs currently in this series: 

A Surprising Ecumenism… (part 1)

Abortion, Pro-Life, and the Secular State: A Modest Proposal (part 2)

When Does “Life” Begin? (part 3)

The Developmental Soul (part 4)

Teilhard, the Personal, and The Developmental Soul (part 5)

Fullness of Life: A brief poetic interlude before the final run-up on a conclusion (part 6)

Healing the Elephant in the Womb (part 7)


In this third installment of this blog series, I hope to bring a Wisdom perspective to that profound liminal sphere encompassing conception, birth, and the formation of the soul. For it’s in the metaphysical confusion surrounding these mysteries, I believe, that the roots of our present abortion conundrum really have their origin.

Note that I say “a Wisdom perspective” rather that “the Wisdom perspective,” for the Wisdom tradition is by no means monochrome. My comments here reflect the strands of the lineage that have most directly informed my own understanding, specifically, the Gurdjieff Work and the Christian mystical/esoteric lineage running through the Gospel of Thomas, the Philokalia, Jacob Boehme, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. They also reflect some of the thinking at the forefront of contemporary embryology, particularly as represented in the work of Dutch embryologist Jaap van der Wal.



The Wisdom tradition would affirm vigorously that life does not merely begin at conception; it is already well underway by the time of conception—“life” here understood not as a purely biological phenomenon, but as flow, dynamism, and intelligent purposiveness. In contrast to earlier, more mechanical models, which tended to see conception in Darwinian terms (“the fittest sperm takes the egg”), contemporary embryological research suggests a much more collaborative model, far more akin to Nash-ian Game Theory than to Darwinian survival of the fittest. A myriad of sperm collaborate to place a single sperm before the egg, which then opens— volitionally—rather than simply being battered or overwhelmed.


There is evidence as well that conception occurs according to a full-fledged Law of Three model. It’s not simply sperm/egg//baby, but rather, sperm/egg/X//baby, where X represents the infusion of some mysterious animating force beyond the immediate biochemistry.

Those of us who participated in the 2012 Tucson Wisdom School will no doubt never forget that powerful moment when Wisdom student Nancy Denman, a research embryologist from British Columbia, described how the process of conception actually occurs.

“The egg opens to a single sperm,” she explained, “then closes. For about twenty-four hours there is stillness. Then all of a sudden, the egg starts vibrating violently. ‘Ignition!!!’ we all call it.”

Then she added parenthetically, “Those of us of a more religious bent might be inclined to describe it as “the descent of the Spirit.”

However this X-factor is named, it certainly seems to function as a third term in the old “nature versus nurture” conundrum, offering still another line of explanation as to why babies conceived by the same parents and raised in the same household under the same value system frequently wind up displaying such markedly different personality traits. “Our essence comes from the stars,” Gurdjieff always insisted. There is something in the formation of a new life that cannot be reduced to pure biochemistry; it seems to be an emergent property of the act of conception itself.



So far so good. There is nothing in the above that should raise any eyebrows whatsoever among even the most ardent pro-lifers. “What part of LIFE do you not understand?” If anything, we are pushing back the leading edge of life into even earlier in the process, into the intrinsic purposiveness that Teilhard de Chardin and others would see as part of the irreversible intelligence of evolution itself.

But hang onto your hats; this next step is where we are about to part company rather dramatically with traditional pro-life metaphysics. For the Wisdom tradition would suggest that life—which indubitably is present at the moment of conception if not well before—is not synonymous with Soul. The terms are often used interchangeably, and it is precisely here, in this confusion, that the Gordian knot is originally tied.

In traditional Catholic metaphysics, this “x-factor” would immediately be identified as “the soul,” the essence of the living human being. The soul is created by God and bestowed at conception. Once bestowed, it is henceforward immortal within the cosmos; death will change its state but will not destroy it. Thus, the soul trajectory is established from the very beginning; from this the moment of conception forward, this uniquely particular and fully formed human identity will make its way through the journey of life, along the way accumulating virtue or vice—in acknowledgement of which, it will be assigned its permanent dwelling place in either heaven or hell.

In the light of this venerable but antiquated metaphysical roadmap (note how it’s steeped in “substance theology,” long since invalidated by contemporary scientific models), it is easy to understand both the urgency and the pathos dominating the “pro-life” strategy. Denying the gift of life to even a two-cell fetus is tantamount to killing a defenseless human soul. The assumption governing much of the prolife rhetoric seems to be that somehow pro-choice folks don’t “get” that a human life is a human soul and need to be shown that it is, often in emotionally exaggerated and manipulative ways. Hence those “abortion stops a beating heart” billboards.

The Wisdom tradition—at least the lineage of the tradition I have been formed in—would see it differently. What is bestowed in that moment of “ignition” is not yet a soul, but rather, the potential to develop a soul. Soul does not come at the beginning; it comes at the end, forged and fused in the crucible of life itself (or perhaps better, in the womb of life) through the conscious weaving of that hand which is dealt at the moment of conception.

The notion of a “developmental soul” comes as a shock and perhaps even an affront to traditional Christian metaphysics. But hear me out here; it has been a staple in the Western esoteric tradition from the get-go, as I will document in my next blog. But even more compellingly, it holds the potential, I believe, to bring an authentic resolution to the abortion impasse, and to tie together that great desideratum so far escaping us: that integral “pro-life” stance that sees ALL stages of life as equally compelling and worthy of sacred protection.

Stay tuned for the next installment—to follow promptly.


For related comments see these posts at Northeast Wisdom and The Contemplative Society.





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