In Utero Theology: Wisdom from an Embryo

This is my son Milo, the day we first saw him. He’s already excelling at his pre-reflexogenic skills.

You probably wouldn’t expect that a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Association for Psychological Science would have written anything that could deepen my theological understanding of the divine-human relationship, or even my faith in Jesus Christ . . . but here we are.

I’ve recently read a book by Robert R. Provine, a neuroscientist and Professor of Psychology at the University of Maryland, that completely changed the way I read Genesis 1:27 and Luke 9:23. The book is titled Curious Behavior: Yawning, Laughing, Hiccupping, and BeyondI’m sure my parents raised their eyebrows a bit when this title showed up on my Christmas list, but when I saw it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble, my only thought was “there HAS to be some teachable stuff in this book.”

My reasoning behind wanting to read a purely scientific book about “small science” human behavior was that perhaps I could identify some relationships between our primal behavior and our relationship with God. It turns out that I was right. For example, much can be said theologically about our proclivity toward empathy and how that is evidenced by the contagious yawn. Maybe I’ll get to that one in another blog post. For now, back to the unborn.

Prenatal human experience, neurologically and psychologically speaking,  is one of the two most alien fields of study . . . second only to the post-death experience. We know very little about it, and the unborn child is disobligingly indifferent to our efforts to understand his experiences in the wet darkness. But what if the prenatal experience is the most important part of the human experience? What if God was trying to tell us something significant about embryonic and fetal behavior when he said “Let us create man in our image”? Maybe that’s a little bit strong and theologically reaching in nature, but there are a few life lessons that stuck out from me when learning about prenatal behavior. I’ll share the first one with you today:

Your soon-to-be-born baby isn’t a soccer player. I know people like to joke about a kicking fetus showing an aptitude for a sport that requires kicking (which, by the way, wouldn’t swimming be a more logical sport to assign the kicking, submerged athlete?), but there is definitely more going on in that aquatic ecosystem than soccer tryouts. There is a period of development that is refered to as the pre-reflexogenic period, where embryos “spond before they respond” (act before they react), and that their behavior is produced by spontaneous activity within the nervous system, especially the spinal cord. This is significant, given that we tend to associate prenatal behavior to sensory-driven, reflex-based mechanisms of behavior. Look at what Provine says about this in his book:

Embryonic movement is driven by massive spinal cord discharges of a type unique to the embryo. When a burst occurred in one region of the spinal cord, it recruited adjacent neurons and swept throughout the remainder of the cord–there was no specific site of origin of the discharges within the ventral spinal cord.

In other words, when you see an embryo jerking about and flailing his limbs, it is not a decided function. The soon-to-be-born person is not making decisions about his movement. The spinal cord is giving random bursts of demands throughout the nervous system. The purpose of this? Without the movements caused by these massive spinal cord discharges, joints would be frozen in place upon full gestation. Malformations would be ever present. “Movement is necessary to sculpt the male and female components of developing ball-and-socket joints,” says Provine.

So what does this have to do with being a follower of Jesus? Everything. When we read in the first chapter of James that we should be joyful when we experience trials of many kinds, what does he say? He tells us that through trials, “your endurance has a chance to grow” (NLT). Or look at what Paul says in Romans 5:3-5. “We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation.”

Sometimes we might feel like we’re being jerked around by some unknown force (life), flailing around uncontrollably. But even from before the time we were born, we have been made to grow from these experiences. In fact, God has more in store for us than this developmental act of the nervous system. Consider what Provine says about this stage of development:

“The jerks and thrashing of the embryon are totally different from the smoother, goal-directed actions of babyhood and beyond. Indeed, the perseverance of embryonic-type activity into postnatal life would be catastrophic, making life as we know it impossible — we would be flailing about, racked continually by massive, possibly fatal seizures.”

This pre-natal stage of development is only meant for the early stages of human development. After that, we’re meant to really grow up. Likewise, God wants for us to experience spiritual growth. He doesn’t want us to be in this or any developmental stage any longer than we have to. Are we meant to be in the womb more than 9 months? No. Are we meant to be in diapers and drinking out of bottles into adulthood? Absolutely not. That’s why the author of Hebrews says “For someone who lives on milk is still an infant and doesn’t know how to do what is right. Solid food is for those who are mature, who through training have the skill to recognize the difference between right and wrong.” (Heb 5:13-14 NLT).

If you’re experiencing symptoms of early spiritual development, maybe it’s time for you to try some solid food. You might even be in Dr. Provine’s pre-reflexogenic period, and if that’s the case, perhaps it’s time you make that spiritual trip through the narrow birth canal and really start living.

More from my adventures in science in the coming weeks.

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