It is no vice that we can hold things to be true that, nonetheless, we are unable to visualize. Mathematicians do it every day when they work with imaginary numbers (which, contrary to their name, cannot be imagined). Particle physicists likewise write equations that express the truth about matter, a truth that is deeply paradoxical and thus unimaginable.
And theologians, such as yours truly, speak of God as creating us while realizing that there can be no picture of creation : You can show a movie of some lumber being elegantly shaped into a chair, but you cannot show a movie of something being given existence. To create is not to reshape already-existing stuff but rather to let stuff be. There is no imagining “Let there be light.”
It used to be this way with regard to the mystery of the life of a child before birth. There were signs that something was going on inside the mother: Her body changed in many ways, and in due course her belly visibly swelled and kicking could be felt. People knew, as an intellectual matter, that there was a child inside her womb. But it was nigh impossible to visualize that child. It was no vice, indeed it was a virtue, to affirm the humanity of that which resided in the womb. Nonetheless, the child’s human reality remained, in a sense, hypothetical because not seen.
I think back half a century now to my mother’s swollen belly. I was about six years old, and I was allowed to feel it, and feel through it some particular bumps. “The baby’s kicking you,” I was told. I also remember the day when my mother was in dreadful pain and taken away. There was blood on her mattress. And I remember sitting in the funeral home’s car at the cemetery, and lovely people smiling at me as they walked by my window. Over the years our family would visit the grave on occasion, usually to pull weeds and clip the grass. The stone says “Marsha Jeane Austin,” and it has a single date on it.
That I had had a sister, and that she was stillborn, is a truth I grew up with. In my young adulthood I sometimes imagined what it would be like to have grown up with her. When I came to believe that there is communion of the dead and the living, I sometimes asked her to pray for me. But, for the most part, her human reality was more hypothetical than actual. I had, and have, never seen her.
All this is changing.
Every young expectant couple I know today, without exception, when they have a prenatal visit, hope they will get to see the baby. Every baby’s photo book today has a sonogram for its first picture. The first pictures, and there are often many of them, are prenatal.
And it is changing how parents talk about their child. “Our little guy,” one couple recently told me, “he’s as big as my thumb.” Or: “Our baby would now fit in the palm of my hand.” They delight in seeing the baby’s limb, the head, the sex, even fingers. They delight in seeing the heart and looking into its chambers.
What is happening, largely unnoticed and far below the radar of the political debates, is that our culture’s visual imagination of the human is expansively changing. We used to picture the human life cycle as going from birth to death. But adults who are now becoming parents, along with their friends and an increasingly wider circle, no longer think it strange to consider and picture as a human being, as one of us, one whose weight is measured in ounces rather than pounds and whose size is given in terms of a portion of one’s own hand.
It is hard to overstress this generational change. I know a young priest who lost a child somewhere around the middle of his wife’s pregnancy. This was their second child, and they named her. They would routinely speak of their two children, by name, even though only the one child was alive and growing in their family. This priest was admonished by an older colleague not to talk that way. You may think that way, he was told, but it is really strange to talk that way. People think you’re weird.
The change is this: Thanks to technology’s advance, it is increasingly not weird to visualize and speak of humans by name who never weighed more than a pound. Or half a pound. Or less.
I did not speak or even much think of my stillborn sister, even though she was pretty much full term. But today we can see with our eyes and thus have the boldness to speak with our lips what we previously knew but couldn’t visualize: that some of our brothers and sisters would easily have fit in the palm of even a very small hand.
Victor Lee Austin is author of Up with Authority and Christian Ethics: A Guide for the Perplexed. He is theologian-in-residence at St. Thomas Church in New York City.