Natality as a New Anthropological Paradigm Reflections of a Protestant Christian

Lecture held on Friday 03/11/2016 in Università Pontificia Urbaniana, Vaticano

Although Christians have been worshipping Jesus Christ as the born natal God for centuries, natality is a blind spot in Christian theology still today. The text first considers this fact and tries giving a tentative answer to the question why there has not been a philosophy or theology of our human beginning for centuries. It then deals with the positive question of what it means to be born. To finish there are created some links between the biblical tradition, the theme of the conference “beyond individualism” and the wide space of new ideas that opens up when theologians decide to break the taboo that has been established around birth and its impacts on human existence.
(Print version: Ina Praetorius, Natality as a New Anthropological Paradigm. Reflections of A Protestant Christian, in: Oltre l’individualismo. Relazioni e relazionalità per ripensare l’identità, a cura di Lorella Congiunti, Adrian Ndreca, Giambattista Formica, Urbaniana University Press, Città del Vaticano 2017, 391-397)

When I heard the word „natality“ (Gebürtigkeit) for the first time and learned that Hannah Arendt had introduced it in the 1950ies, after the Holocaust, my spontaneous reaction was that this had nothing to do with theology or academic philosophy. Don’t we all know that God the Father is not very much interested in women’s business and that giving birth and being born is largely women’s business?

However, when I then read Arendt’s famous book „The Human Condition“,[1] especially the fifth chapter about “Action” in which she unfolds her theory of natality and natal freedom, I discovered that she herself, as a non-believing Jew, refers to the story of Jesus’ birth. This story, as we all know, has become the base for one of the most beloved Christian holy days, Christmas, and for one of the most important Christian dogmas: God’s incarnation and, as a consequence, the trinity. So, as a Christian theologian, why had I never thought about the meaning of both my and God’s real beginning? Why had I, for years, thoughtlessly parroted that all humans are “mortals” but never considered the other end of human existence as a relevant item for theological and philosophical thinking?

Arendt writes:

 “The miracle that saves the world, the realm of human affairs, from its normal, ‘natural’ ruin is ultimately the fact of natality, in which the faculty of action is ontologically rooted. … It is this faith in and hope for the world that found perhaps its most glorious and most succinct expression in the few words with which the Gospels announced their ‘glad tidings’: ‘A child has been born to us.’”[2]

These are weighty soteriological words. I will deal with them later in this paper. First, I will consider the fact that thinking natality is, in fact, a blind spot in theology and altogether in the Western history of ideas. I will try giving a tentative answer to the somehow embarrassing question why there has not been a philosophy or theology of our human beginning for centuries. I will then deal with the positive question of what it means to be born. To finish I will create some links between my biblical tradition, the theme of this conference “beyond individualism” and the wide space of new ideas that opens up when we decide to break the taboo that has been established around birth and its impacts on human existence.

A paradox: “birth” is an alien in a religion celebrating “incarnation”

Reading Arendt’s natality texts I remembered that I myself, since my own early childhood, had indeed enthusiastically celebrated two festivals of birth every year: my own birthday in March and Jesus Christ’s birthday in December. However, why had I, as a theologian referring to the story of Bethlehem, routinely not spoken about God’s birth but had been taught to always use the cloudy technical term “incarnation”? Why had I often seen images of a nearly naked Christ dying at the cross in the center of churches, but never a comparably realistic picture of his birth? Why is his mother Mary pictured mostly as an upright, decently dressed young lady who holds a freshly washed or wrapped baby in her arms? Is this our collective image of “birth”? Are we so embarrassed by the event that was and will be the real beginning of everybody? Why, on the other hand, do Eve and Adam have navels on all paradise pictures? Where do these signs of having been born on their bellies come from?

The next thing I did was to consult theological encyclopedias. Many of them do not contain an article about “birth”, and if they do it is always much shorter than that about death. In the 36-volume “Theologische Realenzyklopädie”[3] for example I can read 59 pages about death and none about birth. In the eight-volume German protestant Encyclopedia “Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart”[4] I find an article about birth covering one column, while the article about death is thirteen columns long. In the third edition (1986) I read that birth „… is above all in primitive societies surrounded by imaginations and rituals“.[5] Should I infer from this that Christmas is primitive? In the fourth edition (2000) the editors have deleted this phrase. However, here, too, I do not learn anything about a theology of birth but only some religio-historical facts about shamans and other distant figures. In the article about “incarnation” the word “birth” does not occur, while in the article about “birth” I cannot find the word “incarnation”. So what is “incarnation” meant to be? Some mysterious penetration of pure spirit into sinful flesh? (Catholic encyclopedias, by the way, are roughly the same, but as I am speaking as a protestant here I do not spend time with them.)

It is a paradox: we routinely celebrate our birthdays, we collectively hype Christmas with trees, candles, meals, sentimental stories, cookies and family parties, but we haven’t yet thought about, let alone understood the meaning of being natal beings worshipping a natal God.

What does it mean to be born?

Before I turn to the positive question of what it means to be born I will delineate it from another one that is extensively discussed in Christian ethics: the question of when exactly life begins. No, I will not talk about this worn-out and ultimately unanswerable question. My focus is elsewhere: it lies on the fact that we all do not come from “the Lord’s hand” but from human beings who belong to the preceding generation. Yes I know: there are different stages in this process of beginning: conception, nidation, maturation, birth. Yes, I know: to distinguish these stages in order to decide about the legitimacy of abortion might be an important question, too. But it’s not my question here and now. My question is: what does it mean for the conditio humana to have come out of the body of another human being as a totally dependent, corporeal, vulnerable newcomer designed to freely nourish what has nourished her or him? – There is another thing I want to mention preventively: Focusing on birth I will not confuse transcendence with mothers or parents. I know that neither mothers nor fathers nor doctors are able to “produce” children and that the origin of life is an eternal mystery that we will rightly call “God” also in the future. This distinction, however, does not change the fact that we do not come “from above” and that we theologians can learn a lot and perhaps contribute to “saving the world”[6] by no longer avoiding to think about the fact that we humans come into the world through one another.[7]

To be born means to have come into the world as a bloody slimy shitting hungry dependent baby out of the inseminated body of a woman of the previous generation: the body of another human being who is herself the daughter of a daughter of a daughter. It means to neither have come from above nor to have been randomly thrown into a hostile world but to have been put, at pains and mostly with joy, into a structured “web of relationships”[8] as Arendt calls it: a web of mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles, aunts, siblings, neighbors, teachers, friends, enemies, presidents, bosses and so on. This is true for all men, women, black, white, red, yellow, European, Asian, African, American, priests and lay people, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Atheists and all the others. Is this “ontological”?

By being born we have left the first nourishing matrix which is the womb, in order to enter another nourishing matrix called “the world”: an ample space that is ready to allow us to survive if the people that receive us behave analogously, nurturing the newcomers with food, drink, shelter, rules, morals, stories, jokes and all the thousand other things they need, without, at the beginning, expecting a quid pro quo. In order to be able to act in this unconditionally loving way the persons around the newborn are, for their part, dependent on the generous cosmos and on other people, too: on a functioning community that fulfills their needs by carefully producing goods and services using und transforming the given fullness of nature.[9]

After birth the umbilical cord is severed. From this moment on the infant enters into a direct relationship with the second matrix instead of relating to it through the first matrix. Initially she or he does this by breathing, crying, drinking, and shitting,[10] later by walking away, speaking, acting, relating to tradition, shaping and nourishing the world that continues to nourish her or him until she or he dies. Cutting the cord that linked the newborn to the maternal organism marks the transition into what we call “freedom” or “independence”. However, as the still totally dependent “standalone” baby clearly shows, independence in the strict sense of the word does not exist for humans. Freedom never means to cast off our being interwoven with the world through our being part of nature. To liberate ourselves from the total dependency of the newborn we need years of intense care, and we never leave behind our needs, our vulnerability, fragility and mortality. Freedom is not, as many thinkers conceived it, following Aristotelian metaphysics,[11] the opposite of dependency. Rather, freedom exists in dependency only: to be free means to insert one’s own uniqueness, through action and speech “into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth, in which we confirm and take upon ourselves the naked fact of our original physical appearance”[12]

We all have come into the world for a while, we inhabit the earth, along with currently about seven billion other born people and countless non-human fellow creatures. For a certain time we are able to act, that is to actively shape the world, free in lasting dependency. Throughout our lives we are, in varying degrees, dependent and free at the same time. At some point, maybe tomorrow, each and every one of us will go back home, often after a period of dependency that is comparable to childhood. “The human is mortal from the beginning and natal until his or her death”.[13]

 Natality and Individualism

In spite of these obvious facts we often speak of human “independence”, and yes: we actually can be more or less dependent, we can free ourselves or other people from illegitimate or violent submission, we can distinguish between good or bad forms of dependence. However, independence in a strict sense is not possible for human beings. So, where do these strange Robinson-like ideas that humans can be “their own master”, that they can “care for themselves” (by earning money, for example), that they “set themselves up as subjects” (Fichte)[14] and that they can create a functioning economy by just working for their own profit come from?

Theologians tend to ascribe them to the philosophers of the European Enlightenment. Indeed, men like Descartes, Kant, Fichte or Smith, trying to liberate themselves from omnipresent and all too dominant church authorities, stopped thinking from the perspective of a ruling God and started to establish the ideal-typical standpoint of the adult bourgeois man (whose needs have already been invisibly fulfilled by wives, servants and slaves.)[15] Their core idea was that “we” (men) construct ourselves, the world and morality from an autonomous command center: the male intellect. This idea has heavily influenced modern self-perceptions and, from here, modern sciences, lifestyles, law, economies and ethics. Not only because hegemonic modern philosophy has developed largely in opposition to the Churches, but also because it has in fact, by neglecting important basics of the human condition, become a threat to humanity, Christians – and other religious people – have always been skeptical towards modern individualism in theory and praxis.

Therefore the Churches have, to the present day, tended to act as a critical opposition against modernity, recently, in the form of pope Francis’ texts, above all against its economic manifestation that is capitalism with its destructive ecological and social consequences. In fact, religious people and religious doctrines normally do not deny the never-ending dependency of all human beings. However, especially the „great“ monotheisms have conceived human dependency in a not very plausible manner: according to them, people do not rely on water, air and soil, on mothers and other people, but on a „Lord” or “Father in heaven“ who controls everything from the beginning to the end of the world. So, like Immanuel Kant, pope Francis always sees and describes the world from the standpoint of an adult man (whose needs have already been invisibly fulfilled by Asian and African sisters and servants) who is led by another man “above” or “inside”. Birth and childhood in this male adult perspective seem to be a remote invisible realm that is mainly inhabited and cared for by “the woman”, that is: the Mary-like sex which is eternally predestined to deliver offspring, to serve and to invisibly represent God’s unconditional love on earth.

So, there is both continuity and discontinuity between the Christian tradition and modern individualism. They differ in respect to the general acceptance of dependency. However, both bodies agree in neglecting our real dependency as born natal natural beings who do not rely on some abstract male phantom – God the Lord or God reason – but on the matrix cosmos and the social matrix of which they are a part, on real mothers who have agreed to bear them for nine months in their wombs, to give birth and, as part of the huge fragile “web of relationships”, to take care for them.

Beyond individualism: Jesus and the child

And now: the Bible. (You know that I am a protestant).

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.(Mt 18,1-4)

 When I was a child, my protestant teachers in the Germany of the sixties taught me to imagine Jesus as a jovial wine-drinking uncle, talking with other jovial smoking uncles over the heads of cute little children, using the children as an example or whatever he needed to explain the good news to his male friends. I did not like Jesus, I did not like the jovial uncles, I did not like this „good“ news because they were bad news. My parents had told me that it was important for children to develop one’s own skills in critical thinking and using good judgments as the privilege of living in a democracy could not be taken for granted, so I had to be vigilant, I had to use my own intellect in order not to fall back into heteronomy. So, it was somehow logical that I turned away from the jovial uncle Jesus who, over my head, explained bad news to his adult male friends.

Today, after many years of study, anger, sadness, revolt, curiosity and many other feelings that often risked driving me out of my church, I know that Jesus is not a jovial uncle using children for his and his male friends’ pleasure. The story about “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” does not follow the patronizing pattern I was taught by my religious teachers. Jesus does not condescend jovially to a cute mute child but reminds his female and male and queer friends to remember their own beginning: their being born as bloody slimy shitting hungry babies who are totally dependent on a loving natural and social environment – God I AM HERE (Ex 3,14), God LOVE (1 John 4,8) – to become adults able to nourish what has nourished and is still nourishing them.

„Thus from faith flow forth love and joy in GOD, and from love a cheerful, willing, free spirit, disposed to serve our neighbour voluntarily.“[16]

Today we Christians, in this time of postpatriarchal Durcheinander[17] have everything we need to develop peace together with seven billion fellow humans coexisting as born mortal beings on the generous vulnerable planet earth: We have the bible that is a huge library still and always full of mysteries and unsolved enigmas, we have an annual frantically celebrated festival of the born God. We have the story of Bethlehem and the trinity. We have a Holy Year for Mercy and we have protestant churches searching eagerly for an appropriate manner to celebrate their 500th birthday. We have libraries full of liberation and feminist theology. We have a vivid global scene of interreligious dialogue and lots of transformative initiatives around the world, inside and outside the traditional religions.

So, finally stop making excuses! (Lk 14,18)
Come, for everything is now ready! (Lk 14,17)

(This paper was presented at the Conference „Beyond Individualism“ in Università Pontificia Urbaniana Roma/Vaticano on Friday 03/11/2016)


Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium oft he Holy Father Francis, (04/12/2015)

Arendt, Hannah, Elemente und Ursprünge totaler Herrschaft, München, 13. Aufl. 2009 (orig.1955) (Am. Original: Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, New York 1951)

Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition (Second Edition), Chicago (University of Chicago Press) 1958

Luther, Martin, The Freedom of a Christian, (05/12/2015)

Praetorius, Ina, Handeln aus der Fülle. Postpatriarchale Ethik in biblischer Tradition, Gütersloh 2005

Praetorius, Ina, First Steps Toward a Theory of Shit (2010) (06/01/2016)

Praetorius, Ina, The Economics of Natality. A Postpatriarchal Perspective, in: Concilium 2011/5, 82-91

Praetorius, Ina, The Care-Centered Economy, Berlin 2015

Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart, Betz, Hans Dieter et al. eds, Tübingen, 3rd edition (Studienausgabe) 1986, 4th edition (Studienausgabe) 2000.

Saner, Hans, Geburt und Phantasie. Von der natürlichen Dissidenz des Kindes, Basel 1977

Schües, Christina, Philosophie des Geborenseins, Freiburg/München 2008

Theologische Realenzyklopädie (TRE), Müller, Gerhard et al. eds, Berlin 1976-2004

[1] Hannah Arendt 1958.

[2] Ibid. 247.

[3] Theologische Realenzyklopädie 1976-2004.

[4] Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 1986, 2000.

[5] „Die Geburt … ist … vielleicht am meisten bei den sog. primitiven Völkern von allerlei Vorstellungen und Riten umgeben.“ (Art. Geburt in RGG Studienausgabe 1986).

[6] See note 2.

[7] See also Ina Praetorius 2005, 2011 and 2015, 44-53.

[8] Hannah Arendt 1958, 181 ff and passim.

[9] See Ina Praetorius 2011.

[10] See Ina Praetorius 2010.

[11] See Ina Praetorius 2005, 57-90.

[12] Hannah Arendt 1958, 176f.

[13] Hans Saner 1977, 31 (Translation I.P.).

[14] See Christina Schües 2008, 130-136.

[15] Ibid. 95-169.

[16] Martin Luther 1520.

[17] See Ina Praetorius 2015, 44-53.

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