Q & R: Spermless conception?

Here’s the Q:

As christians are we expected to believe that Jesus was conceived without a sperm cell and egg cell fusion?
I have difficulty coming to terms with this biblical story.


Here’s the R:

In my book We Make the Road by Walking (a great Christmas gift, by the way!), here’s how I come to terms with this biblical story.



Many of us today will suspect that Luke made up this story about Mary to echo Isaiah’s prophecy about a son being born to a virgin, just as he invented the story of Elizabeth conceiving in old age to echo the story of Sarah. It’s tempting to quickly assign both stories to the category of primitive, prescientific legend and be done with them. After all, both stories are, to scientific minds, simply impossible.

But what if that’s the point? What if their purpose is to challenge us to blur the line between what we think is possible and what we think is impossible? Could we ever come to a time when swords would be beaten into plowshares? When the predatory people in power—the lions—would lie down in peace with the vulnerable and the poor—the lambs? When God’s justice would flow like a river—to the lowest and most “god-forsaken” places on Earth? When the brokenhearted would be comforted and the poor would receive good news? If you think, Never—it’s impossible, then maybe you need to think again. Maybe it’s not too late for something beautiful to be born. Maybe it’s not too soon, either. Maybe the present moment is pregnant with possibilities we can’t see or even imagine.

In this light, the actual point of these pregnancy stories—however we interpret their factual status—is a challenge to us all: to dare to hope, like Elizabeth and Mary, that the seemingly impossible is possible. They challenge us to align our lives around the “impossible possibilities” hidden in this present, pregnant moment.

The image of a virgin birth has other meanings as well. The leaders of ancient empires typically presented themselves as divine-human hybrids with superpowers. Pharaohs and Caesars were “sons of gods.” In them, the violent power of the gods was fused with the violent power of humans to create superhuman superviolence—which allowed them to create superpower nations. But here is God gently inviting—not coercing—a young woman to produce a child who will be known not for his violence but for his kindness. This is a different kind of leader entirely—one who doesn’t rule with the masculine power of swords and spears, but with a mother’s sense of justice and compassion.

In Luke’s telling of the birth of Jesus, God aligns with the creative feminine power of womanhood rather than the violent masculine power of statehood. The doctrine of the virgin birth, it turns out, isn’t about bypassing sex but about subverting violence. The violent power of top-down patriarchy is subverted not by counterviolence but by the creative power of pregnancy. It is through what proud men have considered “the weaker sex” that God’s true power enters and changes the world. That, it turns out, is exactly what Mary understood the messenger to be saying:

God has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant…scattered the proud…brought down the powerful…lifted up the lowly…filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:48, 51, 52, 53)

So Mary presents herself to the Holy Spirit to receive and cooperate with God’s creative power. She surrenders and receives, she nurtures and gives her all…because she dares to believe the impossible is possible. Her son Jesus will consistently model her self-surrender and receptivity to God, and he will consistently prefer the insightful kindness of motherhood to the violent blindness of statehood.

That’s what it means to be alive in the adventure of Jesus. We present ourselves to God—our bodies, our stories, our futures, our possibilities, even our limitations. “Here I am,” we say with Mary, “the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me according to your will.”