The following is excerpted from an essay first published at Church Life Journal. We are grateful to the editors for permission to repost here.
The word “science” at its root means “to know” and the word “theology” at its root means “to think about God.” Can we know anything without thinking about God? That is, can we have science without theology? Logically speaking, we state that we cannot, for two main reasons.
In thinking about God, we also turn to the Scriptures, where we learn from these ancient writings that God is a personal God, who forms relationships with mankind, a covenant keeping God, the LORD. We learn that we are God’s image bearers in covenant with him, and that we intimately reflect God’s relationship between the created world and himself. He is the One who is intimately involved with his people in the created world, so much so, that be becomes one with us in humanity, in our very biology, by taking on flesh through the womb of a woman.
Thus, in the created realm, we see God’s immanence in creation and in science, in a relational way, with us, through us, and in us. In fact, we see God’s immanence and relational nature, his bond with us through creation, in the very science of our biology. This framework is what I call a “Relational Theobiology,” which presupposes the following: God’s relational being is witnessed in creation, in the science of our biology, his image bearers in covenant with him, and demonstrated to be true through the incarnation of the LORD Jesus Christ into the world.
Previously, I touched on this idea in discussing fetomaternal microchimerism as expressed in the union of cells between baby and mother during pregnancy in relation to the union between God and man in Jesus Christ. I would like to expand on this theme of a Relational Theobiology by discussing the impact of the mother’s voice on her prenatal child in relation to God’s voice over creation.
Beginning with God in the Scriptures, we see creation as coming forth from the Word of God, the powerful voice of the LORD. Throughout the first chapter of Genesis, we are told, “And God said . . . and there was.” In Scripture we find the voice of God, the LORD, has the power to bring forth substance from nothing, to shape creation, to mold and fashion it, all according to God’s good purpose. The Psalmist explains the power of the voice of the LORD:
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
The God of glory thunders,
The Lord thunders over the mighty waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
The voice of the Lord is majestic.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
The Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon.
After creating the heavens and the earth (and placing mankind within it), God sent forth his Word to mankind through the prophets. “O earth, earth, earth, hear the Word of the LORD,” says Jeremiah. “Listen and hear my voice; pay attention and hear what I say”, says Isaiah. And, “Incline your ear and come to Me; listen, so that your soul may live.” In the Old Testament, the LORD spoke to Israel by his Word through the prophets; in the New Testament, God’s very Word and voice is made flesh: our LORD Jesus Christ. “And the Word become flesh and dwelt among us.” Through the Word-Jesus Christ, we hear the LORD’s powerful voice in the flesh. LORD Jesus says, “My sheep hear my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
Our voice is powerful. Saint James, brother of Jesus, speaking about the power of our voice by the tongue says,
And consider ships: Though very large and driven by fierce winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So too, though the tongue is a small part of the body, it boasts great things. Consider how large a forest a small fire ignites. And the tongue is a fire.
Indeed, the words from our mouth by our tongue are very mighty. By our speech, man has great power for good or evil. Saint James says it perfectly, “With the tongue we praise our LORD and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing.” It therefore behooves us to remember the power of our tongue when we speak to one another, so that we might positively impact humanity through the power of our voice.
Before a child is born from her mother’s womb, the voice of her mother has a powerful impact on her prenatal child. The mother’s voice is reported to be the most intense acoustical signal measured in the amniotic environment. Most of us are familiar with research that shows that babies not only recognize their mother’s voice in-utero, but that they prefer it over all over voices. Research has also shown that the mother’s voice has the ability to affect her child’s brain structure, influence her baby’s heart rate and respirations, and is likely a key factor in her child’s development of language.
Prenatal children develop the ability to hear at around 16-18 weeks of gestation in utero. The ability of a baby to hear her mother’s voice vibrating inside the uterus is one way in which bonding occurs. It is wondrous to ponder the first moment that a prenatal child hears her mother’s voice. Hearing her mother’s voice is how she also starts to become familiar with the rhythms of spoken language. This is the voice that will guide and shape her development for the rest of her time in utero, and likely thereafter, if they remain together. Studies show that within two days of birth, infants are able to discriminate between auditory stimuli, such as rhyming children’s stories, that they were exposed to during the last trimester. Attachment is a vehicle for comfort, and from early on in the uterus, the prenatal child hears and becomes familiar with the voices of the people in her life.
When a child is born, because she has heard her mother’s voice as she was growing in the womb, the newborn infant finds comfort in her mother’s voice and turns towards her speech and has the ability to be uniquely soothed and comforted by her mother’s voice. The mother’s voice is preferred by her baby above all other voices. In studies babies exhibit a clear preference for the voice of their mothers on day one of birth. It is this discrimination of the mother’s voice over other voices that is one crucial part in the growing attachment between mom and baby that starts in utero. Jesus says, “The sheep follow him because they know his voice. A stranger they will not follow, but will flee from him, because they do not know the voice of strangers.” So Jesus’ flock discriminates between the Good Shepard’s voice and the voice of others.
The mother’s voice is not just an instrument for mother-child bonding before birth, but it affects the growth and size of her baby’s brain. In 2015, research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences examined the effect of recordings of mothers’ voices on premature infants’ brains. This research looked at the change in the auditory cortex for evidence of experience-dependent plasticity of brain development. In the study, which was done at the Brigham and Women’s hospital on premature babies, mothers’ voices were recorded singing and reading. These recordings were then played for hours each day into the incubators of the intervention group of premature babies. The control group of premature babies received standard care, which was without this added voice stimulation from the mother. The findings showed that babies who were exposed to their mothers’ voices had significantly thicker auditory cortices than those in the control group.
Another study showed that a mother can affect the biological functions of her baby such as heart rate and respiratory rate with her voice. Premature babies often have more instability in their body’s ability to regulate essential functions such as heart rate and breathing. But this study showed that preterm infants had less episodes of slow heart rate and altered respiration when they heard recordings of their mother’s voice compared to when they were listening to regular ambient sounds. We may tend to think of functions like heart and respiratory rate as purely biological and autonomous functions of the baby. But a new paradigm of thinking of our biological reality is one that suggests we are more connected to one another than we may think.
To think that the voice of the mother has measurable effects on her baby’s respiration, heart rate, and the size of her child’s brain is to think in terms of a Relational Theobiology: our relationships affect biology because the Trinitarian God is relational in his very nature, which is something we can witness through science in creation.
Read the rest here.
Kristin M. Collier MD, FACP is an assistant professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan. She currently serves as an associate program director of the internal medicine residency training program at the University of Michigan and is the director of the program's primary care track. She is also the director of the University of Michigan Medical School Program on Health, Spirituality and Religion. She can be found on Twitter at @KristinCollie20.
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