What If Twins in a Womb Could Think and Talk? A Parable
I recently came across a fascinating parable in a new theology book. For years I’ve been using my own version of the parable in teaching theology but didn’t know it was already “out there.” I’m going to summarize the parable in my own words even though I don’t think it is copyrighted. The book I found it in attributes its version to Henri Nouwen but says it was his retelling of a “popular story.” If you want to read the original (in the book in which I found it) you’ll have to find pages 62-63 of Christian Dogmatics: An Introduction by Dutch theologians Cornelis van der Kooi and Gijsbert van den Brink (Eerdmans, 2017). (And thanks to Eerdmans for sending me this complimentary copy.)
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Here is the parable in my own words. (Apparently the originator of the story is unknown and I made up my own version without depending on anyone else so far as I know.)
Twin boys were conceived and lived together in their mother’s womb for nine months. Miraculously they developed mature thought and found a way to communicate with each other. Sometime during their gestation they began to explore their condition, their situation, and why they were “there” in this place together. What did it mean? They agreed that eventually they would grow too large to fit in this space and would have to leave it. They also agreed that their being there at all, together, was a mystery. They had no idea how they got there. As they speculated about the answers to their questions they fell into disagreement. One twin said that he heard faint sounds from somewhere and that it was evidence of an “outside” to which they would eventually go. The other twin denied hearing the sounds “from outside” and chalked them up to their imaginations—a desire for there to be an outside. The first twin argued that there had to be something “bigger” than this womb because they were being sustained by a cord from somewhere. How did that happen? Where does the life-giving nutrition come from? The other twin just insisted that their sustenance and entire situation was just an accident and had no explanation such as the other twin sought. The first twin insisted that such a theory made no sense as they continued to grow and develop and their existence and development had to mean something. The skeptic twin scoffed at that and claimed there was no evidence for his twin’s belief. The first twin, the hopeful and believing one, said that the evidence was “everything” about their situation, not just one or two facts. Their whole situation made no sense unless they were meant for something by someone “bigger” perhaps in whom they were growing. The argument went on and on until one day they both heard a loud voice asking “Do you want to come out?” They both were shocked and hesitated. Then said in unison “No! We’re afraid. We like it in here.” The first twin said to his skeptical brother “This is it; here we go. It’s time. Now we are going to find out what’s ‘outside’ this place.” His skeptical brother responded “Nope. There’s nothing outside of this place. That voice was just a fantasy.” Then it happened. They both were born into the “outside” world. The first twin, the “believing one,” felt vindicated but at the same time was shocked. The outside was more than he could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams.
Eventually, soon, actually, the twins forgot about their time in the womb and their argument. But the first twin went through life believing that even this world—outside the womb—had meaning and purpose and that death would simply be the transition to a new stage of existence unimaginable in this life. The second twin went through life doubting that life has any meaning or purpose and believing that death would simply be the end of his existence. But the first twin, for reasons he wasn’t entirely sure about, became a midwife (yes, there are male midwives) and always spoke to the fetuses in mothers’ wombs, attempting to tell them what the outside world would be like and encouraging them to look forward to being born. He did this, of course, only with the mothers’ consent. Occasionally, without his knowing it, a fetus heard his voice and understood his words but could not even begin to imagine what the world outside the womb was like.
Obviously this parable has multiple layers of meaning. I have used it for many years (not knowing that anyone else had ever even though of it!) to illustrate two things. First, the “evidence” for God’s existence is like the evidence the first twin found for his and his brother’s existence and situation—everything. Second, death, even to the firm believer, is nothing to be feared but is to be thought of as a transition to a new state of existence. Heaven (or paradise), like life outside the womb, is beyond our capacity to picture. Yet we have hints of it, “sounds from outside the womb,” to return to the parable, that could be brushed off as imaginings, wishful thinking, but are not best brushed off that way. To brush them off that way is to prefer hopelessness to hope, ashes to gold, despair to confident expectation of a better “world” to come.
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