Recent headlines such as Obama to Propose Sharp Increase in Antibiotic Funding and New Antibiotic Stirs Hope Against Resistant Bacteria highlight the importance of thinking theologically about our relationship with bacteria and disease. In this essay, Lucas Mix suggests we approach bacteria with love, as God’s creatures.
We are at war. It’s a quiet war and we’re doing rather well at the moment, so you might not have noticed, but hostilities continue. This struggle between humans and disease has played an influential role in human history and continues to tell us something important about who we are in relation to the world.
The advances of antibiotic-resistant bacteria and the Ebola virus have earned a prominent place in international news lately, spurring us to think about our complicated relationship with non-human life. Here, my particular focus is human interaction with the billions of tiny organisms which live on us and in us.
Biotics and Antibiotics
Current estimates suggest that one to three percent of your weight and 90 percent of the cells in your body are not “you” in the genetic sense, but creatures for whom your body forms an environment. They include microscopic insects and fungi as well as one-celled bacteria, archaebacteria, and protists. These organisms are our neighbors in the Christian sense, which is to say they live with us. Familiar and foreign, allies and foes, they are God’s creation, worthy of respect and care, even when they harm or scare us.
For the most part, these creatures contribute to our health. They are necessary in the digestion of food, maintain our skin and hair, and defend us from other, less helpful organisms. We don’t notice these fellow travelers unless something goes wrong. Something changes, or some new organism arrives, and we become sick.
Antibiotics are targeted drugs that kill the harmful organisms, but it’s hard to get the targeting right. Sometimes they affect the other microbes as well; and sometimes they affect our cells. They can give us stomach problems, fevers, and other “side effects.” Thus researchers are constantly on the lookout for better weapons in the fight. We want faster, more specific, more powerful antibiotics.
Unfortunately, the biotics—bacteria in particular—develop weapons of their own. One of the most important practical applications of evolutionary theory comes from our ability to understand the bacteria/human arms race. Every time we kill off bacteria with an antibiotic, we run the risk of leaving survivors who are tougher than the bacteria that died. They can pass on their immunity to their offspring and neighboring bacteria. Thus, the more efficiently we eliminate the enemy, the more quickly their population becomes immune to our attacks. This is why doctors are so careful in prescribing antibiotics; they want the weapon to be effective for as long as possible.
Sadly, no matter how cautious we are, we can never fully win the war. We need the bacteria in our guts and on our skin to survive; that means there will always be some that mutate into pathogens. No matter how careful we are, some pathogens will always survive.
Evolutionary biologists refer to this problem as the Red Queen hypothesis. Just like the Red Queen in Alice’s journey Through the Looking Glass, organisms must always run just to stay in the same place. Organisms compete for the same resources, so each organism must continually innovate to stay ahead of its competitors. Bacteria work to survive and reproduce just as we do.
How do we treat other living things? And how do they relate to God’s good will for the universe? We’re used to thinking about these questions only in relationship to other humans. But what about very small forms of life such as bacteria, some of which can harm us? When Jesus says “love those who persecute you,” does he mean we should love microbes as well?
I believe he does. The Bible’s strong claim that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all that is in it” (Psalm 24:1), suggests that we can, even if Jesus never spoke about bacteria. The wisdom of the world says the answer to all conflict is conquest, the answer to all problems, domination. Jesus clearly taught in the case of human conflict that this wisdom is foolishness. There’s reason to believe that the same may be the case in conflict with microscopic life forms. Christians fight to protect not only our lives, but the life of the world: animals, plants, bacteria, and all. Christians have known from the beginning that we cannot control the world through our art and cleverness. Things and creatures other than humanity matter in the vast expanse of creation. Valuing creation, valuing life, means recognizing it as more than just a means to our ends.
Is There Hope?
We cannot escape the war, at least not in our lifetimes, but we can choose how it will shape us. As with all wars, we have the option of simply equating winning with righteousness. All things that lead to victory are good and all good things must lead to victory. But final victory over the bacteria is not the only prize worth having. Indeed, Christianity suggests that it should not be our primary goal. There is a big difference between recognizing the struggle and letting the struggle define us.
It is possible for Christians to engage in the fight and yet not hate the bacteria, just as it is possible for Christians to love an enemy and a persecutor. We manage this feat by recognizing that love is greater than victory—even when it comes to bacteria. Perhaps especially when it comes to bacteria, because they bring us face to face with a world that seems to have far too much suffering in it, even when no one has willfully sinned.
Science has made dramatic strides over the last century, leading us to become overconfident in the ability of science to save us from all ills. Antibiotics and antivirals represent a major advance, so we started speaking of a final victory over disease. Our scientific gains led to hubris as we imagined a biological world firmly in our control. Antibiotic-resistant bacteria are an important reminder that humans are not always in charge. God and nature lie beyond our control. As wonderful as science is, it cannot promise an end to our struggle, only a more sophisticated way of carrying it out.
Christianity, on the other hand, offers to redefine our concept of success in a way that makes the struggle meaningful. We accept that we may die, indeed will die in the flesh, just as we will continue to lose loved ones. Meanwhile, we live in the spirit; we love one another. We can’t conquer that which destroys the body, but we can conquer that which destroys body and soul. We can conquer apathy, fear, and hatred, with faith, hope, and love. Christianity shifts our attention from the unanswerable—how to live without struggle and suffering—to the answerable—how to live fully. No creature can be my enemy without first and finally being my neighbor.
I cannot be happy about illness and death. Both are painful realities. I will fight disease using the best science and technology available. Still, I live without fear of bacteria.Bacteria do not have dominion in my life. I can even love the bacteria, both friend and foe, for I have a higher goal: to love God and all God has made. Our hope lies not in victory, but in love.