Biochemistry and Beauty
Shamanism, Theology, and Molecular Biology
A JJB Appreciation
As we watch the animations depicting the inner life of a cell, we realize that biochemists are shamans.
The function of the shaman is to visit other worlds, in imagination if not also in fact, and return with information relevant to people's lives.
This is exactly what molecular biologists do. They reveal worlds of pulsing energy within our bodies, which are independent of our own conscious designs but which enable and support our lives.
With help from animators like Drew Berry, they help us undertake journeys into those worlds, too. Unlike the shamans of traditional cultures, we may not meet spirits in the microscopic worlds we discover, but we do meet organisms who relativize our own macroscopic worlds and help us gain perspective on our place within the universe.
The Inner Life of a Cell
Let's begin with our bodies. Our bodies are communities of a hundred trillion cells, but the complexity does not end there. Each of the hundred trillion cells is a community, too.
Each living cell is an enchanted world whose inhabitants are molecular organisms with capacities for creativity that parallel and perhaps exceed our own. Drew Berry calls them machines rather than organisms, but people like me, influenced by process theology, believe that the word organism better depicts the creativity of the world beneath the microscope.
And to whom does the enchanted world within a living cell belong? We might want to say that the world belongs to us or to God. But I suggest that the world belongs to the living cell, too, which has a life of its own. The cell, too, is an organism. It is an organism of organisms, a community of communities, a society of societies, with a life of its own.
Living Cells as Subjects
To say that a living cell has a life of its own is to say that it has a perspective from which its surroundings are felt or prehended, and from which it responds moment by moment. The prehending and the response are what Whitehead would call its subjective immediacy or, for short, its subjectivity.
Most Whiteheadians believe that the subjectivity of a living cell is largely non-conscious and also that the subjectivity is an an emergent quality. The subjectivity does not pre-exist the cell; it emerges with the cell.
God: The Cell Without Borders
Process theologians believe that God is like this, too. God is the living whole of the universe, understood as a life within whom all lives unfold.
God does not have a membrane or skin. God does not have borders. God is a wisdom whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere. But there is a sense in which God, too, emerges with and out of the universe, not unlike the way the subjectivity of a cell emerges within and out of the molecular organisms
This emerging is God's love. In process theology love has a receptive as well as an active side. The receptivity of God is God's own feeling or prehending of the many events in the universe, amid which God shares in the joys and sufferings of all living beings. The active side of God then lies in God's response to what is felt: God's provision of fresh possibilities for responding to the situation at hand, relative to what has happened. In both of these ways -- through receptivity and activity -- the living whole of the universe, the cell without boundaries, is in process. Hence the phrase process theology.
Truth, Goodness, and Beauty
The language of divine love might seem strange to some biochemists but the work of biochemistry has much to offer those who use such language.
For one thing the work of biochemistry can be act of love. It can be an act in which biochemists seek truth for its own sake, which is a form of love; in which they seek to use what they learn to help others, which is likewise an act of love; and in which they take delight in what they discover, which is again an act of love.
Process theologians believe that God is present within human life as an indwelling lure toward truth, goodness and beauty. Wherever there is an instance in truth, goodness, or beauty, there is God, thus named or not.
Where No Humans Live
Additionally biochemistry serves theology in its shamanic function: that is, in reminding human beings that there are worlds within worlds within worlds, and that the human world is but one of many.
We recall of the Book of Job in the Bible where God challenges Job with the fact there are many parts of the earth where no humans live, but about which God cares:
Who cuts a channel for the torrents of rain, and a path for the thunderstorm, to water a land where no one lives, an uninhabited desert, to satisfy a desolate wasteland and make it sprout with grass (Job, 25-27)
Biochemists play a priestly role in reminding us there are dimensions of creation where no humans live, but which are somehow part of the larger divine economy and ecology.
If, as process theologians propose, God is present everywhere in the universe as a non-coercive lure toward beauty and satisfying intensity; and if this luring presence is part of divine care; then the very intensity of life beneath the microscope is itself a place where God is active, helping things "sprout with grass" even though "desolate" from human perspectives.
A Middle World
For our part, we live in a middle world: that is, a world between the microscopic and the galactic. Other animals on our planet also live in middle worlds.
Our middle world is poignantly beautiful and much of our spirituality rightly lies in paying attention to it in careful and caring ways. Consider the lilies of the field, said Jesus, they neither toil nor spin, but even Solomon is not clothed as beautifully.
Still, the very existence of multiple worlds is an invitation to humility. We ought not pretend that we and the lilies are at the center of things or that our beauty is the only kind of beauty. Every world has its beauty, including the small worlds.
Small is a relative word. What is small from one perspective is large from another. Ultimately biochemistry invites us to think more apophatically. It invites us to think beyond categories such as large and small into infinities of complex inter-connection. Our minds are staggered by the complexity, and in being staggered they intuitively sense the interconnectedness of the whole of things.
We are reminded of the Buddhist image of Indra's Net, where the universe is compared to a network of jewels, each of which mirrors all the others. If you put a dot on one gem, the dot is reflected in all the others. Whitehead adds a temporal component to the image, suggesting that each actuality in our universe brings with it the entire history of the universe as encoded within its own inner dynamics. This means that when we look at any given microscopic entity we are seeing an incarnation of the history of the universe.
Whereas William Blake invites us to see the universe in a grain of sand biochemistry enables us to see the universe in a protein molecule and perhaps to recognize, in some mysterious way, the very soul of the universe -- the cell without boundaries -- is present there, too.
What might it mean to have faith in this soul? This faith would not require a belief that everything happens for a reason. There are tragedies aplenty in our world. Some of them are caused by what, for us, are mishaps within the submicroscopic world itself. Witness genetic diseases.
But it would mean that there is a mystery deep enough and wide enough to include all worlds, including those in whom no humans dwell. And it might mean, as process theologians propose, that this mystery is at work everywhere, all the time, helping bring forth new life from death.
Process theology is unique in saying that organisms in the universe have power which transcends even God, just as molecular organisms within a living cell have power which transcends the cell. And it is unique in adding that God has power which transcends the organisms in the universe, too.
In human life we experience the power of God in our own innermost lure seek and take delight in truth, goodness, and beauty. We become fully human in the process, taking our place in the middle world.
But the organisms beneath the microscope experience this power, too, in their own innermost eros enjoy intensity of experience. Out of their eros comes a great deal of beauty. They, too, add to the ongoing glory of the encompassing whole. Where no humans live, grass also sprouts.
The Purpose of it All
Does the encompassing whole of the universe have a purpose? Is God aiming at anything? If we are to accomplish the will of God on earth as it is in heaven, what is that will?
In our middle world, process theologians propose the will of God on earth as it is in heaven is for us to live lightly on the earth and gently with one another, in ways that are creative, compassionate, participatory, and ecologically wise, with no one left behind. But the will of God is also for us to take delight the sheer beauty of the more than human world. To be filled with wonder and awe. This wonder does not decrease with scientific knowledge. The more we understand the more amazed we become. Blessed be the shamans.