Sunday, August 21, 2016

God’s Eye Is On the Enterococcus Faecalis and I know God Watches Me

Now the word of the LORD came to me saying,
“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
Jeremiah 1:4-6

This week’s lectionary highlights a passage that shows how little God trusts us with certain information.

According to Jeremiah, God replied, “Do not say,  ‘I am only a boy.’”

God did not, for obvious reasons, add an inconvenient truth. God could have added: “For thou art a virtual microbiome and thy body livest with ten times more non-human cells than human cells.”

Perhaps it is enough to say there is more to Jeremiah than meets the eye. But, as we know now, there is so much more.

Ed Yong, science writer for The Atlantic, probably didn’t know he was writing a devotional book when he penned I Contain Multitudes, The Microbes Within Us And a Grander View Of Life. But Yong has raised questions that are deeply spiritual as well as complexly biological. 

What’s he saying? More than half the cells in your body aren’t even human?

It’s no surprise God didn’t reveal this in the beginning. 

So God created humankind in his image,

in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them, 
and he created them a microbiota, 
a microbiome that resideth in the skin, mammary glands, placenta, semen, uterus, ovarian follicles, lung, saliva, oral mucosa, conjunctiva, and gastrointestinal tracts. 
And God saw that it was good.

Obviously there would have been little point in revealing these facts to a brass age culture. But is our modern intellect sturdy enough to take it all in? 

For the science-minded among us – including the odd atheist – Yong’s book is merely a beautifully written description of the symbiotic complexity of biological evolution. How human-microbiome relationship progressed is a marvelous accident.

For us persons of faith, the obvious reality requires some intellectual and spiritual acrobatics.

We view our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit, fearfully and wonderfully made. We think of ourselves as miraculous and immaculate creations of an all-powerful Creator. We see ourselves as fashioned in the image of God’s creative temperament. 

Most of us no longer think of ourselves as formed in God’s physical image because – despite Michelangelo’s breathtaking depiction of a white bearded Creator – it has become unseemly to ponder a God requiring all those follicles and appendages, including gonads. As future theologian James T. Kirk revealed it, why would God need a starship? Kirk might as well have asked why would God need a microbiome? God is spirit, and microbes are corporeal. 

And, to many of us, microbes are disgusting. It does little for our self-respect to look in a mirror and know if we could see individual cells, most of them would not be human.

For those of us who espouse traditional theology, our microbiome gets in the way of questions we’d rather not think about. What about the Immaculate Conception? What about the incarnation? What about the resurrection? Do all of these events assume the presence of billions of ubiquitous and ghastly bugs? 

Perhaps it is some comfort that Yong, described by his peers as in the highest tier of international scientists, defends the bugs.  The microbes within us, he says, are neither good nor bad. 

In a recent interview with Fresh Air’s Terry Gross, Yong scoffs at our “long-standing idea that microbes are germs, are enemies that we need to destroy lest they destroy us.”

Actually, Yong says, “many of these microbes are profoundly important for our lives … there isn’t really any such thing as a good microbe or a bad microbe. They just live with us. They are our partners in life and they can often do us tremendous amounts of good. They can help to digest our food and tune our immune system and protect us from disease. But if they get in the wrong place or if our relationship with them breaks down, then they might also do us harm.”

Devotees of yogurt and probiotics, of course, have made our peace with the notion that microbes can aid our digestion, improve our heath, and be very good for us. 

Still, it challenges our old time religion. If more than half the cells within us are not our cells, what are we: a child of God or a pod whose body has already been secretly snatched?

Of course many will see Yong’s book and as another confirmation of their view that humans were not creatures of a higher power but an accidental development in evolutionary antiquity.

But perhaps there is nothing accidental about it. Yong enhances our spiritual explorations by providing a useful context.

“If you condense the history of the Earth into a single calendar year,” he told Gross, “the Earth was created in the first of January and we are now in the 31st of December just before the stroke of midnight, then humans arose about 30 minutes ago. And even all the multicellular creatures, the things we can see, all the animals and plants we’re familiar with, only arose a couple of months back, whereas bacteria probably first evolved, say, at the start of March. So for the vast majority of life on Earth, everything was microbial … bacteria have been the rulers of the planet for most of the Earth’s history, and they are still the rulers of the planet.”

For biblical literalists, it can be said that the creation of microbes seems to have taken place sometime between the second and third days of creation, after God separated the waters from the firmament and before God gathered the water into seas and put forth vegetation.

Yong, whether he intends it or not, points us toward the possibility that the infinitely complex interactions of bacteria and human cells are so marvelous as to be divine. 

That’s the information God left out of his declaration to Jeremiah (and the rest of us) when God said, “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you.” (Jeremiah 1:4). 

We can either dismiss the human microbiome as godless science, or we can stand in awe at this revelation of the intricate details of the building blocks of God’s living creation.

Can we accept that the stuff of human creation – the bacteria and microbes that give us substance and health – were never excluded from God’s plan but were there in the beginning, when there was the Word?

And the Word is this: God's eye is not only on the sparrow, but also on the microscopic Enterococcus Faecalis, a common bacterium of the human gut.

And if God watches the Enterococcus Faecalis, it can hardly be denied that God watches you.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Holy Christian Hate

Isaiah 1:1, 10-20

“Kill her!”
“Trump that bitch!”
“Build a wall – kill them all.”
“F**k them beaners!”
“F**k Islam!”
- Spontaneous screeches at Trump rallies recorded by the New York Times

The polls of early August point to a Trump defeat in November. But whether that comes as a relief to you, it almost doesn’t matter.

Mr. Trump leaves in his wake an energized minority fueled by hate and eager to shout their vitriol from the rooftops.

This aggrieved minority, mostly white, will present serious problems for a theoretical President Clinton just as they have for President Obama. They masked their racist antipathy to Mr. Obama with fatuous claims he is a Kenyan, a Muslim, a racial provocateur, an environmental fanatic, and an out-of-touch purveyor of political correctness. All of this would have been ironically amusing if the anti-Obama zealots hadn’t coalesced into a far-right-wing cabal to support Congressional Republicans as they stalled every White House initiative.

Now Mr. Trump has given his minions cover to bring their racism, xenophobia, and misogyny into the full glare of day. Their racism is disguised by chants of “All Lives Matter,” their xenophobia is expressed by support of a wall that Mexico will pay for, and their misogyny is expressed in chants of “Crooked Hillary,” “Jail Her,” and “Trump the Bitch.”

It’s tempting to hope that all this will be swept away by a righteously indignant electorate on November 8. But even if that happens, Trump’s Children will not go away. The bigger the defeat, the angrier they will be. And they will remain a treacherous and probably well-armed menace, especially when they feel disenfranchised by the people they hate: persons of color, non-English speakers, immigrants, and any group the great white haters regard as “others.”

The New York Times revealed the intensity of this hostility by posting a video, “Voices from Donald Trump’s Rallies, Uncensored.” 

Charles M. Blow, the prophetic voice of the New York Times, initially tweeted that the uncensored voices were “so gross,” but he also posted an insightful column describing how Trump’s following stems from “White Male Fragility.”  If Mr. Trump gets anywhere near the Oval Office, Mr. Blow writes, it will be because of white guys who “feel threatened by unrelenting change — immigration, globalization, terrorism, multiculturalism — and those people want someone to, metaphorically at least, build a wall around their cultural heritage, which they conflate in equal measure with American heritage.”

That analysis makes sense. But it leaves unanswered the question of why white guys feel threatened. What’s wrong with us?

Another way of asking the question was put by the Rev. James Martin, SJ, the prophetic voice of the Jesuits (or one of them, anyway).

Father Martin read the Times article and asked, “How many of these voices would call themselves Christians?”

Father Martin probably knows the answer and, as a scion of the Yahootude, I can peer deeply into my heritage and tell him the truth. They all call themselves Christians.

The reason, as Mr. Blow suggests, is that – despite historical realities to the contrary – we white folks think we live in a Christian nation settled and established by Christians and any group that doesn’t look like us Christians has got to go. 

In fact, the nation’s founders were deeply opposed to establishing religion of any type and James Madison wrote a Constitutional amendment to make that clear. But of course it’s not clear and the people who think we are a Christian nation are the same people who think Mr. Madison urged all true patriots to stock up on AR-15s. There’s no point in arguing truths that were repressed long ago.

But perhaps we can open a discussion on what it means to be a Christian. And there’s no better place to begin that discussion than the Hebrew Scriptures, which told God’s truths centuries before Jesus first read them.

Fittingly, this week’s Revised Common Lectionary gives us some insight into what God thinks when we go through the motions of religion while ignoring God’s will for us.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil,learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:14-17)
It’s impossible to reconcile God’s words with the words of hate spewed at Trump rallies. In fact, the words captured by the Times are expressions of hatred, injustice, and oppression.

Of course, some Christian Trumpites will dismiss this particular biblical exhortation because it was written by Jews to Jews about Jews.

But that would be both anti-Semitic and dangerous to individual souls. Those who prefer to read what God thinks in Jesus’ words should re-read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. Jesus doesn’t allow for any wiggle room. 

For example:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matthew 5:43-47)

Does any of that sound like, “Build a wall – kill them all”?

Even so, as Father Martin suggests, most of the persons vomiting hatred at Trump rallies think they are Christians.

But there is no evidence Jesus would agree.

So what are our alternatives?

Prayer will help. We can ask God to grant that these venomous expressions might ease and the campaign dialogue will lighten up as this interminable campaign comes moves closer to the end.

And we can ask God grant that after the election, what ever the result, the national dialogue will be more reasonable and less full of hate.

But we all suspect that for some persons, years of ignoring God’s word has made it too easy to resist it. If there is a satanic influence in this campaign, I suspect it takes place in the hearts of those who have become so comfortable with their hatred that they have closed their hearts and minds to the God of love and justice.

But God’s words are written down and discoverable any time.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that when the campaign is over and the rallies are silent, the haters who think of themselves as Christians will take advantage of their new free time to see what’s going on in their Sunday schools.
The painting above, A Copse Evening, is by A.Y. Jackson, 1918.