A Personal Reflection
All things bright and beautiful
At present I am fortunate enough to be sat in a conservatory which looks out over a modest garden. The sky is clear and blue. The wind is gentle and warm. The sound of birdsong drifts in through an open door. To my mind comes the words of a well-known hymn.
All things bright and beautiful, All creatures great and small, All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all. [i]
Yet at the time of writing (2nd May 2020) 243,922 people worldwide have lost their lives to COVID-19. [ii] It is not hard to see why some may challenge the notion that ‘All things wise and wonderful, The Lord God made them all.’
Bacteria and viruses are a fundamental part of creation. It seems that even the human body is not all human.
Human cells make up only 43% of the body's total cell count. The rest are microscopic colonists…"They are essential to your health," says Prof Ruth Ley, the director of the department of microbiome science at the Max Planck Institute, "your body isn't just you". [iii]
Whilst our understanding of the role of bacteria continues to develop there is no doubt of the importance of bacteria for all life on our planet.
Although most bacteria are beneficial or even necessary for life on Earth, a few are known for their detrimental impact on humans. [iv]
So how does a person of faith understand the bacteria and viruses that are detrimental to human life?
The first thing to say is that human beings are not separate from the rest of creation. Human life is the result of an evolutionary journey that began when geology became chemistry and chemistry became biology; when the geological processes that brought the Earth into being created the right conditions for the growth of single cell organisms and when in turn those organisms were able to interact and become multi-cellular.
Favored geochemical scenarios involve volcanic regions or impact craters, with complex organic chemistry, multiple sources of energy, and dynamic light-dark, hot-cold and wet-dry cycles. [v]
The second thing to say is that over vast periods of geological time the human body has developed in relationship with bacteria. Our bodies learn how to cope with the bacteria and viruses that are detrimental to us, and you could argue that our bodies have developed in symbiosis with bacteria.
The impact of humanity on creation
The third thing to say is that as the human population grows and as industry pushes into areas of the world not previously inhabited by a large population people come into contact with bacteria and viruses that their bodies have never before encountered. Unfortunately, evolution is not effective within one human lifetime. It takes generations for the body to learn how to cope.
…Columbus built his first town on the nearby island of Hispaniola, where the Taino numbered at least 60,000 and possibly as many as 8 million, according to some estimates. But by 1548, the Taino population there had plummeted to less than 500. Lacking immunity to Old World pathogens carried by the Spanish, Hispaniola’s indigenous inhabitants fell victim to terrible plagues of smallpox, influenza, and other viruses. [vi]
When situations like COVID-19 arise, it is all too easy to quote the Bible and see such an event as a divine judgment on the nature of society. There are several reasons why people might be tempted to do this, not least that it avoids having to think and it shifts the blame onto the wider community.
Human beings, however, are one facet of a much wider creation, our bodies and minds inextricably shaped by the forces of evolution. Perhaps if we took the time to understand how deep creation and evolution lies within our very body, we might take more seriously God’s command to look after creation and replenish it, and at the same time find a more constructive way of talking to people who struggle with the concept of faith in a benevolent God.
And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. (Genesis 1:28, KJV)