Spiritual Lessons from the Biological World

Spiritual life reflects biology in so many ways.  That seems an odd thought on the surface, but it is very real.  As in physical life where we are born, we grow, we die, so can we do each of these spiritually.  These are obvious points of comparison.  But on the larger scale, there are other apt comparisons to be made.   As a biologist trained in botany and ecology, with interests in environmental health, I see so many things that blend the two realms of human experience in the most remarkable ways.  To demonstrate this concept, consider the application of the following biological principles to the realm of faith: Liebig’s Law of the Minimum, Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors, the dangers of monoculture, the effects of moderate disturbance on diversity, and reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Each of them addresses specific aspects of life, and each can actually be applied to the life of the spirit, as well.

Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Some of the most fundamental principles of ecology involve the basic laws of survival.  According to 19th century German organic chemist, Justus Liebig, the nutrient (nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, etc.) in least supply limits the success of a plant.  At the population level, this can be expanded to say that the growth and success of a population is limited by the resource (water, nutrients, food, space, etc.) in least supply.  For example, plants grow poorly in nitrogen depleted soils.  We add fertilizer to amend the problem, and our crops increase.  Sometimes, there may be enough nitrogen available, but another factor limits the plant’s growth.  Molybdenum is an element that is not extremely abundant in soils, but there is usually enough to supply plants with their needs.  Why do they need it?  It serves as a co-factor for the functioning of an enzyme that starts the process of taking nitrogen from the soil and converting it into a form that the plant can use.  Without molybdenum, nitrogen could not be assimilated by the plant, and therefore the plant would appear to have a nitrogen deficiency.

Spiritually, we have needs.  Some of these are easily understood, and the resources are always quite abundant.  For example, we need the water of life, which is always flowing and always free.  We need God’s light to bring us energy and light our paths to navigate the difficulties we face in life.  These are never in short supply.  However, there are some things that we may have more control over.  These may be unavailable not because they are not there, but because they become unavailable due to human intervention.  Among these, we need to be supplied with enough of the right food to feed our souls.

One of the most direct expression of this concept is from the prophet, Hosea, who recorded in chapter 4, verse 6, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children.”

In Hebrews 5.12-14, Paul further applies this principle.  “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”  Here, the missing resource is solid food, information on how to live and how to deal with problems, not coast along with the basic principles.  No baby that consumes only milk from birth on will grow and thrive.  We need the challenge of deeper teachings, broader applications.  A congregation that is fed only “first principle” sermons will never achieve any spiritual growth.  Yes, the first principles are important. But they are not the only thing.

Blackman’s Law of Limiting Factors.   Think of this law as the converse of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.  Simply stated, “Too much of a good thing can be bad.”  To illustrate, plants need water.  But water-logged soils lead to distress for plants that needs air spaces in the soil.  The roots become starved for oxygen, become anoxic, and then die.  Animal life needs water for survival, to carry nutrients, transport and eliminate wastes, and for cooling.  But if a human consumes too much water, she may die.  Any farmer knows the danger of adding too much fertilizer and “burning” the crop.  Physiologists would refer to these as examples of toxicity.

Spiritually, we may see toxicity in the form of preaching and teaching that continually harps on a single issue.  When preachers develop “hobbies” related to a specific topic, the teaching is not balanced, and the people suffer.  Teaching or preaching that is too deep or focuses on esoteric bits of denominational doctrinal minutiae that most people will never encounter in a lifetime often results in glassy stares from many, and self-congratulation from others because “we got it right.”  Teaching that focuses only on getting people “into” the church is also in a sense “toxic.”  Why?  Because after they are “in,” we forget about their needs, and we leave them to fend for themselves.  They begin to wither and die (See Liebig’s Law.)  Real people need real help to deal with real problems.  How do we deal with relationships?  How do we deal with loss, stress, oppression, repression, temptation, addiction, obsession, greed, loneliness, inertia….the list of real human concerns goes on and on.

One of the worst scenarios involving the toxicity of excess deals with fear.  A faith built on fear is not a real faith.  John as much as says so in I John 4.18-19.  “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”  Our faith is expressed not merely with words, but with deeds and with love.  A faith that is built solely on fear of hell, fear of God, fear of disappointing family, friends, spouse—this is not faith at all.  It is little more than a weak attempt at keeping peace, perhaps seasoned with a little self-preserving “fire insurance.”  But “fear faith” is frequently encountered where sermons and teaching are constantly tainted with brimstone and threats.  I once asked a fire and brimstone preacher why he spent so much time on hell, and he told me I only heard what I wanted to hear, that Hell is mentioned more in the Bible than Heaven.  That may be true if you tend to preach from a concordance.  But quality is more important than quantity.  How is heaven spoken of?  And does “hell” refer to the place of the damned in all instances, or was it mistranslated?  Concordances are only useful lists of words that may help you locate some truth, but are not in and of themselves the truths to which they refer.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately on why people have left the churches of Christ.  I can totally sympathize with many of their issues.  I read one letter that in some respects could have been close to my own story.  I feel deeply sorry for these people.  They turned away from God because of the damage inflicted on them by well-meaning but misinformed, ignorant people.  Young people who reach the non-scripturally described “age of accountability” are often hounded relentlessly to be baptized.  It doesn’t matter that they may not understand everything they feel they need to, and some things just may not make sense to them.  The peace of a relationship with God, of knowing his Son, is distorted and twisted into a source of pain and contention.  Get them dunked and move on.  That kind of emotional pressure and psychological coercion (maybe even bordering on abuse) almost always backfires.  Unless a person obeys with understanding and of free-will, the obedience is suspect of insincerity.  Many of these people fall away as soon as they leave home, or worse, they stay in the church, miserable, afraid, inactive and dead inside.

The danger of monoculture.  During the middle to late 20th century, there was a movement called the Green Revolution.  Its goal was to find improved crops that would provide high yields with short growing seasons so that starving people in the third world could be fed efficiently with nutritious foods.  However, when these new, highly selected crops were planted, they were susceptible to various diseases and pests, and what may have been a nuisance where many different crops are planted became a plague that led to massive failure.  Central America produces much of the bananas we buy in stores.  In order to make them seedless, breeders have hybridized different wild bananas to produce triploid lines that are sterile.  This means that many banana trees are genetically identical, propagated from cuttings.  Not long ago, banana plantations were threatened when the sterile, seedless commercial bananas were faced with a disease that could have wiped out entire farms because all of the trees were genetically the same, and therefore all susceptible to the disease.

In religion, if we require everyone to march in lock-step on every point of disputed practice, we are in danger of a crop failure.  There are essential doctrines that we must accept, and if we are truly seeking a real faith, we will accept gladly.  But so much emphasis is placed on complete unanimity on ALL issues that we lose sight of that real faith, and of things that Jesus called the weightier matters of law—justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23.23).

Spiritual monoculture typically leads to the development of a priestly caste (usually populated by preachers) that by self-proclamation become the God-approved Guardians of Orthodoxy.  The cruel, un-Christian manner of their disingenuous interactions (read, “attacks”) are so far removed from the civil dialogue of men of truly good will.  They brook no variance or challenge to the accepted catalog of doctrines, including the interpreted and interpolated laws and commands that have been scrupulously sought out, uncovered, and pieced together for all the world to behold or be damned.  Anyone who dares to assert a different interpretation to anything is immediately branded a heretic and shunned.  Preachers often issue the challenge, “Show me where I’m wrong by the scriptures and I’ll be happy to change.  You’ll be my friend if you do.”  I have never seen either one happen, because the audience knows that the preacher is right, because he has arrogantly displayed his superior command of scripture for all to see.  But the ability to parrot the party line with a straight face does not mean that the preacher is right.  And anyone who has the audacity to question the orthodoxy may have enough self-respect to avoid the abuse that will certainly be heaped upon them for their “lack of faith” and for accepting “false teaching.”

The most beautiful gardens are ones where flowers of different colors and heights are planted.  Indeed few sights can match a mountain meadow in spring or a desert after a rain, where flowers of so many different colors form an awe-inspiring patchwork.  All of these flowers are nourished by the same soil, take in the same rain, grow under the same sun, and yet are different in bloom and expression.  We are all different in our understanding, but united in a common faith.  If we could embrace that instead of press for lock-step submission to man-made traditions, we would begin to see an overflow of joy.  People would want to come together to worship, not be there out of threats and fear.  Faith and the practice of religion should be liberating, not encumbering.

The effect of moderate disturbance on diversity.  Closely associated with the danger of monoculture is the effect that moderate disturbance has on diversity.  In ecology, biodiversity is very important.  Diversity brings stability to communities and ecosystems by ensuring that there are redundant species that can fill in gaps should other species become diminished or extinct.  In plant communities, productivity is actually enhanced with the presence of more species, at least up to a point.  Some species may make resources more available to others, thereby facilitating their colonization and presence.  Too many species in a given community, however, may be counterproductive since the effects of competition will be much more pronounced.

Some disturbance actually results in a benefit to the level of biodiversity.  For example, consider a field where there is no grazing by any species.  One or a few very hardy, highly competitive species tend to dominate the community, and prevent other species from becoming established.  Where the level of disturbance is extreme, for example a large herd of sheep crowded into a small pasture, only a few species will be able to tolerate such conditions.  However, a moderate level of grazing or disturbance actually leads to more biodiversity because the competitive advantage of the few species that dominate at low disturbance is removed, allowing more species to invade.  The species capable of dealing with extreme disturbance may be present, but other species will thrive here as well.

Spiritually, a congregation with no “disturbance” becomes complacent and dominated by a few strong personalities.  Without any intellectual or spiritual challenge, views are synchronized, and diversity of views and ideas become low, if not a monoculture.  Congregations where leaders are constantly whipping the members into a frenzy over this sensational notion, that rising heresy, or some other (usually conservative) social or even political position also tend to have little diversity.  The people who stay are the ones who agree.  Anyone who doesn’t may tend to look for some other place where they can feel more welcome and accepted.  Of course, anyone who leaves this kind of toxic environment will face the wrath of the faithful, and may feel compelled to stay put if only to keep the peace.  But is it worth it to be unappreciated, disrespected, and under constant suspicion for not toeing the line?

The moderate disturbance of genuinely encouraging questions, open discussion, study, and the sharing of ideas brings far more to a spiritual community in terms of diversity.  It fosters more genuine investigation, more respect, and more depth of real faith as opposed to the veneer of faith that many unfortunately opt for when religion is imposed on them.  A friend of mine used to be fond of saying that if we are set on worshipping with a church that agrees with us on everything, we’ll be in a congregation of one.  A congregation that values genuine questioning and seeking of truth is to be applauded and appreciated.  Many may make that claim, but they are just as likely to do so with the expectation that all investigations will lead to the singular “truth” of their approved doctrine.  I know for a fact from my own experience that my conclusions on a number of issues are distinctly at odds with the majority of members of the wing of the church to which I belong.  I have suggested that we may be wrong, but that gets nowhere, because the doctrines and practices we cherish, arrived at using our Heaven’s-Seal-of-Approval stamped CENI hermeneutic are inerrant and infallible.  In essence, while we refute the infallibility of papal pronouncements when made ex cathedra, we accept as infallible the conclusions of “Bro. Black” or “Bro. White” who published in the “right” brotherhood paper using CENI as the infallible guide.  But if our wing and the other guys use the same method and arrive at different conclusions, something is wrong.  If the method is infallible and not to be questioned, then logically, it should lead to identical conclusions, no matter who examines the identical evidence or when.

Reciprocal altruism and cooperation theory.  Animal behaviorists and psychologists have studied why organisms, including humans, should cooperate.  At the most basic level, competition is actually harmful to the competitors.  The energy and resources an organism puts into competition could be better spent on maintenance and reproduction.  On the one hand, shouldn’t we just look out for ourselves, for our own self-interests?  Many people might think so, and in a single case interaction, it may be true: we may win big if we force the other guy to be a big loser.  But if we are frequently engaged with specific individuals, it is to our benefit to cooperate.  Why?  Because if we do, we “win” more in the long term.  If I don’t cooperate in this round of interactions, you won’t cooperate in the next one.  I may win more now, but lose more then.  We both come out ahead if we work together.

Isn’t that what Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount?  “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matt 7.12)  This principle is so fundamental to civil and enjoyable human interaction that we teach it to the youngest children.  We need to refresh ourselves on it frequently.  I mean, if I disagree with you over some peripheral issue, should I attack and belittle you?  Hmmm.  Do I want to be attacked and belittled?  The obvious answer is,”No.” However, the watchdog Guardians of Orthodoxy don’t care.  They are so arrogantly secure in their doctrinally pure ivory towers that they attack, berate, belittle, and brand as false teachers anyone who disagrees with them or accepts anything outside the unwritten creed.  (Yes, we claim to have no creed, but it is there, as real as any written one.  To question or challenge these ethereal premises is to deny the faith.)  In fact, if you defend yourself against them, they accuse you of attack, and glory in the fact that they are being persecuted for righteousness’s sake.  Their self-righteousness and arrogance are practically palpable, even though they use words like love and humility.  But that brand of in-your-face Christianity is driving people away in droves.  Perhaps this is one of the reasons I have been so sensitive to much of this.

As a Christian who is a scientist and a teacher, I enjoy exploring the overlap of principles between the physical world and the spiritual.  I am thrilled when I see the concepts in God’s written revelation supported by his unwritten one.  As a scientist, I am trained to attempt to falsify and disprove hypotheses.  After we perform experiments and observations to try and disprove a hypothesis, if we have not been successful in disproving it, we accept that hypothesis as valid and move on to another investigation.  If the experiment shows a flaw in the hypothesis, if the data do not support it, we reject that hypothesis and search for one that more adequately explains the phenomenon in question.  Science never stops.  Questions lead to more questions, even as answers lead to more answers.  In religion, however, we are all too often content to accept what we have been taught without question or examination.  We are bent not on seeking the weakness of our doctrines in order to find and understand truth, but on using cherry-picked “proof-texts” to prop up and support what are often no more than traditions.  We reject any questions or attempts to view our conclusions from different perspectives to see if they truly remain valid and objective.  If we do raise a question, one of the first things some preachers sprint to is that we must “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels.” (2 Tim 3.23)  They fail to read on or recite the next portion, which continues, “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.”  (2 Timothy 3.24-25a)  Many of those who teach are the most quarrelsome.  Here, real science is far superior in practice, and far less subjective.  (Incidentally, there are probably fewer fights in laboratories than in church buildings.)

Life is beautiful, whether biological or spiritual.  Each realm mirrors the other.  Our greater experience is with the physical and biological, what we can see and feel; we touch the spiritual realm through the intellect and the heart.  In viewing the similarities between biology and spirituality, we should gain greater insight into spirituality.  We need to strengthen our connections with the principles of physical life so that we can understand our spiritual existence better.  Understanding engenders appreciation.  The more we know, the richer our lives may become.  We need enough of the right kinds of resources, not too much and not too little.  We need to be encouraged to think and examine and explore.  We need to understand and appreciate people of different views who share a common faith.  Without these things, our souls will wither in bitterness and isolation.  With respect and love, we can be stronger and win.  Win what? Better life. More life.  Eternal life.  It’s worth the investment in time and effort and reflection and practice.  And besides, I never like to lose.


One Response to Spiritual Lessons from the Biological World

  1. theophilusdr says:

    Amen and right on.

    The revelation of God in the physical and spiritual realms must be consistent because it comes from the same Creator. Laws from one help understand revelation in the other.

    Enjoy reading your posts. You write well, whereas I just publish a rough draft.


    “Spiritual Thermodynamics and Overcoming Entropy”

    “Newton’s Law of Motion – the Equal and Opposite Reaction in the Spiritual Realm”

    “Everything I Know I Learned From a Bacterial Colony”

    David Ross

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