Theologizing the Microbiological World: Implications for Mission

By Ralph D. Winter

"For half a millennium the engine driving our society has been science. Sure, politics and philosophy, religious insight and artistic expression have helped out in their way, but even the efficacy of those things has had its pace measured and set by hard knowledge, our burgeoning comprehension of our material universe; it’s no accident that the dethroning of kings and cardinals followed the dethroning of the Earth from the center of the sky” (Italics added). So says a science writer in the LA Times last Sunday, and so much for the post-modern inclination to pooh pooh the accumulation of concrete scientific insights.

However, whether well understood or not, it is difficult to deny the fact that at no time in the history of science, or in the history of the world for that matter, has there ever been anything remotely comparable to the incredible explosion of scientific knowledge in the past twenty years. The massive, global involvement in the study of what God made, called science, is an activity far more elaborate and inherently awe-inspiring than the study of the works of man, which is called art.

...the study of what God made, called science, is an activity far more elaborate and inherently awe-inspiring than the study of the works of man, which is called art.

In the process of this enormous pursuit of the work of what obviously must be an intelligent Creator, one might expect breakdowns of relationship between researchers representing the various global cultural traditions. To some extent that has been true, but even this has not been able to throttle the immense, now global, “gold rush” in many scientific fields ranging from 1) the zealous examination of outer space to 2) the exploration of the enormous land mass under Antarctica (which happens to be twice the size of the 48 States)—explorations performed by magnetic resonance through an ice layer three miles deep.

In any case, nothing, absolutely no probe of scientific inquiry, has suddenly opened a door into so vast, and totally undreamed-of a new world as the historically recent penetration of the cell. There, in this newly revealed microscopic universe, are mysteries that have infinitely more to do with our future, our mission and our theology than any new insight into the cosmos—the panoply of stars—where we are mere observers, not intimate participants who are crucially affected by the conclusions of the astronomers and cosmologists.

In any case, nothing, absolutely no probe of scientific inquiry, has suddenly opened a door into so vast, and totally undreamed-of a new world as the historically recent penetration of the cell.

On the other hand, our theologies, that is, our formalized ways of attempting to think Biblically, were hammered out during centuries that were totally blind to the microscopic world. As a result, to this day our religious impulses and purposes, neither our hymns nor our theologies, yet throb with any of the new insights in this huge new sphere, even though the everyday existence of all life is intimately tuned and doomed by these tiny forces. Rather, in place of that new knowledge we have until recently been ignorantly offering a vast range of pseudo explanations which still rule our thinking in many ways.

Six Enigmas

In fact, the whole of this new reality is laced by several enigmas which are puzzling, debilitating, and ominous. I will take them up one by one.

1. Anthropomorphisms in science writings 

Curiously, scientific writers, in contrast to their formal and official anti-supernatural bias, often unconsciously describe viruses, bacteria, or parasites with words such as ingenious, clever, or malicious. I have not seen the word intelligent, but you frequently encounter these anthropomorphisms in scientific writings dealing with the extravagant wilderness of the destructive forms of life. This fact would seem to give unintended insight into the intuitive appreciation these specialists have, even if not admitted, for the apparent intelligence and ingenuity underlying the vast array of disease pathogens.

Evangelicals have recently stressed the inevitable intelligence and design in nature, but they have not, to my knowledge, attempted to suggest that there is evidence of any evil intelligence and design. This is perhaps due to a theological tradition which does not understand demonic powers to have the ability to distort DNA. Our Evangelical theological tradition is so old that it also would not conceive of good angels working at the DNA level. In other words, we have no explicit theology for intentional modification of either good or bad bacteria. However, the evidence of anthropomorphisms in science writings clearly implies the presence of intelligence at that level.

Evangelicals have recently stressed the inevitable intelligence and design in nature, but they have not, to my knowledge, attempted to suggest that there is evidence of any evil intelligence and design.

2. The concept of inappropriate prayer 

This is seldom discussed in Evangelical circles. As a result, we fail frequently to distinguish between what part God wants us to play and what part only He can play. Confusion in this area is clearly in Satan’s favor. He is glad when he can get us to ask God to do something God expects us to do.

This has come about since it is only natural for man to pray when there would seem to be nothing more he can do. But massive changes have occurred since the time little or nothing was known about the causes of disease. Now, amidst the wealth of new knowledge we cannot logically go on merely praying when a whole array of options to act are before us.

...amidst the wealth of new knowledge we cannot logically go on merely praying when a whole array of options to act are before us.

3. Erroneous perspectives about disease origins 

Let us ponder the settled and accepted, but incorrect, explanations for the causes of disease which mysteriously live on quite durably. This is a major factor in retarding the progress of overcoming the march of disease pathogens. For example, how easily can a half century of increasingly successful heart bypass, heart-replacement surgery and mechanical replacement pumps yield to the new awareness of the basic role of infection in heart disease? That is, the assumption that many of the related characteristics or symptoms of heart disease are also causes of heart disease postpones the effort to isolate the prime causal infection that destroys the heart muscle even where there are no conventional symptoms. This is like the finally outmoded theories that dampness causes tuberculosis, that a chill creates a cold infection, or that stress causes ulcers. And especially when an opposing intelligence may be involved it is like carefully washing the decks of a ship thinking this will prevent a submarine attack.

4. Unusual accidents of insight 

There is a very surprising and extensive factor of serendipity in the conquest of disease. This can be seen again and again. Four times in the 35-year saga of Judah Folkman’s so-called “War Against Cancer” beneficial things occurred that were apparently total accidents. This may be a fascinating clue to the way and the wind of the Holy Spirit. Pasteur’s famous statement that discoveries in the lab favor the prepared mind do not by any means fully explain the prominent role of serendipity in medical research. God would seem to be on the side of those who pursue the origins of disease.

5. Unseemly opposition

Equally surprising and harmful are the many factors of opposition to such discovery. The whole process of research is constantly enshrouded with the fog of political factors, commercial factors, personal factors, and technical factors, in addition to the major setbacks caused by the vast social turmoil of wars large and small and the role of pestilence itself. It has been said that the Second World War was the first war in history during which there was not far greater loss of life due to disease than the brutality of the war itself. That is, many are killed, but many more are injured, and the injured in the past have usually then died of disease complications. These various obstacles to foundational research are so great that often fundamental improvements in insight would logically seem to be the very last thing that could happen.

Consider one of these dimensions alone: the commercial factors. Commerce is extensively driven by what makes money. Billions of dollars are harvested annually by companies which sell products that don’t really work, while billions are not spent to prove the value of things that may be commonly reported to work. Take heart disease alone, and only in the USA. It costs our people $300 billion per year. That’s $34 million per hour, or $570,000 per minute.

6. Massive imbalance in funding

Unfortunately most nutritional supplements fall into the category of what does not really work, or that which does not work as well as a judicious choice of foods. One report is that 75% of the food supplements you buy don’t even contain the assumed active ingredients, and for that matter, the same unreliability factor is true for pharmaceuticals in many other parts of the world.

But more stubborn still is the simple fact that funds are not readily generated in a commercial situation, whenever substantial sales income is not available for something that is either too inexpensive to sell or cannot be patented. Thus, anything too inexpensive to produce, with a low potential sales income, can never expect to be the subject of serious testing to prove if it works. Commercial dynamics are in our favor only when the service being purchased can cover the cost of that service.

Commercial dynamics are in our favor only when the service being purchased can cover the cost of that service.

For example, no commercial firm will ever run an FDA test on selenium as a cancer suppressant. Why? Because it would be too inexpensive to sell later for a compensatory profit. FDA approval once cost about $1 million. Now it is well over $300 million. This bars all inexpensive substances from substantiation!

Nevertheless forces other than a promise of commercial gain either are or ought to be available. Smallpox would have never been defeated had it been up to commercial processes. The early efforts of a small but highly opposed group of clergymen in New England were not carried forward until 200 years later by the UN. Thus, much of the world’s ills cannot be resolved by commercial dynamics. Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center led the way in confronting the growing list of diseases which we know how to eradicate but haven’t taken the trouble to eradicate. The William Gates foundation has picked up on that lead, and is funding some work. But the entire global summation of all non-commercial efforts is only a teaspoon compared to the amount of cash paid out by people in the Western world after they get sick.

The Carter Center has led the way in confronting the growing list of diseases which we know how to eradicate, specifically dracunculiasis, poliomyelitis, mumps, rubella, lymphatic filariasis, and cysticercosis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has picked up on that lead, and is funding the fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Polio.

The Carter Center has led the way in confronting the growing list of diseases which we know how to eradicate, specifically dracunculiasis, poliomyelitis, mumps, rubella, lymphatic filariasis, and cysticercosis. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has picked up on that lead, and is funding the fight against AIDS, Tuberculosis, Malaria and Polio.

Thus, it is not as though everyone is working together to understand the nature of disease. Either 99-to-one, or more likely (as with cancer) 999-to-one, is the ratio of the financial outlay for curative services—where people who are already assaulted by disease pay for help—compared to the relatively tiny resources focused on the roots of the problem, the very nature of disease.

Again, this is like spending so much energy repairing ships damaged by torpedoes that we do not take time to perfect the sonar equipment necessary to detect and destroy the submarines that are sending the torpedoes.

Is There a Conclusion?

At this point it is time to ask the question why it is that the mounting muscle of the very considerable movement of all those globally who are moved by Jesus Christ has not weighed in either theologically or practically in the area of working to correct distortions of nature and of God’s will by going to the roots of the problem. In a way this is the most ominous fact of all.

I know of no theological tradition, no denomination, no Christian school—or hospital for that matter—that has seriously accepted the roots of the challenge of the enormous and continuing and growing factor of disease in this world of ours.

I know of no theological tradition, no denomination, no Christian school...that has seriously accepted the roots of the challenge of the enormous and continuing and growing factor of disease in this world of ours.

Meanwhile constantly both believers and non-believers are stumbling about wondering over the amount, the harshness, and the unpredictability of evil in our world. Indeed, the credibility of an all-powerful and loving God is constantly being called into question by people who are no longer content to suppose “that God has His reasons.” We may indeed not know all His reasons. But do we have reasons for our inaction? Really, has He asked us not to eradicate disease pathogens but to let them alone? Do we, like Orthodox Jews expect Gentiles to turn the lights on for us? To expect secular powers to be concerned but not our own college young people? Do those college students have to leave the Christian community in order to work against disease? Does God intend for us to protect these “ingenious” disease pathogens along with all the rest of “the good earth”? Fundamentalist Sikhs would say yes. Evangelical Christians are saying yes by their apparent deafness to this simple question.

The patterns of our actual, functional theology are thus observable in our common language when we hear people say, “God took my wife, my granddaughter, etc.” Or when we wonder “Why did God allow THAT to happen?” when in fact the only really logical question is, Why did God allow Satan to exist? Once Satan is in the picture (if we believe he is) no amount or kind of harsh or heartless evil should be unexpected in any quarter. But apparently Satan really isn’t any kind of a major factor in our normal perspective. This absence of awareness of Satan happens to be exactly what would be the case if pastor Gordon Kirk’s statement were true that “Satan’s greatest achievement is to cover his tracks.”

We may not be seriously disturbed by such theological talk. Yet certain obvious conclusions at least logically push their way forward should such a statement be true—namely, that Satan is doing far more than we are aware of.

One conclusion might be to recognize that our understanding of our mission under God has been truncated down to a certain limited sphere, in spite of God’s earnest desire to enlist our efforts on a wider front.

Another conclusion is the reverse, that we need to recognize and ponder more seriously the kind and degree of harm Satan is able to cause. We need to unmask the works of Satan and not go on thinking that he, as a spirit being, cannot be held responsible for causing any intelligent damage to our DNA codes, our genetic distortions being labeled “defects” instead of “intelligent distortions.” Granted that our forefathers who were the caretakers and creators of our theology were unaware of the microscopic world and its myriad evidences of Satanic distortion, cannot we now in the much clearer light of dawn come to more extensive theological thinking that allows us to notice, to applaud, and even to join in with those limited and scattered efforts across the world to fight back (along with the good angels constantly enhancing our bodily immune systems) to counteract the truly monstrous head start Satan already has in this troubled world of ours?

...cannot we now in the much clearer light of dawn come to more extensive theological thinking that allows us to notice, to applaud, and even to join in with those limited and scattered efforts across the world to fight back...

To destroy the works of the devil is one major way in which our testimony of word and deed can glorify the true nature of our living God, our heavenly father. It is not an alternative to evangelism, it will make our evangelism more credible. It is to rectify our God’s damaged reputation. It is to avoid extending the implicit and embarrassing policy of almost constantly misrepresenting Him in our mission work around the world. Attacking the roots of disease is part and parcel of our basic mandate to glorify God in all the earth.

To that end I raise, once more, the proposal for the establishment of an Institute for the Study of the Origins of Disease. If the cold reception of earlier efforts to move in this direction are any prediction of the future we cannot expect wide acclaim, at least not from the formal Evangelical tradition. Like Paul, like Jimmy Carter, we may be forced “to go to the Gentiles” for a warm reception. Some will scoff. Some will believe.


Photo credits: Used in accordance with Creative Commons. Sourced via Flickr.

Posted on June 18, 2001 and filed under essays.