The Microbes That Therefore I Am

Image Source: CMS College, Kottayam

The global pandemic (Covid-19) has challenged all borders that we have created. The fact that it has made breathing difficult we can clearly see that it has demonstrated that it does not respect the kinds of borders we have created to group and divide humans as well as to distinguish humans from nonhumans and the environment. It has shown that these boundaries are porous and slippery. This porosity makes us vulnerable as we cannot discriminate against that which can kill us. But there is a silver lining in this otherwise dark situation. Our condition seems to offer us a way of thinking about the meaning and place of the human in the cosmos that is radically relational and radically vulnerable. It gives us the possibility of doing creaturely theology that is far removed from the virus of anthropocentrism that is afflicting humanity for far too long.

Humans are not bounded islands. Evolutionary science has proved us this. We are 99.9 per cent chimpanzees and seventy per cent cows. We have come through border-crossing of several species. Besides our dependence on oxygen and vulnerability to the microbes clearly show our porosity and vulnerability. Therefore we have to accept that our being is inter-being. We cannot but be inter-beings. We are inter-beings even after our death. We are dust and return to dust integrating ourselves with the family of the earth. This means we are never really separable from the “environment” or other “animals,” including “microbes.” This destabilization of fixed boundaries between human and nonhuman indicates that our very core being is inter-being.

The attention to bacteria, viruses, protists, and other microbes from the vantage point of relational ontologies can help us to formulate positions on agency and ethics to evaluate afresh ethical practices that control us for now. It opens us possibilities of crafting non-anthropocentric creaturely theologies for the present and the future. We are trans-corporeal inter-beings in as much as we depend on the other corporeal beings for our very survival and sustenance. This realization is challenging our inherited ontologies, anthropologies and theologies.

Maybe we have to consider our inheritance from a Derridian point of view. Jacques Derrida’s discusses inheritance as a process of the ethical responsibility of choosing from a legacy that is never unified or singular, but always heterogeneous. Derrida teaches that inheritance is that which one must reaffirm by choosing. He says that one has to filter, sift, criticize, sort out the several different possibilities that inhabit the same injunction. Our inheritance is often our tradition. We have to re-interpret the tradition to keep it alive. This shows that nothing can truly stop us from re-interpreting our ontologies, anthropologies and theologies that plug the inter-being of humans and shut us away from the family of the earth. We have the challenge to embrace ontologies, anthropologies and theologies that are true to our inter-being and promote healthy and salubrious border crossing.

We certainly have a profound theology of border crossing when we are invited by Jesus Christ to eat his flesh. We, humans, are invited to share in the divine and human self of Jesus Christ so that we become one with him. We have to cross the border of our isolated self and cross the border to become one with him and become his body with other baptised who also commune with his body and blood. St. Paul affirms this border crossing when he says, “We are members of His body, of His flesh, and of His bones” (Eph. 5.30). This means the holy Eucharist enacted by Jesus have made our inter-being holy. We are indeed border crossing humans all the time and the Eucharist celebrates this border crossing because God in Jesus crossed the border in and through the mystery of the incarnation. We can also see that divine as triune is a border crossing God. This is why a theology of inter-being is indeed a theology of border crossing. Such a theology embraces the migration of humans as well our inter-being with animals, trees, water, sand and microbes.

Our inter-being is intimately related to our earth, our spaceship that links us to the rest of the cosmos. We belong to the earth and its family. All earthlings are younger than the earth. Earth makes a 4.54 billion-year-old world, with a total land surface area of approximately one hundred and ninety-seven million square miles and three hundred and twenty-six million trillion gallons of water. It is a planet with an estimated over three hundred and seventy-four thousand species of plants, five million one hundred thousand fungal species, and seven million seven hundred and seventy thousand species of animals. Add to these microbes both benevolent and malevolent, the embrace of the family of the earth is unimaginably grand. We are indeed a vibrant and flourishing family of our mother earth.

Despite the earth and most of its family existing for hundreds of millions of years, all but one species is seated on the wrong side of a differentiating line that categorizes the other members of families as lesser than itself and sets them up as ripe for utilization and exploitation. This is why a theology of inter-being that we have also called the theology of border crossing is unavoidable for the very survival of the earth and its entire family. The threat of climate change is fast showing that a post-human future of the earth is fast approaching. Hence, it is in the interest of humanity that we have to develop what we have called border-crossing theology. The pandemic Covid-19 is also ringing the alarm bells for us. Hence, we have to shed the anthropocentric skins of our thinking. This is why we have to expand Derrida’s Animal that, therefore I am to embrace Microbes. This means we have to think: Microbes that, therefore I am. It is these all-embracing ontologies, anthropologies and theologies full justice to our inter-being and save us, our mother earth and her family.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao