Symbiotic Grace: Holobiont Theology in the Age of the Microbe

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2021

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Abstract

Christian theology and discourse work by separating the human individual from “the environment.” The science of the human microbiome exposes the ecological, social and theological inadequacies of this and other western conceptions of the human individual. As multiple disciplines work to accommodate the reality of the human as a multispecies amalgam, the increasingly accepted anthropology of the holobiont presses against theological anthropology’s main trope of the imago dei. While the imago dei is classically identified as some combination of human freedom, self-movement and intellect, holobiont science suggests none of these are possible apart from our microbial symbionts. The idea that I am not myself without God may sometimes be forgotten, but the idea that I am not myself without microbes has scarcely been thought. At least it has scarcely been thought by theologians. Doing theology alert to the boundary-breeching microbe opens the door to a more symbiotic anthropology that re-centers humanity’s dependence on creation.

Barriers to developing a holobiont theology include not only a theological genealogy that is prone to set the human at odds with animality, but also a history whereby theology, theories of disease and a pasteurian microbiopolitics have co-evolved to support a habit of self-deceit that traces back to the Fall, both the event and the doctrine.

This dissertation develops a theology of the holobiont by fusing aspects and interests of relational theology, new materialism and animality studies to suggest imaging God and epistemology are symbiotic.

After addressing the crisis of the microbiome to theology, I analyze a history of the doctrine of the Fall and a history of disease to suggest that germ theory is a palimpsest of the Fall; it impresses upon, writes imperfectly over the still partially visible ancient doctrine of the drama of evil and sin. I construct a doctrine of the Fall and recovery from it in an ecological mode to show that symbiosis extends beyond matters of biology to matters of grace. A microbially-informed doctrine of the Fall as “turning to the wrong tree” paves the way for an embrace of holobiont theology. The project of holobiont theology exposes the ancient and theological distortions about being human that fund and amplify in germ theory, a modern epidemiological framework, and reforms these distortions by centering microbial matter in the story of how God makes, humbles and saves humans.

I test this thesis on the pivotal theologian of Thomas Aquinas. His treatment of spontaneous generation, his theology of digestion and personhood and his non-subject-centered, participatory way of knowing and being human anticipates holobiont theology. His doctrines of creation and anthropology are a fitting tool to think towards a holobiont theology that takes up the wisdom of indigenous accounts of the ecological body, where human and world support, absorb, assimilate and become each other without violation.

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Al-Attas Bradford, Aminah (2021). Symbiotic Grace: Holobiont Theology in the Age of the Microbe. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/24460.

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