In the introduction of his mesmerising book, Entangled Life: How Fungi make our worlds, change our minds, and shape our futures, Merlin Sheldrake writes:
I attended a conference in Panama on tropical microbes, and along with many other researchers spent three days becoming increasingly bewildered by the implications of our studies. Someone got up to talk about a group of plants that produce a certain group of chemicals in their leaves. Until then, the chemicals had been thought of as a defining characteristic of that group of plants. However, it transpired that the chemicals were actually made by fungi that lived in the leaves of the plant. Our idea of the plant had to be redrawn. Another researcher interjected, suggesting that it may not be the fungi living inside the leaf that produced these chemicals, but the bacteria living inside the fungus. Things continued along these lines. After two days, the notion of the individual had deepened and expanded beyond recognition. To talk about individuals made no sense any more. Biology – the study of living organisms – had transformed into ecology – the study of the relationships between living organisms. To compound matters, we understood very little. Graphs of microbial populations projected on a screen had large sections labelled ‘unknown’….
Many scientific concepts – from ‘time’ to ‘chemical bonds’ to ‘genes’ to ‘species’ – lack stable definitions but remain helpful categories to think with. From one perspective, ‘individual’ is no different: just another category to guide human thought and behaviour. Nonetheless, so much of daily life and experience – not to mention our philosophical, political and economic systems – depends on individuals that it can be hard to stand by and watch the concept dissolve. Where does this leave ‘us’? What about ‘them’? ‘Me’? ‘Mine’? ‘Everyone’? ‘Anyone’? …. It made my head spin to think of how many ideas had to be revisited, not least our culturally treasured notions of identity, autonomy and independence. It is in part this disconcerting feeling that makes the advances in the microbial sciences so exciting. Our microbial relationships are about as intimate as any can be. Learning more about these associations changes our experience of our own bodies and the places we inhabit. ‘We’ are ecosystems that span boundaries and transgress categories. Our selves emerge from a complex tangle of relationships only now becoming known.21
The study of relationships can be confusing. Almost all are ambiguous. Have leafcutter ants domesticated the fungus they depend on, or has the fungus domesticated the ants? Do plants farm the mycorrhizal fungi they live with, or do the fungi farm the plants? Which way does the arrow point? This uncertainty is healthy.
Reading these words made me think of our readings from the Gospel and Letter of John these past two weeks. They both refer to the wonder of indwelling the Divine and being indwelled by the Divine…“Abide in me as I abide in you…” [John 15]. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” [1 John 4:16]. Talk about entangled life!
And then of course what if we take Jesus literally when his says: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” [Mark 12:31]. What if Jesus is not simply speaking about the extent of our loving but the extent of our actual selves? In other words, could Jesus be commanding us to expand our own sense of identity to include our neighbour? If so, then we are more than our skin can hold. If so, what happens to our neighbour happens to us for we all share entangled life. If so, then murder and war is suicide. If so, then an injustice to one is an injustice to all.
If so, what “concepts dissolve?” What “associations change?” “What culturally treasured notions do we need to revisit?”
A growing consciousness of our oneness with neighbour, the Divine, and the natural world lies at the foundation of the world’s salvation (healing and liberation). And obviously not simply a growing consciousness, but a way of life both personal and political, individual and systemic that abides in this consciousness and in which this consciousness abides. I would call this consciousness of our oneness, Christ consciousness as Jesus prayed: “May they be one as we are one.” [John 17], but others may call it by other names. What we call it is less important than whether we live into and out of it.
If this makes our head spin – let us embrace our “disconcerting feelings” and rejoice that our many “unknowns” if nothing else, help us to walk our entangled life more humbly.
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