Can the Science of Symbiosis Come to Inform Theological Ethics?

Chris Durante
Sunday 19 June 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Symbiosis was once thought to be a rarity within the natural world. However, after the groundbreaking work conducted by Lynn Margulis on the role of symbiosis in the origin of eukaryotic cells, which are present within all known complex life-forms, — including: fungi, plants, and animals —  we now know that symbiotic relations between organisms is far more prevalent in nature than many scientists working in the earlier twentieth century could have ever imagined (Sagan 1967). While at first she was thought to be an unorthodox scientist, the work of Lynn Margulis has redefined how many within the scientific community understand symbiotic relations in nature. If symbiosis is so widespread within the natural world, how ought such discoveries impact the ways in which we conceptualize human nature as well as the nature of life itself? Consequently, we may venture to question whether, and or to what extent, recent work being conducted in the life sciences — particularly microbiological, ecological and evolutionary studies — can come to inform theological anthropology as well as our theologies of creation.

I raise this line of inquiry because the Greek Patristic theologian Maximus the Confessor seemed to hold a highly esteemed place for studies of the natural world within his theological writings, and even went as far as to claim “that by means of the visible [natural] world we should understand whence we came, what we are, for what purpose we were made and where we are going” (Maximus 1995, 147).  Does this mean that Christian theological anthropology ought to be drawing upon the aforementioned fields of natural science in its understanding of human nature and the meaning of created life itself? If so, this would imply an extremely important role for the study of science by theologians and may even help enable theology to develop ways of circumventing accusations of being a purely speculative discipline. Ultimately, this puzzle raises the question as to whether we can develop the foundations of an ecological approach to theology and understanding of the good life that is simultaneously compatible with contemporary science while still being deeply rooted in Patristic Christian thought?

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Science of Symbiosis

While in common parlance the term “symbiosis” is often used to imply ‘harmonious relations’, from a scientific perspective the matter becomes a bit more complex in that there are multiple types of symbiotic relationships that are often overlooked when the concept of symbiosis is unreflectively used as a synonym for harmony. Within the scientific literature, it is widely accepted amongst biologists and ecologists that symbiosis exists on three levels: the parasitic, in which one organism benefits at the expense of the other; the commensal, in which one organism benefits yet causes no harm to the other; and the mutualistic, in which all organisms involved benefit. While distinct, the commonality amongst all forms of symbiosis is that organismic life is inclusionary; or, in other words, that no organism is an island unto itself, so to speak. The philosopher of science Kent Peacock writes, “The central idea of symbiosis is that organisms live together in the sense that they include each other in their life cycles” (Peacock 2011, 224). In contemporary biological, ecological, and now even evolutionary science, symbiosis has been discovered to be more prevalent amongst living beings and organismic systems than previously expected; primarily thanks to the pioneering work of Lynn Margulis and those that followed in her footsteps. Process biologists, such as Kent Peacock and John Dupré, would argue that this is because the more mechanistic models of understanding biological functionality, which had been predominant in much of the earlier part of the twentieth century, were less equipped to fully detect the depth at which symbiotic relations run amongst all forms of life than are more recent processual and relational approaches to understanding biological and ecological systems (Dupré and Nicholson 2018). Commenting on the work that Margulis pioneered, Kent Peacock goes so far as to say that, “the very origin of life can be understood as a symbiotic process” (Peacock 2011, 226). If the origin of life itself is rooted in symbiotic relations, such discoveries become immensely important for how we conceptualize what it means to be natural creatures.

Given Margulis’s discovery and subsequent work, we are now aware that eukaryotic cells, which are the basis of all fungal, plant and animal life, evolved from a process of symbiotic cooperation “in which parasitic bacteria apparently became organelles of the cells they originally preyed upon” (Peacock 2011, 211). Eukaryotic cells themselves emerged from a process of transformation from a parasitic mode of existence to a commensalist form of interacting and finally to a mutualist form of symbiosis. Despite the fact that earlier observations of symbiosis had not detected organisms’ ability to shift from one form of symbiosis to another, what made Margulis’s work so seminal was not only the fact that it showed how integral symbiosis was in the origination of living systems but also that organisms are capable of altering the type of relationship they have with another by demonstrating the capability of changing the type of symbiotic relation they are currently engaged in, which proves that their modes of relationality are not inborn but are rather a result of their capacity to respond to their environmental circumstances as well as their ability to develop a basic awareness of the mode of living of the other organisms with whom they are symbiotically engaged.

This is highly significant for it counters any notion that an organism’s characteristics are pre-determined and is a finding that challenges deterministic forms of materialistic essentialism. Going even further, Margulis herself argues that it is not only the origins of life itself that symbiosis is responsible for, but that symbiosis is the phenomenon responsible for biological creativity, creaturely novelty, and organismic complexity. She writes, “At the base of creativity of all large familiar forms of life, symbiosis generates novelty… Symbiogenesis brings together unlike individuals to make larger, more complex entities” (Margulis 1998, 9). The philosopher of biology, Stephen Guttinger writes, “In the case of symbiotic systems, the property of having a power or capacity is not some intrinsic feature of preexisting entities, but a relational feature that comes about within the system of interest through the intersection of different processes” (Guttinger 2018, 313). These discoveries are profound because they indicate that inter-organismic relationality, as well as the capacity for the transformation of such modes of relating, reside at the ontological core of what it means for Life as we know it to possess existence.

Furthermore, recent discoveries indicating that symbiosis is widespread within the natural world offer us the rather profound ontological insight that symbiosis is something shared by all forms of life from the cellular to the organismic levels of existence. Even the personal, social and cultural lives of hominid, simian and other mammalian animal communities may be described in empirically accurate ways by using the terminology of the language of symbiosis. This implies that symbiotic relations run as deep as the cellular level and extend outward as far as the socio-cultural levels of life. An increasingly common view amongst scientific researchers is that the evolution of life on earth is a story of the emergence of increasingly complex forms of symbiotic relationality. (Margulis 1998). As the entomologist Angela Douglas claims, “Symbioses are biologically important because they are widespread and dominate the biota of many habitats” (Douglas 2010, 1). Yet, it is not simply the pervasiveness of symbiosis that ought to be of ontological and anthropological interest to us. As Douglas goes on to note, “The prevalence of symbioses is not, however, the only reason why symbioses should be important to biologists. An additional reason is that symbiosis challenges two widely accepted tenets of biology: the universality of descent with modification in evolution, and the primacy of antagonism in interactions among organisms.” (Douglas 2010, 1). What all of this suggests is that prior assumptions that competitive self-interest is what drove evolution, and consequently what defined natural creatures, seems to have missed the mark and painted a picture of the natural world that was not completely accurate and which is now beginning to undergo radical revisions.

2.2 A Panentheistic and Relational Theology

I will be focusing on the work of Maximus the Confessor of Constantinople due to the fact that Maximus, writing in the seventh century, is a theologian who finds acceptance, if not reverence as a saint, in a number of branches of Christianity, namely: Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglican and some Protestant denominations. Further, Maximus has been an extremely authoritative figure in Eastern Christianity, and may be thought of as the “Augustine of the East”, in the sense that his works are highly influential in Orthodox Christian theological circles, in much the same way that Augustine has been within Catholic and Protestant theological circles.

In accord with the ancient Greek Patristic tradition of Christian theology to which he belonged, Maximus maintained a triune conception of God, in which divinity is understood to be a relationality amongst distinct hypostases. While such descriptions are commonplace amongst Christian authors, we must keep in mind that for Maximus the concept of the “Trinity” itself is a conundrum intended to initiate its ponderer into a proper mode of contemplating the utterly mysterious nature of the divine. Commenting on Maximus, Hans Urs Von Balthasar claims that we may “think of God’s unity as a ‘synthesis’ of threeness” (Von Balthasar 1988, 105), or in other words: as unified singularity which is itself a synthesis of plurality. Further, this triune divinity is believed to eternally exist in such a manner as to be the omnipresent source of all that exists in the cosmos as well as the vivifying force responsible for the creation and sustained continuation of life itself. Maximus, like other Greek Patristic Christian theologians writing during late antiquity, asserts a form of panentheism, whereby divine principles and energies are believed to have given rise to, as well as inhere within, all existent beings and entities. Maximus’ Orthodox Christian theology may be described as panentheistic insofar as he believed that God is within all things, yet unlike pantheistic theologies (which believe that everything is divine), Maximus’ Orthodox Christian panentheism maintains the position that the essence of the divine is distinct from the created natural world despite the fact that its energies are omnipresent in each and every existent. Hence, Maximus maintains the belief that this inherently relational divinity permeates all of creation, including all forms of biotic and abiotic existence in the cosmos. Maximus states,In His supreme goodness God has not only made the divine and incorporeal essences… He also permeates with echoes of His majesty things that are sensory…” (Maximus 1995, 208). Given Maximus’ Orthodox Christian commitment to the immutability of God, his version of panentheism differs not only from forms of pantheism but from some contemporary versions of panentheism as well; most notably, the panentheism of contemporary process theologians (Cobb 1971; Birch 1990) that tend to claim that God may be essentially affected by human actions. As the Orthodox theologian Andrew Louth explains, the Orthodox Christian formulation of panentheism differs “from some modern forms of panentheism in that there is no sense in which God may be affected by the cosmos itself” (Louth 2004, 184). Ultimately, while possessing some similarities with other panentheistic theologies, Orthodox Christian panentheism fervently maintains both the immutability and the transcendence of the Divine essence while simultaneously recognizing the immanence of the Divine presence in the world by recognizing a distinction between the essence and the energies of the Divine. Maximus writes in such a way that enables him to maintain the mysterious and immutable qualities of the Divine essence while simultaneously developing a line of thought in which the Divine’s immanence in the world is knowable by the human mind.

Indebted to, while simultaneously departing from, ancient Greek Stoicism, Maximus’s theological cosmology frequently invokes the concept of Logos-logoi, whereby Maximus offers a Christian reinterpretation of this Stoic idea. In natural creation we find images, or icons, of the divine essence that Maximus refers to as logoi. He postulates that it is not the essential Logos, in and of itself, that is to be found within the natural world, but rather that Its dynamic force is immanently embedded within all that exists in the form of ordering principles (logoi) that, together with divine vital energies (pneuma), are responsible for the perpetual regeneration of life and continuance of existence of all beings. These logoi, which are always accompanied by the vital pneumatic energies, are continually emanating from the Logos and reflect its order and existence and imbue beings — be they biotic or abiotic — with their vitality and, or, subsistence. These logoi, and the pneuma that is inseparable from them, can be found within all species, including humans, and even within abiotic forms of existence. Discussing Maximus’ understanding of “the principle of the integrity of nature”, the philosopher of religion Torstein Tollefsen writes,

Maximus clearly shows how each particular being has properties that constitute it in its own distinctive character in addition to properties it has in common with other beings of the same species. On the next level, species differ, but have common properties with other species within their class (genus). There is, in other words, differentiation and unity throughout the whole system of the created world, and beings preserve their natural identity in their logos (λόγος), while at the same time are made such that they (should) coexist, not only ontologically or as a taxonomic system, but in mutual harmony. (Tollefsen 2019, 224)

Consequently, within Maximus’ writings we find a form of logos-pneuma extending beyond the human realm of existence that, in its theo-ontological foundation, is a mutually reciprocal and dynamically relational unity-in-distinction. This triune panentheism implies that it is dynamic cooperative relationality that lays at the foundation of life and cosmic existence itself.

Maximus’ ontological understanding of the natural world is not only permeated by logoi, but is essentially defined by the relations between the Logos and logoi as well as the relations of the logoi with one another. For Maximus, the pneumatically accompanied logoi are the creative energies, vital powers and ordering principles that inhere within all living and existent beings. According to Maximus, all beings owe their existence to the triune divinity and that it is through the divine Logos that they beget their pneumatically infused logoi that define their existence and imbue them with their vitality as living creatures — be they humans, wolves, birds, fish or plants; or whether they are bacteria, amoebas, or the variety of cellularly constituted organs that the aforementioned animals are comprised. Thus, we can come to recognize that within all biological beings and ecological systems there exists dynamic energies as well as structural and functional design and order, that are inherently relational and whose very ontological composition is indebted to the relational nature of a divinity that is Itself a unity-in-distinction and a singularity-in-plurality that is the source of the continual processes of life regeneratively begetting life as well as the perpetual reconstitution of these life-forms. As Maximus claimed, “The logoi may be recognized in the unremitting continuance of each individual species, the laws in the consistency of its natural activity” (Maximus 1995, 211).

Maximus, along with many of his predecessors such as Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, and John of Damascus, readily drew upon and engaged with the contemporary science of their era. While seemingly speculative, and certainly metaphysical in nature, the theology of creation developed by Maximus, as well as many of his Patristic forerunners, took the science of their times very seriously and was anything but dismissive of scientific claims — as sadly, many religiously affiliated people are today. Hence, while some during the early modern period may have wished to write off their views as antiquated, due to the fact that the scientific data they had engaged with had subsequently been disproved or is now considered outdated due to the adoption of newer, and more accurate, scientific models, what this indicates is that these foundational Patristic thinkers held science in high regard and believed it necessary to engage in the most respected scientific studies of their day. This implies that contemporary theologians seeking to draw on the authority of Patristic figures ought not simply attempt to quote or cite their views verbatim but ought to attempt to live and think as they did.

3. Discussion

Maximus was a thinker who in many ways was far ahead of his time. For instance, he argued that the cosmos is a macroanthropos, or a living being, and that the human anthropos is a microcosm of this living universe itself; believing that human beings are each a “micro-cosmos” comprised of multiple layers and levels of life and that both our planet, and the larger cosmos, are similarly constituted and hence may be thought of as macroscopic anthropoi of sorts. While there might have been a time when Maximus’ ideas appeared to be far-fetched and outlandish, from a contemporary perspective his views seem to be well-suited for dialogue with work in micro-biology that has shown that each person is in fact a sort of micro-level world constituted by a number of other living beings and systems, as well as work in earth systems science that continues to provide evidentiary support for the idea that the planet earth is a single organism.

Without getting off track from the main scientific theme of our discussion thus far: namely, symbiosis; suffice it to say that in Maximus’ writings we find insights that arguably foreshadow a number of ideas that are currently being advanced within the natural sciences or by contemporary philosophers of biology; such as: (a) the notion that the biosphere is a living organism, advanced by James Lovelock (1988, 2000) as well as by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan (1995), and which are now presently accepted within the increasingly mainstream field of earth systems science; (b) the notion that we as humans have much to learn from the wisdom of nature, advocated by Janine Beynus (2002) and others working within the interdisciplinary scientific field of biomimicry; and, (c) that in order to understand who we are as natural creatures we must empirically study the natural world as a means of better enabling us to understand human nature itself, that is found within the evolutionary sciences. In short, the overarching question of this discussion section is: can we develop the foundations of an ecological approach to theology and understanding of the good life that is simultaneously compatible with contemporary science while still being deeply rooted in Patristic Christianity?

3.1 Theologically Engaging the Science of Symbiosis

Lynn Margulis makes a claim that resonates surprisingly well with Maximus’ belief that the divine is constantly “providentially permeating all this with His Power” (Maximus 2018, 127) when she claims that that everything that occurs within the created natural order is purposeful, writing, “It [symbiosis] brings together different life-forms, always for a reason” (Margulis 1998, 9). In his discussion of how “The principles of beings are invisible in themselves, yet are ‘clearly visible in the things that are made,’ when, that is, they are seen with the eyes of the intellect” (Maximus 2018, 123), Maximus says it “is His providence that holds beings together” (Maximus 2018, 123). In this case, rather than thinking of providence as some sort of predetermination that would somehow prevent or annihilate spontaneity in the natural world, we might say that the processes of life-formation tend to always serve a purpose — even if we happen to be unaware of, or perplexed as to the nature of, that larger purpose in the present moment — we can come to understand providence as symbiosis’ ‘reason’ for bringing together different lifeforms.

Although symbiosis is a biological phenomenon that is verifiable through scientific methods, once we pause to philosophically reflect upon the meaning of symbiosis itself we quickly come to the realization that there is something deeply existential about the idea that different species play integral roles in one another’s life cycles. With such insight, ought we not entertain the idea that we might be able to acquire a better understanding of who we are and how we ought to live from philosophical and theological reflections upon the discoveries of the natural sciences?  Further, could it also be the case that the insights of Patristic theologians as well as core beliefs, such as the relational ontology implicit in the doctrine of the Trinity, may actually be affirmed rather than challenged by the discoveries being made in the life sciences?

As philosopher of biology Stephan Guttinger says, “The symbiosis example shows that collaboration is at the core of what defines living systems” (Guttinger 2018, 311). What does this mean for who we are as bio-physiologically embodied beings? If the core feature of the Christian conception of the divine may be said to be the Trinity, and that the divine is the ground-of-being, or the foundation of existence in-and-of-itself, this implies that a relational and cooperative unity of distinct hypostases is what gave rise to, orders, and defines Existence and the very essence of Life. What the contemporary science of symbiosis suggests is that the idea that a relational and cooperative unity of distinct forms of being is indeed what defines the origins and nature of Life on planet earth. Theologians ought to take note of such recent discoveries taking place within the biological and ecological sciences, as well as the implications of such discoveries for theories of evolution, because they may in fact confirm the basic insight that the Patristic Christians had when they insisted that divinity must be an omnipresent cooperative-unity-in-plurality that is responsible for the vivification of life on earth as well as the ordering principle operative, and which we are capable of perceiving, within the natural bio-physiological world; which in turn ought to serve as a source of moral and ontological wisdom.

According to the widely accepted theory of symbiogenesis, we now know that, on a cellular level, that which gave rise to Life itself was a symbiotic and relational process that was able to undergo a transformative course of development by which an initially parasitic mode of existence developed into a mutualistic one over time as the relation between the organisms grew in complexity and duration. When analyzing humanity’s relationship with the natural world, especially in its current ecologically disastrous state, we may regrettably venture to say that it has been, or has become, rather parasitic. Have we fallen backwards? By this I mean: rather than attempting to correct our natural humanly imperfections and strive toward moral excellence, have we instead embraced our fallen state? Have we come to the point where we so thoroughly accept our fallibility that we no longer seek to improve ourselves as persons, communities and as a civilization? Reflecting on the ways in which, in modernity, I believe it is safe to say that we have come to overemphasize the roles of self-interest and competition in nature, and as a result have also come to glorify competitive self-interest in our socio-economic and socio-political lives. Our modern lifestyles, founded upon the vices of arrogant pride, avarice, and gluttony are proving to be deleterious to the ecological well-being, and even the continued survival, of both humanity and nature. Hence, can we say that by leading lives aimed toward vice instead of virtue, we are living sinfully and thereby, in a manner of speaking, have truly brought creation down with us?

If humanity’s “fall” is construed not deontologically, as-the-breaking-of-a-command, but is rather viewed through the lens of sin as amartia, or our ability to ‘miss the mark’ and make mistakes as fallible creatures, our fallen state may be understood as the inherent fallibility of human nature. Given what we now know about the nature of symbiosis, it seems imperative to ask: has it been our failure to live symbiotically — in at least a commensal if not mutualistic manner — with other living creatures and the living planet as a whole that lays at the heart of our current climate crisis?

If viewed and interpreted from an ecological perspective, humanity’s fallen state may be interpreted as humanity’s inherent fallibility and consequent failure to live in mutualistic symbiosis with other living beings. Rather than strive for a mutually beneficial symbiotic relationship with other lifeforms, humanity, especially in recent years, tends to reap of that which is limited and finite and thereby has caused gravely detrimental consequences for life on planet earth. If all biological life emerged from a parasitic origin and progressed toward more cooperative and mutually reciprocal forms of coexistence, as a species capable of understanding our ecological, existential, and ethical realities, should we not be seeking to fulfill our potential to move beyond our current egoistic and destructive form of parasitic symbiosis with the biosphere and transfigure our mode of being to one that is more mutualistic? While such a transition may not be achievable overnight, and may indeed be a transitory process, given the devastation we are, and have been, wrecking upon the earth, must we not at least attempt to climb the steps of commensalism toward mutualism as rapidly as possible?

3.2 Symbiosis and an Eco-Theological Approach to the Good Life

Maximus spoke of the “cosmic liturgy” as a way of describing the workings of the divine in the natural order of existence, constantly being performed within the workings of natural creation by its divine author. Not surprisingly, many contemporary theologians working with Maximus’ ideas are especially drawn to his notion of the “cosmic liturgy,” with the hierarch of the Greek Orthodox Church going so far as to describe symbiosis itself as part and parcel of the cosmic liturgy. Drawing upon the wisdom and insight of Maximus the Confessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople has said that, “The entire universe participates in a celebration of life, which St. Maximos the Confessor described as a ‘cosmic liturgy.’ We see this cosmic liturgy in the symbiosis of life’s rich biological complexities” (Bartholomew 1997). The notion of “cosmic liturgy” as a descriptor of symbiosis is significant because the concept of liturgy plays a central role in Orthodox Christian theology. As David Brashaw notes, “Maximus sees the liturgy of the Church as preeminently manifesting the logoi of beings” (Bradshaw 2013, 18). It is noteworthy to briefly mention some of the conceptual implications of the etymology of these terms. The Greek word for “church” is ekklesia, which etymologically means “an assembly,” or “gathering together,” and the term “liturgy” is derived from the Greek word leiturgia, which means “public work,” and which conveys a sense of working to create something that serves the common good. Given such a hermeneutic, when attempting to conceptualize liturgy in a cosmic sense, could we say that to conceptualize the cosmos itself as being liturgical is to recognize the myriad ways in which the workings of the various beings and systems of the natural world — themselves highly complex organismic assemblages — are continually active in the perpetuation of life and whose dynamic activity contribute to that which is good for human life? And, going one step further, could we not then argue that if we are indeed capable of knowing that which is necessary and good for all lifeforms to persist and flourish through our scientific studies of the natural world, would we not be remiss if we failed into incorporate such newly found wisdom into our theological understandings of the good and virtuous life? Given Maximus’ aforementioned claim that it is through observing and contemplating the natural world that we, as human beings, are to acquire an understanding of our origins, our ontology, and our teleology as a species, I believe it is apropos to ask: can recent discoveries of the pervasiveness of mutualistic forms of symbiosis (in which both organisms benefit from their shared life together in a physical system) within bio-physiological and ecological systems provide us with a deeper understanding of humanity’s purpose as a species?

For theologians who are engaged in studying the life sciences, especially those acknowledging the authority of Maximus’ Patristic perspective, can Maximus’ idea of the cosmic liturgy come to bear upon the ways in which we understand ecological ethics? Can we view this as an opportunity to more deeply reflect upon the ways in which our daily activities and patterns of behavior can themselves become public works that serve the well-being and flourishing of all of God’s creation? Within the ecclesiastic liturgical services of the Orthodox Christian tradition the eucharist is the central event. As a term “eucharist” is derived from the Greek word eucharistia, meaning gratitude or gratefulness. Add to this the fact that Orthodox alters and icons abound within images of the natural world as well as the fact that numerous Orthodox Christian saints, many of whom practiced either pescatarianism or vegetarianism, have been said to have befriended animals, and the ancient roots of an ecological theology come into view. Is it possible that by recognizing how integral a role symbiosis plays in the very existence and continuation of Life itself, we can come to a greater appreciation of the roles played by cooperation and mutual reciprocity in the patterns of flourishing we observe within the natural world and allow this knowledge to influence our understandings of moral life? To this end, we might argue that when reflecting on humanity’s participation in this “cosmic liturgy,” we ought to be grateful for the numerous ecosystem services, such as the provision of nourishment and medicine, energy sources, carbon-capture, flood protection, and climate regulation that the natural world provides for us and seek to reciprocate such gifts by cultivating more ecologically sustainable lifestyles.

Due to the fact that in Genesis 1:28 humans are told to “Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth” and are given the task of benevolently “reigning over”, or tending to, the natural world to ensure that it continues “to abound and teem” with life as it first did when it was described as being “good”, some Orthodox Christian theologians have gone so far as to express an understanding of humanity’s special role as residing not in humanity’s rational and technological mastery over the natural world, but as being called to become “priests of Creation” (Zizioulas 2006), who are tasked with the responsibility of ensuring the health and well-being of our living earthly home. If it is God whom performs the “cosmic liturgy”, could it be the case that as “priests of creation” human beings have a responsibility to perform a sort of ‘ecological liturgy,’ whereby they work to ensure that their actions and behaviors live up to the standard of mutualistic symbiosis as they seek to contribute to, rather than hinder, the regenerative vitality of their earthly home?

4. Conclusion

In conclusion, this puzzle has suggested that microbiological, ecological and evolutionary studies of mutualistic symbiosis, in which both organisms benefit from their shared life together in a physical system, may be able to inform humanity’s understanding of its purpose as a species as well as the ways in which we conceptualize what it means to pursue the “good life” within our biospheric home; or, oikos. Consequently, this would entail a conceptual departure from traditional notions of the good life in both moral philosophy and theology, and would require the development a new conceptual paradigm in which the good life is understood to entail the mutual flourishing of both anthropic and non-anthropic lifeforms on both individual and communal levels. Furthermore, given Maximus’ theology of nature as well as what we are learning from the natural sciences, it seems that this novel paradigm must also acknowledge that humans may not only be able to acquire ontological knowledge from scientific study but may also be able to discern ethical wisdom through studying different modes of flourishing found within ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. This would entail a radical reconceptualization of the traditional natural law morality from one which privileges rational speculation into one which incorporates empirical science, contemplative meditation, as well as creative moral imagination into its matrix. By recognizing the value and wisdom inherent within, as well as our co-dependency with, the natural world, the development of such a novel paradigm may help enable humanity to cultivate a stronger sense of responsibility for the flourishing of our shared planetary home that is our biosphere and hence, may serve as the basis of a more ecological understanding of the Christin agapê ethic. This will involve going beyond the traditional Christian ideal of philanthropia to extend the notion of loving the other to apply to other lifeforms and may very well require incorporating ideas, such as E.O. Wilson’s idea of biophilia (Wilson 1984), into our moral purview.


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Cite this article

Durante, Chris. 2022. “Can the Science of Symbiosis Come to Inform Theological Ethics?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 9).

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Chris Durante
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