Neither Bacterium nor Virus

A Case Against Dualism

I’ve been thinking a lot about our need to create and police arbitrary boundaries.

We think we’re pretty clever. We analyze, dissect, and compare everything. We compartmentalize things based on the characteristics that we can see. For us, everything must fit into its taxonomy.

But, it’s really not that simple.

The categories we create are blurry and flawed. Nothing perfectly fits into any one category. Sure, we can look at a microbe and clearly see that it isn’t an elephant. The differences are easy to see and we use them to define what it means to be either organism.

But, what happens when we are comparing organisms that are more alike?

In Christ There is Neither Bacterium nor Virus

Until 1992 it was generally agreed that we had a rock solid understanding of the differences between a virus and a bacterium. We knew what defined each of them. We knew that both were small, but a virus was quite a bit smaller than a bacterium. Beyond that, viruses were typically a piece of DNA with a protein shell and bacteria were more complex, having more genes and characteristics that we associate more readily with “life”. Scientists argued whether viruses could be considered alive in any meaningful sense. Their different sizes and biology helped classify them into their respective categories.

The differences between the two were easily distinguishable.

Then that all changed. Scientists discovered something new during routine research in a hospital water tower. Among the bacteria they expected to find, they also found a bacterium that couldn’t be identified. They named it Bradford (for the region in which it was found) Coccus (because of its round shape).

They quickly realized this new germ was different though. As much as they tried, they could not get it to replicate like “normal” bacteria. It wouldn’t eat anything and generally didn’t behave as they expected. It was a very strange bacterium indeed.

Then, it was sent to France for more scientists to look at it, and they confirmed that it was indeed very peculiar. They agreed that it looked like a virus, except it was massive. This was puzzling because viruses weren’t supposed to be that big. The other scientists also found that this organism contained a large number of genes, unlike any other virus that they knew about. This organism blurred the lines between the categories. It was very inconvenient.

So, they spent some time getting to know this big strange creature. They eventually found out how it replicated by placing it inside an amoeba. It replicated itself in the amoeba until the amoeba’s shell could no longer contain anymore and exploded.

It was a virus. They renamed it “mimivirus”.

This virus had escaped detection for as long as we have had microscopes, hiding in plain sight. How did that happen? It was a curious thing for these scientists so, naturally, they went looking for more. Since this big virus was found in that water tower in England they decided to check a water tower in France. What they found there must have shocked them: another more complex virus that looked like a bacterium, this time larger in size and with even more genes than the mimivirus.

Scientists started finding them everywhere. This wasn’t an anomaly, this was normal.

So, what now? What do we do when our categories no longer fit?

We draw more lines to make more categories, of course. We use subjective differences to create objective boundaries that will never fully articulate the complexity of life. Try as we might, our divisions will always be blurry.

In Christ There is Neither Red nor Orange

Think of the visible light spectrum. It starts with red, morphs into orange, then yellow, green, blue, and finally, violet. If I were to quiz my 3-year-old son on the major colors he would ace it. He knows the difference between blue and yellow because they are far enough apart on the spectrum that the differences are obvious. But, what would happen if I quizzed him on two similar shades on the gradient between red and orange? What if I asked him about every shade between the two? At which shade would he be completely certain that it has stopped being “red” and was now “orange”?

The labels that we use to define things are useful but ultimately subjective and entirely fictional. Labels like “red” or “orange” are used simply to give us a coarse understanding of what the speaker is trying to say. We then need to be able to explain what we actually mean when we say those words. We need a finer resolution that describes what we mean when we say “red”. Do we mean to say a light, soft red (pink) or a crimson red? “Red” might not be enough.

There aren’t enough adjectives in the English language. It is impossible to exactly describe all of the shades that exist between the boundaries that we have built.

In Christ there is Neither Pentecostal nor Presbyterian

What do we mean when we say Presbyterian or Pentecostal? While we are aware that there are certain theological elements understood by the term, it never gives us the full picture. Most church people will be able to tell the difference between a Pentecostal church and a Presbyterian church but things get trickier when we consider the diversity found within each movement. When we say “Presbyterian” do we mean Presbyterian Church (USA) or do we mean Presbyterian Church in America? The difference between the two organizations is significant enough that a refined definition will always be more helpful. Presbyterian is not a good enough descriptor on its own.

These broad definitions exist everywhere. If you look for it, dualism is ubiquitous: theology, taxonomy, genres, physical traits, personalities, etc. Each of these is a large group that encompasses a large spectrum of small differences. How many insignificant differences need to add up before they become significant and we draw another line?

The divisions that we make are imperfect. This is why there will always be a debate about where to make those divisions. We should embrace that ambiguity. In the end, ideas like species taxonomy and denominational boundaries are just constructs we have created based on broad differences, and fall apart when scrutinized.

Like the example of the microbe and the elephant, we can easily tell the difference between Christianity and Buddhism but the lines become blurrier when we look at items that are closer together on the spectrum.

How many small differences need to exist for Protestants and Catholics to admit they worship a different God? How many secondary doctrines can be changed before charismatics and cessationists admit that they serve a different God? If there isn’t a clear line between different “breeds” of Christians then how can we be certain where the lines exist between conservative/liberal, Protestant/Roman Catholic, or even Christian/Jew?

The implications of dualism affect everything. We need to have a good talk on the boundaries that we have imposed on theist/nontheist, female/male, Christian/Non-Christian, good/evil, sin/virtue, sacred/secular and many others. A case can be made that these distinctions should exist, and clearly, they can be helpful but maybe we should be aware that they aren’t absolute in any meaningful sense.

The divisions that I just spent 1,300 words arguing against will always exist. I don’t deny that. In many ways, they are the only way that our brains can make sense of the world. My point is that if we are open to the fact that categories, divisions, and borders are just generalizations then we will understand that much of life is lived in the gray areas. If we can realize that almost nothing fits perfectly in our boxes then we will position ourselves to better comprehend complex ideas and, most of all, the lived experiences of other people. Being aware of dualism allows us to find new ways to show empathy to those that are foreign to us.