Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Lichen and Theology
distributed 3/9/18 - ©2018

I read an article in Scientific American about lichen. The surprising thing is what came next. I went immediately to the bookshelf, and looked up a passage from a book of environmental theology.

The almost identical notion of complex communities in both sources is shaking up the realms of science and theology. It is an elaboration of the five word idea that I set out two months ago as a guiding thought for 2018: "The world is inherently relational."

Beyond my pure sense of wonder and amazement at lichen (all right, I'll get it out of the way: "I've taken a likin' to lichen!"), I am excited and hopeful at emerging perspectives which help us look honestly and faithfully at God's creation.

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I'd like to give a short and clear definition of lichen, but my problem doing so is exactly the point. They don't fit into our tidy categories.

The Scientific American article (from June, 2017 -- which is not available on-line) calls them "those growths that look like little mosses or colored crusts stuck to trees and rocks everywhere."

Lichen are widespread and tough, surviving in places we'd consider inhospitable. My wonder quotient was ratcheted up by the news that a clump of lichen "survived for year and a half in space, fully exposed to cosmic radiation, ultraviolet irradiation and vacuum conditions."

In the 1860s, it was discovered that lichen are a partnership between a fungus and a alga. "The fungus apparently provided the structure for the lichen, and the alga provided food for the fungus via photosynthesis." That kind of partnership is call symbiosis. (For a quick introduction, see a three-minute video from the SciShowKids series, "Lichen: Two Living Things In One".)

It is hard to say if the fungus and alga can be called individual entities within that relationship. They co-evolve. The article says, "Natural selection happens on both scales simultaneously. Just as light is both a wave and a particle, the fungus and alga are both individuals and part of a whole." A lichen expert notes that they are "Self-assembling, self-replicating, generation after symbiotic generation."

The SciAm article was an interesting introduction to the hard-to-pin-down realm of lichen, and of some of the quirky people who are global experts. The researcher featured in the article, Trevor Goward, holds no scientific degrees, yet is widely published and has a richly detailed website, Ways of Enlichenment. But at its core, the article really isn't about lichen.

The article draws from the outsider perspective of that naturalist -- who happens to focus on lichen -- to develop a critique of modern biology's individualistic view. The case builds from details about lichen to broad question of how to live and act in the world. A few quotes:

Science over the past two centuries has largely viewed molecules, cells and species as individuals. Symbiosis challenges that notion.

"There are people getting degrees in biological sciences at the best universities in America today who don't know the names of anything outdoors, who have never studied anything larger than a cell," Foley notes.

Thinking of lichens as systems fits with a larger shift in biology from viewing the fundamental unit of life as the individual to that of communities or partnerships. "Whether it is the microbiome within the human body [see Eco-Justice Notes, 6/8/12] or trees interacting with fungal partners belowground or lichens ... we're seeing that networked relationships are more fundamental and persist longer within biological systems than individuals do," Haskell says.

Some of the most serious problems science is trying to solve today -- climate change, loss of biodiversity, food and water scarcity -- require big, integrated views from multiple perspectives. Stepping out of the lab and back into nature to observe how natural systems actually work is a critical first move.

The article ends with this paragraph, which strikes me as surprising in a science journal:

To Goward, lichens are the organisms that are most obviously about relationships. As such, they provide insights into all of life. "Lichens are my window," he says, "but it's the act of looking at the world that's the interesting thing." Systems only hold together in the long term if the parts consider themselves integral to the whole and if the whole protects the parts, as lichens do. "That's what's wrong with us," he says. "As individuals, we're not concerned with the whole."

I read that paragraph, and went immediately to the book, Making Peace with the Land: God's Call to Reconcile with Creation, by Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba. I quickly found a passage that had jumped out at me when I read the book last fall.

Following the apostle Paul's formulation, community means holding the needs, desires and joys of others such that my own needs, desires and enjoyments make no sense apart from the life we live together. Only then can people become the sort of community that functions like an organic body -- no member or part alone, but all working together to be a healthy whole.

The symbiotic relationship of fungus and alga struck me as a vivid expression of Wirzba's community view where individual needs make no sense apart from our lives together. And as SciAm notes of lichen, "As such, they provide insights into all of life."

Wirzba expands his point beyond human community. "Put in more theological terms, we have failed to appreciate that creation forms a vast and indescribably complex and organic whole. Humanity is only one member within this creation. It does not all exist for our exclusive benefit."

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I find hope in the shift -- happening in both biology and theology -- "from viewing the fundamental unit of life as the individual to that of communities or partnerships." From my perspective, it is when we recognize that "the world is inherently relational," and not primarily about individuals, that we see most clearly.

There is a shift happening, and we're at a point where we must make conscious choices about how we're going to see the world, about what paradigms will guide our thinking.

Goward said, "The lichen by its very nature exists at a portal, a doorway. If you look in one direction, it's an organism. If you look in the other direction, it's an ecosystem." So, too, we have to decide which way we're going to look with our theology, our economics, our even out thinking about issues like gun rights. If we look in one direction, we'll focus on individuals. If we look a different way, we'll place a priority on community and ecosystems.

If God's creation "forms a vast and indescribably complex and organic whole," then the individualistic perspective does not tell us the truth. As we stand in the doorway between contrasting views, may we turn toward the perspective of community and God's shalom.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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