The inner life of a cell is a world in its own right. Its inhabitants include the nucleus, mitochondria, endoplasmic reticulum, Golgi apparatus, lysosomes, peroxisomes, cytoskeleton, ribosomes, cell membrane, vacuoles, chloroplasts (in plants), centrioles, nucleolus, and microfilaments. These component parts have characteristics of their own but simultaneously work together in incredibly complex ways. And, like everything else, they are in process with creativity of their own. They look very different from us. They are aliens, albeit within us not outside us. We need not look up into the heavens in search of alien life, we can also gaze down into living cells. Microscopes can be our guide.
And if we are theological adventurous, we might also explore the possibility that the very soul of the universe, God, is made in the image of a cell. Or the other way around, if you prefer. Maybe God is the inclusive whole, with subjectivity of God's own, in which the universe lives and moves and has its being. Maybe as mitochondria are to cells, we are to God. Maybe God is the not a thing but rather a living Cell, with mind-like properties, and no boundaries such that, from God's perspective, there is much that is beautiful, unique, and different, but there are no aliens.
- Jay McDaniel
The Inner Life of the Cell: Animation and Explanation
Imagining a Cell, Imagining God
We seek metaphors to understand the cell as a whole. It can be compared to (1) a factory composed of machines, (2) an ecosystem inhabited by many different organisms, (3) a computer composed of electrical networks, and (4) a living organism which, while composed of many parts, has a life of its own. In all of these metaphors the cell has agency as do its component parts. It is a whole which acts, and it is composed of parts which also act. In the first three metaphors the cell is a whole without subjective unity of its own: that is, a whole lacking a seat of awareness. In the fourth. the cell as living organism, the cell is a living or self-organizing whole with a perspective of its own: a life within which other lives unfold. In this sense it is like God. The cell is made in God's image.
Process theologians speak of the living presence of God as luring each creature toward its well-being and toward the overall good of the universe as a whole. This lure is not external to the entity at issue; it is internal to the entity as an inwardly felt reality. This is true of people and other animals. It follows, however, that the entities in the world of a cell - nuclei, mitochondria, cell membranes, cytoskeletons - are likewise recipients of the divine lure, as is the cell as a whole. This does not mean that they are controlled by God. They have agency of their own. And yet they are empowered and guided by God in some way.
It also follows that all the organelles in the world of a cell are felt by God as part of God's own internal makeup and becoming. Their internal states, whatever they are, shared by God. Indeed, once they occur, the states become part of God's own ongoing life.
And who is the God of whose life they become a part? One possibility is to imagine God on the analogy of a living cell whose internal components are everything that happens in the universe at any level: microscopic, galactic, and anywhere in between. God can be imagined on the analogy of any the metaphors above: a factory, an ecosystem, a network, or a living organism. Open and relational theologians will prefer the latter.
They think of God as having a life of God's own, albeit affected by and guiding all other lives. What the cellular metaphor adds is that the other lives happen inside God's own life. They are part of God's inner life. Thus we can speak of the inner life of cells and also the inner life of God, woven together like a cell with its organelles. The rest of this page explores these possibilities further.
- Jay McDaniel
God as Living Whole
The Whole of the Universe: God is the entirety of the universe, much like a living cell encompasses its internal components. Just as a cell is the whole in which organelles reside and interact, God is the living whole of the universe, embracing and encompassing all entities within it.
Independent Agency: In a cell, organelles possess individual agency, distinct from one another. Similarly, all entities in the universe, regardless of their scale or complexity, possess independent agency. This agency allows for the diverse expressions and interactions found throughout creation.
Interconnectedness: Organelles within a cell are profoundly interconnected, with their activities intricately linked to one another. Similarly, entities across the universe are interconnected, influencing and impacting one another in ways that shape the unfolding of cosmic events.
Potential for Dysfunction: Organelles within a cell can malfunction, leading to imbalances or harm within the cell itself. Similarly, entities in the universe can exhibit disruptive behaviors, leading to disharmony and imbalance within the cosmic order.
Divine Agency: Just as a living cell as a whole possesses agency independent of its organelles, God's agency transcends the agency of individual entities within the universe. God's agency involves coordinating and harmonizing the diverse expressions of agency within creation, aiming for the highest possibilities of love, beauty, and order.
Boundless Presence: Unlike a living cell's separation from other cells through a membrane, God's presence permeates the entire universe without any separation or boundary. God is intimately intertwined with every aspect of existence, immanent in every particle and expansive in cosmic proportions.
Love and Empathy: While a living cell may not display love for its organelles, we can conceive of God as a loving presence, caring for all entities in the world with tender compassion. God can be envisioned as experiencing the joys and sufferings of all beings, offering solace and understanding. The value of this metaphor is that it invites contemplation of interconnectedness, independent agency, potential disharmony, and the loving presence of God, fostering a holistic perspective on the nature of existence.
- Jay McDaniel
Good morning, friends. Today, I stand before you as a biologist not a theologian. I won't be referring to scripture except in one instance: the Book of Job, where Job's questioning of God's presence in the face of suffering leads to a deeper understanding of the intricate tapestry of creation. In that story, God points Job towards the wonders of the natural world, including the majestic animals such as the behemoth, the lion, the leviathan, and the eagle, to remind Job that he (Job) is not the center of creation. Today, I invite you to join me in discovering another source of wonder and inspiration—the hidden world within living cells. They, too, remind us that we are not at the center of things. .
When we gaze up into the night sky, we contemplate the vastness of the cosmos and our place within it. Yet, beneath our very noses lies a realm equally awe-inspiring and wondrous—the microscopic world within living cells. Within these cells, there exists a vibrant and complex ecosystem composed of nuclei, mitochondria, cell membranes, cytoskeletons, and countless other components. These entities work together, performing specialized functions, maintaining structures, and supporting the overall functioning of the cells. We often overlook the fact that within each cell lies an entire world, teeming with organisms and processes vastly different from our own. These cells possess their own powers, their own existence, and, perhaps, their own perspectives.
For my part, as a microbiologist, I imagine God on the analogy of a living cell, except in God's case there is no outer membrane. Just as a cell is a living whole made up of organelles, so God is a living whole composed of stars, planets, galaxies, atoms, molecules, and living beings. In this perspective, we come to realize that we live, move, and have our being inside the inner life of God, much like organelles within a cell. Furthermore, if we contemplate the idea that a living cell possesses its own unique perspective, we can conceive of God as having an inclusive perspective—an understanding of how all parts of creation work together and a desire to coordinate their intricate workings. In this framework, we can address other living beings as "you," recognizing their individual significance, and we can address the Sacred Whole as "You" as well.
This understanding of the Sacred Whole leads us to acknowledge that God, who encompasses the entire universe, is not in complete control of every aspect of creation. Instead, God is profoundly affected by everything that occurs within this intricate tapestry of existence. In a similar way to a cell feeling the actions and reactions of its organelles, God empathetically experiences the joys, sorrows, and struggles of each and every entity within the cosmos.
Contemplating the complexities of our world, we recognize that the creative power of entities in the universe is not a passive gift but unfolds through their choices and actions. Even at the microscopic level, there is agency. While these choices and actions may not be conscious, they are nonetheless significant. It is through these non-conscious decisions that mutations arise, shaping the course of life. These choices give rise to both goodness and tragedy, health and disease. And in the midst of it all, the Sacred Whole, feels the ebb and flow of these occurrences, intimately connected to the collective experiences of creation.
These reflections give rise to spiritual sensibilities that expand our understanding of the world. We realize that the human world is but one among many, and that other worlds are as significant to themselves as our own. The "smaller" worlds within cells are filled with complexity and beauty, operating independently of us. We gain a sense of relativity, understanding that what may seem "small" to one organism appears "large" to another, and what appears "large" to that other may be "small" to others. Like Job, we come to know that there is more to life than our own suffering.
As we embark on this journey of exploration, let us embrace the humility that comes from recognizing the intricate tapestry of existence. If we are so inclined, let us marvel at the beauty and complexity of the inner lives of cells and extend our reverence for life to all beings. May we strive to live in harmony with the interconnectedness of creation, cultivating a deep sense of empathy and compassion for all who share this wondrous universe with us, including our kindred creatures, the living cells, all within the Sacred Whole.
Addendum: Let a Thousand Metaphors Bloom
Sometimes it's hard to explain to people that, when you speak of God, you're not talking about a bully in the sky but rather a Life in which the universe unfolds. You're a pan-en-theist. The idea of God as a living Cell can help. Here are some other metaphors that can also help. All make sense from a process-relational perspective. Combine them if helpful and add your own. Click here for more on each.