Part 3, The Language of Biology, Chapter 8: Spleens, Strains, and Autoimmunity
By Andy Walsh
We are blogging through the book, “Faith Across the Multiverse, Parables from Modern Science” by Andy Walsh. Today is Chapter 8: Spleens, Strains, and Autoimmunity. Walsh begins this chapter talking about the relationships between the main Justice League members; Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. As a boy, Bruce Wayne had everything; devoted parents, a bright future, and enough wealth to make that dream a reality. In an instant his family and future were taken from him. And so was born Batman, a vigilante determined to prevent criminals from doing that to anyone else. But in that same moment was born a deep suspicion; that almost made it impossible for him to trust anyone else. This doubt will eat away at Batman’s relationships, even with fellow superheroes, driving him to plan ways to take down even his closest allies should the need arise.
As an infant, Superman had nothing except the rocket ship that carried him to Earth from his doomed planet Krypton. On Earth he would be taken in by the Kent’s and raised as their son, Clark. The sacrifices of both his Kryptonian birth parents and adoptive Earth parents taught Clark to view others selflessly and optimistically. He strives for justice, not to spare anyone his fate, but to give as many people as possible the same opportunities he had.
The dynamic between Batman and Superman is already rich with story potential. Adding Wonder Woman as a bridge between the two adds even deeper levels. Like Bruce Wayne, Princess Diana was a child of privilege, wanting for nothing in her youth. Yet she set it all aside to become an immigrant like Clark Kent, living in a world not her own because it needs her. Having grown up in a female-only paradise, she might have exceeded Batman in distrust of men. Instead, she chooses love and truth over fear and hate and so brings out the best in her teammates.
So in further developing the body analogy of 1 Corinthians 12, guardians of humanity like the Justice League have natural parallels to the immune system. Our immune system is supposed to protect us from threats. Pathogens like viruses and bacteria are threats from without that the immune system is programmed to respond to and neutralize. The pathogens are analogous to destructive ideas and attitudes that invade the body of Christ and destroys the bonds of unity and love that are supposed to be the main indicator of how the world is to know the church are Jesus’ followers. The Justice League/immune system are the faithful followers, whether leaders or elders or simply anyone, who “…with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; (who are) endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Ephesians 4:2-3).
But what happens when the immune system itself is out of order? When Batman and Superman are fighting each other. Immune system disorders cause abnormal activity in the immune system. In cases of immune system overactivity, the body attacks and damages its own tissues. These conditions are called autoimmune diseases. Examples of autoimmune diseases include:
- Rheumatoid arthritis. The immune system produces antibodies that attach to the linings of joints. Immune system cells then attack the joints, causing inflammation, swelling, and pain. If untreated, rheumatoid arthritis causes gradually causes permanent joint damage
- Systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). People with lupus develop autoimmune antibodies that can attach to tissues throughout the body. The joints, lungs, blood cells, nerves, and kidneys are commonly affected in lupus.
- Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD). The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines, causing episodes of diarrhea, rectal bleeding, urgent bowel movements, abdominal pain, fever, and weight loss. Ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease are the two major forms of IBD. Oral and injected immune-suppressing medicines can treat IBD.
- Multiple sclerosis (MS). The immune system attacks nerve cells, causing symptoms that can include pain, blindness, weakness, poor coordination, and muscle spasms. Various medicines that suppress the immune system can be used to treat multiple sclerosis.
- Type 1 diabetes mellitus. Immune system antibodies attack and destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. By young adulthood, people with type 1 diabetes require insulin injections to survive.
- Guillain-Barre syndrome. The immune system attacks the nerves controlling muscles in the legs and sometimes the arms and upper body. Weakness results, which can sometimes be severe.
What are the implications for the church from how the immune system works? For one, it suggests there is a role for the church to keep tabs on itself. We do need to make sure that what we are teaching and how we are acting is consistent with the Bible, and if not, then we need to take the appropriate corrective measures. And no one is exempt from the need for that sort of review. Relatedly, it is also a picture of accountability and transparency. Each cell takes responsibility for making sure that other cells can see what it is doing. I suspect we can all think of actual situations where more oversight, transparency and accountability could have prevented the church from pursuing unhealthy goals.
I would clarify Walsh’s statement that we need to make sure that what we are teaching and how we are acting is consistent with the Bible, by stating it as consistent with how the Bible depicts Jesus acting. Dysfunctional churches and church leaders seem to always have their string of “proof texts” that justify, or excuse, their dysfunctional attitudes and actions. I think the analogy of an immune system turning on itself is an apt one. Paul’s warning to the Galatians is appropriate here:
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. (Galatians 5:13-15)
If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other, yep, that is a pretty good description of an immune system gone bad.