Posted by: dacalu | 23 August 2022

Brief Advice for Science-Engaged Theology in Seminaries

A few thoughts on incorporating science into the core curriculum in seminaries based on my experience teaching and working with teachers from Science for Seminaries programs in the UK (with ECLAS) and US (with DoSER). This is an edited version of a talk I gave to seminary instructors.

Science and theology are not abstract endeavors, pursued only by experts. They are ways we reason carefully about our surroundings, both physical and personal. Everyone reasons about nature. Everyone reasons about what is important, how we fit, and what we should do. And yet, somehow, we have become scared to think critically and communally about these things.

People expect priests and pastors to help them in this. And we, in turn are responsible for training the priests and pastors. It is an honor and a responsibility. Information is part of the process, but the real work is empowering students for ministry. How does science inform perspectives, ethics, and actions? How can we become comfortable – as Christians – talking about discoveries and inventions that shape and re-shape the world around us?

Science-engaged theology is not different from day-to-day theology; it’s just a narrower set of topics and approaches. How do we use science to better understand creation, serve our neighbors, and love God?

The bigger task of formation makes it all a bit daunting. It also frees us. We can, and should, have patience with ourselves when we do not know or do not understand all the details. It gives us permission – indeed, requires us – to model humility, compassion, and curiosity as we approach any subject. God always has more to say. And so, we balance the things we know with the things we want to know, while we wait for the glory that has yet to be revealed. My goal for Science for Seminaries is to create spaces where students can learn to live in that difficult space joyfully.

Not everyone is asking the same questions.

Randall Munroe, famous for his engineering related comic, XKCD, put it this way. “But I’ve never seen the Icarus story as a lesson about the limitations of humans. I see it as a lesson about the limitations of wax as an adhesive.”[1] That’s a bit of a joke about solutionism and the single-minded focus of many engineers, but it highlights a real issue. And theologians can be single-minded as well.

What tools do you have for listening to students about what’s alive for them in the topics, personally? What emotions arise? What choices in their past or future do they think about when considering the science? How does it affect their view of themselves and of God?

One successful approach has been journalling. One instructor asked students to do the weekly reading and write down key questions and issues before discussing in class. Another instructor left the first ten minutes of each class open for students to raise the issues on their hearts. Both are gentle ways of attending to the particular circumstances of students. Remember, both negative and positive emotions signal important linkages between thinking, feeling, and action.

Science-engaged theology involves two topics that can cause anxiety. Science and theology both require people to think in unfamiliar ways. They suggest difficult questions which require expertise to answer, and we are almost always insecure because we suspect that the right answer is out there, we simply don’t know it. I have found this to be true for scientists talking about theology and theologians talking about science, but also for scientists talking about unfamiliar science and theologians talking about unfamiliar theology.

It is no surprise, then, that pastors and theology students would have trepidation – that they, and the general public, would escape discomfort by leaping to easy answers or simply ignoring the issues.

The good news of Christianity is that those who seek find. Similarly, the good news of science is that careful observation and reasoning are rewarded with genuine knowledge. Those are both profound and profoundly simple messages, but we often fail to share them in a simple way. And they both require some unpacking. Importantly, they are both experiential claims, they promise that a particular activity will produce a particular outcome.

The primary challenge for SET is formation, not information.

I first encountered this talking about evolution in graduate school about 20 years ago. No amount of new information about Darwin or evolutionary theory could change the mind of a confirmed creationist because their concern was not about the data or the theory. Most often I found that their concern was ethical and anthropological: what are humans that God is mindful of them? Or, it had to do with the problem of evil: why is there so much suffering in the natural world?

And so, I switched to theological arguments but ran into a similar problem. Quotes from the Bible and Augustine had little effect, much less a bevy of modern theologians. Nor could I solve the issue with a rundown of scripture, tradition, and reason on the topic. Information, even theological information, failed to change minds because the primary issue had to do with beliefs around science as a legitimate way of knowing.

Can I trust my senses? Can I trust scientific communities and authorities? How can science produce reliable, useful knowledge? Until that bridge is crossed, no amount of information will make a difference. Science must be a legitimate starting point. To make that leap requires demonstration. To experience science working is to understand that science works.

We have had the most success when students get a chance to do the work themselves. Students can begin with experiments and literally “see for themselves.” You may not have the opportunity to do this, but it is, and I think must be, the gold standard.

If you cannot do, then watch. Take students on a tour of a lab or show them a video that goes beyond “this is what we think” to “this is what we did that makes us think that way.” That’s where the magic happens. I continue to be surprised by the looks of genuine wonder when students discover that science is an activity and not a possession. It is a thing that people do.

In that context, the humanity of scientists – their biases, flaws, and foibles – become a matter for sympathy rather than criticism. Human limitations become an opportunity for fellowship as well as deeper questions about our place in the cosmos.

One of the great challenges for ECLAS, overall, has been this delicate balance of promoting scientific engagement and discovery, without promoting scientism – dogmatic belief that science answers all questions – and while recognizing the systemic biases built into the system. Science done well includes an aspiration to be unbiased, recognizing how pervasive biases are. It fosters constant awareness of our limitations so that we may work to overcome them. Semper reformanda. It is always reforming with the hope of perfecting the finite.

Finally, if students cannot do for themselves and cannot watch, introduce them to someone who does science regularly, someone who can share their passion and their perspective, but above all, someone who genuinely believes that science itself, the messy process of discovery, is good news worth sharing.

None of this takes away from the importance of Christian faith. I take for granted that ministry students already have experience in Christ and that they have some understanding about why and how Christians believe what they do. That will, however, likely be a point of discussion. Once you have established science as a way of knowing, then you can begin critically asking how scientific knowledge interacts with theological knowledge.

Conflicts do arise. I personally think it will be rare, but different theological perspectives will come at this differently. ECLAS and Science for Seminaries remain open on this front. We think that science is good news, that it is a gift from God, but it is not the only good news. Unpacking that, asking how science fits in with your theology, will be the concrete work of the classroom.

Follow the emotion.

My own research relates to the meanings of life. And, just as in the case of evolution, I find that people have a strong emotional response. Vegetarianism is an area where people’s personal habits and personal feelings shape their ethics.

Candorville by Darrin Bell 6/3/21

We all filter our beliefs through a personal lens. And I don’t think that move is entirely illegitimate. We have unique access to our own experience of life. We speak of true love as loving our neighbor as yourself. It is part of the human condition, even while we work to transcend it.

Theology instructors know this well. Both positive and negative emotions reveal something important going on for students. Find out what that is – delicately, sensitively, pastorally but with real curiosity. It is easy to get caught up in what triggers your own emotions, or what seems most important for the curriculum. Resist that for as long as you can. Students will tell you exactly what issues matter to them and provide the clues you need to make the subject matter meaningful.

All theology is pastoral theology. Science engaged theology can seem remote. Extra-galactic astrophysics is quite literally worlds away from daily life, and yet it inspires visceral emotions. The public cares about telescopes and cosmology. Astrophysicists devote their lives these topics. Respect that. Think about how your topic might impact students.

Some areas that I have run into:

  1. Fundamental value orientation:
    1. Is the universe fundamentally good with bad bits in or bad with good bits in?
    1. Is the universe fundamentally understandable and, if so, how?
  2. Community belonging:
    1. How do I relate to the people who produced these ideas?
    1. Were they made by and for people like me?
  3. Autonomy:
    1. What do I have control over?
    1. How does this affect my own value and my relationships?
  4. Embodiment:
    1. Does this change the way I relate to my body?
    1. Does it change the way I relate to my physical environment?

Ask students why they believe what they do. Remember that they are always applying their beliefs to concrete questions in their own lives.Every time I teach, I find something new.

Which brings me to my final suggestion.

Experiment.

I was trained first as a scientist, so I mean this in a particular way. Figure out what you want to accomplish and what you expect. Try it out. Take notes. Match your expectations to your observations and come up with a new theory.

Theologians call this the action reflection model, but I think there is something a bit more careful about the “experiment” metaphor. It involves a bit of research before-hand. Who has done this before? What did they discover? What other factors might be at play? How can I minimize the variables and know that my intervention made the difference?

Science engaged theology is not something new. The founders of modern natural science, from Roger Bacon to Francis Bacon, Newton, Boyle, and Darwin all saw their work as applied theology. While many touchstones of modern theology (including Aquinas, Malebranche, and Kant) saw themselves as doing natural science.

In another way, science engaged theology is always new because science keeps changing, socially as well as informationally. God is constantly doing a new thing. If you are interested in the theological tension of known and unknown which underpins modern science, I highly recommend the work of historian Margaret Osler [2].

Science and technology are now part of the vernacular. A theology that does not engage with them cannot succeed, because it will not connect with the lived experience of believers. Have fun with the process. And remember that you are not alone. Your project is part of something larger as the broader Christian community tries to make sense of a changing society.

Science is a social aspiration, much like the church. It is ideal, but also institutional and embodied. Our task is to share with students the fullness of science: the challenge of reasoning well, the joy of seeing and thinking clearly, and the truth that can be found. We will have succeeded if they begin to have ownership of the ideas and familiarity with the techniques, if they can build for themselves a community that includes scientists, if they can create their own science engaged faith.


[1] Randall Munroe (2014) What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Houghton Mifflin.

[2] Margaret Osler (1994) Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy. Cambridge University Press.

Posted by: dacalu | 29 July 2022

To Become Human

My friend Ciara Reyes-Ton asked me to say a few words for the release of her new single, To Become Human. She asked me to address what it means to be human, both from a biology perspective and from a faith perspective. Here’s what I said:

What does it mean to be human?

It’s an interesting question,

               one that biology and theology can both weigh in on,

               but, I think, one that neither can answer by itself.

And this is fitting, because, as the song says,

               To be human is to “be part of a larger species, part of a larger world.”

To be human is to be in relationship.

As a biologist, I would say that there is something special about life,

                              that comes from participating in a larger system.

               Evolution and metabolism are both relational processes,

                              evolution because it involves interaction with others –

                                             cooperation and competition, inheritance, and variation –

                              metabolism because it involves using chemical resources

                                              and reordering your surroundings.

As a theologian, I would also say that there is something special about life.

               In Christianity, it means participating in the life of God.

               Human life, in the image and likeness of God,

                              involves reason and will, participating in divine order,

                              the Logos of the Cosmos, participating in Christ.

               More viscerally, respiration,

                              our continual process of breathing out and breathing in,

                              means that we are always sharing life and breath with our neighbors.

It is not an accident that God’s very presence dwelling among us, the Holy Spirit,

               Is named as breath –

               the breath over the waters in the beginning,

               and the breath over the disciples at Pentecost,

the beginning of the church.

We are a God-breathed people

               in more ways than one.

Again and again, the Bible calls us back to images

               that are biological as well as spiritual,

                              Tree and fruit, vine and branches, living water and bread of life.

We say that God “came down” from heaven

ascended back up again, to the right hand of the Father,

but few of us today – if ever –

               think that involved a spaceship.

It is, instead, a way of saying that heaven came near to us.

               Something extraordinary, perfect, holy,

               Became accessible.

Jesus normalized the transcendent,

               made it ordinary, bodily, tangible –

the kingdom of God is with us.

               It is not an “out of this world heaven,”

               but a visceral process,

as close as a heartbeat, as tangible as breath,

                              and unmistakably biological.

And, curiously enough, all of this normalizing the transcendent

               allowed us to transcend our normality.

God lifted up the bread,

               making it into the Body of Christ.

And God raised us up,

               Making us into the Body of Christ.

We are not, to borrow from Aristotle,

               just a body equivocally – a lump of matter, a lump of flesh, or a corpse.

               We are part of God’s body – dynamic, relational, transcendent.

               God’s breath breathes in us.

               God’s will moves us.

Dare I say, we are part of the metabolism of God.

Theologians have preferred financial metaphors like “ransom” and “the economy of salvation,”

               but the Bible is often less anthropocentric and more zoological.

               We are members of the same body, moved by the same breath,

                              offspring and heirs through Christ’s body.

“Life,” and “human life” in particular,

               capture this duality of metabolism raised up and heaven brought near.

Scripture begins with a duality, not because the world is dualistic,

               but because we continually push God and neighbor away from us.

               We have a foolish intuition that the things before us

are different from the things we seek,

                              the things we need and want and love.

Scripture begins with duality to bring the opposites together,

               in the language of theology

the incarnation of God and the divinization of humanity,

               the at-one-ment.

Science speaks differently, but perhaps says the same thing.

               It begins by asserting the truth of our unity,

               With the world and with one another.

It punctures that illusion that we are separate and apart.

It shows us the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

We are flesh and blood – though not flesh and blood alone.

               We are made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

               We are, even at the most fundamental level, bodies.

               And we live, embedded in and entwined with the Earth

                              physically, chemically, and biologically.

Minds can exist ideal and alone,

               but bodies are messy and relational.

They can never be fully abstracted from their physical surroundings,

               the air, food, and water they need to be alive.

A human body can be taken away from these things,

               but it ceases to be human

               and becomes just a body, floating in space.

So, I want to say: we are inherently relational

               made for one another, for God, and for creation.

               It is not good that the man should be alone.

We are relational,

               not just in an abstract psychological sense –

though we are relational in that way as well.

               We are relational in a deeply physical and physiological sense.

We are bodies, interacting with a physical world

               and interacting with one another in a physical world.

We live in a scientific renaissance,

               a period of new ideas and new technology,

               where we are rapidly learning new things

about ourselves and our place in the cosmos.

My own corner of that research has been “astrobiology,”

               which explores the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe.

In the long term, we are looking for alien life,

               but a big part of that involves understanding Earth life.

               What is so interesting about life here

                              that we want to find it elsewhere?

               What makes life so interesting, so valuable, so “life-like”?

Countless books have been written about this topic,

               from across the scientific disciplines,

               and from across the humanities.

               (I’ve written a few myself.)

And the most common definitions of life,

               the ones we come back to again and again through the centuries

               are metabolism and reproduction.

Metabolism is the process whereby living beings organize the elements.

               They take that which is not them and turn it into them.

               They inform matter and apply their information,

                              coded in genes and proteins,

                              to stuff around them.

               They take lumps of chemicals and turn them into bodies.

               They enliven the elements

Reproduction is the process whereby living things make more of themselves.

               They go from one to many.

               They cease being alone and start being together.

               They create other from self,

                              because reproduction is not just copying.

               It is imperfect copying, so that the offspring are just slightly different.

And something wonderful happens,

               because once you start making these imperfect copies,

                              they adapt, they evolve, they become something new.

               Over time evolution fits populations to their environment,

                              makes them better at being where they are and what they are.

There’s more to that, including some tricky bits,

               mathematically, philosophically, theologically.

               Too much to go into here, but let me say briefly:

Evolution fits things to their environment.

               It doesn’t mold them into something better in an absolute sense;

               It doesn’t fit them into the logos of the cosmos,

                              mold them into one body,

                              or direct them toward transcendence.

That would be to mistake evolution for God,

               and to get the theory all wrong.

Like gravity and entropy,

               evolution reveals a world that is,

               and reveals that the world is becoming something new.

               It does not reveal what the world will become

               or what the world should become.

I said before that biology and theology would both be needed.

I believe something miraculous is happening.

I believe the world is being made new,

               and that life is part of that process.

I believe that you and I and humanity have a role to play in that transformation.

               We are related to each other for a reason

               and we have a purpose.

As a Christian, I think God revealed that purpose in Jesus Christ.

Christ became human that we might become divine

“part of a larger species, part of a larger world”

In the language of the bible: adoption into the household of God

               Incorporation into the Body of Christ, Grafted onto that tree, branches off that vine.

There is a spiritual metabolism, by which God orders the world,

               including humans, but not humans alone,

               through humans, but not through humans alone.

               We take the ordinary and lift it up.

               We take the profane and make it sacred.

Of course, it’s not really a duality –

               there is no place where God isn’t,

where God hasn’t been,

and which God does not have a plan for.

Our theology begins with a duality because we have a foolish intuition

that the things before us

are different from the things we seek,

               the things we need and want and love.

We are constantly lifting things up,

because they and we already have that purpose, that end.

Our holiness is dynamic, like life.

               It happens in the doing.

We are stardust.

We are living water.

That is the mystery that Ciara’s song reminded me of.

It is not enough to say that Christ became human so that we might become divine.

Christ became human that we might become fully human.

That is our fullness, our fulfillment, our role in the metabolism of the universe.

               We relate.

               We sanctify.

               With human minds and human hands.

There is something grand and planetary about that.

               We reveal the order of the universe as we study it.

               Science can be sacred when it uncovers the holiness

                              present from the creation of the world.

               Technology can be sacred when it participates

                              in the transcendence of the ordinary,

                              in love, harmony, and art.

               You have the power to wrap up

the very rocks and stones around you

into the life of Christ

               Human will and human wisdom can do this,

                              Human science and human ethics

               It is an awesome and wondrous thing we do – to bind and loose.

There is also something powerfully concrete about our full humanity.

               The kingdom of God is built from stardust,

                              from carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur.

               We look for it in the heavens because we have found it here,

                              in flesh and blood, bread and wine and water.

               There is more. Good heavens, there is always more,

                              but there is never less.

               The kingdom of God is built from embodied souls,

                              you and me and messy humanity.

I do not seek to escape my biology, my planet, or my humanity;

               but I look beyond them,

               so that what seems separate may be revealed as one,

               so that what seems profane may be revealed as holy,

               so that the invisible God may become visible.

A life alone – abstracted from bodies and abstracted from neighbors –

               is not life. It is dust and ashes.

It ceases to be human and becomes just a body, floating in space.

But, in community with others, enlivened by the breath of God,

               we transform the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 March 2022

Histology

I see by light refracted

               through vitreous humor and crystalline lens,

eyes seen under glass,

               in microscopic focus.

Is seeing seen in rods and cones,

               the physics of refracted light,

or does my seeing break the link

               between the seen and seeing mind?


Secret signals, passed by photons

               through darkened orbitals,

excite the local population

               of electrons, resting in their rows.

The potential for revolt increases,

               passing from orbital to orbital,

like lighting finding ground

               in consciousness,

‘til in the brain they disappear.


Image passes through a chain of custody,

               from seen to signal

               on to hopeful host.

A mass of neurons,

               hidden in the brain,

               keen for word of distant lands.

A letter lands upon that desk,

               waiting for interpretation,

               interpolation in the text of mind.

But what it finds cannot be seen,

               ‘cept in a mirror,

that by passing light to light

               alienates the thing it sees.


Can I see myself,

               but in a mirror darkly,

light from light degenerate,

               an image not the thing itself?

Light transcendent, light divine,

               friend and revolutionary,

               that breaks the walls of darkened solitude;

Light the tyrant, cruel, unkind,

               that stands between

               the knower and the known.


Images fall through cracks where light shines in,

               lurk still in darkened lines where photons never fall,

               where electrons fear to tread.

And so the revolution never happens,

               the revelation of mind to mind,

               in mirror or in microscope.

Sight unseen reveals the hidden world;

the eye dissected cannot see.


Lucas Mix 3/23/2022

Posted by: dacalu | 28 December 2021

Time Machine

Found in the want adds

Nineteen forty-two:

“Time Machine, used.

One owner from new.

This could be you!”


The moment I left

the present was past;

The past, my future,

before me at last;

The die was cast.


If only I knew

what I know today,

I would never have

left the world that way.

I’d have to stay.


But then…

Who knows where the

world would have been

if we knew now,

as they knew then,

the fate of men.


I stole the device

from myself in the end,

and feeling remorse,

returned it again

to what should’ve been.


Lucas Mix 12/28/21

Posted by: dacalu | 4 November 2021

Wondering about Wonder

I’m setting down some thoughts on science and wonder for an upcoming talk at the University of Chicago and thought I would share them more broadly. Still in the brainstorming phase, but hopefully you’ll find them interesting. A tip of the hat to Mary Midgley’s Science as Salvation and David Noble’s Religion of Technology, two brilliant books on doctrine and dogma in science.

Recently, I’ve been thinking about what it means to promote science. I have many friends who promote science; some in the context of science-engaged theology; others as an alternative to theology; and still others in an agnostic way. For all three, I find myself wondering, on occasion, whether we’re all really pulling in the same direction. With that in mind, I’ve tried to set out a branching tree of thought that reflects a common starting point and some of the ways we diverge.

Because we use the words “nature” and “science” in a variety of ways, I’ve tried to avoid them. I write instead about the non-human world (NHW), empirical reasoning (a methodology) and scientific institutions (community standards and practices). For now, I take it that the NHW is the physical universe with humanity safely bracketed out of consideration.

NHW is not equivalent to nature. This is not an attempt to sneak in ontological commitments about humanity (either as natural or supernatural), but to ask what we can know before adding them back in. This is, by the by, the origin of the natural science vs. social science distinction. Nor is science simply empirical reasoning and scientific institutions. If you want to know more about what I mean by all these words and phrases, check out my book Thinking Fair.  For now, hopefully this gets you thinking.

  1. We should pay attention to the NHW. I think just about everyone is onboard with this one, in theory. In practice, many of us get caught up in our daily lives and domesticated environments and don’t think about things like wilderness and animal rights.
  2. We should value the NHW. A small but significant step further, this idea says that the NHW matters, that events at the borders of humanity have moral significance, and that what we know about the NHW should change our behavior. I still think most everyone is on-board, but they may be so in one of two significantly different ways.
    1. We should value the NHW because of current and future utility for humans. This is the extrinsic or instrumental value argument. Christians with a strong dominion theology (e.g., Francis Bacon) or who believe only humans will pass into the new creation lean heavily on this idea, that the world was made for our sake. White, Jr. famously critiqued it as anthropocentric and blamed that position on Christianity. Christians, however, do not all fall in this camp, nor is it limited Christianity. Secular humanist approaches to ethics that emphasize human preference, utility, or flourishing also tend in this direction and it undergirds most international treaties about natural resources.
    2. We should value the NHW as having ends of its own. This is the intrinsic value argument. Many Christians subscribe to intrinsic value ethics or theocentric ethics that speaks of non-humans having their own relationship with God and their own way of flourishing (e.g., Thomas Aquinas). It also appears in secular (but not humanist) ethics (e.g., Aldo Leopold). I take 2.1 to be nearly universal and 2.2 to be more controversial.
  3. We should value the NHW because we can learn from it. Here we begin to get into more controversial territory, mostly around the sorts of things we can learn and the ways we acquire that information.
    1. Study of the NHW can answer “how” questions. This is the idea that the NHW can teach us about physics, bodies, and mechanical movements, the usual bread and butter of natural science. How does pressure on fingertips lead to nerve impulses that travel to the brain? How can I keep ants out of my kitchen? Fairly uncontroversial.
    2. Study of the NHW can answer “why” questions. This is the idea that the NHW can teach us something more about the significance of objects and events, how they fit into a bigger picture – structurally, historically, and operationally. Why do most animals have hearts? What do hearts do? This is more controversial, though I think generally accepted (that answers are possible, not necessarily how they are found). Interestingly, physics and chemistry are more easily conceived as focusing on how, while biology almost always requires some sort of why – for organismality (organisms are collections of parts with a common why), function (what that why is for a given part), and health (does each part serve its function).
    3. Study of the NHW can answer “should” questions. This bit is even trickier because it moves from explaining why to requesting (or requiring) that we do something as a result. Evolution and physiology can tell us why the heart functions without committing us to maintain that function. Many health questions push the line from “why” to “should” in this way. Should we ever end a non-human life? Most would say yes. We cannot avoid ending plant lives, and most people are willing to end animal life for human ends. Can we learn how to answer such questions from the NHW?
  4. We should value the NHW because we can learn from it through science. Real disagreements start to arise here, because they have to do with how we conceive of science, particularly how it works, how well it works, and what it works for. What does “science” entail?
    1. Empirical reasoning – a way of knowing about world by appeal to observation and reasoning up from particular instances to general principles.
    2. Philosophical commitments associated with empiricism, such as commitments to repeatable observation, uniformity and lawful regularity, simple explanation, and thoughtful experimentation.
    3. Scientific Institutions – a way of regulating b through training, replicating results, peer review, and publication.
    4. Philosophical commitments commonly associated with the scientific community, such as treating things in the NHW as objects (passive, mechanical, and instrumental).

For my part, I’m quite sympathetic with 4.1, generally sympathetic for 4.2 and 4.3, and on the fence about 4.4. There are many other philosophical commitments commonly associated with science (including atheism and materialism). How many of them should we accept, and who decides? As for the narrow example I mention, I think that commitment to 4.4 rules out 3.3. It seems illogical to attempt to discover value using a system that removes value at the outset.

5. We should value the NHW because we can learn from it through science and anything we learn through science cannot be refuted by any other form of reasoning. Here I’ve completely lost the thread, myself, but I think this is a common position and worthy of discussion. It hangs critically on all the earlier distinctions, but particularly 4.1-4.4. Science is a particularly good way of knowing, but how does it relate to other forms of knowing?

I’ve noticed a particular strand of science-engaged theology that emphasizes “awe” and “wonder” at creation. I have friends for whom this is a recurring theme. My friend, Tom McLeish speaks eloquently and inspiringly on the topic. At ECLAS, we speak frequently of wonder and at science as a gift from God. I’m completely on board, but wonder (oddly enough) whether this gets the conversation stuck at stage 1, where there is almost universal agreement, both within Christian theology and more broadly in public discussion? The real disagreements are further down the chain.

On a similar vein, I’ve noticed popular discussion about “following the science” in politics. As a general statement, it sounds good, but what does it mean? Are we simply paying attention to the non-human world? Are we applying a particular methodology and care? Or are we doing attempting ethical heavy lifting along the lines of valuing human life – or non-human life – in a controversial way? I’m still figuring out my own views, but I’d encourage you to work your way through 1-5 and ask which ideas make sense to you and which do not. I’d love to hear from readers what they think in the

Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2021

Curiosity, Discovery, Relationship

A couple years ago, I was asked to speak at the SXSW (South-by-Southwest) conference about astrobiology and theology. It’s a big topic and I chose to focus on the place of humanity in cosmos and the virtuous cycle of curiosity, discovery, and relationship that underlies both science and religion form me. A friend of mine asked me to distill that talk into a short essay, which I’ve posted here.

What does alien life have to do with theology? I’ve been given the somewhat challenging task of speaking about astrobiology and faith. We’re looking at the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe and, once we start asking about religious and theological aspects, we pretty much have “Life, the Universe, and Everything.”

This can seem daunting. Perhaps because of the scope of the science, or the whole idea of religion and theology.

In the words of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, let me say this: DON’T PANIC. I’m just going to talk about the straightforward question of how we relate to the universe around us, to our neighbors (whatever species they might be), and to God. This is all wrapped up in how we come to know things and how we come to know people, but it’s something you do every day. You relate. And you try to relate well.

Surveys show that many people are concerned about the discovery of alien life and how it will affect religious beliefs. A number of surveys have been conducted over the past few decades.[1] Curiously, almost no one thinks such a discovery would challenge their own beliefs. Rather, they think it would challenge the beliefs of others. This suggests that we don’t always communicate clearly about how we view the universe. Often, our own belief is not so much in opposition to the beliefs of others, but entirely different. We must move beyond simple statements of belief to a deeper understanding of why people believe what they do, and how their beliefs shape their lives. If they thought just as we do, they would have our beliefs. Astrobiology can help us find the true differences between us.

The Place of Humans

The search for alien life, and the potential discovery of aliens, allows us to look more closely at our own place in the cosmos, how we fit into the scheme of history, and where we are in the expanse of space. If we are truly alone, it’s hard to have perspective on our role in the story. Aliens, even potential or imaginary aliens, give us that perspective.

Theologians have been talking about cosmic history and the possibility of alien life for as long as there have been theologians. And they’ve been using the best science available for that whole time. Jewish and Christian theologians as early as the first century used cutting edge science and medicine to interpret scripture (e.g., Philo and Tertullian). We see speculation on astronomy and alien life at least by the fourth century.

This is not a new endeavor. Nor should it be particularly threatening to “traditional” perspectives. The tradition has been in dialogue with science for thousands of years. Even on those rare occasions when there was controversy, it divided both scientific and religious communities. In the case of Galileo, astronomers were arguing about the best way to understand the heavens, while theologians were arguing about who had the authority to interpret scripture. This put theologians and scientists on both sides. Controversy arose precisely because the two fields were interacting.

This question of how we relate to the universe turns out to be terribly important.

We all have a stake in how it gets answered. Opinion has been divided for millennia between those who think that the human race is unique and tremendously important and those who think we should get over ourselves. The split runs straight through Jewish and Christian theology, with people on both sides. No doubt, similar controversies arise in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but I will focus on Christianity, which is my area of study.

Weird and Wonderful Life

I’m going to talk about two main areas, where scientific research and theology overlap. First, life in the universe stranger than we imagined. Second, life in the universe is wonderful: an opportunity to learn.

First, weird life. Over the last century we have begun to discover amazing diversity of life on Earth. Exploring hot springs and desserts, deep oceans and even the atmosphere, biologists have found a vast array of organisms, actively growing in an amazing array of environments. Life can succeed and grow in ice and in boiling water (-20 to 121 degrees Celsius. (-4 to 250 F). It can live in the driest deserts and the deepest oceans. It can even live floating in the atmosphere. The bacterium Deinoccus radiodurans survives high levels of radiation, constantly repairing its DNA.

In the 1990s, astronomers found the first evidence of planets orbiting other stars. Since then improvements in technique and technology have confirmed the existence of over 3,700 planets. 53 of them are the right size and temperature to host Earth-like life.[2]

We’re still debating about “biomarkers.” What would we consider good evidence that these planets are actually inhabited. In the next decade, NASA and ESA will be launching telescopes with the goal of resolving light from individual planets. By looking at light reflected by a planetary atmosphere – or absorbed as a planet blocks out a star – we can look for signs of life, including free oxygen, methane, and signs of photosynthesis.

Christians and Weird Life

Christians have a long history of speculation about weird life. The Book of Job, written between seven and four centuries before Christ, contains 3 chapters on exotic life. The account ranges from common animals to aurochs and ostriches and on to behemoth and leviathan. These chapters have been interpreted in various ways over the centuries, but there seems to be consensus about the key message: some life in the universe has nothing to do with humanity.

Looking at the Tanakh or Old Testament, Genesis 1 and Psalm 8 give a clear picture of human superiority, while Job and Ecclesiastes make humans seem almost inconsequential.[3] Throughout the Middle Ages, Christians speculated on a plurality of worlds, what might be thought of as parallel universes in modern language. Some theologians argued that God is so amazingly creative, that there must be other worlds and other life. Others felt that one world was sufficient. Some theologians argued that stars and planets are alien life forms, even alien intelligences, made of ethereal fire-like stuff. As soon as Copernicus changed the planets from Celestial spheres into physical spaces, still more theologians began to talk about whether the planets where inhabited and what the inhabitants might be like.

CS Lewis’ space trilogy, a series of books about humans traveling to Mars and Venus, captures both ideas: living planets and inhabited planets.[4] Such speculation is not merely fiction or myth making. It gives theologians a chance to talk about who we are, as mortal rational animals, in the context of a living universe. For Lewis, it was a chance to comment on our fundamental goodness and the errors we are prone to. By bringing us face to face with aliens, he could speak more clearly about who we are. By speaking of God’s relationship with them, he could speak more clearly about God’s relationship with us.

Modern theologians like Ted Peters and Bill Brown talk about astrobiology and the way it reminds us of God acting in a larger world, beyond our everyday experience. We can say that life in the universe is weird, beyond our current understanding. While Christians have long argued about the uniqueness and importance of humanity recent discoveries help us to understand our place in the universe better. We are one among many as animals, perhaps even as thinking animals, but we are also empowered and dignified by our curiosity, our ability to seek and to name.

Christians and Wonderful Life

Christians also have a long history of commenting on the wonder and majesty of nature, even beyond humanity. Augustine of Hippo, a fourth century bishop from North Africa and possibly the most influential theologian in Christianity, argues that the category of “human” extends to all mortal rational animals, no matter what they look like.[5] He even specifies cyclops, hermaphrodites, antipodes, skiopodes, pigmies, the mouthless, the headless, the short-lived, and those with dog-heads; so long as they are rational and mortal animals, they are children of Adam.

Elsewhere, Augustine rhapsodizes about the dignity of souls in the common house fly.[6] This is not to say that he values flies as much as humans, but he does have a much broader view of humanity and souls than most Christians have had in the past few centuries.

It is not a matter of imagining God and then thinking up a creation small enough that God could make it. We do not try to squeeze the cosmos into the hands of a God we already fully know. It was always a question of looking at the bounds of creation, and imagining a God big enough to be the order and meaning behind all of it – the logos of the cosmos.

Thomas Aquinas, a thirteenth century theologian, had an even higher view of nature than did Augustine. He thought we could learn about God and ethics by looking at the world around us. We don’t need revelation to know about these things (though revelation helps immensely). Or, it might be more accurate to say that Aquinas saw every act of observation as a kind of revelation, God speaking through the creation.

This approach, which comes to be called natural theology, has been particularly influential in my own tradition, Anglican or Episcopalian Christianity. We do not reject revelation, but we do emphasize the value of our senses and what we learn through them. Francis Bacon, an Anglican and a key figure in the rise of natural science, thought God had granted us science as a way of fulfilling God’s will for us. We are meant to know God, the universe, and ourselves. Bacon had doubts about our ability to know these things in any other way. And so in natural science and natural theology we have a profound desire to understand our environment and a profound belief that we can and should explore.

Wilderness

In some ways, I think we suffered as a species during the 19th and 20th centuries because we began to believe that we really were the height of creation, that we knew the extent of the world. We conquered the wilderness on our planet, removed all of the species that competed with us – the wolves and bears and great cats.

We lost the wilderness. We lost the sense that there was more out there than we knew or imagined. We lived, believing we had control of the world, or at least the important parts of it. Space was only an abstract backdrop for the drama of humanity.

This domestication of the world, and belief in a triumphant humanity, was popular among Christians, but it was popular in the world at large. We thought that we had won the evolutionary race and conquered the planet.

As we discover more about the cosmos, the wider wild – and, as we discover more about the strange and wonderful diversity of life on Earth – we are once again faced with wilderness and aliens, things beyond our control, perhaps even beyond interaction with us. They have their own meaning and their own dignity. For Jews, Christians, and Muslims, they have their own relationship with God, which does not depend on us. Astrobiology – the search for life in space – has this effect on Christian theology, but also on secular and popular ideas about humanity. It gives us context.

If I can convince you of one thing, I hope it is this. What we believe about the universe matters. It matters how we think about our relationships: with our neighbors (whatever species they might be), with the universe, and with God. The stories we tell are always stories about our encounter with the other, whether it be wonderful (as in the E.T., Arrival, and A Wrinkle in Time) or fearful (as in Aliens and War of the Worlds).

Curiosity, Discovery, Relationship

Our values and our stories determine whether and how we explore. There are philosophies that discourage exploration and there are philosophies that send us out asking and seeking. I want to suggest a three-part view of life that sends people out into the world, looking for understanding. It begins with a profound curiosity about the world. For me, that comes from Genesis: God made all things and found them good. Everything I find, therefore, and every person I meet, is an opportunity to find something wonderful. No matter how awful it might appear at first, there is a kernel of goodness to find. This encourages me to study everything. Nothing is worth ignoring. Others will find other reasons to be curious, but it matters whether you think everything warrants curiosity or only a few things. It matters to where you are willing to look and what you are willing to find out.

Madeline L’Engle, a fellow Episcopalian, and the author behind A Wrinkle in Time put it this way.[7] “Creative scientists and saints expect revelation and do not fear it. Neither do children. But as we grow up and we are hurt, we learned not to trust.” “We have to be braver than we think we can be, because God is constantly calling us to be more than we are.”

For me, both science and Christianity call me to continuously search and continuously seek a deeper understanding of the world. Astrobiology is a wonderful opportunity to push the boundaries of our knowledge. Curiosity leads to discovery. This is not a truism, but an observed fact. Curiosity is rewarded, something that increases my trust in God and my trust in science.

We live in a world where curiosity, aided by critical thinking, leads to knowledge. I think we underestimate the earth-shaking significance of that. Science works. It does not always provide the answers we wanted, but it regularly provides real, satisfying answers.

It’s worth asking whether we have the kind of curiosity that leads to discovery, and whether we have the kinds of discovery that lead to more curiosity.

For that to work, there needs to be one more piece: relationship. Our discoveries must support relationship: better interactions between neighbors (no matter what species) and better interactions with our environment. We must allow our discoveries to change the way we interact, so that a deeper knowledge leads to a more fruitful interaction. Because I believe in the goodness of all things, I can also believe that real relationships will always, inevitably lead us to more curiosity.

Another Anglican, CS Lewis, put it this way. “Miracles are a retelling in small letters of the very same story which is written across the whole world in letters too large for some of us to see.” There is something revelatory about real knowledge. It binds us together. It gives us perspective.

Faith Hope and Love

For those of you looking for something a little more expressly Christian, let me say this. The Christian approach has always been the same, though we usually start with the relationship. Recall that faith can mean trust in a person, not just trust in an idea. We start with Jesus Christ and a relationship between God and humanity. That relationship leads to curiosity and hope for the future. Curiosity and hope lead us into a deeper knowledge of God. That love which is a true openness to the other, a discovery.

I might also say this in the words of I Corinthians 13:12. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

So, here is my theological reflection on astrobiology. For a century or two we lost our wilderness, our encounter with the wide wild, the world and the action of God beyond human understanding. We believed that we were rulers of the world. Astrobiology has begun to give us a deeper perspective, a breadth of time and space, in which humans represent only the tiniest sliver, but a sliver with the ability to explore.

Whether you think that exploration is a gift from God, or a random twitch of the universe, we have a great opportunity, for curiosity, discovery, and real relationship with a universe unimaginably weird and wonderful.


[1] Dick, SJ. The Biological Universe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. p. 517

Peters, T. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. A 369(2011):644–655.

Peters, T. (2013). Would the discovery of ETI provoke a religious crisis? In Astrobiology, History, and Society, edited by DA Vakoch. Berlin: Springer-Verlag. pp. 341–355.

[2] Exoplanet Encyclopedia: http://exoplanet.eu; NASA Exoplanet Archive: https://exoplanetarchive.ipac.caltech.edu/

[3] Mix, LJ (2016) Life-value narratives and the impact of astrobiology on Christian ethics. Zygon 51(2):520-535

[4] Out of the Silent Planet (1938), Perelandra (1943), and That Hideous Strength (1945)

[5] City of God XVI.8

[6] The Two Souls 4

[7] The movie is based on L’Engle’s book, the first in a series of five about encountering alien life: A Wrinkle in Time (1962), A Wind in the Door (1973), A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978), May Waters (1986), and An Acceptable Time (1989).

Posted by: dacalu | 6 June 2021

Finitude

I thank thee Lord I cannot keep
Within my breast a breath so deep
That lips or tongue or willful chin
Can keep thy Spirit out, or in.

I thank thee Lord for constant thirst
Each day a litany rehearsed
By flowing water called, fulfilled
In company must live and build.

I thank thee Lord for weekly need
On flesh and fruit and bread to feed
And by these accidents sustain
My place within Earth’s broad domain.

I thank thee last for blessed death
When race is run and out of breath
My heart shall stop
__________and love shall be
At rest in thine eternity.

Thought and mind and soul may stray
From kith and kin and thee away
But mortal matter day by day
Returns me to thy hands, as clay.

Lucas Mix, 5 June 2021

[Image: Hasegawa Tohaku Pine Trees c.1595]
Posted by: dacalu | 15 March 2021

Evolution in Eternity

God improves the world through entropy.

               That doesn’t mean we should grow cold.

God improves the world through gravity,

               but we are not better off for having fallen.

God improves the world through evolution,

               but we must not equate “more evolved”

               with better or holier or more favored.

God can use the process without endorsing the end.

Entropy gives us life:

               carbohydrates fuel cells

               and warm bones,

               a burnt offering

Exhalation is not the goal of breath,

               nor death the goal of life.

Gravity gives us flight:

               lift, a ton of titanium

               rests on ribbons of air,

               a song of ascents.

A pilgrimage starts and ends on earth,

               but heaven waits in the space between.

Neither length of suffering

               nor shortness of breath

               can strip a life of meaning.

Providence cannot be measured

               in births and deaths.

It cannot be counted or weighed.

It must be sought in the interval.

Lucas Mix, 13 Mar 2021

Posted by: dacalu | 12 November 2020

Knowledge and Love of God

Yesterday, I spoke with the Society of Ordained Scientists on the question of what we can know about God based on science. It was a rather dense presentation of my views on natural theology, but I thought some of my friends might be interested. Here is a copy of my notes.

Stig Graham, the Society’s Warden, asked me to comment on “the extent to which science can display, teach and augment our faith in the existence of God, the nature of God, and the manner of God’s interaction with the Universe.” I should begin with a brief comment about the dangers of asking me about ontology and epistemology, two of my favorite topics. I can talk at great length and have to work to keep myself focus on the practical implications, what I call applied metaphysics.

My goal is to know God, a task for which I feel well qualified. I am much more skeptical of my ability to know about God, a task I consider fun but important only when it helps me know God.

I frequently make a comparison to my mother. You can take for granted that I have a mother. You might even be able to find information about her online, but this is not a replacement for meeting her in person.

I tend to distinguish between two views of God. The ontological view of God captures the idea of God as a fundamental entity in the universe. Examples include the logos of the cosmos in John 1, Aristotle’s unmoved mover, Plato’s and Plotinus’ ONE, and Paul Tillich’s ground of all being. Alternatively, the personal view of God captures the historical person or an individual with whom we have a relationship. Examples include the Elohim ha-Israel, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Comforter.

Having said a little about what I mean by God, I should turn to what I mean by science. I will be focusing my remarks on one way of knowing: empirical reasoning. The exact bounds of science are contentious, and this has been called the “demarcation problem.” I go into greater detail in my book (Thinking Fair: Rules for Reason in Science and Religion, 2016). Here, I will only say that I believe that scientific reasoning depends on “mutual observables,” things that humans (for the most part) can observe and agree about what they observe. We likely can agree that the plant is green but may disagree about the merits of the Green Party. One is a mutual observable; the other is not.

It is important to mention that “science” has many other definitions historically. In particular, I would mention that most “natural theologians” include rationalist claims about the universe, things we can know a priori, that is prior to observation. Examples include the sensus divinitatis of Calvin, the “self-evident” claims of Descartes, and the pure reason of Kant. I do not deny that knowledge may be gained through revelation, intuition, and other forms of a priori reasoning, but when I make claims about knowledge based on science, I refer to empirical reasoning.

Returning to the two views of God, most claims about the ontological view of God rest on a priori reasoning. Famous examples include ontological and cosmological arguments for the existence of God. I find some of these compelling, but do not think of them as scientific. Further, I think they provide evidence for the existence of an Ontological God, an entity at the bounds of our ability to reason about reality, but cannot link this God to the personal, historical, and scriptural God of Christianity. This “sub-natural God” does not exist in additional to natural phenomena but upholds them. The ontological God writes and enforces natural laws.

[NB: This need not be a Deistic God. Nothing in my argument excludes intervention. More significantly, nothing in my argument precludes laws of which we are, as yet, unaware.]

Thus, an argument can be made that science depends (commonly and historically, though not necessarily) upon a belief that there is an underlying order in the universe and that humans may, both individually and collectively, uncover that order. This is not a scientific argument for the existence of God; it is, rather, a theistic argument for the pursuit of science.

Science cannot weigh in on the existence of God or God’s manner of interaction with the universe. I am not convinced that we can reliably imagine alternate universes. If we do live in Deistic or Theistic universe, how would we know what a God-free universe would be like? If we live in a God-free universe, how would we know what a Deistic or Theistic universe would be like? These thought experiments require us to hold the universe (and natural law) constant, while adding or subtracting God. This makes sense if God is supernatural – added on top of a subsistent nature – but not if God is the ground of existence.

[NB: This pre-empts most, if not all, design arguments for the existence of God as well as fine-tuning arguments. The properties of the universe simply are what they are. We can “imagine” possible universes in the weak sense of thought experiments, but never in the strong sense of more or less probable universes. The set of all known actual universes contains only one member. The set of all possible universes is poorly defined – likely bounded by human physical and social conditioning but not bounded by mutual observables and, therefore, beyond the reach of empirical reasoning.]

Meanwhile, claims about the relational view of God rest on personal, explicitly subjective experience. They depend not only upon the object of observation, but also upon the subject, the observer. They are always two-way interactions and, therefore, never objective and never fully “mutual.” (This way of thinking about subjective experience predates modern psychology and epistemology and was championed, if not invented, by Augustine speaking about the soul. For more on the origins of subjectivity, see The Rise and Fall of Soul and Self by Martin and Barresi.)

And yet, our personal experience will always be mediated by reason and common discourse, including science. Thus, science informs our relationship with the personal God, though it will always be based on subjective experience. This leaves us making comparisons between our relationship with God and our relationship with natural objects, in short analogy.

What does that look like? This is a painfully brief discussion, but I’m happy to sketch out four examples of analogies I would be willing to make in the context of science-engaged theology.

I am willing to argue from natural laws to Divine consistency. If God upholds this universe, God upholds order. I do not exclude the possibility of exceptions, but I do note exceptional regularity among events at all scales and all locations in the known universe. God attends to details and cares about consistency.

I am willing to argue from natural diversity to Divine creativity. If God created this universe, God has committed to a profusion of forms and processes surpassing human interest and likely surpassing human understanding. God has more in mind than simply humanity or simply Earth. This emphasizes the radical divide between our perspective and God’s perspective and suggests we attend to an ever-wider range of phenomena if we wish to understand the God who created them.

I am willing to argue from abstract ideals such as truth, beauty, and love to Divine transcendence. God is exceptional relationally as well as ontologically. If God interacts with the universe, God does so in a way that invites conscious beings to contemplate and explore a freedom unimaginable under brute mechanical and physicalist models of interaction. (Again, this reflects the bounds of human explanation, not necessarily bounds to physical causation.)

Finally, I am willing to argue from the radical inter-dependence of living beings to God’s pervasive and integrating Spirit. The breath of God, for me, reflects an understanding of life as the dynamic process of God breathing on, in, and through material creation. Concepts of complete subsistence, independence, and autonomy strike me as contrary to natural science and, therefore, unappealing in the context of science-engaged theology. [For more on this, see my 2018 book Life Concepts from Aristotle to Darwin: On Vegetable Souls, which explores the history of life concepts and the epistemic divide that arose between physics/physiology and psychology/theology or Adam Pryor’s 2020 book Tiny Aliens on astrobiology and theology.]

One last reflection, a beautiful quote from Marie Curie that sums up our current need for open hearts and open minds: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.” Science and theology, done well, both reveal the world around us and encourage us to keep looking.

Posted by: dacalu | 8 October 2020

A Litany for President Trump

Many of my friends have shared their ambivalence lately in praying for President Trump. For the most part, they feel compassion for anyone who suffers, but they also recognize the suffering he has caused for others. I wrote this as a way of working out my own feelings. I have called it a litany because it is a series of prayers that, together, form a larger prayer (though it doesn’t have the usual litany structure of call and response). Praying for the president involves concern for a person but also concern for a nation and even shapes the way we view nature.

Personal Prayers

I want to say unequivocally, that I pray for Donald Trump’s health. I strive to respect the dignity of every human being, caring for them for their own sake. I also believe it is good for the United States to have stable and healthy leaders. I want President Trump to be well and I want President Trump to get better.

“O Father of mercies and God of all comfort, our only help in time of need: We humbly beseech you to behold, visit, and relieve thy sick servant Donald for whom our prayers are desired. Look upon him with the eyes of your mercy; comfort him with a sense of thy goodness; preserve him from the temptations of the enemy; and give him patience under his affliction. In your good time, restore him to health, and enable him to lead the residue of his life in your fear, and to your glory; and grant that finally he may dwell with you in life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

1979 Book of Common Prayer, 458

National Prayers

This care, however, comes wrapped up with other things I care about. No man is an island. In praying for any authority figure, I must also pray for their supporters, those in their care, and those affected by their power. Prayer for our allies must always invite us into prayer for our enemies, and vice versa. The God I pray to cares for all.

“O Lord our Governor, whose glory is in all the world: We commend this nation to your merciful care, that, being guided by your Providence, we may dwell secure in your peace. Grant to the President of the United States and to all in authority, wisdom and strength to know and to do your will. Fill them with the love of truth and righteousness, and make them ever mindful of their calling to serve this people in your fear; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.”

BCP, 820

In praying for myself, my family, and my friends, I pray first for wisdom. As much as I value physical health, I think there are greater goods. This is core to Christianity that our health, even our life, is not more important than our love for God and neighbor, so I start with a prayer for the President as leader, that he may grow in wisdom.

It is not a passive aggressive prayer. I do not pray that he be less himself and more as I would wish. It is a genuine desire and request that Donald Trump be the best person and the best President he can be. Respecting dignity means respecting him for his own sake. But I do not respect him (or any other) in isolation. And so, I pray for the nation as I pray for the man.

Natural Prayers

I see another angle as well, one that gets far less attention but has greater theological significance. I want the world to be understandable. I pray regularly for God to intercede, to act in the world, but I rarely (almost never) pray for God to interfere.

Many people think of miracles as God messing about with nature and causality. They pray for specific miracles and they pray generally for a world that does not follow the regular patterns assumed, revealed, and promised by natural science. This is dangerous because we can only learn wisdom by seeing the consequences of our actions. It is not enough to know what we intend; we must learn to link intention, actions, and effect.

I cannot respect the dignity of any person unless I first see how my deeds affect their life. No man is an island. Genuine love requires curiosity and an ability to learn from my actions.

I cannot love God’s creation without genuine curiosity about the ways my actions shape my environment. More than any other methodology, natural science gives me reliable knowledge about these interactions. I rely on the consistency of nature to plan my actions. If the world were not consistent in this way, then no amount of good will could ever guarantee that the love I intend will produce real benefit to others.

“Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

BCP, 827

Science is not enough, but it is ever so important. Nor does science ever give us full certainty. It could not, because certainty means I stop looking. And nothing stops learning more quickly than a lack of curiosity. Science must be imperfect so that I, in using science, can grow more perfect every day, more curious, more knowing, more kind, and more effective – more proficient in my love.

A Care for Consistency

I prioritize science because I prioritize love. And in both, I value a world where actions have predictable consequences. And this brings us back to Donald Trump. It is not unreasonable to feel a strong desire to see consequences follow actions. We all want precautions rewarded with safety and risky behaviors punished with harm. We want the world to make sense. And we want, for ourselves and for others, the ability to connect cause and effect.

We seek grace for ourselves, asking to be spared the consequences of our own misdeeds. And we are tempted to spite, seeking out harsher punishments for others to prove ourselves superior. The first is a good thing, I think, and the latter something to be avoided. And yet, underneath both is a very real longing for consistency, predictability, and understanding.

“O God our heavenly Father, you have blessed us and given us dominion over all the earth: Increase our reverence before the mystery of life; and give us new insight into your purposes for the human race, and new wisdom and determination in making provision for its future in accordance with your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

BCP, 828

When science has been so clear about the dangers of coronavirus – the importance of social distancing, mask wearing, and taking the virus seriously – it is irresponsible for anyone to publicly downplay those threats. We can and should debate how to involve the law in such caution, but we must not prevaricate or equivocate about the effects our actions have on others – their lives and their deaths.

Humans are notoriously bad at understanding probability. We cannot grasp intuitively what it means to decrease our risk of spreading a virus by 10%, much less by 0.001%. We can, however, grasp it intellectually with the help of doctors and scientists. We can, as a society, study the effects of our actions and how they shape the world around us. We cannot serve our neighbor, we cannot love effectively, without the tools of natural science – both the methodology and the social institutions.

President Trump has contributed to the suffering of millions. He has contributed directly, spreading the virus at rallies and modelling poor precautions to a worldwide audience. He has clearly, publicly, and willfully advocated against the recommendations of doctors and scientists. He has also contributed by undermining public confidence in a reasonable, knowable, and predictable world. Throughout his administration, he has damaged public trust in those institutions that produce and share reliable knowledge of the world.

I pray that Donald Trump will benefit from medical science. I pray it will help him recover. I also pray that it will teach him the wonders of careful, consistent, and collaborative reasoning.

I pray for the nation and the world, that we may not fall into the trap of thinking our intentions are enough. May we never believe that the God who granted us memory, reason, and skill should ask us to forgo their use.

And I pray for all of us, that our prayers may always prod us to learn more, care more, and more carefully link our intentions, actions, and effects and better serve the world.

Amen.

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