Posted by: dacalu | 25 November 2015

Mythic Approaches to Life

This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life.  It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here. I’ve already spoken about visceral approaches to life – as threat and opportunity. Now we turn to broader and more abstract evaluative approaches.

Is life good? Are some kinds of life better than others?

We call life good, perhaps because we are alive. How do we connect the two concepts? This approach also opens questions about how different types of life – biological, mental, spiritual – relate to one another. Is one more alive than another? Does that mean it’s better?


Version A: The Progressive Approach – Is the cosmos moving toward better life? Are agents and thinkers better forms of life?

The progressive approach seeks to understand the universe as a ladder of life states. The lowest are good, but the highest are better. Plato spoke of biological, emotional, and intellectual life as tiers in a process aimed at logos or cosmic harmony. Medieval philosophers spoke of a pyramid or ladder of nature (scala naturae) reaching from the creeping things in the dirt up to the angels in heaven, each more complex and valuable than the things below. More recent models speak of a historical progression from disorder, through plant life, animal life, rational life, and social life to spiritual or technological fulfillment. Chardin’s “noosphere,” Lovelock’s “Gaia,” and Kurzweil’s “Singularity” appear as inevitable products of cosmic evolution. Sometimes manifest destiny appears as well, as we can see in Star Trek and Interstellar.


Jewish and Christian thinkers often use physical development and evolution as a metaphor for salvation history. Paul’s “groaning of creation” (Rom 8:22) links childbirth to the coming kingdom, while Moses’ exhortation to “choose life” (Deu 30:19) links obedience to fruitfulness. Paul Tillich explicitly takes this approach (Systematic Theology III p26).


In a slightly different perspective, some modern “pro-life” perspectives suggest that more life – in this case more children – is always better. They go beyond asserting that killing is bad to asserting a moral obligation to generate more humans. Many advocates have a more sophisticated approach, but the label in itself suggests that life is always good and more life is always better.


Version B: The Romantic ApproachAre agents and thinkers worse forms of life? Do our action, thoughts, technology, etc. draw us away from natural goodness?

Biological life is (almost) always framed as good, but sometimes other life – the higher life of the progressive frame – is seen as a move away from natural order. Artifice becomes associated with evil. Intellect becomes less than – or potentially less than – life. This romanticism appears blatantly as a nature versus technology motif in Star Wars, but also in countless other works – from Lord of the Rings to Avatar. In theology, I believe this has roots in concepts of the Fall. Humans default to goodness, nature, and life, but our will allows us to choose other options. It occurs very commonly in arguments against “playing God” or “tampering with the natural order” (e.g., in response to genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies).


Version C: The Warfare Approach – Is life at war with death?

A third issue arises, when we consider a cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death. Life and death are characterized as active forces – perhaps even personalities – competing for control of the universe. This usually comes paired with versions A or B, but it can also appear on it’s own. We can view life as the inevitable winner – as in the Chronicles of Narnia and other Christian narratives of fall and redemption. Or we can view the two sides as evenly matched – as in the classic battles between Chaos and Cosmos in Babylonian mythology and between Light and Darkness in Manichaeism. Life might even be the the inevitable loser, as we can see in personifications of increasing entropy or talk of life (or reason) as a flickering candle in the dark. This last position appears Battlestar Galactica and the recent movies Gravity and The Martian.


Mythic approaches requires value orientation like the visceral approach, but it is universal value and always associated with life (as opposed to non-life or artifice). A mythic frame research program would involve looking at things of value and determining in what way life was present in them. Alternately, one might look at all things identified as living and try to find value.


Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Halloween Prayer

“From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night; dear Lord, deliver us.” (traditional Anglican prayer)

It sounds quaint now, but it should remind us that, for many, ghosts and ghouls are real. They are the very real and present traumas that remain from losing people close to us and the very real and present vices that feed on these traumas. I do not say this to naturalize or temporize supernatural ghosts and ghouls. Perhaps they exist; perhaps they don’t. I say it to recognize that our dead stay with us and this can be a way of talking about it. Ghosts and ghouls are just as real as the mosquitos and other long-leggity beasties that bring sickness to most of the world. They are just as real as Vikings – whose longboats when bump against the town dock in the middle of the night before a raid – and other terrors of politics beyond our control. Halloween brings us face to face with our terror and fascination for forces beyond our control which nonetheless drive our lives and our deaths.

May God protect us from the terrors of the night – and the terrors of the day; may we remember the great and terrible work of making the world a place of truth, trust, hope, and love; may we find our way amidst the storm; and may God bring us safely home. Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Trick and Treat

Sometimes an idea grows so large you can’t wrap your head around it in only one day. Sometimes a holiday requires multiple days. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead give us a chance to deal with life and death, and to give the boundary between the two the space (and time) that it deserves. If you like your holidays to be nothing more than an excuse to eat, or party, or be with friends, now is the time to stop reading. Those are wonderful things – we need our excuses – but at the end of the day they are only the byproducts of a proper “holy day.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the Holy is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” that which is wholly other, fearful, and fascinating. The phrase was coined by Rudolf Otto, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion. He thought some such experience of the holy or the numinous was at the root of all religion. In just such a way, I think the triple holiday coming up gives us an opportunity to deal with death in all of its ambivalent glory. Whether you are Christian or not, I think this is a true holy day, and one not to be missed.

Each of the three festivals has its own history, though the names we give them all derive from the same Christian feast day. Halloween, is an 18th century Scottish contraction of All Hallow Even, the night before All Saints’ Day. It coincides with Samhain, the Celtic new year and beginning of winter. Day of the Dead (Spanish: Dia de los Muertos) observances have been going in on Southern Mexico for two to three thousand years, though they settled on November second, falling in with Roman Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. The Christian holy day of All Saints’ has been broadly observed on November 1 since the 8th and 9th century and observed as a multiple day festival since the 1400s. With such ancient roots, I cannot claim to tell you what the three days should be about. I can say what they mean to me in a way that I hope respects some of the many traditions that have grown up around them.

First, I think we must respect that they are three very different days. No one has an uncomplicated relationship with death. Perhaps one day will be more important to you, but I truly believe each of us can gain something from engaging in all three. Each of us can benefit from meditating on death in a way that brings us more fully in touch with the fearful and and wonderful mystery – that allows us mental, emotional, and spiritual space to deal with our own ghosts. That said, here is my threefold observance.

Halloween gives us a chance to think about the “thinning of the veil” between life and death. We recognize the importance things past have on things present. We pause to recognize how thin the line is between living and dying. Halloween is a holiday of contingence and chance and powerlessness. It is a time when the dead come to visit the living. We bring out sweets to placate and masks to scare the dead. We flirt with our fear of death and of those who have gone before. Halloween unsettles us, as it should. Before you can deal with your dead (those you have lost) and your mortality, you must be aware of them.

All Saints’ Day flips our fear, for it reminds us that our dead have helped us, too. Despite the workings of the unknown, our loved ones have reached out to change the world we live in. People have power. Christians celebrate God reaching into history, not only in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of countless saints. They are our examples and our inspiration. They include not only those recognized by the church, but everyone who has shed light in our lives. Christians particularly remember those who gave their lives to do this – those who were martyred for love or truth or hope. All people can remember that our dead continue to helps us, that some of them truly helped the world, and that we can, too.

On the Day of the Dead, the living go to visit their dead. It is the opposite of Halloween, for on this day, we accept death. Instead of scaring or propitiating the dead, we dwell among them. We celebrate them, whether they helped or harmed us. We recognize them for who they are and for all of those forces beyond their control that they struggled with. We talk with those we no longer talk to. It is a day to be reconciled with the past, a day for forgiveness, acceptance, and peace. It is a day to anticipate our own passing from this world. We hope to leave it a better place. And we hope we go to a better country.

When I do things right, I leave the threefold holiday knowing my dead a little better – and knowing my own life a little better, because of the dead. I hope this year’s visit with the dead will help you, too.

Posted by: dacalu | 19 October 2015

Approaches to the Meaning of “Life”

This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life.  It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here.

I would like to suggest five prominent approaches to how we model life. I do not claim these five ways are exclusive or exhaustive. Rather they are five well worn paths that many have taken in search of the meaning of “life.” Specific models – such as Aristotle’s nutritive soul or Schrodinger’s delayed entropy – can be assessed by the work they do in each approach. Often they will have been designed with one approach in mind and be very successful in that way. Often they will then be appropriated by thinkers to do work in another approach – with mixed success.

Each of the approaches comes associated with a focusing question or two that highlights what I see as a central concern. I hope to better identify the place of these various approaches in specific conversations – for example scientific origin-of-life research or Catholic environmental ethics – as well as global conversations on the definition of life. I will return to these questions at the end with my own concerns – how to search for life in space and how to build healthy relationships between individuals and communities. First though, I hope to improve communication between a wide variety of people with a wide variety of concerns by talking about what may be at stake for them – and for all of us – as we discuss “life” together.

The Visceral Approach – Can I eat it? Can it eat me?

The first approach frames life in the context of opportunities and dangers. At the most basic level, we ask “can I eat it?” and “can it eat me?” Evolutionary theory suggests that we would have evolved very accurate, very fast heuristics for answering those two questions. In a more generic way, we often ask whether something is alive so that we can assess it as a threat or opportunity. In medicine, we want to eliminate potential pathogens. In international law, we want to preserve common goods. Alien-as-threat and alien-as-exploitable-resource are two of the most common tropes in science fiction and they often challenge us to think of species wide interests or even life-wide interests.

Using the visceral approach requires a reference subject and some statement of their interest. To whom is this life an opportunity or danger? A visceral approach research program would involve observing and anticipating outcomes. It must be subject dependent and prospective. When we speak of Extinction Level Events – such as a meteor impact killing off the dinosaurs – we think in terms of diminished life on Earth.

More approaches in the next post!

Posted by: dacalu | 15 October 2015

That Lived in Look

I’ve been thinking about architecture today. Why do we build beautiful buildings and how do we put them to use? Being a fan of architecture, several examples came to mind.

Vista_aerea_del_Monasterio_de_El_Escorialver-1-tnHampton Court aerial 300 HB22

These are pictures of L’Escorial (17th c. Spain), Versailles (17th c. France), and Hampton Court (16th c. England). Each one is a palace and no one could mistake them for purely functional. And yet, they were built for more than luxury. Each one was established as an operational center of government for a State. Work was done in these places – not always well, certainly not democratically, but productively. Now consider three more.

Neuschwanstein StBasils Taj-Mahal-5

Neushwanstein (19th c. Bavaria), St. Basil’s (16th c. Russia), and the Taj Mahal (17th c. Mughal Empire) were all constructed as feats of architecture for a more limited audience. Neuschwanstein was a retreat for Mad King Ludwig. St. Basil’s was a Cathedral, but the interior space is quite limited – it’s more of a landmark. The Taj Mahal is a tomb. These are, in my opinion, three of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, and yet I am slightly uneasy thinking about them. The first and the third threatened national economies. The second commemorates military victories and was a demonstration of imperial power. If nothing else, they must represent for us the accumulation of immense wealth and power in the hands of a single individual.

I’d like to ask how theologies and philosophies relate to these buildings. When you go beyond a specific claim (e.g., my table is flat, it’s bad to hit your brother) to a system (e.g., Natural Law Theology, Physicalism), what kind of building are you making. How many people can live there (or work or worship…)? I don’t like ugly philosophy any more than I like ugly buildings.

Gropius Dormitories

Still, even among beautiful buildings, there is something to be said about functionality and common goods. No matter how elegant, how well crafted, how beautiful a philosophy is, it’s probably not worth living there alone – especially if other people have to work to keep you there.

What kind of philosophical building do you live in?

Posted by: dacalu | 5 October 2015

“Life” Work

This blog is part of a short series setting forth my plans for research in the 2015-2016 academic year.  It starts with a brief introduction, but each of the pieces stands alone. In this installment, I talk a little about what work we may need the concept of life to do in various areas of thought and research.

What’s at Stake in a Life-Concept?

How do you use the word “life”? We all speak of life regularly, from “life on Mars” to “the meaning life” to “lifelong learning.” More technical appearances arise when we speak of metabolism (defined as the chemistry of life), sterile or abiological (free of life), or resurrection (life after death). I think it would be silly to force everyone to use life in only one, highly specified way, but I also think it’s silly to assume that others have the same needs we do when they use the concept. Here I just want to set out a few of the more important things at stake as we talk about life and how we understand it.

Within biology and astrobiology, we want to know about the origin, distribution, and energetic constraints appropriate to life. How do we find new kinds of life (e.g., extremophiles) or life in new places (e.g., planets orbiting other stars). We also want to know if we can speak of life using simple physical concepts and discrete math. Is it useful to speak of a unit of biology – a gene, organism, or population? We can also ask about whether death can be beneficial in evolutionary terms. Taking a step back, we can ask philosophy of biology questions about what constitutes an adequate account of biological causation.

These issues blur with medical issues related to health and whether health is objective and biological. It comes up most concretely in questions of the beginning and end of human life – when does a patient become an object or vice versa? That is, of course, a very blunt way of stating it, but I think it is at the heart of issues around abortion and euthanasia. This flows into questions about how we treat human bodies when they are breathing but not rational.

In medicine, we can also speak about creating sterile environments, free from harmful life, and antibiotics, targeting harmful life.

Similar issues arise in questions of anthropology within ethics, law and policy. What constitutes persons, agents (actors), and patients (sufferers)? They do radically different work than “organism in the species Homo sapiens” and yet arguments commonly conflate the two. More broadly, we can ask questions about whether living tissues can be owned and sold. Life generally gets assigned rights and obligations not given to non-life.

In philosophy and theology, we can broaden the discussion even further to ask whether life has inherent value, perhaps due to a special relationship with the divine. Do we have obligations to all living things? Do they have obligations to us? This plays out concretely in environmental ethics, animal rights, and property law. Most ethical systems attribute dignity to life and greater dignity to “life of the mind.”

I would like to keep in mind the needs appropriate to each of the discourses.  Theology will be accountable to the uses of concepts in scripture and tradition. Law and science require categories clear enough for consistent interpretation; this will probably require that life be a binary property of discrete things (e.g., That particular dog is alive).

What’s at stake for you in defining life?

Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

The History of Life

This blog is part of a short series setting forth my plans for research in the 2015-2016 academic year.  It starts with a brief introduction, but each of the pieces stands alone. In this installment, I give a quick and dirty summary of the history of life-concepts in Western culture (Europe and North America from ~1000 BCE to the present).

Concepts of life are as old as recorded history. They are rarely explicit definitions, but they consistently oppose life and non-life/death, either in exclusive categories or as ends of a continuum. [1]

Greek and Hebrew conversations set the stage for Western discussion. Homer wants to know what holds the limbs together and what remains after death. Genesis identifies life with the breath of God, which gives form, animal life, human life, and spiritual life. Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Plato associate life with the fundamental harmony that orders the universe, while Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius want to disentangle the two so that we are free to dissolve into nothingness at death. Thales and Aristotle are more concerned with reconciling biological and abiological causation and explanation. All of them want to understand why and how life manages to surprise us in ways that non-life does not.

Life concepts in the West came to be dominated by the concept of psyche as interpreted by Plato (through Plotinus) – discrete, substantial eternal units of life – and Aristotle – dynamic processes in material substrates. By the Middle Ages, the life of humans takes on a Platonic air, driven by theologians who want to attach it to will, intellect, and the image of God. Meanwhile, the life of plants and animals takes on an Aristotelian air, driven by a desire to conceive of the cosmos as a unified whole. Curiously, both are called psyche or anima. Aquinas attempts to integrate the two with mixed success.

By the start of the 17th century, Aristotelian ideas of formal and final causes have come to be used in ways increasingly unpalatable to natural philosophers. Descartes and Gassendi usher in a “mechanical philosophy,” eliminating those elements. [2] As formal and final causes are central to the Aristotelian model of life, plant and animal life lose their meaning and human life shifts definitively to a Platonic frame. Life becomes mysterious in the new worldview, and no consensus can be found on how biological causation relates to general causation. This is fertile ground for epistemological inquiries over the next two centuries as the rules of modern science are set. Kant wants to understand living things, while Goethe, Hegel, and others seek to construct historical narratives. In this period, both Progressive and Romantic approaches develop.

Modern science constructed under the mechanical paradigm may not be able to meaningfully differentiate life and non-life. Kant attempted a pragmatic solution, appealing to a concept of organism – parts moving with a common end. He was aware that such an end constitutes a final cause and was, therefore, not justifiable empirically (Critique of Judgment §64-65). Instead he accepted that they must simply be asserted if we want to understand life. Foucault (The Order of Things) describes a broader epistemological shift at this time, from uncovering inherent meaning to taking on the ideal perspective.

In light of this history, Paley did not invent “Design” arguments for living properties. [3] Instead, he followed Descartes and later enlightenment thinkers in moving the goal-directedness of living things from intrinsic purpose (Aristotelian final cause) to extrinsic Divine purpose. Gassendi, Kant, Hume and others had rejected attempts to determine such purpose empirically, leaving open the question of whether “science” was allowed to determine them in some other way (a priori necessity a la Descartes or pragmatically a la Kant).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries numerous life concepts arose, each gaining only temporary or local popularity. Life might be made up of living stuff. Lucretius proposed “soul-seeds” and Chardin “spirit-matter.” Ruthorford and Soddy suggest radioactive elements as “metabolons.” Moving up into chemical components (rather than atomic) Abernethy proposes a fluid like electricity while Huxley speaks of “protoplasm.” [4] The Miller-Urey Experiment (1952) was the most famous in a series of experiments establishing that the same components make up life and non-life.

Alternatively, life could be a question of natural laws, with some life-force driving the biosphere toward a particular end, just as the second law of thermodynamics drives the universe toward heat-death. Concepts of “orthogenesis” or progressive evolution became popular among biologists and economists (e.g., Haeckel and Spencer), but they were never fruitful in terms of predictions and were firmly rejected in biology in the early 20th century. [5]

In the 20th century, life concepts focused on unique functions of life such as metabolism and reproduction. Like life, they appear intuitively distinct and significant. Like life, we have not found any rigorous definitions that match our intuitions. These approaches have opened up productive avenues of research, they have not as of yet provided us with a dominant concept of life. Theologians, philosophers, and ethicists noted the dangers of operationalizing or reducing life and losing value components.

Most recently, we have begun to explore concepts of feedback loops and integrated systems. Von Neumann pioneered this approach with his concept of “cybernetics” and Sara Walker represents the cutting edge of such research applied to definitions of life. The promise lies in recognizing scalable relational properties of physical systems, rather than compositional or energetic properties. These moves were consonant with the process philosophy of Whitehead as well as expressly relational anthropologies, dating at least from Hegel and appearing as I/Thou in Buber.

The next post will explore various modern questions that hang on our model of life.



[Note 1: Non-life and death are not always equivalent.]

[Note 2: See Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy.]

[Note 3: William Paley is famous as the originator of modern “intelligent design” argument. You may have heard of a watch found on the ground – arguing that it must have been designed because of how it works – or his book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.]

[Note 4: In fiction, the first drives the plot in Frankenstein, the second in R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).]

[Note 5: See Micheal Ruse’s book, Monad to Man.)]

Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

What do you want from “life”?

The next few blogs lay out the overarching theme for my research this year at Princeton.  They are adapted from a paper I presented here at the Center of Theological Inquiry.

What do you want from “life”?

We feel intuitively that life is both distinct and significant to our understanding of the world. And yet attempts to define life – or at least generate a conceptual framework for understanding it – have failed to achieve consensus for at least two hundred years.  We may be using competing criteria that prohibit agreement. For these reasons, I would like to look at who is asking the question at what they have at stake in an answer. Specifically, I hope to address these three questions:

What work do we need a concept of life to do?

How do we frame concepts of life?

Which frames satisfy which needs?


For example, when Moses says “choose life” (Deu 30:15-20) the concept of life does normative work; “life” means living well. Irwin Schrödinger equates death with thermodynamic equilibrium and life as that which delays decay into death (What is Life? 1944). Does Schrödinger’s concept suit Moses’ needs?  Cross-fertilization is valuable but, as with Planetary protection, we need to be careful of certain types of contamination. What belongs where when we talk about life concepts?

The next post sets out a history of life-concepts or models for understanding life in order to highlight the work that people have tried to do with it in the past.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 September 2015

Diversity and Teaching

In one of my job applications (for a professor position), I was asked how I would address issues of diversity in course materials and activities.  Because it started a great Facebook discussion, I thought I would post my final essay here.

[We are] committed to recruiting, hiring and supporting ethnically and culturally diverse faculty and to developing curriculum that emphasizes cultural competence and reconciliation.  Please respond to this statement by briefly describing how you would address issues of diversity (such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender) in course material and class sessions.

I watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She spoke on the danger of a single story – how we can become biased when we think of people and places only in terms of a single narrative: my poor neighbor or that oppressed country. I found this helpful in thinking about teaching and more broadly in thinking about both epistemology and Christian love. Diverse stories stir our curiosity, inviting us into deeper thought and more careful attention.

In teaching biology, I want to provide multiple stories to the students, encouraging them to create their own stories about the material. This starts with a conversation about what kinds of story make for good scientific work – generally concise, fruitful, concrete models of how a system works or how things fit together. They need not all agree with one another – but each needs to do a particular kind of work. It opens the door for students to discover their own ability to do science and encourages them to look for diverse positions on any topic. Where possible, I like to bring in examples of scientists with diverse backgrounds. I also want to introduce the idea that “we” as a class and “we” including all scientists are trying to tell a group of stories together so students can think about what that means, when it works, and when it might be challenging. Biology provides wonderful examples of dangerous ideology (Lysenkoism), misappropriation of science (eugenics), popular controversy (sex, gender, and orientation) and conflicting perspectives (adaptationism, levels of selection, biological altruism). We must think carefully about what work we expect it to do – and what work we don’t expect it to do.

The process requires diverse avenues for students to respond, as well. Studies suggest benefits to cold-calling students systematically and creating discussion spaces in which each student has an uninterrupted turn. I think free discussion can be invaluable, but it should be balanced with opportunities for students to prepare remarks. This can include short prepared reports, structured discussion, and scheduled meetings outside of class. It requires careful thought not only about the content of conversation, but the framework – issues such as not always calling on the first person to raise their hand, immediately stopping as hominem arguments, and rotating discussion/study partners.

One of the most important aspects for me is to be available to students as a person as well as a teacher and to reinforce the importance of their concerns and their perspective in achieving what will ultimately be their knowledge.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2015


“Judge not lest ye be judged.” Matthew 7:1

As a Christian I take this rule fairly seriously. It appears repeatedly in the New Testament. I’d tell you how good I am at following my own advice, but that would be cheating.

How can I assess my own behavior without judging whether I live up to standards? Repentance calls for self-knowledge and Christianity asks for repentance. Worse yet: how can I be truly curious about another person, without wanting to know their standards, both what they practice and what they profess? Love calls for curiosity and Christianity calls for love. Indeed, Christianity calls for love above all else. So, the issue of judgment cannot simply be ignored.

I have heard that we should be “discerning” but not “judgmental.” I have heard it most often from people who are discerning that I am not right with God. This makes it less helpful. That kind of talk is exactly the judgment Jesus seems to be ruling out.

I go, but I go carefully, recognizing the danger. And I go openly, so that you can follow along, up until I fall into the quicksand. With luck, you will help me out again. Deal?

With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about what it means to be curious about people. I ask for more than surface curiosity. Yes, I’d like to know where you work and what music you listen to. I’d like to hear where you vacation and what you read. I’d even like to know what religious label you identify with, be it Atheist, Buddhist, Neo-Pagan, Presbyterian, or Post-Denominational. I’m interested. And for all of those categories, I don’t think I’m supposed to judge whether you are closer to or farther from God/Enlightenment/Goodness/What have you. I’m not supposed to have a little meter in my mind that goes from evil to holy, ridiculous to sublime, or even simply bad to good. I think of these as “soteriometers” which is just a theology geek way of saying, devices to measure salvation. I avoid the soteriometers, because, nine times out of ten, they have fine print. Just like the speedometers on foreign cars that have kilometers in big numbers and little miles-per-hour numbers underneath, most soteriometers run from “negligible” to “fascinating.” We use them as excuses to ignore people who don’t measure up.

Worse yet, the final one in ten soteriometers attempt to measure dignity – how much people are worth. They run from “worthless” to “praiseworthy.’ Worthless people don’t measure up and harming them is, to those who read these meters, no big deal. Just as I would not consider a rock’s feelings when I move it out the way to sit down, so I would not consider the feelings of a worthless person when choosing my actions.

For the record: there are no worthless people.

Neither are some people worth more than others. Think about that for a while. I strive to care about the feelings and priorities of everyone I meet. Here’s the rub. Deep curiosity (and love or compassion) requires you to ask exactly this question. What are his feelings? What are her priorities? Those are the meaningful questions I want to ask and the profound answers I want to hear. That’s what I look for. And, because I care about those things, I will be looking for times when your priorities don’t match up – when what you say, what you do, and what I thought of you don’t all match up.

It’s not the same as judgment. There is no scale running from bad to good. Instead, I see a range from comprehension – this is the person I know – to confusion – this is someone new. Comprehension is comforting and confusion provocative. One is not better than another, though there is definitely a time and a place for each.

When someone tells me they are Christian and does not show love, it confuses me. I have to hold my idea of “Christian” in tension with their demonstration of “Christian.” That’s frustrating. It is not (or should not be) a judgment of their worth. Rather it is a judgment of our relationship with one another. It invites me to learn more. It also causes pain. We always feel pain when we realize our picture of the world is incomplete.

We can respond to that pain by making the provocation disappear; we can ignore or even eliminate the problem. Or we can respond with curiosity.

Whenever someone applies a religious label to themselves, it sparks this kind of curiosity in me. The word means something. What does it mean? And what does it tell me about the person? And does that word match up with all of the other words shouted by their actions?

“Atheist” causes problems when it comes to values. I could take the word at face value and assume that a person has no substantial priorities, no feelings or preferences, which I could respect or ignore. I have yet to meet a single atheist for whom this was the case. I know many atheists with profound ethical commitments lived out beautifully. Honestly, I care more passionately about what you hold dear than I do about your abstract intellectual commitment to a personal all-powerful deity. If I say, “I’m a Christian,” and you respond, “I’m an Atheist,” we may be talking past each other.

Most atheists in my experience, don’t take the word at face value either. The ones I know are usually rationalists (who value thinking clearly and worry that belief in God works against it). I enter these discussions with the assumption that I share a value for rationality with them. When someone tells me that they are Atheist and then demonstrates poor reasoning, it confuses me.

I’m tougher on Atheists than I am on Christians when it comes to reasoning, just as I am tougher on Christians than I am on Atheists when it comes to love. It has to do with my best guess about their priorities and how to honor them. It has to do with how I attempt to communicate with the words I use. It has to do with curiosity and, when I’m doing well, it has nothing to do with judgment.

I listen and talk in the hopes of honoring other people’s priorities. I have noticed that many Christians and Atheists do this silent work of judging – the good kind and the bad kind – while speaking of their “faith” or “lack of faith,” but fail to communicate. They worry that the other person is avoiding the “real issue,” partly because they have different ideas about what the real issue is. For me it’s love-as-curiosity and for that reason, I hope reading this will help you listen and talk just a bit more clearly.

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