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.

Posted by: dacalu | 20 July 2020

Just Say No to Virtual Eucharist

“Faith tells us only that God is. Love tells us that God is good. But hope tells us that God will work God’s will. And hope has two lovely daughters: anger and courage. Anger so that what cannot be, may not be. And courage, so that what must be, will be.” – St. Augustine

Sometimes anger is the right response.

I rarely write in anger. My first calling has always been to help people think both critically and communally. And so, I work hard to remove the anger from my words. It robs them of their force, but I accept that. I care more about fostering community than winning particular battles.

This time is different. This time the battle is about community and about where we place our hope. Arguments don’t change minds, experiences do. Serious engagement and time spent together change people’s minds. And so, I hope, and I work, to set the foundations for that kind of conversation. When people threaten that, I get angry.

I am profoundly angry about our inability to talk about race, about wealth, and about our responsibilities to one another. In the US and the UK, people have been working hard to destroy any shred of common ritual, common language, or common identity that stand in the way of their ideological agendas. Words like racism, privilege, and liberty have been so twisted as to mean radically different things for different groups of people. And those people are invested in their inability to communicate. It allows them to ignore one another and feel justified.

The Church has a solution to this problem, one that sits at the very heart of Christianity. We eat together every week. This is not an abstract solution, but a concrete one. God, made flesh, ate with us. God who never needed a body became one, so that he might sit with us. God who never needed food ate with us: fish and bread, wine and water. God in person, God in flesh, God incarnate makes Christianity what it is.

God asks many things, but this first: eat together. Feed the hungry. Don’t cast scraps from your table. Go and eat with them. Share a holy meal. “We who are many are one body, for we all share in the one bread.” (I Corinthians 10:17)

We call this meal Holy Communion because it involves being joined together with God and one another (com + union). It is also called a sacrament because, in the words of Augustine, it is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. By theology and by tradition it must involve a physical interaction between people – many hands holding one cup.

The meal is not adiaphora. It is not something extra. It is our identity. We are the people who eat together with God. Lest we somehow miss the carnality of this feast, Jesus said, “This is my body.” It is tangible and visceral; hands touch and tongues taste. It happens in human bodies. The value of touch is not a product of our theology, but the foundation of it. We encounter God in the flesh. We meet one another in the flesh so that, even when our minds are at odds, we learn from our bodies. We state, with word and deed, that we are concretely and physically one body. And, although we abstain from physical meeting right now, we must not forget that physical meeting is our identity – just as God incarnate is our inspiration.

Virtual Presence

Virtual Communion refers to rituals of communion that take place online, where the presider claims to consecrate bread and wine remotely, so that it may be consumed by the faithful.1 Christians have other sacred meals, most notably the Agape Feast, practiced in the early church and revived by the Moravians and Methodists. It can have many of the same features as Holy Communion or Eucharist but makes no claims to sacramental union.

To name an event “Communion” is to make a very particular claim. Virtual Communion or Virtual Eucharist should not be considered a new thing. It explicitly invokes the theological grounding and the historical centrality of Holy Communion. It equates the online service with the core rite of the church. And, as such, it denies a central Christian truth. It is not an alternative form of worship, but a public rejection of core beliefs. It claims boldly that our faith is founded on ideas and images, not incarnation. It pretends that intellectual and emotional food suffices. It is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual lie.

We live in dangerous times and there are many things to be angry about. Many of us are tired of the anger and tired of the competing claims to our emotions. Why this? Why now? Because, as a Christian, this is the path home. Although we will not, in this lifetime, know all the answers, we have this promise. If we eat together physically, all else can be resolved.

Shouldn’t we deal with race first?

If you genuinely feel this way, go with God. Stop reading my words and go immediately to Ruha Benjamin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Kelly Brown Douglas. They know what I do not and say what I cannot.

I promise I’m trying to follow where they lead. Black lives matter. Black bodies matter. I do not think we can seriously confront racism until we understand that it occurs on bodies, in bodies, and to bodies. Racism follows the social imaginary far more closely than it follows any biological distinctions. Ideology and technology drive; flesh bears the consequences.

The path to reconciliation lies in sitting down together, sharing the same space and eating the same food. Salvation can be found in bodies. At times like this, it must be found in bodies. And so, I turn to Jesus, to love incarnate, to the physical rituals of the church. Surprisingly, bodily needs can save us from ideological temptations, when we remember the Christian message: grace is tangible. Tangible Eucharist responds to racism. It is not enough, but it is a start. For a Christian, it is always the start.

To replace physical communion with virtual communion is to turn our eyes from the concrete to the imaginary, from practice to ideology. And, while there is a time for that move, we must first ground ourselves in bodies, acted with and acted upon.

Shouldn’t we deal with virus first?

Yes. We should. We should stick with the traditional ritual and make changes to core Christian practices when we are not beset by Pestilence, Death, and Vainglory. Virtual Eucharist has been debated by theologians and liturgists as long as we have had television, if not longer. Their consensus has always been that it is a bad idea.

Suddenly, we cannot meet in person. We must reach out virtually. We must celebrate bodily and mindfully. No, we should not meet in person until we understand the virus far better than we do. And yes, we must be present for people, even when we cannot be present in person. We must not use our ritual, even Eucharist, as an excuse to neglect the needs of bodies, particularly the bodies of the poor and the sick.

This does not justify switching to virtual Eucharist. It certainly doesn’t justify change in weeks or months. Such changes usually take decades. I worship with two communities on a regular basis. Both introduced virtual Eucharist in the same week. Both have savvy members, informed both theologically and scientifically. Both pride themselves on thoughtful worship, responsible to history and modern knowledge. Both took me completely by surprise. I understand the frustration, even desperation, pastors feel. All of us suffer from the uncertainty of the times and keen sense of isolation. We want something to address our hunger. We want to be able to do something. But good decisions are more difficult in a crisis, they deserve more time and more care.

Christianity is a long-term endeavor, one that will be served by recognizing the significance of the current fast, even if it lasts for a year or more. We should begin thinking seriously now about how to maintain our bodily ritual and bodily identity when we cannot meet in large groups.

Eucharist is a sign of unity.

The Body of Christ manifest in bread and wine becomes the Body of Christ manifest in the gathered assembly. It speaks to the heart of the Christian mystery; it defines our practice and shapes our identity. Pastors who change the symbolism change the fundamental character of their community. They have an obligation to engage with all the people whose practice and identity will change when they change the ritual.

I am a theologian who spends most of his time on science and religion, specifically biological metaphors like the Body of Christ. For millennia Western societies have tried to divorce body and spirit, to say that we are essentially minds, and only accidentally fleshly organisms. Consistently, the church has replied, “no.” We are bodies essentially and God redeems flesh as God redeems spirit.

We celebrate with one cup to represent one body, one blood, one people, and one God. Multiple cups will always send the wrong message. We make allowances when they are all poured from the same vessel on the same altar by the same person, when any member of the congregation might receive from any cup. We must not make allowance for multiple cups (or loaves) of diverse quality. The service stands opposed to justice when the privileged have better quality elements, when some may partake and some may not, when the presider may not even see all the people. Eucharist recognizes the truth that we experience God together, in the flesh.

Virtual Eucharist sends a different message: that grace is fundamentally an idea or a packet of information to be transmitted by wire. While I do not deny that this can occur, it is something other than Eucharist, something other than the core tradition of the Church. When we equate virtual Eucharist and traditional Eucharist, we announce that physical bodies and actions are only the appearances of Divinity and not Divine substance. We reinforce dangerous beliefs that souls are saved, but not bodies; that we are saved individually by thinking about God, not collectively by joining with God and one another in action. We hint that physical truths may contradict spiritual truths and physical harm may lead to spiritual health. One belief follows from another; disembodied ritual creates disembodied faith. To eat together online is right and good and a joyful thing. To make it the center of Christian faith is something else entirely.

Can Virtual Communion be a type of Holy Communion?

Some have suggested that Virtual Communion is a place holder, a second-class communion while we wait to return to normal, but there can be no classes of Eucharist. It is tempting to say this is a lesser communion, but that is something we must not say. It is incompatible with the “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world.” We say that Christ made the sacrifice once and that we, in this act, participate. Once we claim that you can participate more or less, we start classifying Christians as more and less united to Christ, more and less adopted into the household of God, more and less saved. The Eucharist will be tangible always and essentially or it will be tangible accidentally. It cannot be both, or even one ideally and another nominally. Eucharist is or is not. And so classes of Holy Communion simply will not work. If we make this change now, we make it in earnest and will, likely, hold on to it for decades to come, if not centuries.

“The people want it/need it.”

Some pastors view the change as a pastoral necessity but changing the Communion without community reflection harms the congregation. It favors one faction (“people who really want this”) over others. It imposes their theology (implicit or explicit) upon everyone. There may be times for that to occur, for leaders to lead, but the process takes time as well as emotional and intellectual space. Sacramental changes usually take decades if not centuries to institute because they touch so closely on Christian self-understanding.

Virtual Eucharist already denies that physical unity is central to Christianity. Making the change suddenly only exacerbates the problem. It imposes division on a rite whose primary purpose is peacemaking. It allows some to continue without bringing everyone along – intellectually and emotionally, but also physically in the provision of bread and wine and a place to celebrate. The practice of celebrating communion behind locked doors or charging a fee for entry has long been viewed as deeply offensive. How is it different to celebrate in a way that requires both computer and internet? Not everyone shares these opportunities. “So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” (I Corinthians 11:33-34)

I do not deny the tragedy of the situation, the physical and emotional hunger. The virus forces to make tragic choices and no answer will be fully satisfactory. And yet, the physicality of communion cannot be sacrificed to any short-term desire. It witnesses to the central mystery of Christianity, a profoundly counter-cultural claim about the role of bodies in our lives. More is lost than could be gained.

Grace incarnate.

I have faith and hope for the Church. I think that people do and will receive worthily whatever rituals we perform. I think that God will continue working through the Church and that the Church will continue reaching out to the world in person and online. For now, and for the near future, we must persist in our fast, however. With all the wonderful things we do together, for God, and for the world, there is one thing we must not do.

Virtual Eucharist should not be adopted. It does not simply fail to send the right message; it actively sends the wrong one. It denies the tangible unity of God with humanity. It denies the perfection of Christ’s offering. More dangerously, it lets us off the hook by allowing us to retreat into individual minds and personal ideologies. God has given us a concrete solution to our problems. We can sit and eat together. We may not be able to at the moment, but we must not forget it is our foundation, the core of our identity, and the only path home: God made flesh.


  1. Note on “spiritual communion.” When I say “virtual communion” I mean to suggest that members of the online congregation bring bread and wine to their computers to be consecrated remotely by a priest and consumed locally. I have no objections to the practice of spiritual communion, a tradition where a priest consecrates bread and wine, physically touching both paten and chalice, before sharing them with others. Individuals who cannot receive or, in extreme circumstances, cannot even be present may nonetheless pray for God’s grace through observation of or meditation on the act. With the Reformers, I believe that spiritual communion should not replace communion in anyone’s life, though it may be appropriate for a season. There is little risk of confusing spiritual communion with physical communion; thus, it does not trouble me as virtual communion does.
Posted by: dacalu | 16 July 2020

A Wider Audience

Dear Readers,

I wanted to say hello and apologize for the lack of content recently. In addition to the coronavirus, I have been shifting my attention into new areas. Check out my work on other sites:

Christianity Today posted my essay on “Living with Bacteria” and will soon post something on the Mars 2020 mission. Check out these as well as their excellent content related to the virus.

God and Nature posted a piece about long-term thinking in biology and theology. Where are we headed? What are the “Ends of the World“? Keep your eyes out for another piece on the problem of evil coming out in Summer 2020.

Finally, I have taken a job with ECLAS, “Equipping Christian Leadership in an Age of Science.” ECLAS supports senior church leaders in the UK with resources for cutting edge science and high quality science engaged theology. The ECLAS blog has an essay of mine on theological and scientific stories we tell about coronavirus.

I hope to share more original work in this space soon. Wishing you peace and purpose amidst the storm.

Oddly Enough,

Lucas

Posted by: dacalu | 15 April 2020

The Empty Cup

Here is a sermon I recorded for Passion Sunday/Palm Sunday at St. Stephen’s, Seattle. The whole service can be found here. (The sermon begins at 32:30.)

The Prayer for Passion Sunday

Almighty and ever living God, in your tender love for the human race you sent your Son our Savior Jesus Christ to take upon him our nature, and to suffer death upon the cross, giving us the example of his great humility: Mercifully grant that we may walk in the way of his suffering, and also share in his resurrection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Readings

Matthew 21:1-11 (‘The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”‘)

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 (‘Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his mercy endures forever.’)

Isaiah 50:49a (‘It is the Lord God who helps me; who will declare me guilty?’)

Psalm 31:9-16 (‘I am forgotten like a dead man, out of mind; I am as useless as a broken pot.’)

Philippians 2:5-11 (‘Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore, God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.’)

Matthew 26:14-27:66 (The Passion Story)

Sermon:

Lord, grant me the tongue of a teacher, that I may sustain the weary with a word.

A friend of mine joked this week

            that this is the Lentiest Lent she has Lented.

It is a time of fasting and discipline, isolation and reflection

            that will last more than forty days.

            while we wait for better tests,

better treatment, and an end to Covid-19.

We celebrate Easter in a week,

            but we also look forward to ending our fast

                        in another way

            later in the year

                        at a time we do not yet know.

This is a time of emptiness and uncertainty.

It is “passiontide,” a time of passion

            from a Latin word meaning

            “to endure, undergo, experience.”

And so, we endure coronavirus and all the challenges that come with it.

We suffer, but we do not suffer alone.

            God is with us in the emptiness.

            And, in the emptiness, God is revealed.

Today, the church melds two observances into one:  

            Palm Sunday and Passiontide.

Palm Sunday recalls Jesus triumphal entry into Jerusalem,

            amidst waving palms and shouts of “Hosanna.”

Passiontide originally included the last two weeks of Lent,

            as a special time to meditate on Jesus suffering

            leading up to the Crucifixion.

In the Anglican Communion, that has been condensed

            into “The Sunday of the Passion” and Holy Week services.

And thus, we have two gospel readings:

Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem

            and the public scorn of his crucifixion.

Most years, I preach on how the two gospels stand in opposition:

            Community and isolation, praise and blame, hope and despair.

This year, they struck me differently.

Today, they seem two parts of the same story:

            our prayer for mercy

            and God showing mercy

                        as only God can,

                        with genuine listening and true humility.

Jesus eats with Judas and does not resist

            when the soldiers come to take him.

He stands silent before Pilate and Caiaphas.

He would not argue for his innocence.

He had nothing to say,

but the same things he said every day.

            Nothing was hidden.

This is the atonement we have been given,

            Jesus accepting God’s will – and ours

our at-one-ment with God.

It is neither subjugation – God defeating us –

            nor negligence – God ignoring what we do.

It is God fully present in our brokenness,

            inviting us forward without pulling away,

            strengthening without judging,

            showing mercy.

Jesus did not resist the power of the priests and politicians,

            nor the power of the people,

            but his position was always clear –

his love and his honesty.

Paul speaks of Jesus emptying himself,

            becoming a servant, obedient to the point of death,

                        even death on a cross.

And, for this emptying, he was exalted.

This is the mystery of Jesus’ passion:

            God with us in our emptiness and uncertainty,

            Subject to our suffering and our will,

            at one with us in our brokenness.

This is the miracle of Christ, empty:

            Jesus in the desert, on the Cross, in the Tomb.

We take no joy in God’s suffering, Jesus’ passion.

            Emptiness of this kind is never to be sought and never to be praised.

            The Crucifixion was not a necessary sacrifice.

                        It was a choice.

            God chose humility, silence, and mortality,

                        to save us from our fear and violence.

We do not celebrate what was done on that day,

            we celebrate what was revealed.

God was not pretending.

            God did not play at humility, openness, and passion.

            God became flesh.

            God became human.

            God joined us, here.

We remember God’s sacrifice.

            We remember the cup emptied for our sake,

                        and we remember that we tested God –

                        even unto death –

                        and found him faithful.

We called out, Hosanna, God come to us and save us.

            God came and would not depart.

            God came with a love more powerful than death.

That love will save us.

            That love made God return in flesh.

            That love has outlasted empires.

            That love has shown us the way forward.

That love and that life arrived on Easter,

            but a door was opened in Christ’s passion.

            His emptiness gave us an opening,

                        a breach in the wall we built around our selves.

            His emptiness became a window,

                        through which we see the glory of God.

So, let me repeat:

We do not celebrate what was done on that day,

            we celebrate what was revealed:

            God’s mercy.

God’s love is eternal.

God has always been merciful,

            and God will always be fully present,

            no matter how we respond.

We face old and powerful enemies: Sickness, Famine, War, and Death.

Be not afraid.

God is stronger than these,

            and God is with us.

He took on humanity so that humans could take up divinity

            and overcome all enemies.

We will not defeat them through subjugation or negligence.

            We have better tools than that.

            We will defeat them with the humility and mercy of Jesus,

                        a willingness to be open and empty

                        in the face of hardship,

                        to listen, to care, to serve,

                        knowing that our emptiness is

                                    only a window to a greater light.

When we have been emptied out,

God will be revealed in us.

Our very essence is the image and likeness of God,

            to be human is to hold this promise.

I pray we will not be called to sacrifice as Jesus sacrificed,

but if we are called, we will not be found wanting.

The good news of passiontide

can be found at the bottom of the vessel,

when all power has gone,

when hope seems lost,

it is not.

God’s love is stamped on the bottom of the cup.

            When all else has been drained away,

                        you will find that you are beloved of the Most High,

                        you are a child of God.

“Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers,

nor things present, nor things to come,

nor powers, nor height, nor depth,

nor anything else in all creation,

will be able to separate us from the love of God

in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Throughout the crisis,

            you will be tempted with “if only.”

            If only I can be strong enough,

                        fast enough,

                        prepared enough,

                        productive enough…

            If only I can accumulate

                        enough knowledge,

                        enough skill,

                        enough power…

            I can overcome suffering and death

                        either defeat or ignore them.

            I need never be empty.

But that is not the way.

This emptiness need not be sought,

            but neither should it be feared.

Be strong, fast, prepared and productive … when you can.

Accumulate knowledge, skill, and power.

Fill your cup,

            but never forget the promise of emptiness,

            the value of the window,

            and the ultimate reality.

Rest in the knowledge

            that emptiness reveals the glory of God.

Underneath all of our striving

            is a simple truth:

            God is with us, eternally.     

There at the bottom of the well,

            we find that faith, hope, and love endure,

            that our connections to God and neighbor remain.

At the bottom of the well,

            we find that our greatest emptiness is also an amazing fullness.

All other grace is grace on top of that.

All other fullness rests on that foundation.

We are the beloved children of God.

As the crisis continues, I invite you to observe a holy fast.

Be silent when it seems impossible.

            Be still and know God.

            Listen as one who is taught.

            Learn to hear what silence has to say,

                        what can only be said,

                        when space is opened up.

Be patient when it seems impossible.

            The Lord is full of mercy.

            Respect the emptiness and uncertainty of your neighbors.

            They, too, are waiting to see what will be revealed.

            Learn to hold them in their brokenness,

                        and to be held by them.

Be not afraid.

            Death shall have no dominion.

Confidence is not resignation,

            it is a beginning.

            It is a rock to stand on.

An empty space can be useful:

            a cup to fill, a window to see through,

            a shelter from the storm.

And even in emptiness, we are comforted,

for we know what it reveals.

Posted by: dacalu | 9 April 2020

Fasting in Earnest

“This is not the fast we chose, but it is the fast we’ve been given.” So said my pastor last Sunday while explaining changes in our common life. Covid-19 has forced us to think deeply about communion. Individual pastors, congregations, and denominations are debating whether to continue with a weekly Eucharist, whether to meet, and whether to celebrate a “virtual” communion online. I believe that physical contact is central to Christian faith and worship. I believe that God feeds us, in symbol and in truth though physically sharing bread and wine. Social distancing gives us a chance to fast and appreciate the real value of the meal.

Three dangerous arguments have arisen during social distancing. Some argue that physical communion is so important that we should ignore public health directives and gather anyway. They have been on the decline as the seriousness of Covid-19 becomes apparent, but they make an important argument for tangible community. Others argue that we should move communion online, sharing a meal in a new way. They claim that digital communion is still sacramental. Still others call for a performative communion, with an onscreen priest celebrating on behalf of the community. I believe we are called to another path, to affirm the tangible grace of Jesus’ body and blood, but abstain for a season. Our act is voluntary and temporary, and it witnesses to the greater truth.

The body and blood of Christ are present in communion, in symbol and in truth. I cannot commit to Transubstantiation or Memorialism, but I do think we should remember Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection – in a weekly meal, in tangible bread, blessed, broken, shared, and eaten. We meet God in the flesh; we find grace in our bodies; and we share grace in bread and wine. The physical nature of it is not accidental.

So, I take the weekly observance very seriously. We celebrate the resurrection by gathering with saints, past and present. We share food, eating with high and low, weak and strong, near and far. No matter how we fall apart, we hold together in this concrete action. It is never abstract. It is never just a metaphor. It is visceral incorporation into the very Body of Christ.

Coronavirus has not robbed of us this gift. Christians fear neither pestilence nor death. We have reached out to the sick, in symbol and in truth. For two thousand years, we celebrated communion, knowing we may be killed by tyrants, from Roman Emperors to Soviet Dictators. For two thousand years, we have shared food and drink with the sick, entering quarantine zones and sharing a kiss of peace with plague victims.

Many “shelter in place” for fear of sickness and death. Christians have another reason. We will enter quarantine, trusting in God, but we must not leave quarantine. Currently, we cannot care for the sick without spreading the virus. When we know more about Covid-19, we will be able to say who has it and who does not. We will be able to go from victim to victim and care for them, though our life may be at stake. For now, we cannot separate the infected from the uninfected. Nor can we tell whether an infection can reoccur. We separate ourselves, lest our good intentions pave the way to a quicker spread and more death. We flatten the curve for the health of the world. We self-isolate with faith in our public health system, with hope for the future, and with love for those who cannot choose their surroundings.

Governments cannot keep us apart. Sickness cannot keep us apart. Our conscience can. We willfully wait, knowing our joy will be greater when the time comes. We trust to the knowledge and wisdom God has given us. This season of isolation will come to an end. Restrictions will weaken in three to six months as the rate of spread becomes clear. Restrictions will go away in six to eighteen months as we develop efficient testing and vaccines. Aware of the suffering involved, aware of the hunger pains, we wait out of love for one another and for the world that God has made.

In the meantime, we meet online. We have virtual worship services, raising questions about how we worship and who we are in our physical separation. Some have argued Jesus’ body and blood can bridge the gap between us. We need not fast for we can share a virtual communion.

I am sympathetic, because I feel the hunger and need. I want desperately to join my sisters and brothers at God’s table. But I cannot agree. Christ is present in symbol and in truth. And because he is true food, we must take care lest we miss the significance of incarnation and embodiment, lest we lose the tangibility of grace.

Christ is grace incarnate. It would be easy to starve our faith of material elements, so that it becomes intention without action, idea without substance, faith without works. The Kingdom is at hand or it has no power worth mentioning. There is grace to be had in meeting online. Such meetings can be sacramental, but they are not the Sacrament of Communion. Sacraments of that sort are concrete, immediate, and tangible, just as Jesus was concrete, immediate, and tangible. If we thought our solitude would last, perhaps the answer would be different. Alone on a dessert island, under lifetime quarantine, or sailing through space I might consider virtual communion, though even then I would pause. I might be willing to give up one good for the sake of another. But this is not the case. We can remember being fed. And we can wait with eager longing for our fast to end.

The Sunday feast is not, and never has been, the only means of grace; the local pastor is not, and never has been, the sole focus of our faith; Christ is. Now is the time to ask what other acts we may perform, what other gifts we can celebrate. The loss of food reminds us to look for Jesus throughout our lives, to give thanks whenever two or three gather together in his name, to share the food we have. All our actions can be colored by the absence of communion. And, in the fullness of time, we can celebrate with a deeper knowledge of the life we share.

We can make the sacrifice without denying that it is a real sacrifice, in symbol and in truth. We can give up sharing Christ’s body and blood for this season of sickness and uncertainty. We respect our current bodily need, neither sharing physical food nor gathering in person. This restraint saves lives. At the same time, we witness to Jesus as the true food, real and physical. We recall an eternal spiritual hunger. Fasting can be right and good and a joyful thing.

I reject the either/or thinking that says we must choose between metaphysics and pastoral care. All theology should be both. Our metaphysics has consequences. Our short-term needs shape our long-term health. Though painful and dangerous, the coronavirus gives us this chance to bring action and introspection together, to think about how metaphysics matters. The gospel claims that we are spiritual bodies and that true salvation can be found where breath becomes flesh.

To equate online communion with in-person communion – virtual with visceral, technological with tactile – is to deny the physical nature of grace. It is not simply a pastoral move; it is a metaphysical claim of the first order. And it would profoundly change our theology. I believe that fasting is the better choice. We can, as always, eat and pray together in groups of two or more. We can, as always, worship online. But the true feast of the resurrection must wait. Communion should be nothing less than tangible grace for the sake of the whole world.

“So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.” I Corinthians 11:33-34

Posted by: dacalu | 2 April 2020

The First Survey

On the eighth day, the angel Survael appeared to the man and the woman and asked them for their feedback. There was a great ringing sound, like unto a new text message in the heavens, and the sky was rent in two, and the angel descended upon Eden. “I come bearing a short survey. Be not afraid, for it will take only 15 minutes.” Adam and Eve were perplexed, for they had no experience of the survey, but they loved the Lord. So, Adam said, “Let it be with me according to thy prepared script.”

And Survael said unto them, “Please rate creation and all therein on a scale of one to seven, with seven being the most blessed. I will read the questions one at a time and ask you for a number. Do you understand the instructions as I have explained them to you?” And they replied, “yea, we have understood.” And the form was blank and void.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the light and the darkness?” Eve replied that the light was very good to see by and Adam said the darkness served for sleep and prayer. The angel frowned and asked them again. “On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the light and the darkness?” But they stared blankly. So, the angel said, “I need a number” and “is the light good?” Eve said, “yes, the light is good.” But Adam, scratching his head said, “is it very good?” Survael wrote a six and called it good. And there was hemming and hawing, the first question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the firmament?” Eve worried about leaking, but Adam said this was good for the plants and probably intentional. They never fully answered, but Survael said, “I shall write a six.” And it was so. And there was hemming and hawing, the second question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the land and the seas?” Survael squinted and added that this question had fiddly bits, and perhaps they should take them one at a time. He asked them to rate the seas individually, as well as each of the plants after its own kind: the grass and the herbs and the fruit trees bearing fruit. And all of this was straightforward, except for the bit about the fruit.

Adam and Eve thought that the fruit was very good. They enjoyed the olives, figs, and citrons, but they had not eaten fruit from two trees in the midst of the garden, the tree of life and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. So Adam told the angel to write down a seven, but add “N/A” for “not apples.” Survael said, “there is no space for that on the form.” And Eve said, “there should be.” And there was hemming and hawing, the third question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the sun, moon, and stars?” The humans liked them very much, but wished to leave room for improvement, so they gave them a six as well. And there was hemming and hawing, the fourth question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the birds of the air and the fish of the sea?” This provoked discussion. They agreed that the birds were very noble, but found the fish hard to fathom.

“What is Leviathan for, exactly?” asked Adam.

Eve wanted to know more about the great whales. “They’re very nice, but not exactly fish-like, if you know what I mean.”

“I just ask the questions. I didn’t write them,” Survael replied defensively. Adam suggested he might be happier with more mackerel. Eve glared at him and wondered aloud whether cod came in a larger size. Survael sighed loudly. “There are always more fish in the sea.” This caused them both to glare, so the angel moved on. “Birds good, fish good.” And there was hemming and hawing (as well as an awkward cough), a fifth question.

“On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate the inhabitants of the earth: beasts and cattle and creeping things?” They were good as well. Adam offered to name all of them individually, but Survael said that would not be necessary.

“And yourselves? On a scale of one to seven, how would you rate humanity?” And the humans said that they were very good, a seven out of seven, at least. But Eve kept all these questions and pondered them in heart. She couldn’t help but wonder about the apples…

And God cursed the survey above all forms of data collection, so that the social scientist must live by sweat and tears. From that day forth, all surveys, no matter how well intentioned, no matter how carefully written, no matter how precisely delivered, cause anxiety and never, ever take only 15 minutes.

Posted by: dacalu | 30 March 2020

Dedicated Space

Nonverbal Community Part II

In my last post, I talked about the challenges of maintaining community in a time of social distancing. Online meetings provide some connection, but meet different needs and create different stresses than face-to-face gatherings. Teleconferences usually focus on verbal communication. I’d like to walk through a few ways to keep up nonverbal community while still respecting social distance – and still encouraging people to meet online. Summary and recommendations appear at the end.

Dedicated Space

Part of the joy I get from in-person gatherings comes from entering a dedicated space. Meetings involve space, a location set aside to be together with others. It may be short-term, like a ballroom reserved for a wedding, or long-term like a cathedral. It may be very generic, like a restaurant or rec center, or specific, like an airport or movie theater. All of these spaces are dedicated to some common purpose. They remind us that we are not alone in what we are doing. They set the tone for our activities and shape us psychologically – often more than we know.

Dedicated spaces remind us that we are not alone. Others have committed to this location. They have given time, money, and effort to shaping it. The effects can be especially strong when a space has been formed by a large group or over a long time. Three hundred thirty million US citizens look to the Capital Building in Washington, D.C., as the center of government. Westminster Abbey has hosted daily prayer for over a thousand years, 760 in the current building.

More goes into such spaces than opulence or dramatic architecture. Some spaces can be very simple. One of the most celebrated spots in Scotland is the battlefield at Culloden. The forces of George II defeated Bonnie Prince Charlie there in 1745, ending his attempt to seize the British throne. The field has other associations as well. Clava Cairns, a four thousand year old burial site, lies just off the main field, suggesting people have gathered there for millennia. The mysticism of Culloden is known to many through the ring of standing stones central to the plot of the Outlander series. It represents Scottish community and identity.

Perhaps places have inherent power. Perhaps we leave a bit of energy behind when we gather to pray, play, work, or just be in a space. Or perhaps the only power comes from our knowledge that others have gone before. Location matters to us. Continuity and community have a psychological impact through these places. They form an important aspect of community life.

Dedicated space matters to me, and I find such spaces wherever I go, places that connect me to others. I can rest in almost any church. Sacred buildings know what they are doing, even when the congregants do not. Mindfulness and worship have been, literally, built into them. Filled with pray-ers or still at midnight, a Christian sanctuary makes me feel grounded. When I travel, I also visit libraries, like the Manchester Public Library. Both the Victorian reading room, with its silent grandeur, and the front entrance, with quotidian bustle, reflect a sense of civic pride and commitment to the common good.

As an introvert, I find that even a movie theater can help me center myself. I enjoy going alone, where I can sit with a hundred strangers, who share a single focus for 90 minutes, without ever speaking to on another.

Dedicated space provides an important aspect of nonverbal community. We change when we enter familiar spaces (for good and ill). We shape ourselves to the mental and emotional environment of work, home, and public space. For the last four years, I have used the local coffee shop as a social space to be focused on work, away from distractions, yet not alone.

During social distancing, we cannot go out to our favorite places, but we can dedicate local space to a community or an activity. We can reserve a space in the home for exercise, prayer, or work. We might even set up a corner whose sole purpose is teleconferencing, to separate private and public activities.

You do not need a large house. It may be easier to negotiate dedicated space when you have a spare room or extra space, but they are not necessary. In graduate school, I lived in a small apartment, with two modest rooms, a kitchenette, and a bathroom. I created a six square foot chapel with a cloth hanging and an icon. The space was tiny, but it helped me feel connected to my Christian community. It allowed me set aside time, focus my attention, and travel virtually to a space of prayer.

Distance provides its own benefits. Commuting gives us mental space to shift gears. A moment alone in the car. Time to read on the bus. Vital minutes of music or podcast or simple silence that separate community time from family time, work time, or personal time can make a big difference in our ability to connect.

We may have to give up our old common spaces and the physical distance we are used to, but we can still benefit from respecting time and space. We can commit to dedicated space (and time) as a way of maintaining community.

Summary:

Social distancing robs us the normal “place” aspect of community; we remain in one place.

Suggestions:

  1. Create a dedicated community space in your home: a space for public interaction generally, or a special space for each group you want to hold on to.
  2. Talk with others in your community so that your community space can be shaped by the community. Consider sharing a common picture, color, or object to knit you together across the distance. You might all keep the same picture, or light a candle, or go outside to look up at the moon at the same time of night.
  3. Give yourself “travel” time to adjust before and after virtual meetings. Use dedicated time and space to provide the mental, emotional, and physiological space usually created by physical travel.
Posted by: dacalu | 27 March 2020

Nonverbal Community

I have a confession to make; I find Zoom meetings very stressful. I’m part of numerous communities, all of which have switched to teleconferences for the sake of social distancing: several church groups as well as martial arts and academia. I’m deeply grateful for the support and the technology. I can’t imagine what quarantine was like before the age of social media. And, yet I find it difficult to find enthusiasm or even a strong will to attend.

At first, I thought this was simply discomfort with changing my routine, but I’ve been using Zoom for a while and it works very well. (I’m also happy with Skype and Google tools.) I’m comfortable with the technology. Next, I thought it might be grief over losing out on part of my friendships. Sure, I could talk to people, but I wanted more. Both explanations seemed true in part, but neither quite captured my distress.

I think it has something to do with introversion. I love talking with people, but talking tires me out. Being with people recharges me. It sounds strange, I know, but when I am truly out of sorts, nothing cheers me more not talking with people I know. This is, I suspect, common among introverts: a desire to be with other people, especially when you know them well enough to be silent.

Teleconferences take all the difficult parts of meeting and put them up front. I’m okay with crowds (mostly) because I have learned to read the mood of the room. People share emotions. But on Zoom, each person has their own box. I feel a need to constantly move between images, not to mention looking at the text as people chat on the side. Add to that regular checks to see that I’m positioned right for my own camera, that my mic is on (or off), and the other distractions of a computer screen. It can be overwhelming.

At the same time, I don’t get the non-verbal communication and reinforcement I find comforting. I can’t align my posture and breathing with others. I can’t settle into the rhythm of being together. I’ve never been much for handshakes and hugs, but proximity matters to me. Above all, I can’t relax into that sense of silent belonging. For me, virtual meetings have most of the costs and few of the benefits of physical gatherings.

And so, I have replaced something very important in my life, something that feeds me (physical gathering) with something that drains me (teleconferences). I’m not proud of this. I love community and know how hard my friends work to create virtual meetings. I want to support them, and I want to get better at being a virtual member. And, I know that will be hard for me.

Teleconferencing preserves one aspect of community but, for me, it is not the core. Nor is it simply a narrower version of the same thing. It is an entirely different way of interacting. Social distancing is important right now; I do not want more in-person interactions. Virtual meetings are among the best tools for communicating while we are apart. Still, I will be sad if they become the cornerstone of community life. They change group dynamics in important and, for me, negative ways.

In future posts, I’ll explore possibilities for maintaining the non-verbal aspects of community and reflect on how they might tie in with virtual meetings. I’m thinking about physical rituals, dedicated spaces, temporal rhythms, personal participation, and small group interaction. And, I’d like to hear suggestions. But first I wanted to share my reflections and see if others feel the same way I do.

Social distancing will be with us for a long time. The current intensity of “shelter in place” may, if we are lucky, last for only three months, but societal caution is likely to last far longer. The wait for a vaccine and reliable testing could easily reach 18 months. If we talk and plan now, we can be better prepared for life during the worst of the pandemic, and better prepared for the new world after. For good and ill, coronavirus is reshaping our ideas about what it means to live together. I’d like to be intentional about that.

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