Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Christ in Creation

This Sunday, I had the privilege of worshiping with the Church of the Apostles as they celebrated the resurrection (every Sunday) and specifically Christ in the Cosmos.

from “How Wonderful The Three-In-One” text by Brian Wren

Before the flow of dawn and dark

Creation’s Lover dreamed of earth

And with a caring deep and wise,

All things conceived and brought to life.”

Readings

Proverbs 8:22-31 (“The Lord created me at the beginning of his work” about Sophia/Chokmah/Wisdom)

Psalm 104:24-26 (“How manifold are your works, O Lord!”)

John 6:41-51 (“I am the living bread”)

Sermon

There is simply too much to preach on, here.

God’s having a bit of fun with us.

Sophia, Leviathan, and the Bread of Heaven.

A friend of mine joked recently that Jesus is the ideal example of being transgendered.

            Wisdom self-identifies as feminine in Proverbs –

Chokmah in Hebrew, Sophia in Greek

but later self-identifies as masculine in Jesus.

On the surface, this appears to be a clever quip, but it reveals something important.

As the alpha and the omega, Jesus was Christ before male and female existed.

Jesus reminds us the universe has laws,

but also that God stands above and beneath and behind those laws.

“When there were no depths I was brought forth”

Pulled from out of a hole when there was no hole.

Made to stand when there was no place to stand.

Jesus is, strangely enough, the foundation for science,

            the promise that the world is orderly enough for us to understand,

            but surprising enough that we actually have to look to figure it out.

Once again, this is more than just cleverness.

            It was a very real debate in the Middle Ages.

            Thomas Aquinas said we could know, by intellect alone,

the rules by which God ordered creation from the beginning of time.

            William of Ockham argued that God can, and does change God’s mind.

                        We have no choice but to constantly observe creation,

                                    if we want to understand.

            The founders of modern science were working out this very problem.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

It helps to come to Proverbs with some knowledge of Hebrew cosmology.

There is no word for real nothingness.

            The mind slips into vacuum and void, space and emptiness,

                        but those are not really nothingness.

            They are words for time and distance without substance.

In the beginning was real no-thing-ness,

            Neither height nor depth nor energy, nor potential…

The Wisdom of God is an idea,

            the first hint of reality as we know reality,

            it is the plan for a cosmos,

            a totality of being.

It is a plan for us.

God drew a circle in the …

And God separated nothing from nothing

so that there was something in between.

This is, I think, what is meant by the waters above and the waters below.

Maybe waters is misleading.

            Tohu wa bohu, without form and void is confusing.

            We can call it the deep or the void or nothingness,

                        but we cannot comprehend it.

                        There is literally nothing to comprehend.

Jesus is the movement that makes comprehension possible,

            the word named some-thing

            and pointed to that which was before.

Jesus is the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end.

Speaking of waters is surely misleading,

            but no more so than quantum foam or vacuum energy or the initial singularity.

When I say this is a horribly insufficient description,

            please take me seriously.

            It’s truly embarrassing, but it is the best I think we can do at the moment.

So, God separated nothing from nothing

and there was something in between.

And God saw that it was good.

Jesus was the circle,

            and Jesus permeated the something,

            because all of it,

            beginning and end and middle,

            was brought forth from the no-thing-ness,

            so that thing-ness itself is only thing-ness by God’s action,

            in Jesus.

And now my head hurts.

Go home and meditate on that bit for a couple decades,

            and, if it starts to make sense, come tell me.

I would love to understand it.

In the meantime, we have the simple version.

God made everything through Jesus

            and, because of that, God can be found anywhere and everywhere.

Jesus is God’s wisdom,

            through which the universe makes sense,

            and through whom we make sense of the universe.

Better yet, because God was found in our likeness,

            we have the very image and likeness of God.

If Jesus is too hard to see in the rocks and hills, sky and sea,

            look for him in the face of your neighbor,

            in your own being.

As a horrible, terrible, miserable metaphor,

            Jesus is both operating system and user interface for the universe.

I could preach for an hour on everything that’s wrong with that,

            but it gets at Jesus’ role as governor and mediator,

            essential to, but not the same as, the world itself.

Leviathan, meanwhile, is a background process.

It only gets mentioned a few times in the Bible,

            usually as an invocation of some-thing swimming in the depths,

            some-thing whose thingness is not our thingness.

Leviathan was not made for us, nor we for Leviathan.

Maybe it’s necessary for the cosmos.

            God seems to care about it,

as God cares for lions and ostriches and cedar trees,

and lilies and sparrows.

Sometimes we need reminding that we participate in creation.

And sometimes we need reminding that creation is not,

            in the end, all about us.

Jesus invites us to be more than we are,

            more than individuals,

            more than tribes,

            more even than species.

Jesus invites us into harmony with all that is.

Ethics, like science, requires this strange humility,

            recognizing that there is an order, but that we don’t know it yet.

So, I will say it again.

            Jesus stands at the crossroads.

            He is both knowable and unknown,

                        the guarantor of rules and the promise of freedom from them.

            Christians study the universe

as the beginning, and not the end, of knowledge,

as an opportunity, and not a constraint,

as a pathway to true wisdom.

We have an opportunity as humans.

We live in the not-yet.

Just as God imagined the world in Jesus,

            so, we imagine God in Jesus,

            and we imagine the world as it could be.

We imagine neighbors we have not met.

            We have hope for those we meet,

                        faith in those we are learning about,

                        and love for those we know.

The truth path,

            the path of Jesus, leads from home to Leviathan,

            from the center of the circle to the very edge,

            and, perhaps, beyond.

Jesus’ contemporaries complained.

            They said he could not be God, he could not be all in all,

                        because he was the son of that nice couple down the street.

Modern thinkers make the same complaint.

            Theologians sometimes call it embarrassing particularity.

Jesus is both immanent and transcendent, immediate and eternal,

            available and unbelievable.

You are as well.

If I have done my job,

            I have not convinced you of any factual claims.

There is no logical argument here, no empirical proof, no incontrovertible evidence.

            What a silly thought.

If I have done my job, I have given you hope.

            That which you do not know, you can know.

                        Be curious.

            That which you do know, you can love.

                        Be kind.

            That which you love endures.

                        Because God is love, the ineffable, eternal, wondrous

                        made tangible.

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Posted by: dacalu | 23 September 2019

Confession for the Season of Creation

I wrote this confession and reassurance/absolution for a service on creation and the cosmos at Church of the Apostles.

Confession

God of the sparrow, have mercy upon us.

We have fallen short in our care for the world.

We have squandered every good gift –

            depleting the land, poisoning the water, and fouling the air,

            killing your children and harming your house,

                        beyond our ability to fix or even understand,

            turning from you and from one another.

We are sorry for our sins against the Earth,

            for choosing convenience over compassion,

                        whim over wisdom,

                        and self over service.

We ask for forgiveness and hope,

            that we may once again be stewards in your household,

            true friends to life,

            and heirs of your transforming love,

            through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Absolution/Reassurance

Know that you are forgiven, good, holy and capable.

May God visit you with grace as vast as the mountains and the seas. May Christ fill you with abundant life and wondrous growth. May the Spirit breath such breath into your lungs that every word and act spills forth new life into the world. And may every injustice be blown away.

Amen.

Posted by: dacalu | 22 August 2019

The Origins and Probability of Life

The Origins and Probability of Life

My friends Peter Jarrett Schell and John Henry recently posted on Facebook asking me about the origin and probability of life. It’s not a simple question, but I know many people will be interested. I recommend reading up on astrobiology, my book Life in Space, Astrobiology for Everyone (Harvard, 2009) or the more recent Astrobiology: A Very Short Introduction by David Catling (Oxford, 2014). If you’re looking for something more technical, check out the “Astrobiology Primer” (ver. 1, 2006; ver. 2, 2014; ver. 3 in progress). It is a rich and growing field. For those interested in a shorter taste, here are my present thoughts on the earliest life, its timing and chemistry, and what that can tell us about the probability of life. 

Life from Non-Life (Abiogenesis)

Logically, we have two options:

  1. There has always been life in the universe, or
  2. Life arose from non-life

Because I cannot imagine life, at least life remotely similar to Earth life, existing without matter, I think B must be true. There was no life shortly after the Big Bang; there is life now; therefore, life must have arisen from non-life. The simplest explanation available to natural science is that it arose through chemical interactions on Earth. (If you’re interested in the bounds of natural science, see note 1.)

Fossil stromatolites – layered bacterial communities – provide evidence for life at least 3.2 Bya (billion years ago) and probably as early at 3.5 Bya. Chemical fossils – isotope ratios impossible with known abiological processes – have been found at 3.8 Bya and suggested as early as 4.4 Bya. The earliest eon of Earth history is called the Hadean, for Hell-like conditions – high temperature, high radiation from the Sun, heavy meteor bombardment, and volcanoes. No rocks have been found from before 4.0 Bya that have not been melted and reformed. Given the chaos of early Earth, there is a general consensus that life arose on Earth fairly quickly once conditions were good. Most origin of life research is focused on early Earth environments – 4.0-3.6 Bya.

Life from Space (Panspermia)

A few scientists have proposed that life arose on Mars (or somewhere else) and travelled here. We know that meteor impacts can eject material from Mars in a way that eventually brings it to Earth. We know that Earth organisms could survive the ejection process. We do not know of any organisms that could survive the journey, but it is not inconceivable. Having said that, I favor simpler explanations. Given a choice between explaining abiogenesis alone (on Earth) or abiogenesis (on Mars) plus space travel (to Earth), I’ll stick with the former.

What is Life?

Dating the origin of life requires an understanding of what life is. All known life depends on four critical features: replicators (always DNA or RNA genes), catalysts and signal molecules (predominantly amino acid proteins, occasionally nucleotides and other organic molecules), cells (almost always phospholipid bilayers a.k.a. cell membranes), and metabolic networks (a surprisingly small number of organic pathways). We have not observed – and have difficulty imagining – life without all four.

Viruses draw attention because they appear, at first glance, to be lonely replicators. They cannot, however, complete their lifecycle without catalysts, cells, and metabolic networks. Whether or not we consider them alive, they depend on the whole suite of life-features.

In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, many subscribed to the RNA-World hypothesis. RNA molecules can act as both genes and catalysts, making them, potentially, a simpler form of life. Biochemists had high confidence that a ribozyme “autocatalysts” could be created in the lab – a molecule capable of copying itself. If such a molecule did exist, then it would provide modern evidence that the first life could have been RNA-only.

RNA-World research has produced some amazing results. It has revealed fascinating details about metabolism and “chemical evolution.” It has not produced a population of molecules undergoing open-ended Darwinian evolution. Some still have hope that autocatalysts will be found. Many have moved to parallel avenues of research.

Current thinking in astrobiology is that we should pursue multiple research programs on the origin of replicators, the origin of catalysts, the origin of cells, and the origin of metabolic networks. We can learn about all four without committing to which came first, or even if they occurred sequentially. Perhaps they arose in parallel and merged. Similarly, we need not commit to which one, if any “defines” life. They are all interesting features of life as we know it all. They were all involved in the history of Earth life.

There Was No First Organism

In the last ten years, we have started to turn away from positing a first cell or a first organism. All four research programs suggest that life can only be meaningfully understood in the context of population. Replicators like genes can only evolve (undergo evolution by natural selection) through competition and cooperation. Catalysts like proteins can only shape their environment when concentrated and sequestered with reactants. Membrane bubbles must grow, fuse, and divide in order to have life-like properties. Metabolic networks require multiple realizations (perhaps at the level of 10^4) to provide stable complexity akin to even toy models of life. For these reasons, I advocate for speaking of the “first population.” I can’t say it is orthodoxy, but it is coming to dominate in astrobiology and origin-of-life discussions.

The Last Universal Common Ancestor (LUCA)

All is not lost. We know almost nothing about the first organism or first species. We can speak of the most recent ancestor of all known life. By reasoning backward from present organisms, we can imagine a common ancestor of life or, more realistically, a single population that gave rise to modern species. That population would have had all (or at least most) features common to extant life: including a DNA, RNA, proteins, cells, and common metabolic pathways (such as the TCA cycle).

I think common descent is usually a better explanation than convergence. I suspect that global trends toward cooler temperatures, lower radiation, and more available oxygen did produce some convergence (e.g., symbiosis). There are also some interesting possibilities for convergent adaptations to denser population (e.g., increase in maximal body size at the order level, increase in genome complexity). It is, of course, a historical question, so it’s hard to say how much proof or what kind of proof should convince us of what actually happened (Note 2).

Messy Details

Two factors complicate matters: horizontal transfer and coalescence. Discussion of LUCA gets complicated by the messy, multi-level, recombining networks of descent. There is likely a species tree that connects all current species trees through lines of decent. At the level of species, branches rarely recombine. Species can fuse; individuals can cross fertilize; and genes can jump from one to another; but not that often. I think of the species tree as made up of hollow pipes. Within those pipes, individuals reproduce to form their own organism level trees. The organism trees branch and flourish like vines within the population tree pipes. One family might flourish for thousands of year only to fail while a slender lineage that lived on the margins suddenly takes over the population. To make things even worse, the individual trees are also pipes, with gene trees growing inside them. Genes can replicate, diversify, and compete within individual organisms. Horizontal transfer describes times when trees don’t look like trees, when individuals break out of their species level pipes, or genes break out of their organism level pipes and break back in somewhere else. “Coalescent theory” provides math for tracking the last common ancestor at any given level.

Unfortunately, the LCA may differ between different genes, different organisms, and different species.  For example, “mitochondrial Eve” describes the LCA of all human mitochondria, transmitted from mothers to offspring. A single mitochondrion, roughly 150,000 years ago, gave rise to all modern mitochondria (in humans). The descendants of other mitochondria around at that time have all died off (though they could have hung around until very recently). So, one woman can be said to be the mother of all modern humans, at least as far as mitochondria are concerned. Meanwhile “Y-chromosomal Adam” describes the LCA of all human Y-chromosomes, transmitted from fathers to sons. A single chromosome, more than 200,000 years ago, gave rise to all modern Y-chromosomes. So, one man can be said to be the father of all modern humans, as far as Y-chromosomes are concerned. But this Eve and this Adam were 50,000 years apart.

In the end, the LUCA population is really just a narrow ring drawn around a mess of pipes and vines in the distant past. We know many things about the genes, organisms, and populations within the ring, but we don’t know how they related to one another. We believe that there were genes, organisms, and populations outside the ring as well. They may have been very successful at the time. None of their descendants remain today.

Shadow Life

In this way, LUCA is much like the observable universe. There may be stuff outside, but the expansion of stuff inside prevents us from knowing. Life as we know it has outcompeted other forms of life. My personal belief – and I think it is common among astrobiologists and origins researchers – is that proto-life arises regularly on Earth, but known life has grown so good at survival that it eats alternative forms of life as soon as they arise. They never get a chance to get started.

Some biologists have proposed a “shadow biosphere” made up of organisms using alternate chemistries, unavailable or unappetizing to life as we know it. It doesn’t show up in our familiar environment, but may persist underwater or underground. Personally, I’m skeptical. It’s hard to get the energetics right without carbon-carbon bonds (“organic chemistry”) and known life finds carbon-carbon bonds tasty.  A shadow biosphere would need a highly evolved defense mechanism and would be in a constant arms race with known life for survival.

The Probability of Life Arising

This is one of my favorite questions and therefore one I like to see handled with rigor. Philosophy of probability can be contentious. We want probability to estimate the frequency of future events, but we don’t have access to future events. So, we can restrict it to the frequency of past events (frequentism), or call it subjective, or attempt a compromise.

The frequentist probability of life arising in the universe is 100%. It did. The frequentist probability of life arising on a planet that humans have visited is 100%. The presence of humans is the presence of life. The frequentist probability of life arising on a planet humans have visited independent of human presence is either 100% or 50% if you think we have studied Mars sufficiently. None of these “probabilities” really satisfies our curiosity. Astrobiologists call this the N=1 problem.

Some subjectivity will be involved. We should ask how much. We have information about the history of life on Earth and good evidence that Earth-like life is not abundant on any other body in the Solar System. Earth life adapts and spreads quickly, suggesting that, if it arises and has a congenial environment, it will take over. Earth is awash with life: a mile below the surface and a mile above, in the driest deserts (Antarctic and Atacama), in cold and heat and radiation. People disagree about how to quantify this subjectivity. For this reason, I prefer to talk about the plausibility or likelihood (probability given specific hypotheses) of life arising.

Evidence of life 3.9-4.0Bya suggests a high likelihood of life arising, if conditions are right. As I mentioned above, I do think shadow life, or precursors of shadow life, have arisen repeatedly in Earth’s history only to be consumed by life as we know it. On the other hand, we’ve had no luck making life in the lab, so it can’t be too likely. The barrenness of Mars and, requiring far more assumptions, the silence of interstellar space suggest a low likelihood. Given the ridiculous number of stars and planets, it seems plausible we are not alone. I can’t really say more than that.

Characteristics of Alien Life (Should it Exist)

I love this question and speculate some at the end of my book (Life in Space: Astrobiology for Everyone). We have learned a great deal in the last 10 years, but some things are basic chemistry; they remain the same. Molecules with carbon-carbon bonds (organic chemistry, not necessarily biochemistry) have really nice properties for life. This is basically the only way to have robust chain molecules with 4 strong bonds. Anything else will not have the same flexibility. Add to that the abundance of carbon in the universe, and it seems highly likely that any life-form will be carbon based (Note 3).

Similar arguments can be made for the environment of any form of life. Water has amazing and unique properties. It is liquid over an unusually broad range of temperatures. It is slightly polar, making it a good medium for many types of chemistry. Ice floats, creating a layer of insulation over lakes in cold temperatures. And, once, again, the atoms (hydrogen and oxygen) are very abundant.

A weaker case can be made for energy capture and storage. Visible light (380-740nm) turns out to be close to peak Solar output (Note 4). It carries almost enough energy (162-315 kJ/mol) for basic organic reactions (300-450 kJ/mol). If it were stronger it would dissolve organic molecules; if it were weaker, it could not power organic systems (Note 5). Sun-like stars, and Earth-life-like energy capture work well together.

I would also note that Earth life, at the most basic level operates by pumping protons (H+) across membranes. [This process creates osmotic potential, which drives ATP synthesis as protons pass back through the membrane. ATP acts as storable redox potential, a battery for life.] Given the abundance of hydrogen, I would be surprised if this were not a universal strategy for energy use.

Conclusion

Astrobiology can tell us a great deal about the characteristics of Earth life and make decent predictions about alien life, should it exist. Small sample size (n=1) means that our inferences are likely to be heavily biased when trying to make statements about life at a larger scale. We cannot know the extent of that bias until we find (or make) a second instance of life. For the moment, alien life seems highly likely, as long as we remember that this plausibility is largely driven by a philosophical belief that we are, in some meaningful way, “normal.” I look forward to finding out more and am excited about the growth of knowledge in coming decades.

Notes:

Note 1: Caveat on natural science. My understanding of natural science is that it deals with natural explanations. Appeals to the supernatural, unnatural, or anything outside the universe – including God, Spirit, etc. – do not meet this requirement. Natural science often fails to provide answers we want. Currently it does not answer the question of how life arose. This has led some to look for answers beyond natural science. As a natural scientist, I cannot assess whether those answers are satisfactory. For a great defense of “methodological naturalism” see Robert Pennock’s article on “Naturalism, Evidence and Creationism” (1996, Biology and Philosophy 11(4):543-549).

As a whole person, I suspect I will still want the natural science explanation, in any case. I want to know how events proceeded within the bounds of nature and think it will be worth our time to pursue those types of explanations. To wit, whether or not God was involved, an interesting natural science question remains. When, where, and in what manner did life appear within our universe?

The metaphysical question of whether it could have occurred without unnatural intervention strikes me as poorly framed. It hangs on an equivocation between two uses of the word “natural” described by J.S. Mill in an 1885 essay on “Nature.”

Note 2: Caveat on epistemology. I want to be clear that sometimes we can say. Excellent work has been done on the evolution of the ribosome which provides good evidence for historical structures and common descent. Nonetheless, it is difficult to say a priori what will be convincing in the future.

Note 3: Note on “artificial life.” Many of my colleagues believe we will contact alien robots before we encounter organic alien intelligence. I have mixed feelings about this. Intelligence is tricky for a number of reasons. In any case, I do not think that silicon-based life could arise without the aid of organic life. Whether it may, one day, supplant or dominate organic life, inorganic abiogenesis strikes me as implausible. Silicon-silicon bonds are too weak.

Note 4: Note on Solar output. I have not looked at data in detail recently. A quick scan suggests that Solar radiation entering the lower atmosphere has a peak around 500 nm with roughly half the total radiation falling in the visible range. The spectrum falls steeply in the UV, but has a broad infrared tail.

Note 5: Note on Stellar frequency. Recently, astronomers have become excited about the prevalence of Red Dwarfs in the galaxy. They are far more common than Sun-like stars and many have rocky planets orbiting in the habitable zone, a region where water on the surface of planets would be liquid. They output sufficient heat to warm their planets, but I have not seen commentary on whether their weaker photons (peaking ~1000nm, 120 kJ/mol) would be effective for supporting organic chemistry.

Posted by: dacalu | 20 July 2019

Spiritual Space

Intentionally Blank

Yesterday, I spoke as part of a panel on “Astrophysics, Spirituality, and Space Exploration” for the 2019 IONS Conference.

Science and Spirituality

My name is Lucas Mix. I work with NASA on astrobiology, exploring the origin, extent, and future of life in the universe. I am also a preacher and pastor, talking with Christians about faith and theology. I specialize in theoretical and theological biology, what we mean when we say “life.” People often ask me about my beliefs. How do I bring science and spirituality together? The real challenge, I think, is keeping them apart. Both are so important to daily life.

When I choose my meals, I think about biochemistry: fats and sugars and calories. There’s a gap between reading labels in the supermarket and research biochemistry, but it may not be as big as you think. The shopper and the scientist both make important decisions with limited information. They listen to others, weigh what they know, and reach conclusions. The difference comes from time and training and, above all, the care they take. Researchers want to know, precisely and concretely, how much evidence they have, how they reason from it, and how confident they can be in their answers.

Choosing meals involves ethics as well. Where did the food come from? Is it healthy and just to eat? And metaphysics. How does stuff that’s not me become me? Like biochemistry, most of us don’t have time to investigate the details of organic farming, sustainable agriculture, sustainable packaging, transportation, and fair-trade, much less human persistence, animal sentience, and ontology. Still, we have to eat. We choose and, consciously or unconsciously, we pick the issues that matter to us and weigh them to the best of our ability.

I feel very lucky that I have had the time and training to tackle biochemistry and bioethics for a small sliver of issues. I’ve been able to uncover options, read  experts, and think critically about how my choices change the world. Still, I am an amateur in a thousand other matters, all related to choosing meals. Economic justice, climate change, and law enforcement may be the top three. The significance of choices can keep me up at night. It makes me deeply grateful for genuine, thoughtful, helpful experts. Life is difficult, and I use all the brains I can beg, steal, or borrow.

Cosmology

Last year, a friend asked me to speak at South-by-Southwest on astrobiology and theology. I laughed at her. Astrobiologists bring together astronomy, biology, chemistry, and planetary science (not to mention engineering and many other fields) with the hope of forming a comprehensive, natural science picture of life. Theologians also synthesize knowledge, often focusing on experience, belief, and choices in light of our relationship with God.

“You want me to talk about life, the universe, and everything?”

“Yes”

I have a hard-enough time figuring out whether I should eat eggs, How could I tackle astrobiology and theology? But in some ways, it is the same problem as lunch: thinking carefully with limited information. We all want to know where we came from, how we fit in, and where we’re going. We all tell stories about the cosmos.

If I can share only one thing, let it be this. We are all cosmologists. We all tell stories about the universe and our place in it. Those stories change us, affect our choices, and affect our neighbors. So, let us be careful cosmologists. Let us think critically about what we know, what we value, and what we choose. Let us ask who the experts might be and listen to what they have to offer. We can reason for ourselves, without reasoning by ourselves. Understanding life, the universe, and everything will take more than one person and more than one lifetime.

Space Left Blank

The word “space” should give you pause. It suggests a region that is both empty and available for use. Many see this as an invitation, perhaps even a duty, to expand, to “take up space.” Others think human expansion is inevitable. Given enough time we will spread to other planets and other stars. That is, unless we destroy ourselves first. Surprisingly often, discussions of alien life and alien intelligence take progress for granted. Life, once begun, will produce intelligence. Intelligence, once begun, will advance to the creation of radio telescopes, space ships, and eventually interstellar colonies.

I love Star Trek, but I do not share this confidence about human development or the development of intelligence in general. I do not know that space is available, or that progress is inevitable. Neither biology nor theology reassure me on these points. They tell me that we are part of Earth, and Earth is part of us. We are local and should be humble as we reach beyond the atmosphere and beyond tomorrow. They make me wonder.

What if space was left intentionally blank?

HT-Pine Trees-c1595

Space can be beautiful. Hasegawa Tohaku’s Pine Trees is one of the great works of art. We praise the morning fog and the darkening sky. We praise the freshly fallen snow. Space can also be useful. A cup must have space to hold tea. A house must have space to live in. Physicists know that vacuum makes for great insulation and energy efficient windows. Biologists know that cells do work in biology because of the space inside. Perhaps it’s good to have space between the stars.

Space Exploration

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is traveling to Jezero Crater. Sediments from an ancient river fan out from a break in the Western rim. A wonderful gap, by the way, a useful emptiness. I can’t wait to know more about that ancient river and that ancient sea. And yet, I value the space between here and there. I value the distance and the difference.

Jezero Crtr - Mars Xprs

Saturn’s moon Titan has seasonal lakes filled with antifreeze. I’m excited about the Dragonfly mission, planned for 2026. I want to know more. We have found more than four thousand planets orbiting other stars, wondrous and strange and surprising us daily.

I like space exploration and I support the journey, but colonization and pilgrimage are different ways to travel. Pilgrims revere their destination, remember their home, and respect the space in between.

Sacred Space

Space can be a good thing. Ely Cathedral was just big enough for a luminous replica of the Moon to hang in the nave. I visited it last month for the science festival.

Image may contain: indoor

Sometimes, an object must come near for us to appreciate it.

Sometimes, it must be far away.

For me, the vault of heaven stretches over a cosmic sanctuary. I measure it as a scientist, but love it as a worshiper. We are one species among many, one planet floating in space. I dearly hope to find another. A heavenly chorus would be a wondrous thing, but silence and stillness can also be profound. Maybe this space was left intentionally blank.

Buddhists tell of sunyata, emptiness. Muslims say salaam, peace. Christians speak of sabbath and sanctuary. And there are many others. When you look up, remember that you, too, are a cosmologist. Your words have scientific and spiritual meaning. And words have a gravity of their own.

The cosmos is more than a void and more than an opportunity; it is a sacred space.

Image Notes

Moons: In 2011, the Cassini spacecraft took a single photo that included 5 of Saturn’s moons (Janus, Pandora, Enceladus, Mimas, and Rhea) as well as the tip of Saturn’s rings. Saturn is out of frame, to the right. I added the words, but the view is real.

Painting: Pine Trees, Hasegawa Tohaku, c.1595

Jezero Crater: mosaic of images from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Express.

The Moon is an artwork entitled Museum of the Moon by Luke Jerram. It hung in Ely Cathedral for the Science Festival, 18 May – 9 June 2019.

It was a deep honor to share the stage with Yvonne Cagle, Bruce Damer, Brian Keating, and Ginny Whitelaw and I encourage you to follow them if you’re interested in the topic. We had wonderful discussions both before and after the public talks.

Posted by: dacalu | 9 June 2019

Heaven and Earth

Today, I had the great pleasure of worshiping with St. Ninian’s Scottish Episcopal Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. We celebrated the feast of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended on the Church. (NB: Pentecost comes from the Greek word for 50. It occurs 50 days after Easter.)

 

Prayer for Pentecost
Almighty God, on this day you opened the way of eternal life to every race and nation by the promised gift of your Holy Spirit: Shed abroad this gift throughout the world by the preaching of the Gospel, that it may reach to the ends of the earth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 2:1-21 (Pentecost)

Romans 8:14-17 (“that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God”)

John 14:8-17, 25-27 (“I am in the Father and the Father is in me” and “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”)

 

Sermon

Four hundred years ago there was a revolution.
	No, not that revolution.
There was a revolution in astronomy.
	Copernicus and Galileo suggested
	that objects in the heavens obey the same rules
	as objects on the earth.
Modern notions of mass, inertia, and gravity
	arose from a rather surprising insight
	that humans and planets have common properties.
This commonality of heaven and earth is now called
	the Copernican Principle.
All else being equal, we assume that things over there
	work the same way as life here,
	and vice versa.
It came with a realization that the Earth was not the center of the cosmos.
Instead, it was a planet, travelling through the void,
	along with the other planets, Mars and Venus and all.
Later authors speak of this as demoting Earth and decentering humanity.
	We left our place in the center of the cosmos.
	We became common.
At the time, many saw it as demoting the heavens,
	previously perfect and eternal spheres made of crystal and aether.
	Copernicus and Galileo made them gross matter.
I prefer to focus on the way that Copernicus and Galileo 
revealed our relationships.
The new science allows us to think about rocketry and distance in a new way.
	We travel to the moon
		and send robots to the outer limits of the solar system.
	We can study the effect of orbits and sunspots on the weather.
	We can track the path of comets and asteroids in a new and better way.
The Copernican revolution brought heaven and earth together.
	It broke the boundary between ground and sky.
	Or, more accurately, it allowed us to see that
the division never existed in the first place.
 
By now you should have some idea where I’m going with all of this
	because Pentecost also brought heaven and earth together.
Jesus’ incarnation might be a fluke.
Like a meteor, a piece of heaven brought down.
	We might be tempted to think that
that was the extent of the miracle:
		God made manifest.
	It was not so.
Jesus continues as the body of Christ.
	Jesus continues in tangible sacraments, the body and blood.
	Jesus continues in the Spirit of God that enlivens us.
	Jesus continues in the Church.
God continues to reconcile the whole world.

At Pentecost, the Spirit of God was pleased to dwell in us.
	It empowers us in a very special way.
	It allows us to communicate.
God connects what was separated:
	God reconciled with humanity in Jesus – at-one-ment, atonement;
	Jesus broke bread with his disciples,
		his very body broken to reunite us –
		Holy Communion;
	the Spirit connected the disciples with people from every nation.

The English have an expression
that always sounds a bit humorous to Americans.
You may have it here as well.
“Mind the gap.”
As you get on and off the train, “mind the gap.”
I’m asking you to do the same thing
	every day.
Mind the gap between you and God.
Mind the gap between you and your neighbor.
Mind the gap between heaven and earth.
Mind the gap, and remember that it can be bridged.
	The Holy Spirit allows us to step over the gap.
 
Some will say that this is not miraculous.
	It is as simple as reaching out to someone new.
	It is as simple as sharing a meal.
	It is as simple as letting the past be past and moving forward.
	Those are easy, aren’t they?
	
No.  They really aren’t.
I’m a terrible introvert. 
Oh, I’m good on a Sunday, 
but I can be terribly shy and inward most of the time.
	It’s very hard for me to reach out to others,
		to build relationships.
	How many of you have made a new friend in the past week?
		Not just an acquaintance, but a genuine friend.
	How often do you really listen to someone you’ve never listened to before?
	How often do you go beyond your comfort zone?
We live in an age of growing tribalism.
	We have difficulty reaching across political divides,
		much less across national and cultural divides.
The solution to that isn’t easy.
Without Christ, it may not even be possible.
	No, I’m not saying that it only works between Christians.
	That’s the very nonsense I’m preaching against.
It works because God became human and so sanctified humanity.
God showed us that the boundaries are neither permanent
	nor impenetrable.
God crossed the gap.

How about forgiveness.
	Is it easy to forgive?
	Raise your hand if you think it is.
	I know, terrible question.
	We do not interact with the preacher.
		What are we, Methodists?
	I imagine Scots Episcopals are even worse.
	Dour and inscrutable, no.
	But forgiveness is miserable for everyone.
	It takes work to forgive.
Christianity gives us tools.
	It primes our imagination.
		God forgave humanity, 
even when humanity was particularly nasty to God.
	It teaches us to listen with love and patience.
	It teaches us to value love and connection. 
We break bread together.
We attend to brokenness – both within us and between us.
We mind the gap.
We practice confession and reconciliation,
	verbally in worship and tangibly at the table.
We go out into the world
	and share the gift that God has given us,
	the gift of being one.
We have not mastered it.
	We may not even be good at it most of the time,
	but we practice
	and, miraculously, God binds us together.

Christianity must always be about there and here.
	It must embrace the perfect heavens,
		eternal and perfect.
	It must also encompass the messy, painful, 
unsatisfactory earth.
We witness to God when we bring harmony and connection.
We share the Spirit when we share our true selves
	in faith, hope, and love.
I ask – and I work – so that God’s will may be done
	on earth as in heaven.
And God answers.
	Not as dramatically as I might like,
		but God answers, nonetheless.
	God allows me to see as I would be seen,
		to understand as I would be understood,
		to love as I would be loved.
	God invites me in.
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”

We are called to mind the gap.
And we are called to close it.
The Holy Spirit gives us power to forgive
	in a way that remembers and responds to past mistakes,
	but is not overcome by them.
	Practice forgiveness.
The Holy Spirit give us power to love
	in a way the respects our differences
	but doesn’t let them to separate us.
	practice love.
The distance can seem impossibly far.
	It is not.
	God crosses it every day.
 
Heaven and earth are not the same place.
Neither are they completely separate.
We have discovered that God’s rules apply in both.
Some will say that I disrespect heaven by saying so
	Would God descend to our level?
	God did.
Some will say that I devalue humans,
	by making earth our true home –
	at least for the time being.
	Are we animals? Are we bodies?
	We are.
	Of course, we are God’s animals, and God’s body.
But I prefer to think of the way God reveals our relationships.

The breath I breathe is not my breath alone;
	it is the breath I share with you.
“Holy Spirit” is a modern translation for spiritus, pneuma, breath.
Let the same breath be in us as was in Jesus.
Let our life be his life,
	concretely and tangibly.
I’m a biologist and I take the biology of the bible quite literally.
The abstract heavenly meaning does not exclude
	a tangible earthly meaning.
We share breath and food with one another.
We are one body in Christ.

No matter how foreign someone seems…
No matter how fragmented the church and the world become
	or seem to become…
No matter how divided you feel, even within yourself.
No matter.
God dissolved the boundary between heaven and earth.
God opened a path for us,
	a path of peace and community.
God’s Spirit moves in us,
	bringing heaven and earth together.

 

Posted by: dacalu | 13 May 2019

Shepherds and Sheep

Today I worshiped with the people of Trinity Episcopal Church, Seattle.

 

Prayer for Good Shepherd Sunday

O God, whose Son Jesus is the good shepherd of your people: Grant that when we hear his voice we may know him who calls us each by name, and follow where he leads; who, with you and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

 

Readings

Acts 9:36-43 (Peter raises Tabitha from the dead)

Psalm 23 (“The Lord is my shepherd”)

Revelation 7:9-17 (“for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd”)

John 10:22-30 (“My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”)

 

Sermon


Today is Good Shepherd Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Easter.
We get sheep and shepherds in three of today’s readings, all familiar.
	Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd
	Revelation 7: The Lamb will be their shepherd
	John 10: My sheep know my voice
Christians are often compared to sheep.
	Raise your hands if you like being compared to sheep.
	It’s a powerful image, but one I worry about on occasion.
	How many of you see sheep on a daily basis?
	I see them approximately once a year, out the window of a car.
This suggests a certain amount of caution.
I spent this week thinking about what it means to be a sheep,
	and whether this is something I want to be.

Spoilers are a bad thing when talking about movies, 
but rather useful when talking about scripture.
So, let me tell you where I’m going.
I’ve decided that sheep have some wonderful qualities,
	and some awful qualities,
	and some sort of scary qualities.
I’m signing up part time.
God has called me to be sort of sheep-like,
	but also to be sort of shepherd-like,
	not in some fancy collared way.
No, I think all Christians are called 
to feed the sheep, to gather the lost, and to lead the way.

When I looked at all the passages about sheep in the Bible,
	I saw something strange and slightly subversive.
Sheep are common, social, docile, and poor.
	Shepherds signal the lowly 
in stories of King David and of Jesus’ birth.
Most of the sheep in the bible get sacrificed or eaten.
	Usually both.
Five New Testament books refer to Jesus as a shepherd:
	Matthew, John, Hebrews, I Peter, and Revelation.
	Four of five introduce him first as the Lamb of God.
	Only in Matthew is he not a sheep before he is a shepherd.
Let’s take a closer look at sheep.
 
Sheep, Ovis aries, are popular farm animals.
	Current estimates suggest there are around a billion sheep in the world.
Sheep are calm, social, and recognize both other sheep and humans as leaders.
	Unlike closely related species they do not defend their territory,
		making them easier to herd.
	They default to group behavior, but can recognizing threats
		and move on their own.
	Overall, these seem like good qualities.
Sheep tend to focus on eating and avoiding danger,
	much like humans.
Sheep can recognize voices and faces for both sheep and humans.
	They really do know shepherds,
	at least after spending time together.
I’d like to emphasize that last point.
Sheep develop relationships with humans.
Those relationships take time.

Turning to today’s Gospel, John 10 troubles me.
First of all, we have this word “Jews.”
	“The Jews gathered around him” “in the portico of Solomon”
		a covered walk in the outer court of the Temple.
	Scholars suggest that this means people generically,
		the natives of Judea, including Jesus’ followers.
	Or it could refer to leaders in the Judean establishment, 
the Sadducees who ran the Temple.
	It could even be an attempt by later authors to discredit
		a rival faction.
	In any case, it does not line up the modern word.
Local leaders argued with him in public.
They asked what seems to me a reasonable question:
“Are you the Messiah?”

Here we come to my second trouble,
	the one having to do with sheep.
“Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. 
The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; 
but you do not believe, 
because you do not belong to my sheep. 
My sheep hear my voice. 
I know them, and they follow me.”
 
In the past, I heard this unconsciously through a Calvinist lens,
	in terms of predestination.
Some sheep are simply good from birth.
	God’s voice was imprinted on their souls.
Some sheep are bad from birth,
	and incapable of hearing the good news.
	Too bad for them.
This, especially when paired with a poor understanding of the word “Jews”
	has led many Christians to think of Jews as
	inherently and irredeemably evil.
This is really, really bad.
I’m happy to argue about predestination.
	Sometimes I’m for and sometimes against.
	A careful reading of John Calvin will reveal that
		disregard for other humans is just wrong.
I don’t think John is talking about predestination, though.
I think he’s talking about sheep.

Sheep do not instinctively recognize shepherds,
	they grow to love them.
Sheep discover that the shepherd
	leads them to food, water, and safety.
Sheep learn, often with other sheep around them,
	that life as a flock is a good thing.


I do not doubt that we hear God’s voice.
	I have heard it for as long as I can remember.
But, hearing is one thing, recognition another.
	Trust requires even more.
	It takes time and commitment.
Staying in a flock takes work.
	I’ll nod to John Calvin and say this:
		I do not know who does this work.
		Maybe the sheep, maybe the shepherd.
		Maybe some of both.
	However it happens, the sheep learn to trust the shepherd.
		They learn what the shepherd says and what she means.
		They learn her voice and her vocabulary.s
So, when the people ask, “Are you the Messiah?”
Jesus has to say this.
	I said I was the good shepherd.
	I said I would give you real food and water
and find you when you’re lost.
	I said I would open a gate.
	I said I’d lay down my life.
If Messiah means something else,
	then we’re not communicating.
Healing the sick and lifting up the lowly
while refusing political power…
that’s what a Savior does.
Becoming a sacrificial lamb, making atonement,
	opening a gate between heaven and earth…
	that’s God at work.
Without that link between the word and the reality,
	conversation fails.
Demonstration was necessary.
Life together was necessary.
God did that.

We should probably use different words today.
	Few of you have extensive experience with sheep.
	Fewer, if any, have experience with Temple sacrifice.
	This is a good thing,
		but it means we can miss out on the significance
		of the image.

So I might say that Jesus committed to living with us,
		even when we were unbearable.
	He made himself subject to our wants and whims
		in order to communicate.
	He was humble and honest.
	He gave without taking,
		listened without interrupting.
took on our burdens without adding to them.
How many leaders can say the same?
How many shepherds actually live with their sheep
	and lay down their lives for them.
Jesus is the good shepherd, 
because he is also an ideal sheep.
He saved humanity, by being human.

It’s not an abstraction.
	It’s life and death, food and water, predator and prey.
	It’s real sacrifice.
And we understand it by living it,
	together.
 
The big, theological words can be helpful.
	Most days, you’ll find me rattling off 
pentasyllabic nomenclature.
	It’s a weakness.
And there is a time and place.
Words like predestination, atonement, soteriology, and ecclesiology –
they get us in trouble on occasion,
but we can usually work our way out.
Few of us pretend that pecuniary substitution or homoousias
	are easy concepts.
The big words save us from the over-confidence.
It’s the little words that get us into trouble.

Little words like ‘mother.’
	Mother’s Day is a secular holiday.
	‘Mother’ means something to me
		because of remarkable mothers in my life.
	My mother and grandmother have been examples to me
		of faith, hope, and love.
	Unofficial grandmothers – Ethel and Jane –
showed me how to listen, comfort, nurture, and lead.
	My friends Sharon and Patricia and Bill and David
and Empress Elephant (her kids know who she is)
		taught me more about mothering than I could possibly say.
	Some of them bore children; others did not.
		All of them raised children, officially or unofficially.
		All of them created and nurtured.
If Mother’s Day were simply about female parents,
		it wouldn’t really interest me.
Some do that well; others poorly.
Some have the chance; others do not.
But this amazing process of nurturing, comforting, teaching, sacrificing,
	strengthening, supporting, and letting go…
I could never explain it, but I recognize it.
	I trust it.
It warrants a holiday.
As you celebrate Mother’s Day, if you celebrate Mother’s Day,
	I hope you’ll think about this important, dangerous, wonderful
		little word
		and what it might mean
	and I hope you’ll remember all the mothers in your life.
 
Another little word trips us up: ‘love.’
Few words have caused so much trouble.
	It can mean lust or affection or desire or pity.
	For many it means reciprocity.
And so, when we say that God is love,
	people misunderstand.
They hear the word ‘love’
	but do they recognize it?
	Do they trust it?

Christianity, for me, is deeply wrapped up in community.
	It requires flocks of real people,
		calm, social, 
consistent, but capable of change
not territorial, but aware of dangers.
	It requires individuals who help one another
		find food, water, and safety.
	It requires real leadership,
		but that leadership has a very special character.
It starts with a shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep,
	a God who lived with his worshipers.
It continues with those who
	give without taking,
	listen without interrupting,
take on burdens without adding to them.
Not always, but once in a while.
It continues with communication, forgiveness, and trust,
	each of which, when we understand them
	requires genuine sacrifice.

We have all been called to be shepherds, and mothers, and priests.
Not always, but once in a while.
If you’re like me, it happens a more frequently
	than you would like.
I am a sheep, after all.
But my shepherd calls.
That is the best possible meaning of love
		and the best possible meaning of Christian.

I believe that all who recognize his voice 
will hear him say:
	“Feed my sheep.”

 

Posted by: dacalu | 25 April 2019

Living Church, Living Science

Today’s post comes from a reflection I gave for the Society of Ordained Scientists TeleCompline. I have decided to set it forth twice: once as a secular essay for scientists, and once as a reflection for Christians. The previous post spoke about the essence of science and what it means to “March for Science.” This post continues with scripture, gospel, and mission. Whether you fall in one camp or both (or neither), I’d encourage you to read through both and see how the two cases relate to one another.

Today’s lectionary (Bible passages set aside to read for the day) influenced my thinking greatly. I encourage you to read them in full if you have the time: Ezekiel 37:1-14, the valley of the dry bones; John 15:12-27, “love one another.” Here are short sections to give you the idea.

Ezekiel 37:7-10

So, I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus, says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.

John 15:12-17

[Jesus said,] ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.

Lucas’ Commentary:

I study life. This passage from Ezekiel fascinates me because it so clearly sets forth an idea of human life. We are made of bone and sinew, flesh and skin. And yet, there is something additional. Breath stirs us.

This applies to all life, amoebae and archaebacteria, as well as humans. The tissues differ, but the principle remains. We have physical stuff, but life comes from the dynamic process of stuff interacting with the environment. Call it metabolism or circulation or breath or even natural selection – something moves.

Life happens in the context of matter that changes through time. Without the matter or without the time it looks very un-life-like. I won’t comment here on whether that is possible. My point is that life as we know it is not matter, but something that happens in matter (by matter and with matter and through matter).

This leads to a difficult question, easy to state but difficult to understand. What is the essence of life?

In today’s context, I want to talk about both “science” and “Christianity” as living things. Like organisms, they have components. Like organisms, their life comes from a dynamic process acting in those components.

I have come to think of science and the church as communities engaged in concrete practices. They involve processes that must be sustained for health and survival. They pursue ideals that can never be fully achieved, but if they stop running, they fall behind and pass away.

I care about science as the pursuit of truth about the world working through physical explanations. I think this process requires large groups of people making observations, analyzing them, and coming to conclusions, together. I think it must always make predictions and compare them to observations. I think it must aim for an impartiality that humans cannot have. It must be ever curious and ever humble before the evidence.

Similarly, I care about the Church as a means of reconciling the world to God and to one another. This requires large groups of people seeking and finding, drawing in and raising up, creating community. I think it must always seek Truth and compare it to lived experience. I think it must aim for a selflessness that humans cannot have. It must be ever curious and ever humble before the evidence: life beyond self, truth beyond knowledge, wisdom beyond experience.

I think the Church has an advantage in that God participates. God seeks and finds, draws in and raises up, and creates among us. Through Jesus, God is a member of the community.

Now that I mention it, science has a similar advantage. With Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton and many others, I think God helps us understand how perception can become real understanding. They explained the correlation between mental model and objective reality by linking our intelligence to divine intelligence (the logos of the cosmos). Of course, this is not necessary for science. Few scientists would make the connection. My point is that the grace I afford to the Church need not distinguish it from other human endeavors. I’m not talking miracle; I’m talking basic rules of reality.

The Church can be miraculous when moved by the spirit of love, the Spirit of Christ. Science can be miraculous when moved by impartial curiosity and clear thinking. Both only make sense (at this time and place), when we see them as fundamentally material, tangible, and made of human action. Both only make sense when focused on the concrete needs and aspirations of humanity. Both only make sense when they have unrealistic hope for more than human fallibility.

Breath shows up in the strangest places. It blows through the dry bones and makes them live. It turns dust into resurrection and humans into something divine.

Posted by: dacalu | 25 April 2019

March for Science

Today’s post comes from a reflection I gave for the Society of Ordained Scientists TeleCompline. I have decided to set it forth twice: once as a secular essay for scientists, and once as a reflection for Christians. This post carries the secular portion; the next relates it to scripture, gospel, and mission. Whether you fall in one camp or both (or neither), I’d encourage you to read through and see how the two types of reasoning relate to one another. It might surprise you… Indeed, I hope it will.

This week, I was remembering the March for Science. On April 22 (Earth Day), 2017 around 100,000 people gathered in Washington, DC to advocate for science. Tens of thousands gathered in other cities around the U.S.

I recall being troubled at the time. “Science” sounds good as an abstract principle. The word means roughly, “knowledge acquired by study.” Who doesn’t like well-earned understanding? A little reflection, however, reveals a challenge. There are natural sciences (e.g., physics, biology, chemistry…) and social sciences (anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, economics…). It’s not clear to me that they all use “science” in the same way.

Many other ways of knowing claim to be science. Aquinas called theology Queen of the Sciences (13th cent.). Gauss gave that title to Mathematics (19th cent.). Even today, we see Christian Science, Creation Science, and Scientology. The name is not enough. Most of us want science to be a reliable and commonly accepted way of knowing.

That’s where the trouble starts. What makes science reliable? Who decides? The marchers want “evidence-based policy.” For my part, that means policy should use the best empirical data according to natural science. It narrows and focuses “evidence” and “science.”

I doubt politics will change the weight of biological evidence (human embryos implant ~7 days after fertilization, viruses evolve) or climate science evidence (the atmosphere is warming, human activities contribute significantly). The same cannot be said for economics. Here, the evidence reflects many biases that vary with political party. Should we consider humans rational and selfish? Should we think of them as good at estimation and planning? Evidence in economics works differently than evidence in biology.

More troubling, I know many people who wrap materialism, progressivism, and other ideologies into their definition of “science.” Strangely, individualism (“see for yourself”), socialism (consensus), and meritocracy (peer review) all arise in discussions of good science. Some of the marchers may care more about these things than they do about empirical data.

I think the organizers of March for Science focus on good things – rigorous reasoning, inclusion, impartiality, forward-thinking, and reflection. There’s another march on May 4. Check it out.  Maybe you should go…

I’m not attacking science or the march. I’m asking what’s at stake and what I care about.

Perhaps I’m being persnickety, focusing on metaphysics instead of practical questions? (I do that.) Perhaps I over-reacted because Scientism (over-valuing science by seeing it as the only source of knowledge) was so popular in the 90s and 00s? (I do that, too.)

So, I did a thought experiment. How would I feel about a March for Christianity? That would make me rather nervous as well. I am always for Christ, but Christianity has all these foibles that come from human imperfection and social structures. Christian marchers calling for “virtue-based policy” would give me chills. Too many Christians have “virtue” that is alien, if not antithetical, to my faith.

Public debate should be driven by empirical data (a kind of evidence) and compassion (a virtue). When I speak of science and Christianity informing policy, that is what I mean. I will march for these things. I might even be willing to die for these things, but they may not be the first things my neighbors think of.

We live in an age of confusion. Clarity comes from knowing what we care about and why. I can be persnickety about science (and Christianity) and I will be, because the words matter. It matters what we say and what we mean. It matters if we march. And it matters why.

The religion-y portion follows, here.

Posted by: dacalu | 23 April 2019

LGBTQ Theology Books

A friend asked me to recommend LGBTQ focused books on theology. I do not have expertise in this area, so have asked for suggestions. I have not (yet!) read most of them; I can only pass on the wisdom of others. I have placed an asterisk by those which look most promising – due to multiple recommendations or recommendations by experts. Feel free to add to the list with comments.

Alexander, J. Neil (2003) This Far by Grace: A Bishop’s Journey Through Questions of Homosexuality

Alison, James (2001) Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay

Beardsley, Christina (2018), Transfaith: A Transgender Pastoral Resource

Boer, Roland and Jorunn Kland, eds. (2008) Marxist Feminist Criticism of the Bible

Brown, Terry, ed. (2006) Other Voices, Other Worlds: The Global Church Speaks out on Homosexuality

Burke, Sean (2013) Queering the Ethiopian Eunuch

Cheng, Patrick (2012) From Sin to Amazing Grace: Discovering the Queer Christ

Cheng, Patrick (2011) Radical Love: Introduction to Queer Theology

Cheng, Patrick (2013) Rainbow Theology: Bridging Race, Sexuality, and Spirit

*Countryman, L. William (1987), Dirt, Greed, and Sex

Countryman, L. William, and M. R. Ritley (2001), Gifted by Otherness: Gay and Lesbian Christians in the Church

Goss, Robert (1992) Jesus Acted Up: A Gay and Lesbian Manifesto

Hall, Caroline (2013) A Thorn in the Flesh: How Gay Sexuality is Changing the Episcopal Church

Haller, Tobias (2009) Reasonable and Holy: Engaging Same-Sexuality

Hartke, Austen (2018) Transforming: The Bible and the Lives of Transgender Christians

Heyward, Carter (1989), Touching Our Strength: The Erotic as Power and Love of God

*Johnson, Jay Emerson (2013) Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy

Johnson, Jay Emerson (2014) Divine Peculiar Faith: Queer Theology for Christian Witness

Johnson, William Stacy (2012) A Time to Embrace: Same-Sex Relationships in Religion, Law, and Politics (2nd Ed.)

Jordan, Mark D. (1997) The Invention of Sodomy in Christian Theology

Keshet Torah Queeries: https://www.keshetonline.org/resources/torah-queeries/

McNeill, John (1988), Taking A Chance on God

McNeill, John (1976), The Church and the Homosexual

Martin, Dale (2006), Sex and the Single Savior

O’Brian, Michelle (2016) This is My Body: Hearing the Theology of Transgender Christians

Robinson, Gene (2008), In the Eye of the Storm: Swept to the Center by God

Shore, John (2012, April 2), “The Best Case For the Bible not Condemning Homosexuality,” Christian Issues

*Stuart, Elizabeth (2003), Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference

Tonstad, Linn (2016) God and Difference: The Trinity, Sexuality, and the Transformation of Finitude

*Tonstad, Linn (2018) Queer Theology: Beyond Apologetics

Vines, Matthew (2015), God and the Gay Christian: The Biblical Case in Support of Same-Sex Relationships

White, Heather R. (2015), Reforming Sodom: Protestantism and the Rise of Gay Rights

 

 

 

 

Posted by: dacalu | 22 April 2019

A Poem for Magdalene

Mary Magdalene has been called the “apostle to the apostles.” The Gospels mention her frequently and, in all four, she discovers the resurrection first. Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ most influential disciples. Some have suggested a romantic or sexual relationship between the two, even marriage. And yet, she was rarely mentioned by early Christian authors. She was regularly conflated with Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) and the sinful woman of Luke 7.

By at least the 7th century, Christians spoke of her as a reformed prostitute. There is no support for this in scripture or other early writings. I don’t know why it inspires the strong emotion that it does. No-one bats an eye at reformed murderers (Moses and Paul), collaborators (Matthew), and terrorists (Simon). I suspect it has to do with discomfort around physicality, particularly women’s sexuality. I suspect it has to do with distrusting male/female intimacy. And, I suspect it has to do with discomfort around women in power.

Many see prostitutes as beyond redemption; incurably corrupted by their acts; savable in soul, but never in body. They are wrong. (To be clear, this position is erroneous, hateful, and harmful. It offends against the gospel.) It may be inaccurate to call Mary Magdalene a reformed prostitute. (I believe it is. It helped many dismiss her discipleship.) And yet, she would be no less saintly, no less a disciple, for having such a past.

God takes all sorts, including sex-workers. Sex-workers (willing and unwilling, male and female, reformed and reforming) should have a patron. They can find redemption in body as well as soul, redemption as complete as for any other (“all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”). Why should a sex-worker not aspire to be an apostle to apostles? And why should Mary not have special care for them, who have been given, by man’s inhumanity, into her care?

How would Saint Mary respond to rumors about her past and about her relationship with Jesus? I don’t know, but I imagine something like this.

 

 

Magdalene

 

You think you know me

who call me fallen;

it was not I who stumbled

over sex.

 

You think you know me

who proclaim my innocence;

it was not I who feared

to know too much.

 

Before all, I listened and heard.

I reached out and touched.

Before all, I spoke.

 

He was at my fingertips.

He is on the tip of my tongue.

You do not know me,

but listen,

and you may know him.

 

Before the fallen I,

before the redeemed I,

in God’s eyes

we are in love.

 

 

 

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