Posted by: dacalu | 28 December 2021

Time Machine

Found in the want adds

Nineteen forty-two:

“Time Machine, used.

One owner from new.

This could be you!”

The moment I left

the present was past;

The past, my future,

before me at last;

The die was cast.

If only I knew

what I know today,

I would never have

left the world that way.

I’d have to stay.

But then…

Who knows where the

world would have been

if we knew now,

as they knew then,

the fate of men.

I stole the device

from myself in the end,

and feeling remorse,

returned it again

to what should’ve been.

Lucas Mix 12/28/21

Posted by: dacalu | 4 November 2021

Wondering about Wonder

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: dacalu | 4 September 2021

Curiosity, Discovery, Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

The Place of Humans

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

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

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

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

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

Weird and Wonderful Life

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

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

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

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

Christians and Weird Life

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

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

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

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

Christians and Wonderful Life

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Curiosity, Discovery, Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Faith Hope and Love

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Exoplanet Encyclopedia:; NASA Exoplanet Archive:

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

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

[5] City of God XVI.8

[6] The Two Souls 4

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

Posted by: dacalu | 6 June 2021


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

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

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

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

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

Lucas Mix, 5 June 2021

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

Evolution in Eternity

God improves the world through entropy.

               That doesn’t mean we should grow cold.

God improves the world through gravity,

               but we are not better off for having fallen.

God improves the world through evolution,

               but we must not equate “more evolved”

               with better or holier or more favored.

God can use the process without endorsing the end.

Entropy gives us life:

               carbohydrates fuel cells

               and warm bones,

               a burnt offering

Exhalation is not the goal of breath,

               nor death the goal of life.

Gravity gives us flight:

               lift, a ton of titanium

               rests on ribbons of air,

               a song of ascents.

A pilgrimage starts and ends on earth,

               but heaven waits in the space between.

Neither length of suffering

               nor shortness of breath

               can strip a life of meaning.

Providence cannot be measured

               in births and deaths.

It cannot be counted or weighed.

It must be sought in the interval.

Lucas Mix, 13 Mar 2021

Posted by: dacalu | 12 November 2020

Knowledge and Love of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: dacalu | 8 October 2020

A Litany for President Trump

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

Personal Prayers

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

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

1979 Book of Common Prayer, 458

National Prayers

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

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

BCP, 820

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

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

Natural Prayers

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

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

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

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

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

BCP, 827

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

A Care for Consistency

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

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

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

BCP, 828

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

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

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

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

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

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


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,


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.


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)


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.

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