Posted by: dacalu | 18 January 2020

God’s Metabolism

Last week I had the pleasure and privilege of going on retreat with the Society of Ordained Scientists at the Redemptorist Renewal Center in Tucson, AZ. At our first Eucharist, we reflected on the season (Epiphany), the theme of the retreat (authority), and the readings of the day. Here are the thoughts that I shared.

Collect for the Society of Ordained Scientists

Almighty God, Creator and Redeemer of all that is, source and foundation of time and space, matter and energy, life and consciousness: Grant us in this Society and all who study the mysteries of your creation, grace to be true witnesses to your glory and faithful stewards of your gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Colossians 1:24-2:7 (“I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”)

John 8:12-19 (“I know where I have come from and where I am going”)


How many of you have a beloved mystery,

            a question that troubles and delights you

            because it provokes insights without ever being fully answered?

To be clear, this is not a perverse resistance to an answer.

            I long with all my heart to know.

            I just never seem to get there.

Nor is it just a poorly framed question like

      “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?”

Admittedly, that one may have had real value in the High Middle Ages,

      when modal logic and Platonic Realism had more currency

      than materialist physics.

No. A beloved mystery must be a question

            sincerely meant and diligently pursued.

It is a quest.

My quest is this:

            what is life, that I am mindful of it?

I am a biologist, so I’m concretely focused on the life we share

            with animals, plants, and fungi, even bacteria –

            the life of our bodies,

            or, if you like, our metabolism.

I can’t be sure that there is a rigorous,

analytic or empirical answer to the question,

but I can’t avoid using the word, ‘life,’

so it must mean something to me.

Life has value.

And, I have come to suspect that life, metabolic life,

            has serious theological implications as well.

Not some abstract mental or spiritual life,

      but the concrete life of flesh and blood,

      the bodily life Christ took on in Jesus,

      and shared in bread and wine.

It is an ancient mystery,

      asked around the world,

      not just by Christians.

Why must we eat other living things?

Why can’t we, like plants, live off of light?

Why must we kill to eat and live?

It takes on special significance for Christians

            in the Incarnation – God with us,

            in the Eucharist – Christ’s body and blood

            and in Church – membership in the Body of Christ.

These are metaphors, of course, but they are not just metaphors.

            As with anything else in scripture,

                        it bears playing out literally before reaching too far into symbolism.

So, when we speak of the Body rooted in Christ,

            and held together by the Spirit, the very breath of God,

            what did that mean to Paul,

            and what might it mean to us?

I cannot pass over this question as a theologian

      without passing through it as a scientist.

The biological question turns out to be quite difficult to answer.

What is life?

What makes a body a body, and not just a lump of matter?

Every organism persists through time,

            despite a constant turnover of matter,

            cells and tissues, gained and lost,

            formed and reformed.

            It brings whole new meaning to Ecclesia semper reformanda est.

                        The body must ever be reformed.

            The difference between living tissue and dead tissue

is not in its composition,

nor even in its origin,

but in its action and how it relates to other tissues.

            The same is true, I think, of Christian life.

                        I do not live to myself or for myself.

                        I am not a Christian because my parents were Christians,

                                    though my faith could not exist,

                                                at least not in its present form,

                                    had it not been passed to me through them.

                        I am not a Christian because I have been baptized,

                                    though that act planted a seed in me.

                        I am a Christian because of my faith, hope, and love,

                                    because of curiosity and community.

                        I did not make these things;

                                    I was grafted onto them, and into them.

I was, quite literally, incorporated into the Body of Christ.

            As I am fueled by bread and wine,

So I am fuel for the church,

                        I am accepted, transformed, and put to use.

It is an uncomfortable metaphor,

            being so very common, so very material, so very… visceral.

I shy away from the baseness of it.

And yet, the more I look at the question,

            the more I ask about God’s metabolism,

            the more I realize how fundamental this idea is scripture,

                        to faith, and to community.

I am dead to self, but alive in Christ.

I am rooted in Christ, the living water.

I am grafted onto the tree which is Christ.

And the mystery of life in Christ is the same as the mystery of metabolism,

            because I am material and local,

            just as God was material and local

            and local bodily life is essential to who we are,

            but they are not the fullness of who we are.

My physical, temporal self lives,

            being part of something dynamic, persistent, and transformative.

My body lives because it is continually remade.

My church lives because is continually remade,

            continually interacting with the world,

            breathing in and breathing out.

It is not the frozen seed of isolationism, slowly consuming itself.

Nor is it the gluttonous blob of colonialism,

            consuming all it meets while resisting change.

It is alive and real and,

            though we cannot see it,

            constantly changing into something new and wonderful.

And we, all the while, are growing with it.

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