Posted by: dacalu | 29 November 2016

Philosophical Goodness

In a previous post, I mentioned my philosophy of the Good. In short, things that are Good are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. I recognize the Good. I do not label it. All things are Good and curiosity is my creed. Without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. I can imagine several potential philosophical objections, which I wanted to address.

First, I am claiming that all actual things are good, but potential things may not be good. It is easy to imagine Evil, but that is not the same as recognizing Evil in an actual thing. Those things that I encounter are Good and I seek to respect that goodness in everyone (and every thing) I meet.

Second, I am claiming that all desires are good, but not that all desires are good in any context. This requires shifting perspective from “desire to harm” to, for example, “desire to help someone else without regard to harm” or “desire for balance/justice/mercy without regard to proportion.” There is a core good desire at the root of every desire, though it may appear monstrous or out of place in a specific context. Still every person is, I believe, motivated by a desire for some genuine aspect of the Good. This allows me to respect their motivations even when disagreeing very strongly with their acts.

Third, I am claiming that all actual states of affairs are good. This is the most difficult claim. They often appear Evil in local context, but are at the universal level, Good. Thus, a murder is not good in the microcosm and yet, in the cosmos, it reveals what is in the murderer’s heart and presents an opportunity for grace. It is not, in itself, Evil; it is the manifestation of an imbalance. Being manifested, the imbalance is more visible to self and neighbor and may be addressed by grace and mercy. This is shown most clearly in the Crucifixion, which lanced the boil of human sin. It must not be viewed as a Good act and yet it can only be viewed as an act by which mercy prevailed. That mystery writ large in Christ appears daily in the smallest acts of humanity. Thus, I side with Leibowitz in claiming that this is mysteriously the best of all worlds. Once again, the claim does not simply flow from logical necessity. (God is all Good and all powerful; therefore, creation is Good.) It also flows from pragmatic concerns. (Only by thinking all things Good may I act for the greatest Good in creation.) It also flows from self-reflection. (I genuinely find most things Good. And, my assumption that unknown things are Good is self-reinforcing. I see new Goodness more easily by looking for the Good in all things.)

Posted by: dacalu | 29 November 2016

What is Goodness?

I realized today that my concept of goodness may be radically different from yours. I knew this intellectually, but I’ve never spelled it out, so I thought I would write something up. I’m talking about Good with a capital gee, as in Good and Evil. They are not words I use often, but both are profoundly important for theology and ethics.

For me, goodness is not an abstract concept. It is not a matter of scorekeeping or side taking or moral command. Good things are worthy of my attention, love, and respect. In Kant’s words, they are ends and not means. They have value and purposes that should be appreciated before I interact with them at all, much less use them for some purpose of my own.

I care if things are Good. I’m not particularly interested in whether they are Evil or Neutral. Something Evil would be worthy of hiding, hating, and harming. Something Neutral would be unworthy of either attention or blindness, love or hate, respect or disrespect. Something Neutral can just be ignored.

I think Good things are Good because God made them so. Nonetheless, my words are not intended to be about God. I do not see Goodness as a theoretical or abstractly theological category of existence. It is that, of course, but primarily it is a statement about my own behavior. I should attend to these things. I should love these things. I should respect these things. My ethical and metaphysical philosophy flow from this commitment as much as they support it. It’s bedrock. In other words, I recognize the Good. I do not label it.

What is Good?

It seems both obvious and simple that some things are Evil, just plain bad, or at least neutral. What about suffering, Ebola, Hitler? And yet, I cannot accept the consequences of such a position.

I am, at heart, a scientist. I think all things worthy of my attention. Not only to I think I will benefit from knowing them better; I think you will as well. Nor, if I am honest, do I believe in dispassionate attention. Knowledge comes hard and we will not put in the effort to produce knowledge only for the sake of knowledge. We hope that the things we study will reward us by being interesting and delightful. If we study them only for what they can do for us, we will miss out on most of their beauty. We will even miss out on most of what they can do for us.

I am at heart, a Christian. I believe that God is love and, therefore, love is the best possible relationship I may have with any thing. Nor can I have any healthy relationship except it be founded on love (Luke 14, Mt 6:24, I Cor 13). To name something Evil or even Neutral is to label it ignorable or even avoidable. How can I love at all unless I label that which I do not know as worthy of knowing, loving, and caring for? If love came easily this would not be a problem, but love takes work as well. We must push ourselves to love more and more fully.

I could make the philosophical argument. Ontologically, all things must be Good, or God becomes a god, a tyrant or a pretender. All things must be Good, or God becomes either ineffective or unwilling to make things better. Instead I want to make the practical and personal argument. All things must be Good or we will fail to know and love all things. We will ignore them. And, when we ignore them, we will end up harming them and ourselves in the process. When we pursue our own interest, in ignorance of theirs, we hurt them. And the world is a poorer place for it.

All things are Good and curiosity is my creed, for without curiosity, there can be no love and love is the highest good. This does not mean that bad things do not happen. It only means that the world is filled with Good things and Good people and that those people are motivated by Good desires. They are, however, confused by how to achieve Good ends. They seek the lesser good in place of the greater – perhaps self over family, or wealth over God, or autonomy over compassion. Each is a good desire. It is right to value self, family, wealth, autonomy, compassion, and God, but daily we make choices between them. We must ask how Good our goodness is. We must also recognize that others are seeking goods as well.

All people are worthy of attention, love, and respect. When people “wish” to harm one another – as they often do – it comes from a desire to help themselves or someone close to them. And that desire is a good thing. It is just not the only thing. Knowing the Good, and not just a good, means realizing goods must be balanced against one another. The desire to harm is necessarily a failure of understanding or imagination in pursuing the Good, which embraces all goods (in balance). We must constantly seek a greater knowledge that does not negate our own desires, but puts them in the context of others.

I aspire to a curiosity and love that embraces all people (and eventually all things). This is not an abstract philosophical idea. Nor is it a vague statement about what I am expected to do. It is a concrete personal hope that my own behavior can reveal that harmony between all things in heaven and on earth.


Technical notes for philosophers

Technical notes for Christians

Posted by: dacalu | 21 November 2016

King and Country

I had the privilege of worshiping with the people of St. Stephen’s, Laurelhurst this morning. Here is the sermon I shared for Christ the King Sunday.

The Collect

Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

The Readings

Jeremiah 23:1-6 (“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep”)
Colossians 1:11-20 (“For in [Jesus] the fullness of God was pleased to dwell”)
Luke 23:33-43 (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”)


God made Donald Trump, just as God made Barrack Obama. 
That’s not to say either one of them is perfect.
Rather, it puts things in perspective.

Rarely, I think, has the last Sunday before Advent fallen at a more fitting time
	in US culture.
I usually have a hard time explaining to congregations why it is so important
	to spend one Sunday every year
	remembering that Christ is King,
	or in the familiar language:
		King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, and he shall reign for ever and ever.
We’re not that familiar with Kings
	at least we don’t think of them as heads of government,
	Elizabeth the Second, 
by the Grace of God, Queen of Great Britain, Ireland 
and the British Dominions beyond the Seas Queen, Defender of the Faith
doesn’t handle the daily details of managing a nation.
	Technically, she is a head of State (a symbolic leader), but not a head of government.
	Both are important, but I want to talk about heads of government today.
The head of government – a president or a prime minister
	runs the daily affairs of a country as the chief executive,
		head of the military
		head of the police.
	They make things happen.
Herod the Great, Emperor Augustus, and Rameses II were heads of government.
So were David and Solomon and Nebuchadnezzar.
They exercised power daily.

People went to them, often daily, for justice and mercy.
And, because they had so much power over people’s lives,
	there was a tendency to worship them.
	Worship – “worth ship” – worthiness.
This was not just a matter of ego – though ego could easily get involved – 
	it was a recognition that the ruler could solve your problems,
	or make your life miserable.
Kings and Emperors were focal points for power and,
	at least in the Greek speaking world,
	people would yell out “Kyrie eleison,” Lord, have mercy on me,
	or, perhaps more accurately, Lord, hear my cry and look with favor on my request.
There might be hundreds of people and only one King.
You needed to get his attention.
Lord! Over here! Deal with my issue!

Christians have generally been fans of kings and heads of government.
They are an efficient way to get things done.
On a daily basis, you need someone to keep the government running,
	to keep an eye on the military
	and the police
	and the roads
	and communication
	and on and on.

Christians have not been fans of worshiping Earthly rulers.
We think that they can solve some of our problems, but not all of them.
They are worthy of respect, but there is always a higher power.
We call it idolatry when people get confused about
	where our ultimate good can be found.
No matter how much power an Earthly leader has,
	they cannot bring us the kind of love and joy that God can.
So we value heads of government,
	but we don’t worship them.

We also recognize that Earthly leaders often get things
	horribly, horribly wrong.
At the end of the day, someone judges the King,
	just as the King judges the people.
As we say in the Lord’s prayer,
	Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,
	so Kings and Presidents will be judged with the same mercy they use to judge others.
That is particularly true here in the US, where the people elect the leaders.
We have power, which means we also have responsibility for how it is used.

I found the election profoundly troubling.
	I don’t like the way we treated one another as leaders and voters.
	I don’t like the disregard for the truth.
	I don’t like that many things I want to see done will not be done.
So I find myself crying out to God, “Kyrie, eleison.”
	“Lord, hear my cry and look with favor on my request”
	“Lord, have mercy on me.”

And Christ the King Sunday comes to my rescue with two insights.
	First, I should not look to a head of government for my salvation.
		Help yes, but ultimately other things are more important.
	Second, all of us are judged by a higher standard, a higher power.
		My job is not to win the political battles (though I try);
		my job is to help bring about the Kingdom of God.

We are blessed in the US by how often the will of God and public policy go hand in hand.
We have programs to help the poor and the sick.
Our foreign policy often looks to the good of the world and not only the good of the US.
We value creativity, productivity, communication, and education.
I am a big fan of the United States.
	We can, and have, and will do great things.

Historically, Christians have not been so lucky.
Many governments, perhaps most governments,
	have a very poor record when it comes to taking care of the last and least,
	helping other nations,
	and using their power wisely.
And so the saints have commented – extensively – on what it means to live on Earth,
	subject to human rulers who do not hear our cries
	and sometimes harm us.
If you have the chance, I strongly recommend reading 
Reinhold Niebuhr and Martin Luther King Jr.
among the modern followers of Christ.
Reaching back, we can look to Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day as well.

Be not afraid.
It is, I think, the default setting for Christians to be worried about Earthly rulers.
Power is a difficult thing.

In our usual, somewhat complicated way, Christians recall that Christ is King,
	by recalling that Christ was crucified.
We tell the story of Jesus mocked and killed by the government of the day,
	with the sarcastic remark, Iesu Nazerenum, Rex Iuderium – 
	Jesus Christ, King of the Jews.
	The sign at the top of the cross indicated the crime
		for which the person was being executed.
	It might say “murderer” or “spy.”
	This one said, “King of the Jews” as an insult to the Jewish authorities
		who had brought Jesus to Pilate for trial in the first place.
	It was meant to threaten both Jesus followers and the Jewish authorities.
“Look what the Roman Governor – on behalf of the Emperor – can do.”
“Look what power we have over life and death.”

And therein lies the joke,
	for Jesus conquered death.
The dread punishment of the Romans – crucifixion –
Jesus returned from death.

And this is terribly, terribly important.
I cannot emphasize it strongly enough.
Jesus did not overcome death with death.
Despite expectations, Jesus did not mount an armed rebellion
	and retake Jerusalem from the Romans.
Jesus would not raise a sword to the soldiers who came to capture him.
He did not even raise his voice to the Jewish tribunal and the Roman Governor.
Jesus’ priorities do not start with preventing, escaping, or creating death.
	They start with life and love.

We have very concrete suggestions from the Bible and tradition
	for how to pursue the priorities of Jesus.
Love one another.
Turn the other cheek.
Forgive your enemies.
Pray for those who persecute you.
Build communities.
Tell the truth.
Care for those who cannot care for themselves.

It sounds straightforward, but it is painfully difficult,
	when the demands of the world and the government press upon us.
Our bodies say “eat, drink, defend yourself.”
Our governments say “conform, commit, buy.”

I don’t think they are bad things.
I think they are good.
I think it’s important to take care of our bodies and our families.
I think it’s important to value and serve our country,
	when our country is working for the good of the world.
	And our country often does.

But we must never think these are the highest goals.
We must never think they are the best goods.
That means worshiping them in place of God.

Christ the King puts elections in perspective.
We have a higher calling to pursue love and life.
No matter how we feel about an election, 
it cannot be the end of the world
nor can it save us.
God does those things.

So, let us turn to concrete responses to our situation.
First, we must remember who adopted us and who promises true hope:
	God the Father through Christ Jesus and the Holy Spirit.
	That is our core identity, more than Democrats or Republicans
		or even Americans.
	We are the beloved of God.

Second, governments, like people, are imperfect.
	They fail to live up to the standards set for us by Jesus. 
The government cannot be perfect, but we can always strive to make it better.
I believe in democracy – I believe that we are the power behind the government.
We must all be involved in shaping the future of the US
	because there are real choices set before us, choices that matter.
Vote, caucus, advocate, protest.

Third, keep your eyes on the prize.
	Governments cannot save people, but love can.
	It’s hard to believe sometimes that mercy and forgiveness, truth and reconciliation
		can be more powerful than swords and guns, but they are.
	They are the only way to make lasting change.

And fourth, frustrating but true,
	Our path is not one of comfort or of calm.
	We ask not for a stable life, but for an eternal one.
We should value governments, protect and serve them.
We should seek the good of country, family, and self.
I will never disparage those.

But they cannot be as important to us as our Christian values,
	Faith, hope, and love; 
justice, kindness, and humility; 
curiosity, forgiveness, and community.
Sometimes those values will come in conflict with
	security, conformity, and comfort.
Sometimes they conflict with life itself.
We must be ready to make the right choice.

I want to end with two quotes,
	both of which say Christ is King in their own way.

The first is a tale of Abraham Lincoln, one of my favorites.

To a minister who said he hoped the Lord was on our side, 
[President Lincoln] replied that it gave him no concern 
whether the Lord was on our side or not 
“For,” he added, “I know the Lord is always on the side of right;” 
and with deep feeling added, 
“But God is my witness that it is my constant anxiety and prayer 
that both myself and this nation should be on the Lord’s side.

And the second is from I Corinthians.

“Love is patient; love is kind; 
love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. 
It does not insist on its own way; 
it is not irritable or resentful; 
it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 
It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. 
Love never ends. 
But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; 
as for tongues, they will cease; 
as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 
For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 
but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end…
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. 
And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.”

Posted by: dacalu | 20 November 2016

Evolution and Genesis

Today I had the great privilege of talking with a conference of middle schoolers in the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia. The theme for the meeting was “Jesus Christ and Dinosaurs” and they asked me to talk specifically about evolution and the book of Genesis. There was only time to say a few things – as I wanted to field questions – but here is my practice script.

Life is interesting. Living things never do exactly what we think they will. They move; they jump; they burp; they poop; they eat things. Set a living thing down on the table and turn around.  It might not be there when you turn back. Even plants grow and shift and bloom. Not only that. Life comes in so many different shapes and kinds. There are giant organisms like whales and dinosaurs and tiny creatures like mites and bacteria. We eat some of them – others eat us. Some make us sick – others make us healthy. So, it’s no real surprise that people study living things. You probably have a biology class at your school.

I study life. I study life with science – which makes me a biologist.  I went to college at the University of Washington and studied biochemistry. Then I went to Harvard for graduate school (or grades 19 through 24; who knew there was a grade 24?) While I was there, I studied the evolution of photosynthetic reaction centers, the parts of bacteria and plants that convert sunlight into energy. I also started working with NASA on the search for life elsewhere, what we now call astrobiology – life among the stars. So, I don’t just study Earth life as it is, I also study life as it could be. I want to know what the word “life” means and how can understand all life better.

Scientists have been talking about life for 3000 years and many different theories about life have been suggested. Mostly, people agreed that 5 activities were among the most interesting aspects of life – eating and growing, moving and sensing, and thinking. All 5 require coordination between the parts of living things.

In eating, your teeth work with your tongue to break up food; your stomach and intestines work together to digest the food; and your blood carries the sugar and vitamins to other parts of your body. That’s why we speak of living things having “organs” or being “organisms.” Our bodies are organized to work together. For most of history, we had only the roughest idea how organisms got to be organized. None of the non-living stuff has that kind of order.

About 200 years ago, the most popular theory said that God must have designed organisms the same way we design cars and computers. That would explain how they came to be organized. But people had a few concerns. First, we could design some things better – like eyes that see more or throats that cough less. Second, organisms don’t come out of a factory – they come from parents and grow up. And third, some people don’t believe in God. For all three reasons, people were looking for a better theory of biology.

Along came Darwin. Darwin looked at the way humans breed animals – like dogs, cows, and pigeons. Breeders select the animals they like best and breed them with other animals so that their children have all the best traits. They make dogs with long floppy ears or short fur or tiny bodies. What if Nature had a similar way of choosing some animals over others? Darwin suggested evolution by natural selection – the idea that environments slowly work on populations, changing them to fit in with their surroundings, just the way breeders work on populations, changing them to fit with their plans. Hence, “Natural Selection.”

Consider a bunch of mice living in the desert.  The black and white mice stand out against the sand, so that birds can see them from a long way away.  Predators eat them. The sand colored mice survive because they are harder to see.  Over many generations, the black and white mice die out, while the sand colored mice have children and take over the population.

What most people call “Evolution” has to do with this idea that organisms in the wild change, just like farm animals do. Species don’t look the same way they did in the past and they will look different in the future. Darwin is not famous for coming up with the idea of changing organisms. That idea was old. Darwin talked about how they change.  Over 30 years he pulled together massive amounts of data and many kinds of arguments for why the details of change are what they are. The environment favors organisms that fit well with their surroundings.

Darwin’s idea allowed us to understand two other things as well. First, it suggested that any two species around now, might have evolved from only one species in the past. Perhaps there was even one original kind of living thing, from which all living things come. One great-great-great-…great-grandmother to all plants, animals, and even humans. Second, organization could happen without a designer because the environment was slowly shaping the animals all along.

In the last 200 years, we have discovered that life is weirder and more diverse than we imagined. Some organisms are so small that no-one could see them before microscopes were invented. Some live in extreme heat, cold, and radiation – in places we never thought to look. Throughout all of this, evolution by natural selection has been a great tool in understanding why and how organisms are complex, why we find them where we do, and the traits they have. Biology and evolution help us understand why life works the way it does and how organisms are related. Scientists like evolution because it’s useful. It explains living things.

We also want to know other things about life. We want to know about individual lives – about you and me. We want to know about life and death and meaning. How do we value life? Are some lives more important than others? Is it okay to eat living things? Can we eat some, but not others? Most people think people are more important than animals and animals are more important than plants – but it’s tough to work out the details. These are important questions and science doesn’t help us with them.

Genesis does. Genesis tells us things about what it means to be alive and how living things should relate to one another. Many people think these sorts of issues are more important to daily life than the science questions. Just like science, we’ve been talking about how to interpret Genesis for 3000 years. We disagree about some of it, but we also agree on many things. Perhaps most important for Jews, Christians, and Muslims is the idea that God created everything. People disagree about how God did it, whether God designed things individually, or just got the ball rolling and let things develop. The important part is that God made humans and animals and plants and sea and earth and stars and – this part counts – considers all of it good. God made all things and all things are, from the very beginning, good. Second, God made us to represent God and care for all the things that were made. The first chapter of Genesis is all about this. Creation is good and we were asked to care for it.

The second and third chapters of Genesis tell us about how humans started arguing with God, why we don’t understand one another, and why we struggle so much. Sometimes it seems like parts of the world are not good – thorns and wasps and diseases. According to Genesis, we wanted more than our fair share of the world, so we stole an apple, then lied about it, and broke our friendship with God by refusing to even talk about the apple. Christians like this story because it gives us a way to think about the world. From the start, everything is good, but when we care too much for ourselves and not enough for others, we start to argue and compete. When things seem bad, it’s often because we – or someone in the past – messed things up. We can fix our relationships if we return to friendship with God. Of course, broken friendships can be hard to fix, and we have things like forgiveness and community to bind us back together again.

Another lesson in Genesis has to do with what it means to be alive. It has something to do with the breath and blood that flow through a thing. Think about a river. If the water isn’t moving, it’s just a lake. To say river is to say “water moving from somewhere to somewhere else.” To say life is to say breath moving in and out – or blood pumping – or something like that. It comes from God blowing on the dust, making things move. Life happens. The word “soul” sounds like a stationary thing in modern English – something you have or don’t have – but in the Bible, it means something God is doing something in the world – God’s breath turning dust or mud into something that eats and moves and surprises us. With Genesis, we see God acting in all living things, so we value them and we value God in them.

What do you think God wants to say in Genesis? I think Genesis is about God trying to talk to us. Both the Old and New Testaments begin with passages that talk about the whole universe. For me that opens the conversation. It’s a kind of introduction. Who is God that God is talking to us? God is the one who made everything and who loves everything. We can’t understand God and one another unless we act as God’s children, the sisters and brothers of every living thing, and the caretakers of creation.

From the very start of Christianity, people argued about how God speaks to us through Genesis. They noticed that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 talk about the creation in very different ways. For example, the animals come before humans in Genesis 1 and after us in Genesis 2. What was the real order? They also noticed that some things don’t match up with our experience.  How could there be a day and a night before there was a Sun? God doesn’t make the Sun until the 4th day.  What is a day and a night with no Sun?

Augustine of Hippo, possibly the most famous theologian in history, lived 1500 years ago.  He said that sometimes God invites us to look closer by giving us puzzles. He said there were several ways to read scripture. The plain sense of scripture tells us what the words say on the surface. That can be factual – “he went to the store” – or figurative – “he stormed off.” When I say he stormed off, I don’t mean he was dripping water and shooting lighting.  I mean he was mad when he went. It’s still a plain sense of the words, because I said exactly what I meant, but I did it creatively. So, there are factual and figurative senses to scripture.

There are also less plain ways to read scripture. Sometimes we say one thing and mean something entirely different. I might say “I am as hungry as a Tyrannosaurus Rex” or “I’m so bored; kill me now.” I’m not just being creative. I’m saying something factually false that still tells you something. I might exaggerate, or be sarcastic, or compare things in a strange way. We talk to each other this way.  The question is: does God talk to us this way.  Most Christians for most of history have thought that God does. Think about the parables.  Jesus says the “kingdom of God is like this” or sometimes he just tells a story and hopes we get the point.

I agree with Augustine. I think that the Bible is an amazing story that invites us to read and re-read and constantly hear new things. I think it has layers to reveal and puzzles to solve. I think it’s just as complicated as an organism and we won’t really get it until we see all the parts working and moving together.


Some Christians have trouble with evolution. Mostly, they don’t disagree with what it explains. They worry that it gets in the way of our ability to value life properly. They think that it if humans are related to other animals, we won’t treat humans very well. They want God to be directly involved in making every species. That matches the plain reading of scripture and it helps them remember God’s special care for each and every living thing.

I think that’s important, but I also think we can think of God’s breath moving in and out of every organism without giving up evolution. I think we are miraculous and valuable, however we are made. Thousands of years of evolution is pretty wonderful. So I agree, we need to value people, but I don’t think evolution makes that harder.

Other Christians want the Bible to be very easy to understand. It tells a story with a timeline. They worry that getting away from the plain sense of Genesis encourages people to ignore some of the important lessons. Why can’t it just mean what it says? That’s where we come in. I agree with them that the Bible is serious and valuable. I disagree that it should be easy. I think that Bible study is something we should do together. I think God has given us this really great gift and that it has depth. Like a really good video game, it has Easter eggs and bonus rounds and special features. It works best when we play the game together.

Episcopalians think that we should do as much science as we can and as much Bible study. We think that Bible study requires a group of people giving everything they can to find both the obvious meanings and the subtle meanings, and everything in between. God starts the Old Testament with two different accounts of creation and starts the New Testament with four different accounts of Jesus to show us, from the very beginning, that we have been invited into a puzzle and a challenge – a conversation with God that will last

Posted by: dacalu | 18 November 2016

Evolution Prayer

My friend Ivar asked me to write a Eucharistic Prayer for the season of Advent.  In particular, he was hoping to highlight the aspects of creation and redemption that relate to evolutionary biology. That’s a tall order.  Here’s my attempt.

For those of you unfamiliar with sacramental Christianity (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran…) we have fixed formulas for blessing the bread and wine that we experience as the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. The prayer does not magically transform food into flesh.  It’s a thanksgiving (Greek: eucharist) and request that we might share the common life of our adopted family using a ritual started by Jesus. Often considered the focal rite of Christianity, the Church has been very careful about the rules for celebrating it properly.

I should also note that this is not a prayer in praise of evolution. Eucharistic Prayers are always, essentially about Christ with us. Nonetheless, our understanding of evolution sometimes challenges us to rethink the relationship of God to Creation. I hope this prayer will invite people to do just that. (Bracketed portions are optional.)


Eucharistic Prayer Z

The Lord is with you.     And also with you.

Lift up your hearts.     We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.     It is right to give God thanks and praise.


It is truly right to give thanks to you, the Author of Creation,

for in the beginning you set fire to the void, and lit the furnace of the stars.

You alone are eternal, you alone are steadfast, and by your will all things came to be.


Within the starry night, you set planets, separating the day from the night,

and planting the seed of life in the time between. We your creatures remember your love,

celebrate your will, and await your coming. In your hand is the life of every living thing.


[Upon Earth, you made your ways known in extravagant variety:

mustard seed and Leviathan, locust and yeast,

a wilderness both within and without our walls.


You said it was not good that the human should be alone,

giving us plants for food and animals to be our helpers.

And you made Adam and Eve, bone of one bone, flesh of one flesh,

to be two and yet one, by your grace.

To this day, we are never alone, but draw breath together.

One sows and another reaps; one gathers and another casts away,

while the whole creation groans in labor,

bringing forth the fruits of your Spirit,

and awaiting the redemption of our bodies.]


And, through it all, from the beginning of time,

your Son, Jesus Christ, was working out our salvation.

Therefore, we praise you, joining our voices with angels and archangels,

and giving voice to every creature under heaven, we praise you as we sing,


Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,

heaven and Earth are full of your glory.

            Hosanna in the highest.

Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.

            Hosanna in the highest.


We come before you today, O Lord, awaiting redemption and needing salvation,

for Paradise was not enough.

In our blindness and arrogance, we sought a solitary life,

stealing from the trees and killing our brothers.

[We separated ourselves from one another,

from the lily, the sparrow, and the cedar.

The very ground brought forth thorns and thistles to stop us.]

We even sought to separate ourselves from you,

the source of all that was, and is, and shall be.


But your creativity knew no bounds.

In every generation you reached out to us, as a mother cares for her children.

Again and again, you called us to return.

Through prophets and sages you revealed your righteous Law.


And, in the fullness of time, you sent your only Son,

who gave life to the world,

to bear our humanity, as son, brother, and friend

to reknit the sinews of our common life

tattered and frayed and severed as they were.

[In the bread of life,

wheat, ground and shaped by human hands,

raised up by yeast and flavored by bacteria,

he reminded us that we never eat alone.

In the cup of wine,

grapes, crushed by human feet,

transformed by yeast, and made new by bacteria and archaebacteria,

he gave us hope for a new and different life.]


On the very night we handed him over to suffering and death,

our Lord, Jesus Christ took this bread, broke it and blessed it,

and shared it with his friends, saying,

“Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you.

Do this for the remembrance of me.”


After supper, he took the cup of wine;

and when he had given thanks to you,

he offered it to them, and said,

“Drink this, all of you: This is my Blood of the new Covenant,

which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.

Whenever you drink it, do this in remembrance of me.”


We know that these mysteries are too great for us.

We know that we are not yet ready to understand,

divided as we are against one another and against ourselves.

And yet we seek to understand.


[We know you as the God of gravity and entropy, evolution and decay.

We know you as the God who transformed our planet with toxic bacteria,

meteor showers, and ice ages that killed species without number.


But we also know you as the God of the Cambrian Explosion,

who made flowering plants and mammals in their time.

We know you in the calling of Primates to be conscious, intelligent, and civilized,

who raised us up to hear and speak your Word in the world.]


We ask you to send your Spirit upon this bread and this wine

that they may reveal to us your love and will.

We ask you to send your Spirit upon us,

that we too, may be sacraments of your presence,

the hands and feet of Christ,

the very Body of God, incarnate.


Though we are not worthy, we are willing.

Though we are not united, we are called.

Though we are not yet, we hope to be,

made bold by our Savior Jesus Christ.


By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit

all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and forever.  AMEN.






Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2016

One with Creation

This Sunday I had the pleasure of celebrating the Feast of St. Francis with the people of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Laurelhurst (Seattle, WA).  Here is the sermon I shared.



Most high, omnipotent, good Lord, grant your people grace to renounce gladly the vanities of this world; that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may for love of you delight in your whole creation with perfectness of joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Isaiah 11:6-7,9 (“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain;”)

Psalm 148:7–14 (“Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea-monsters and all deeps;”)

Matthew 11:25–30 (“For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”)



“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 
and I will give you rest. 
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; 
for I am gentle and humble in heart, 
and you will find rest for your souls. 
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 
There is something wonderfully logical
	and terribly difficult about this passage.
Once you get rid of all of your possessions,
	they no longer weigh you down.
To be divested of wealth and official power is, in a very real way,
	to be truly free.
You are no longer responsible for keeping track of it all,
	or managing it fairly.
You can simply live.
At the same time, it can be terribly frightening to give up all that control,
	or at least the appearance of control,
	over our surroundings.
Money is power.
To have no money is to be powerless, at least in one sense of the word.
On the other hand, you gain a whole new freedom
to focus on the here and now,
to act simply.

St. Francis epitomizes this aspect of Christianity.
He gave up money and privilege,
	and yet we remember him for the power he wielded,
	for the way he shaped the world.
Many of you will know the story.
Francis was the son of a wealthy merchant.
	After a somewhat frivolous youth, he decided to renounce everything
	and embrace radical poverty.
The order he founded gave up claim to any property
	and begged daily for their food.
And yet, they were respected for their devotion to God and Gospel.
Francis became an advisor to popes and princes.
He inspired thousands to give up their money and privilege,
	to take on service and live in harmony with the world, both human and natural.

It is easy to remember Francis in a sanitized way,
	as someone who loved animals and embraced simplicity,
	but Francis was troubling figure as well.
He renounced learning and scholarship,
	he denied and punished his body,
	and he was totally uncompromising in his theology.
Contemporaries found him very difficult to live with.
By all accounts he was dirty and hungry and obnoxious.
His followers were thought rabble by the respectable people;
	they were beggars preaching radical social change.

More than one Church historian has quipped that Francis
	is the most beloved, yet least imitated saint in the calendar.
He stood for an entirely different way of being in the world,
	one with different priorities:
	love over power,
	community over individual freedom,
	service and poverty.
These things were his wealth,
	and he used them fully.
And perhaps that is part of the message.
It’s not just a matter of giving stuff up.
	It is a matter of using the freedom it gives you
	to serve God and neighbor.
Francis embraced poverty
so that he could embrace the Gospel.

We have this balance then,
	of giving up power and taking on responsibility.
	Jesus’ burden is light, but it is a weight we carry,
		 a taking on of the world.
	And strangely, the weight of the world,
		is easier to bear than selfishness.
That is the foolishness of Jesus and of Francis.
	I don’t know about you, but this foolishness
		does not come easily to me.
	It is hard to give up control, to give up money and earthly power.
	It is hard to even imagine what this
		greater and lesser burden might be.
	But I have seen a glimpse of the answer,
		and I will share it with you.

Francis was not a fan of education.
	I think he saw it as an excuse to hide from the real world,
		to focus on yourself and your own understanding.
And yet, his followers became one of the pillars of learning
	in the late middle ages.
The Franciscans were important in the developing universities.
	Franciscans Roger Bacon and William of Ockham
		were key pioneers for aspects of modern science.
Nor do I think this was an accident,
	because Francis’ idea of poverty was not solely about self-denial.
	Undoubtedly, there were aspects of that to his thought,
		and at the end of his life he repented of some of his zeal,
		particularly in punishment of the body.
	Francis poverty was inspired by true humility,
		the finding of one’s place within the greater whole,
		the appreciation of all creation
			as God’s handy-work
		and the proper perspective on our own significance.
We are important – vitally important,
	not because we are unique, or alone, or perfect,
	but because we complete the picture.
We are significant precisely because we are one among many,
	both as individual humans and as a species.

We celebrate that today.
We celebrate the working out of God’s will,
	not only in our lives, but in the life of the world.
Nature, the environment, the planet,
	even the vast expanse of interstellar space.
We recognize God’s relationship with the creatures of earth and sky and sea,
	and God’s relationship with us through them.
The same balance of poverty and power,
	found in Francis thoughts about money,
	can be seen in his words about creation.
By giving up our focus on humanity alone,
	we begin to see God’s role for us in the Cosmos.

In the collect, we pray
	“that, following the way of blessed Francis, we may 
for love of you 
delight in your whole creation 
with perfectness of joy.”
Delighting in the entirety of creation.
	It sounds simple, perhaps simplistic, but it is not.
	It is as difficult and important as poverty.
	It requires a commitment to inquiry, curiosity, and care.
	It requires looking to the last and the least with love.
To wonder at things beyond our immediate human interest.
We are part of something larger, something grander than ourselves.
To say ‘creature’ and ‘creation’ 
is more than a description of living things and nature.
Those words speak about how they fit together,
	how we belong within the harmony of God’s world.
Science is showing us that creation is 
broader, deeper, and more wondrous
than we had imagined.
Not only the seas, but the dirt below us and the sky above us
	are saturated with life.
	Even our own bodies form their own ecosystems of creatures,
		insects, bacteria, and protists.
We say in the Eucharistic prayer 
(Prayer 3 from Enriching Our Worship)
“these gifts your earth has formed and human hands have made.”
Bread and wine, in addition to being staples are collaborations.
	They cannot be made without 
plants, bacteria, and other one-celled creatures.
The bread which we break is made from wheat.
	But we can’t eat plain wheat; the chemicals are hard to digest.
Bread must be fermented;
		we add Saccharomyces cerevisiae, or baker’s yeast.
		The yeast breaks down the sugars,
			giving bread its taste,
			and producing the carbon dioxide bubbles
			that make the bread expand or “rise.”

The wine which we share is made from grapes.
	We can eat grapes plain, 
but historically the water was not always safe to drink,
so we would ferment grape juice,
		using some of the micro-organisms to protect us from others.
	The same species of yeast is added to grapes,
turning sugars into alcohol.
	Wine also has bacteria like Lactobacillus, that change the flavor
		and can help our immune systems.

Both bread and wine reflect a delicate balance of contributions
	from a number of creatures, directed by human hands.
Eating with one another is an abstract symbol of our unity in Christ,
	but it is also a very concrete participation
	in the community of creation – 
	different creatures working together.

One of the things I love about Christianity	
	is that the symbols are layered.
We eat this meal together as a community of humans.
	The bread and the wine come from human work,
	but they also reflect a collaboration of humans with the rest of creation.
The more we care about creation, the more we investigate.
And the more we investigate, 
the more we find deeper connections, 
and broader communities of life.
Yeast itself reflects a collaboration between two kinds of cells –
	but that’s enough biology for today.
The point is that we can always enter more deeply into the mystery of communion,
	even when we think of it in straightforward scientific terms.
We are one bread, one body in Christ.

As we become more aware of our integration with the larger world,
	we cannot help but ask how we affect it.
Do we add to, or take away from the fundamental beauty of creation?
The answer, of course, is that we can do either…or both.
And yet we have this great gift of reason,
	and with it curiosity and hope.
The gift of reason allows us to ask and act,
	to be intentional about our communities
	to build a greater collaboration
	in fuller appreciation of God and Gospel.

Jesus asks us to love our neighbor,
	friend or enemy,
	family or stranger.
We take this Sunday, this feast day,
	to remember that neighbors are not only human.
Our neighborhood embraces the whole of the Earth,
	and perhaps the stars as well.
We are called, like the Good Samaritan,
	to care for all those we meet on the road,
	whoever – or whatever – they may be.

I truly believe that love of God IS love of neighbor;
	the two are inseparable.
And so I stretch myself every day
	to know life better,
	so that I might know living things better.
I start with humans, but ask,
	what does it mean to love a pet, a dog or a cat, a bird or a salamander.
What might it mean to reach out further and love a yeast or a bacterium,
	these creatures that live so closely with us
	and impact our food, our health, and our livelihood.
It is hard to imagine that kind of humility,
	the kind of poverty that places me in community with the microbes.
I don’t know if I’ll ever get there.
I don’t know exactly what it means to see myself
	from God’s perspective,
	and see my value,
		not in contrast with the value of other creatures,
		but as part of one bread, one body with them,
		part of the life and light that is Jesus Christ.

I don’t know if I can love the whole world,
	but I believe,
	and I hope, by God’s grace,
	that by the end of my lifetime,
	I might love as much of it as possible,
	to take on the burden of loving the last and the least,
	to be, with Francis,
		part of the dance of creation.


Posted by: dacalu | 18 September 2016

Visiting the South

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be speaking in Atlanta, GA and Clemson, SC.  For anyone who is interested, here are the Details


Public Talk on Astrobiology and the Meanings of Life

Thursday 9/22St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, Evening (time TBD)

3098 St Annes Ln NW, Atlanta, GA 30327


Academic Talks on the the Various Definitions of Life

Thursday 9/22Georgia Tech, ES&T L1118 at 3pm

Friday 9/23Clemson, 201 Hardin Hall at 3pm

Monday 9/26Columbia Theological Seminary, at 3:15pm

Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2016

Is Labor Holy?

Today, I had the privilege of worshiping with Church of the Apostles, in Seattle, WA. We were celebrating Labor Day.  Here’s the sermon I shared.



Almighty God, you have so linked our lives one with another that all we do affects, for good or ill, all other lives: So guide us in the work we do, that we may do it not for self alone, but for the common good; and, as we seek a proper return for our own labor, make us mindful of the rightful aspirations of other workers, and arouse our concern for those who are out of work; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



1 Corinthians 3:10-14 (“that foundation is Jesus Christ”)

Matthew 6:19-24 (“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.” and “You cannot serve God and wealth.”)



I’m conflicted about labor day.
It’s one of those civil holidays,
	that may or may not be a Holy Day.
It depends on how we view labor, I suppose.
Is labor “services rendered for monetary compensation”?
	Or is it “work we do in the world”?
	A little bit of both.
		(Here at COTA, it’s always a little bit of both.)
I am grateful for my ability to do work in the world,
	to change my environment for love of God and neighbor,
	to make the world a better place.

Labor is law and grace and sanctification,
	all wrapped in one.
Labor is law, for God said,
“By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken;”
We must work to support ourselves.
Labor is grace, for we can do just this.
We can shape the world around us,
	bend it to our will, for good and evil.
We can plant and reap, 
build and tear down, gather and throw away.
	We can even support ourselves,
		if only by building on a foundation laid by another.
And labor is sanctification,
	because it allows us to participate in God’s work,
	to reflect God’s glory in our charity,
	to tend and keep creation,
	and to heal.
That kind of labor is a holy thing, worthy of a Holy Day.
That kind of labor is worth reflecting on.

But labor is also “services rendered for monetary compensation.”
We associate it with work and wages,
	unions and collective bargaining,
	a working class and 
political parties that attempt to represent them.

We live in a society that keeps score.
Our society keeps score in dollars and cents.
	Lumps us together and keeps us apart,
	based on our jobs and our bank accounts.
Our society likes to measure the value of work – 
	and the value of people –
	based on their labor
		and the fruits of their labor
		and, all too often, on their ability
			to accumulate the fruits of other people’s labor.
Paul wasn’t alone,
	when he worried about the wrong people getting credit.

So we have this good kind of labor – the work we do in the world –
	and we have some unhealthy ways that we think about it.
How do we separate the good from the bad,
	and get to the labor of love
	that is true faith?
Let me suggest three rules for helping us keep on track.
1)	Money is not the only kind of value.
2)	The exchange of work for money is not the only kind of labor. And,
3)	You are much, much more than your potential earnings.

First, money and value.
I find the greatest value in relationships, in friendship and community.
	These things are hard to monetize,
		but tremendously important.
	Even economists recognize the trust necessary
		for markets to run smoothly.
After relationships I value formation,
	the shaping of self and others into
	better people – education, character, and skill.
And only third do I value power,
	and the currency by which we have power to
	trade our own wealth for that of others.

Second, jobs and labor.
We use our labor to get money.
We have jobs, professions, careers.
Sometimes the jobs are just and equitable;
	sometimes they are not.
I feel blessed to be at a time and place 
where so many jobs are available.
	I need not take on my father’s profession.

Sometimes I think we put too much emphasis on jobs as vocation.
	It is a great joy when it works out,
		but it’s okay to have a job that supports your vocation.
	Perhaps your priority is family
		and your job supports your ability to spend time with them.
	Perhaps your priority is the church, or education, or travel.
	Many vocations don’t pay that well;
		they can still be the best use of your labor.

And finally, self and job.
	You are not your job.
	Nor are you your bank account.
As I said, our society keeps score,
	and we do so with jobs and money.
Don’t fall into the trap of judging yourself
	by the way society judges you.
Don’t fall into the trap of measuring your worth.

How should we judge ourselves?
	That’s the trick.
We need not judge ourselves at all.
If we are not laboring to increase our value,
	we can labor for the love of one another,
	and for the love of the labor,
	and for the love of God who calls us into the fields.
“The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.”

Our primary labor, is the labor of love:
	building relationships,
	finding people deep down within themselves where they hide
		and bringing them out so they can be their fullest selves,
	finding ourselves and sharing the gifts God has given us,
	respecting the dignity of every human being,
	and – to the best of our ability – 
	loving every living breathing thing.
When jobs and money serve that end, they are beautiful things.
When they do not, they are idols, pure and simple.

Jesus says, “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
I would add this, “your labor shows what you value.”
	How much do you value relationships, formation, power, and money?
	How do you spend your time and effort?

I don’t want to make you guilty.
	We are far too guilty about making too much or doing too little.
I don’t want to make you ashamed.
	We feel ashamed for making too little and brag about doing to much.
Both are excuses to avoid the real issue.
	What do we value and how do our actions
	help us – or hinder us – in getting what we want?
Let us learn to talk about the ways in which we use money and jobs
	to achieve the things that really matter to us.
Is your work a vocation?
	If not, does it aid you in your vocation?
Does it provide enough to live on?
Does it foster relationships and help you grow as a person?

As an academic, I regularly struggle to understand why I do the things I do?
I write and publish, apply and account, teach and talk?
	Since I do not have tenure, I spend a great deal of time
		wondering about the things I can do for job security,
		and money, and respect, as well as what I am called to.
	I have to balance job and vocation.
	Nor am I alone.
	I expect most of you are making the same calculations.
		How much can I pay for school?
		How long must I pay my dues before I find security?
		Are the things that I do helping me to grow?
		Are they helping others?

Many of you know me.
I’m not good with answers.
	I’m much better at questions.
	I want to share the types of questions that lead to good futures,
		that help you discover and achieve your goals.
	Because that, too, is labor – figuring yourself out 
		and finding your place in the world.
	Whether because of Adam’s sin or some other reason,
		we feel uprooted, separated from the ground of our being.
	Only by the sweat of our brow can we cultivate the kind of life
		that will fulfill not only our own dreams but those of God.

Spend some time this week thinking hard about your values – what you want.
Spend some time asking about your labor – what you do.
	Does what you do get you what you want?
Simple to ask.
Very hard to answer – the work of a lifetime.

Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Don’t be afraid to be honest with yourself.
And don’t be afraid to be honest with others.
Find people you trust and have genuine conversations 
about the role of money in your life:
what you make, what you spend, what you need, and what you want.
When we are clearer about the role of money – 
	useful, but not central to our lives –
	it becomes easier to communicate.
	And it becomes easier to use our money well.
After all, the currency was made for people,
	and not people for currency.
I forget that sometimes.

1)	Money is not the only kind of value.
2)	The exchange of work for money is not the only kind of labor. And,
3)	You are much, much more than your potential earnings.

You, your heart and mind and strength,
	yes, your very soul,
	is the foundation laid for this world – 
That self has value because God made it and cares for it.
It has value because, like God, it is capable of changing the world.
That’s what labor means.

It is law
and it is grace
and it is an opportunity for sanctification.


Posted by: dacalu | 26 June 2016

Christian Change

Today, I was delighted to worship with the people of St. Margaret’s, Prestwich, just north of Manchester.  Here is the sermon I shared.



2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 (Elijah leaves Elisha behind)

Galatians 5:1,13-25 (“For freedom Christ has set us free”)

Luke 9:51-62 (“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”)



Preaching is hard.
This week’s readings are full of teachings about freedom and belonging,
	holding fast and moving on,
	home and pilgrimage.
Jesus passes through a Samaritan town, 
	and they are willing to believe in his power,
	but not in his destination.
The Samaritans saw themselves as different,
	for they believed that God might be worshipped anywhere,
	and not just at the Temple in Jerusalem.
They accepted Jesus’ message of change,
	but wanted even more change.
	Jesus was bound to Jerusalem, 
and they would not accept this.
	And so they did not accept him.
And yet, Jesus tells his followers:
	“Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; 
but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
	They must be always traveling
		to follow God’s call.

And this week’s news is also full of talk about freedom and belonging,
	holding fast and moving on,
	home and pilgrimage.
Paul’s words as well as Jesus’ could be used to argue both sides of the Brexit issue.
	No doubt they have been used on both sides.
But I am from the US and I shall not, 
partially out of self-preservation, 
wade into the issue, 
other than to say this:
whether we are part of something or hold ourselves apart
is indeed a Christian issue,
perhaps even one of the deep mysteries of faith.
It is something worth praying about.
So this week, preaching is doubly hard.
	I am honored to feel at home in Manchester,
	But I am also a pilgrim.

Every year I come to Northern England for a retreat.
	I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists,
	a group of priests and deacons who are also trained in the sciences
		and invested in making the most of human wisdom
		wherever it may come from.
	My own background is in biology.
		I took my doctorate at Harvard University,
			studying the evolution of photosynthetic reactions centers,
			and I work with NASA on the search for life in the universe.
		That means I think a great deal about what it means
			to be at home in the universe,
			and what it means to travel.

One of the recent insights of biology has been to note the amazing diversity
	that is the human body.
Each of us is made up of trillions of cells.
	One half of those are genetically you.
	The other half are tiny organisms that live in your gut and on your skin.
	Those organisms help protect us from the environment,
		they help us digest our food,
		and they exist in a complex network of relationships with one another
		just as we exist in complex relationships with plants and animals.
It turns out that being human is more complicated than we thought, biologically.
What we thought was essential and sufficient – our DNA – is only part of the story.
	An important part, to be sure, but only part.
Humanity is more than we thought,
	and what we thought was our all in all,
	turns out to be only a part.
You may have been told you ARE your body,
	but that can mean many things.
Certainly we are made up of physical stuff,
	and I’m comfortable saying that I AM PHYSICAL.
	Still, that physical stuff comes in an amazing array
		of genetics, processes, and interactions.
	I exist in constant communication with my environment,
		as I take on new cells and new organisms,
		as other cells and organisms pass away.
	I am in the process of living.

When you are priest and a biologist you think about these things.
	You notice, for example, that bread and wine cannot be made 
without plants – wheat and grapes – 
without microorganisms – yeast and bacteria –
and without human action.
	And so we celebrate here, with bread and wine
		the amazing interconnectedness of creation.
	We should not be surprised that we, too,
		as individual people and as the church,
		are made up of diverse parts.

In Galatians, Paul encourages us to follow the freedom of Spirit,
	and not be slaves to our flesh.
I do not think he means us to deny our physicality,
	our particularity, our fleshliness.
Rather, I think he means we are to understand ourselves as flesh
	in process.
God is moving through us,
	so that through us
	flesh might become Spiritual.
We live by holding on to our physicality,
	to our specificity,
	to our place and time and customs,
	but only for so long.
My flesh, which I must care for if I want to live now,
	I must shed if I wish to live forever.
I must take on new flesh,
	just as I eat food to make new cells,
	and new tissues;
	just as I take on new habits.

Jesus calls on the Samaritans to change, and turn toward Jerusalem,
	just as he will invite the Sadducees to turn from the Temple
		and invite the Pharisees to turn from the Law,
		so that they may find God in him.
This is the peace that is no peace,
	our constant pilgrimage
	from where we are to where God calls us to be.
We must not pin ourselves in place,
	so we cannot follow where Jesus leads.

I hope you don’t take me to be too progressive.
	Truly, I am not.
Sometimes we must hold fast.
Sometimes we must set our face towards Jerusalem.

To what, then, do I hold fast?
	I hold fast to God – not as an abstract idea, but as a concrete person
		for some, like myself, it is easiest to talk to God as Creator 
and Governor of the cosmos
		for others, it is easiest to talk to Jesus Christ, the man
		for still others, the Spirit of God speaks in sighs too deep for words
		but all of us hold fast to a personal relationship with God.
	I hold fast to you – not as an abstract church, but as concrete neighbors,
		transitory and confused, just as I am transitory and confused
			by the changes of life
		and yet taking joy in the relationships,
		in discovering God in you and discovering more about myself
			every time I see myself as I am with others.
	I hold fast to the coming kingdom,
		both the hope of a home beyond this passing world
		and as God breaking into the bizarre physicality of the now,
			in bread and wine,
			in word and sacrament,
			in the Spirit blowing through the dust.

I can be both a theologian and a scientist, 
	because each keeps me humble.
Every time I grow too attached to the here and now,
	God reaches out, through observation, reason, and revelation
		to remind me of something greater,
		just beyond my understanding,
		something to reach for
			in curiosity and delight, 
in faith and hope,
and, of course, in love.
I can be at home in my body,
	and yet know this is not my final home
	because I have faith in God who works out a divine purpose
	in frail and fragile and transitory things.
I am here because here is where I am meant to be – 
	now, but not forever.

So, I will ask from you a pilgrim’s blessing,
	and I will give you mine.

Remember that this is not our home.
Our freedom and our hope
	lie in the home God builds within us.

May the Spirit stir you to action and fill you with peace;
May the God of Creation be with you going out and coming in;
And may Jesus who goes before you greet you kindly when you arrive.



Posted by: dacalu | 25 June 2016

Making Choices

I am reminded this month that decisions matter. The choices we make and the way we make them change the world. Some have wondered why I study science and religion, why I study metaphysics. This is why. Decisions matter. How we think about people, how we treat them, and how we hold ourselves accountable – those questions occupy me as a scholar and as a pastor. I want to help people make the right choices.

Metaphysics matters because it deals with the fundamental categories by which we organize our world. What makes a person a person? What do I value? How do I decide? Ethics rests on these fundamental issues. It all seems so obvious until we meet someone – or even a culture – that answers them differently than we do. As an American, it’s easy to say that all people have certain inalienable rights, but we’ve spent 200 years arguing and changing who we think qualifies as a person. It’s easy to say people are responsible for their actions, but we have spent 200 years arguing and changing our rules for who is responsible for what.

We have changed our minds about who we are essentially, what we choose, and what choices are forced upon us. Sexual orientation and gender identity are only two recent examples. What control do we have over who we are attracted to and how we see ourselves? How much freedom are we allowed as individuals to define ourselves? It occurs to me that I have not said anywhere concretely how I think about choice in light of science and faith. So, let me do that here.

As a question of knowledge, I do not trust you to know what you have control over and what you don’t. Nor do I trust myself. Cognitive Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics have demonstrated that we are neither rational actors nor aware of our own irrationality.

Kathryn Schulz, in her 2011 book Being Wrong speaks persuasively about our ability to deceive ourselves. We selectively forget being wrong about things and selectively remember being right, making it hard to understand our processes for moving from one to the other. This, incidentally, is completely in line with Christian concepts of fallibility and pride. Science is putting parameters on something long held by faith and, truthfully, known intuitively.

Daniel Kahnemann (Thinking Fast and Slow, 2013) sums up a longer tradition of research exemplified by Robert Cialdini (Influence, 2006) and Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (Nudge, 2009). Some of our behaviors are predictably irrational. Here it is not simply pride or ego that gets in our way – as some have held in the past – but systematic errors in how we look at the world.

Historically, I’m fond of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organon (1620). One of the foundational books for modern science, it introduces “idols” or systematic errors that come from our humanity, personal history, language, and worldview. There is now a cottage industry of such analysis for the general public. Some are better than others, so I prefer work like that of Michael Gazzaniga (Who’s in Charge? 2012) in neuroscience and Kahnemann in psychology. Both writers tie their work closely to scientific findings.

Kahnemann’s analysis in Thinking Fast and Slow offers a real benefit in showing a range of decision making behaviors, from unconscious and automatic to intentional and costly. The distinction allows us to speak about how our conscious selves can help our automatic selves to make better decisions. Conversely, it speaks to how unconscious decisions can work quickly, efficiently, and well in many situations.

We are not devoid of free will, as Sam Harris suggests in Free Will (2012). Nor are we completely free to will and do without limit. I cannot, for example, fly simply by willing it so. I don’t even think I am entirely free in my preferences. In the case of addiction, I think many people will to will other than they do. As Paul said so succinctly in his letter to the Romans (7:15), “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Thus, I say we have constrained will.

Here comes the interesting bit. I know you do not have complete free will, but hope that you have some free will. I aspire to some sliver of control over my action and wish the same for you. Therefore, I will encourage and strengthen the freedom we do have. For if there is no control, then no harm can be done. I cannot offend against the truth if I have no free will at all. I cannot offend, or be held accountable, or change the world for the worse, if I have no control. No harm is done by mistaking a mechanical world for one with freedom.

If, on the other hand, I have some freedom – if even the smallest spark of true choice exists – I have a responsibility to kindle that flame. In Kahnemann’s language, I can devote myself to maximizing my use of rational or slow thinking – not to replace automatic decision making, but to assess it and condition myself to the right kind of mechanical action. There is evidence that hearing, thinking, and talking about free will improves our ability to exercise our freer, more rational decision making (Aarts and van den Bos, Psychological Science 22:532). Perhaps I am a robot, but one that can program itself…

I recognize my constraints, then, as the background for my will. They are obstacles to overcome or, perhaps, tools to use, in choosing rightly. They are the walls of the garden, the meter of the poem, the frame of the painting; they are the edges that make what is inside beautiful, meaningful, and whole.

Christians have been arguing over free will for millennia. We emphasize that many things are beyond our complete control and comprehension – God, creation, even self. We emphasize that God orders the universe and that we are limited by our created, animal, fallen condition. But we also emphasize our role in making choices, in changing, and in growing into the people we are called to be.

Compassion and realism calls us to recognize our constraints, but we must never forget that there is something to constrain. When tragedies occur – and they will occur – and when our neighbors seem to make terrible choices – and they will make terrible choices – we must remember this. It was never about perfect understanding. Rather, it was and is and will always be about understanding more tomorrow than we did today. That will require hope and a constant openness to change the things we can – usually ourselves.

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