Posted by: dacalu | 10 March 2016

The Naming of Organisms

Here is an essay I prepared for the Center of Theological Inquiry on the history of how we name organisms.


What’s in a name? that which we call a rose / by any other name would smell as sweet.[1]


Concepts of names and knowledge within science have deep roots. Just as a genome bears the imprint of many generations of environment, so scientific naming bears the imprint of millennia of arguments about how we know about the universe. These imprints may no longer be useful – or adaptive – but they still impact the way we speak about nature. Such a brief overview can only touch on historical highlights, so I have chosen to focus on the natural-ness of names and how they reflect on the relationship of humans to other things.

Modern nomenclature rests on a foundation of Greek natural philosophy, particularly concepts of “natural kinds” and “differentiae.” Plato introduces the first concept in Phaedrus, oddly enough speaking about kinds of passion. “This, in turn, is to be able to cut up each kind according to its natural joints, and to try not to splinter any part, as a bad butcher might do.” (265e) A hope persists that scientific categories might represent real divisions in nature, rather than arbitrary categories imposed by particular authors. In this way, it is hoped that one truth can be converged upon, from a variety of beliefs. There has been much controversy over whether these “natural kinds” are possible, but I will side with Christopher Shields in saying that some kinds are more natural than others; they are more likely to be useful for a broad range of researchers.[2] Aristotle introduces the second concept when speaking about sciences in Metaphysics (IV). He introduces the idea that we reason with broad categories (genera, sing. genus) in which types (species, sing. species) are distinguished using fixed characters (differentiae). Genera, species, and differentiae have been foundational to scientific naming at least since the eighteenth century.

Aristotle divides sublunary things (imperfect beings, contrasted with the perfect, eternal heavens) into two categories – elements, moved by necessity to their proper region (fire above air above water above earth), and living things, moved by necessity and a soul.[3] The nature (physics) of souls rests in their activity of nutrition and reproduction (vegetable souls), sensation and motion (animal souls), and reason (human souls). Seeking perfection and being unable to live eternally below the heavens, they make copies of themselves, but the types or species of souls remain the same eternally. Thus offspring look like parents. These types and species were common in biology through the Renaissance.

In the eighteenth century, Carl von Linné, picks up on this Aristotelian typology in a particularly Enlightenment way. Aristotle has an etiological nomenclature – based on first principles; Medieval and Renaissance scholars have a relational and anagogical nomenclature – based on the moral import for people; but Linné (or Linnaeus) introduces a systematic taxonomy – intended as a universal and natural ordering. Michel Foucault (The Order of Things 1966) and Margaret Osler (Reconfiguring the World 2010) set forth the metaphysical and epistemological shifts that make this possible. In short, the intrinsic purpose, organization, and order of Aristotle’s souls have been exported to the mind of God, a move that simultaneously promises a comprehensive, well delineated, and replete universe and human comprehension thereof. In his grand work on systematics, Linné states “The Earth’s creation is the glory of God, as seen from the works of Nature by Man alone.”[4] Adam’s role as namer in the garden is extended to scientists in the current day. “The first step in wisdom is to know the things themselves; this notion consists in having a true idea of the objects; objects are distinguished and known by classifying them methodically and giving them appropriate names. Therefore, classification and name-giving will be the foundation of our science.”[5]

Within this frame, Linné divides the world into minerals, plants – which are organized and have life – and animals – which are organized, have life, sensation, and locomotion. He roughly follows Aristotle’s designations according to the vegetable and animal souls. He also speaks of humans as rational animals “endowed with a portion of intellectual divinity.”[6] Our divinity allows us, and us alone (under heaven), to perceive the divine order. (Aristotle makes a similar move with the intellectual soul.) These “kingdoms” of animal, vegetable, and mineral are subdivided into classes, orders, genera, and species, though Linné is quick to point out that “classes and orders are arbitrary; [only] the genera and species are natural.” (ibid.) The last two categories come to be what we call the “Latin binomial” the official scientific name for a species. With Aristotle, Linné was convinced they were eternal, though later in his life careful thinking about hybrids made him question this.

In the 19th century, the eternal taxonomy gave way to a historical and once again etiological theory of biological naming (Foucault, again). Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (Philosophie Zoologique 1809) popularizes theories of evolution and the changeability of species. Charles Darwin (On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection 1859) provides a mechanism, by which such changes could occur, and suggests a single tree of life, through which all organisms might be related. Darwin sets the stage for a new kind of taxonomy, in which organismal names are consistent with their place on such a tree. Willi Hennig (Phylogenetic Systematics 1950) argues that all biological nomenclature should be based on the historical relationships between individuals and groups – not just on similarity, but on evolutionary homology. Important phylogenetic traits are those that two individuals share because they arose once in a common ancestor. The earliest such “phylogenetic trees” tracing common ancestry were based on phenotypes – physical features and behaviors – and parsimony – the rule that simple family trees (fewer changes along branches) are better trees. More recent phylogenies are more likely to use genotypes – gene sequences – and statistical models of mutation.

This shift to “molecular phylogenetics” was facilitated by the discovery of nucleic acid structure and the small subunit of ribosomal RNA.[7] This SSU rRNA is required by all organisms to express genes, resulting in very slow mutation rates. Organisms literally cannot live without it. Nor will they easily suffer changes; the one gene does so much, that small changes can have big effects on fitness. We can identify it in all cellular organisms, making it an ideal molecule for creating universal trees of (Earth) life. Such a tree revealed a vast diversity of life as yet unrealized. The category of vegetable has always covered such a range, but we usually identify it with multicellular photosynthetic organisms, or plants. We now speak of three Domains: the Archaea, the Bacteria, and the Eukaryotes. The kingdoms of Animalia, Plantae (plants in the narrow sense), and Fungi all possess cells with membrane-bound nuclei; thus, they are all within the Domain Eukaryotes. The domain also includes a wide variety of unicellular organisms.

Modern biological nomenclature follows a number of basic rules regulated by international professional societies composed of prominent scientists within their fields. The goal is consistent communication. All require unique Latin (and Greek) binomials composed of a genus and species and the two always come together. Many species may belong to a genus, but no species is genus free. Genus and species must be published in a peer refereed journal with a type specimen – a concrete example of the organism or group – along with specific differentiae allowing other scientists to identify the species. Higher level groupings may also be proposed. Though they are not regulated as tightly as genus and species, the higher level groups also require a type specimen. When conflicts arise, the oldest attribution is considered authoritative. Thus if two organisms have received different names, but are found to be of the same species (or higher level group), the older name is assigned to both. Common Latin binomials include Homo sapiens (humans), Oryza sativa (rice), and Escherichia coli (gut bacteria). The most common groups are, in increasing specificity: Domain, Kingdom, Phylum, Class, Order, Family, Genus, and species. (E.g., Eukaryota, Animalia, Chordata, Mammalia, Primates, Hominidae, Homo sapiens.) Attempts are made for each such group to be monophyletic – comprising all and only descendants of a single common ancestor. Ideally groups also correspond to a clearly identified, adaptive trait. (E.g., humans are in the groups of organisms that possess true nuclei, are multicellular and motile, have notochords, produce milk, Resemble humans, ditto, ditto, and are intelligent. Admittedly the last four groups are very human focused.)

There are formal codes of nomenclature and regulatory committees for naming Animals, naming algae, fungi, and plants, and for naming Bacteria and Archaea. (Note that algae, fungi, and plants do not warrant capital letters; they reflect common names but not accepted monophyletic taxa.) Some unicellular Eukaryotes may fall under the jurisdiction of multiple or no groups. Much debate has arisen in the late 20th and early 21st century on how inclusive or exclusive groups should be. Even at the species level, questions can be difficult. Ernst Mayr made one of the most popular proposals, the “biological species concept.”[8] The BSC holds that a species comprises all and only those individuals of sexual species that can mate with one another. Intuitively helpful and largely successful for animals and plants (restrictive definition), it fails in a few cases (e.g., lions and tiger can mate but their offspring are sterile), and does not apply at all for the vast majority of organisms, which reproduce asexually. Genotypic similarity has been proposed, with a 3% cut-off for species. The solution is logical, but fails to operate as desired. Humans and chimpanzees have less than 3% difference, while E. coli have diversity up to 40%. Some level of arbitrariness remains. The regulatory committees remain emphatic that they regulate the usage of names and how they refer to groups but do not “infringe upon taxonomic judgment” concerning whether the groups are natural or, in any way, objective.

Viral nomenclature follows the pattern of biological nomenclature, though species are even harder to define. Thus strains, identified within a particular lineage of descent and environmental niche, are more commonly named than genus and species. Beyond biology, celestial bodies, geological time periods, and minerals likewise have their own nomenclature, code, and committees. Below the notes, I’ve provided a list of the officials responsible for monitoring each of the codes.

[1] William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet II.ii

[2] Shields, C. (2012) The dialectic of life. Synthese, 185, 103–124.

[3] Studtmann, Paul, “Aristotle’s Categories”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Linné, Carl von (1758) Systema naturæ per regna tria naturæ, secundum classes, ordines, genera, species, cum characteribus, differentiis, synonymis, locis. 10th ed. Stockholm: Holmiae. p. 3

[5] Linné, Carl von (1964) Systema Naturae. Nieukoop: B. De Graaf. P.19

[6] Linné (1758) p. 3

[7] Watson, J. D. & Crick, F. H. (1953) Molecular structure of nucleic acids. Nature, 171(4356), 737-738. Woese, C. & Fox, G. (1977) Phylogenetic structure of the prokaryotic domain: the primary kingdoms. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, USA, 74, 5088–5090.

[8] Mayr E. (1942) Systematics and the origin of species from the viewpoint of a zoologist. New York: Columbia University Press.


Int’l Code of Zoological Nomenclature

Int’l Commission on Zoological Nomenclature

Int’l Union of Biological Sciences

Plants etc.

Int’l Code of Nomenclature for algae, fungi, and plants (Melbourne Code)

Int’l Association for Plant Taxonomy

Int’l Botanical Congress

Cultivated Plants

Int’l Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants (see here)

Int’l Commission for the Nomenclature of Cultivated Plants

Int’l Union of Biological Sciences / Int’l Society for Horticultural Sciences

Archaea & Bacteria

Int’l Code of Nomenclature of Bacteria (see here)

Int’l Committee on Systematics of Prokaryotes

Int’l Union of Microbiological Societies


Int’l Code of Virus Classification and Nomenclature

Int’l Committee on Taxonomy of Viruses

Int’l Union of Microbiological Societies

Attempts to Unify Biological Nomenclature

Int’l Committee on Bionomenclature

Geological Time

Int’l Commission on Stratigraphy

Int’l Union of Geological Sciences


Commission on New Minerals Nomenclature and Classification

Int’l Mineralogical Association / Int’l Union of Geological Sciences


Posted by: dacalu | 7 March 2016

Reconciling in Body and Spirit

Yesterday, I had the privilege of worshiping with the students at the Episcopal Church at Princeton.  Here is the sermon I shared.


Collect for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



Joshua 5:9-12 (Manna ceases as the Israelites eat produce of the Promised Land)

Psalm 32 (“Happy are they whose transgressions are forgiven”)

II Corinthians 5:16-21 (“in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself”)

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (The Prodigal Son)



Christianity is never abstract.
This is one of the greatest and hardest lessons.
When we feed people, we feed them 
using the the tangible, limited food we have.
	When we tend the sick, we risk infection.
	And when we forgive, we run the very real risk
		of being hurt.
The elder son in today’s lesson is asking good questions,
	questions about economy, justice, and equity.
I do not fault him for asking those questions.
	Nor, if I am to be honest, do I fault him for the answers he finds.
	The father in this story has given the prodigal son more than his share,
		and maintaining the property is important for
		feeding the family and the workers – in this case slaves.
	Shortly before this story, in the Gospel of Luke,
		Jesus asks “Will a person build a tower, without first counting the cost?”
	We should know what we build and what we spend.
I fault the older son because these were the only questions he asked.
	What would be fair?
	What would be reasonable?
	And, of course, Why him instead of me?
He did not ask the other questions.
	What would be loving?
	What would be useful?
	And how does this effect all of our relationships?
Jesus talks about the Prodigal Son, and the Tower, and the Lost Sheep
	to tell us something about God’s extravagant love and mercy,
	which are not opposed to reason and economy,
	but always couched within them.
How do we make the most of what we have – for the good of the world?
I give politicians the benefit of the doubt, both in the church and in the nation,
	because I know they have to do the very hard work
	of working out concrete charity, justice, and economy
	with limited resources.
I know that sometimes I will have to go without
	for others to thrive.
I am most distrustful of politicians when they tell me these decisions are easy:
	that we need only be just and practical
	or that we need only be kind and merciful.
This bothers me most when they invoke Christianity to defend this stance.

Christianity is never abstract.
	It always means making difficult choices, being vulnerable,
		and working with others.
No one said it would be easy.
If you only count the cost in terms of money or food or even equity,
	you will find all of these things are limited.
For the ethicists and economists: these are fixed, finite goods.
	For the biologists and game theorists: we are playing a zero sum game.
	Someone wins and someone loses.
		The elder son falls into this last trap, in particular,
		There is only so much to go around.
		Why doesn’t it come around to me?
	And this is all true, when we speak of money and food and equity.
Jesus tells us to give up our own food and clothing, money and shelter,
	even our own claims to justice under the law,
	for the sake of our neighbors.
		Turn the other cheek, let them have your cloak also,
		Do not take your neighbor to court, give all that you have to the poor.
With Paul, I can preach only Christ, and him crucified.
When we limit ourselves to this discussion,
	When we limit ourselves to thinking about fixed, finite goods,
		then the answer is simple.
	We must give them up, so that others may have them.
That is the bad news, but what about the good news?

The good news is that these are not the only goods;
	these are not the only things we strive for.
There are other goods:
	relational goods like faith, hope, and love;
	open ended goods like curiosity, contemplation, and reason;
	creative goods like art, humor, and wisdom.
We strive for these things,
	and weigh them against the fixed, finite goods.
We choose life and hope,
	giving up the comforts of money, food, even earthly justice, 
	for the sake of a community in the coming kingdom,
	for the sake of eternal life.
“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, 
where moth and rust consume 
and where thieves break in and steal.” (Mt. 6:19)

But that, too would be bad news,
at least bad news for the world,
	if Earthly versus Heavenly goods were all there were to the story.
Give up one for the other.
	Give up the work of God the Creator,
	for the work of God in Jesus.
That doesn’t really work, for it 
	provides a theology where Jesus saves us from creation,
	and from the Creator, 
	a philosophy tried in early Christianity and quite firmly rejected.

The real good news is both better and more challenging.
	John and Paul both go out of their way to say that the Spirit of Jesus
		is the exact same Spirit that was in Creation from the beginning of the world.
Let that Spirit be in you.
	John and Paul go out of their way to say that Jesus took on flesh and blood,
		so that by that flesh and blood we may be redeemed,
		and so that we might claim resurrection in the flesh.

And so we come to my research as a theoretical and theological biologist.
How are we to relate the life of our bodies with the life of our souls?
	How are we to think of physical life and eternal life?
	How are they the same and how are they different?
One major way they are the same, is that they are both you.
	And they are both God.
	You are an organism – but not only an organism – 
and you have in you the Spirit of God –
though, unless you are more saintly than most saints,
that spirit is not – yet – your all in all.
	And the God who walked in the garden at the beginning of time,
		was also incarnate in Christ Jesus,
		in the flesh, of the same stuff as Mary.
In this way, there is only one life, the life of God that brings us into being
	and brings us into new life.
One major way that they are different – the Earthly and the Heavenly life –
is that our physical life 
is subject to decay, sickness, and death,
while our spiritual life will be fulfilled in a resurrection body,
	incorruptible, imperishable, and whole.

And that brings us back to our talk of goods.
Near the heart of our faith – 
our open-ended relationship with God, not our finite store of doctrine – 
near the heart of our faith is this idea that new life comes
on the other side of death.
“Very truly, I tell you, 
unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, 
it remains just a single grain; 
but if it dies, it bears much fruit. 
Those who love their life lose it, 
and those who hate their life in this world 
will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)
We have been promised death and resurrection,
	so we must not be surprised to find that we will die,
	as organisms in death of the body,
	as societies,
	even as a universe.
We will die before we are resurrected.
Beyond that death there will be a greater life,
	but we must also remember that it will be a life like this one.
We do not hope for a different life, but a fuller version of this one.
We hope for a life with food and drink, friends and family,
	unimaginably different, and yet a fulfillment of this our very real,
	very concrete, biological life.
That means we can practice resurrection now,
	we can bring the kingdom near,
	we can live into the body of Christ in these very bodies.

Christianity is never abstract.
We live it out in the practice of charity with limited goods,
	in the pursuit of love with physical bodies,
	and in the way we manage our households,
		our countries,
		and our world.
This Lent, I hope you’ll give some thought to how to use tangible stuff lovingly.
It is not enough to replace the economy of the world with the economy of God.
	It is not even possible.
We must fit the world into the economy of God.
We must think about how the way we treat our bodies
	affects our souls, how our physicality affects our spirituality.
We must share our physical food in a way that makes it heavenly food,
	and Jesus teaches us how to do exactly that, at this table.

I hope you don’t think that’s a miracle,
	at least not in terms of a rare event that breaks the laws of nature.
That’s not it at all, at least not to my mind.
It is an example, a type, and a program
	for God breaking into the world.
It is Christ made flesh so that all flesh might be caught up in the life of God.
	We are sanctified so that we can go out and sanctify the world, in the flesh.
The father of the prodigal son uses earthly food wisely,
	to bring about reconciliation.
“we had to celebrate and rejoice, 
because this brother of yours was dead 
and has come to life; 
he was lost and has been found.”
Each of us can do this, too,
	bring others back from the dead,
	with faith, hope, and love,
	using money and food and medicine,
	but always asking the bigger questions,
	of how all things hold together in Christ.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 March 2016

The Naming of Planets

This week at CTI I was asked to present on how we name the heavens in astronomy.  If you’ve ever wondered how Venus and Io and the Milky Way and 51 Peg b got their names, look no further.

Borrowing shamelessly from T.S. Eliot,

The Naming of stars is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a star must have TWO DIFFERENT NAMES.

First, it is important to distinguish between official names and public names. The International Astronomical Union regulates official designations for astronomical objects or “celestial bodies,” but many of them have common names as well. The IAU attempts some regulation of those as well, for clear communication, but if you really want to call the second star to the right “Bob,” you are free to do so.  Such common names vary from place to place and country to country.

Getting to details:

The names of the planets (in our Solar System) are traditional. Seven planets appear in Plato’s Timaeus corresponding to the major gods of the Greek pantheon (4th c. BCE).[1] With the Copernican move to a heliocentric cosmos, Earth becomes a planet per se, while the Sun and Moon lose their places (16th c. CE). Uranus was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel, who named it Georgium Sidus, in honor of his patron, George III of Great Britain. This was not popular outside Britain, and over the next 70 years was replaced with Uranus, after the Greek god who fathered Saturn as Saturn fathered Jupiter. Neptune was discovered in 1846 by Urbain Le Verrier and a number of names were suggested, but one of La Verrier’s suggestions, Neptune, was accepted within a few years. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh and completed the set, as Neptune and Pluto were Jupiter’s brothers with whom he overthrew the Titans in mythology. Most of the planets go by the Roman names. The exceptions are Earth (Germanic) and Uranus (Greek).

The Solar System is comprised of eight planets and two belts all orbiting the Sun in a plane (“the plane of the elliptic”). Pluto, at 17 degrees off plane, was already anomalous and when a larger object was found in its region, the IAU downgraded it from “planet” to
dwarf planet.” The term planet now designates an object orbiting a star, large enough to form a sphere under gravity, that has cleared the neighborhood of other objects. Dwarf planets are spherical, but had not cleared the area.

The term minor planet refers to other objects orbiting a star. Most minor planets are asteroids or comets. Asteroids are rocky (more carbon and silicon, less water, hydrogen, and helium) minor planets, mostly orbiting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. They are thought to be the remains of a planet or a planet that never formed and include the dwarf planet Ceres. Asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit are called Trojans and are named for Trojan heroes. Asteroids orbiting from Jupiter to Neptune are named for Centaurs. Other asteroids are open to naming, with minor rules and an exclusion of military or political figures within the past 100 years. Comets are volatile (more water etc.) minor planets whose orbits take them beyond Neptune. They receive official codes (e.g., Comet Hale-Bopp was originally designated C/1995 O1). Some exceptions are made, as with Hale-Bopp and Halley. Most comets orbit in a belt (the Kuiper Belt) near the plane of the ecliptic beyond Neptune, and as such are designated Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs). They include the dwarf planets Pluto, Eris, and Makemake. Those that receive names, are named for underworld deities or creation deities, depending on their orbital dynamics. The object that resulted in downgrading Pluto was named for Eris, the goddess of strife.

Moons and Planetary features are named by convention (see USGS and NASA pages) :

Mercury – named for the messenger god because of it’s swift orbit

No moons. Features named for artists and explorers

Venus – brightest star, named for the goddess of beauty

No moons. Features named for women: historical, fictional, or mythical

Moon – satellite of Earth.

Many classical feature names

Features named for scientists and mathematicians

Mars – named for the god of war, possibly due to red color

Phobos and Deimos named for Mars’ attendants, fear and dread (horror and terror); Phobos’ features named for characters in Gulliver’s Travels

Many classical feature names

Features named for towns

Jupiter – named for the Roman king of the gods

3 rings and 67 moons named for Jupiter’s “lovers and favorites” (1975) and daughters (2004) (Galileo wanted to name them for the Medici, but they are now known as the Galilean moons, after Galileo. Theses first four were named by Simon Marius in 1610, but called Jupiter I, II… until the 20th c. when Marius’ names were revived.)

Saturn – named for Jupiter’s father, slowest orbit among the classical 7

7 rings and 62 moons named for Titans (proposed by Herschel in the 18th c.) and other giants

Uranus – named for Saturn’s father

13 rings and 27 moons named for characters from Shakespeare’s plays and Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”

Neptune – named for the god of the sea

6 rings and 14 moons named for water gods and spirits


Stars often have names based on classical usage, including Flamsteed’s star atlas (early 18th c.) or Gliese’s index (1957). Extrasolar planets can be named for their star or their discovering instrument (e.g., Kepler) along with a lowercase letter, if there are multiple planets in the system. [Upper case letters are used for binary stars…] A few extrasolar planets have also been given semi-official popular names by public contest and committee approval. Galaxies, nebulae and other large features have designations. Historically these started with Messier’s Catalogue (1771). The Milky Way is a feature of the sky named by the Greeks for the appearance of milk spilled across the sky. Thomas Wright proposed this as a structure of stars in 1750 and Immanuel Kant first explained it as a galaxy in the modern sense in 1755.


[1] 38b-40b. Plato says he is describing the nature (physis) of the visible and generated gods (40c). These include Gaia (Earth), the greatest. Above Gaia are Selene (the Moon), Helios (the Sun), Hesperus (Venus), and Hermes (Mercury) in ascending order. The final three would have been Ares (Mars), Zeus (Jupiter), and Cronus (Saturn). There are probably older references, but this is the earliest I have on hand.

Posted by: dacalu | 15 February 2016

Quoting Scripture

Today, I had the privilege and pleasure of worshiping with the Episcopal Church at Princeton (Chaplaincy). I shared these words for the sermon.


Collect for the first Sunday in Lent

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.



Deuteronomy 26:1-11: (“you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground”)

Psalm 91: (“For he shall give his angels charge over you”)

Romans 10:8b-13: (“The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart”)

Luke 4:1-13: (“After his baptism, Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil.”)



We used to joke in seminary that the lectionary should come with difficulty ratings, just like ski slopes. What we have here is a double black diamond – expert skiers only. Much like Matthew 23:9: “Call no one your father on Earth” any time you hear someone explain this gospel, especially someone who goes by the title “father” you should be suspicious. Say it with me: “even the devil can quote scripture.” Or, to quote Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice (I.iii): “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose. … O, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!” Now you know where the saying comes from: today’s gospel. This is one of only a few appearances of the devil in the New Testament. Jesus, wandering in the wilderness after his baptism, encounters the tempter, who presents three opportunities for sin.

First, Jesus has been fasting. The devil suggests he use his power to turn a stone into bread. Jesus refuses, saying he lives not by bread alone. The full quote would be Deuteronomy 8:3:

God humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”

Moses and Jesus are recalling that God feeds us in God’s own time, and this was not the right time for Jesus to eat.

Second, Jesus was bringing about salvation the slow way or so it seemed. When the Israelites passed through the Jordon River, they immediately went about conquering Judah; When Jesus was baptized in the Jordon, by all Biblical precedent, we would expect him to do the same; God spoke, this was his moment of triumph. But that’s not what happens. Instead the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. The Devil says to Jesus, “just do it my way, and you’ll be in charge today.” One can imagine even a good intentioned Savior being tempted to go about salvation quickly. Jesus says Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.” Again a quote from Deuteronomy, tying rule of Judah to following God. Moses and Jesus are recalling that God rules in God’s way, and this was not the way for Jesus to rule.

Third, Jesus is being annoyed by this pesky adversary. As if it weren’t bad enough to be hungry and impatient. The Devil places Jesus at the top of the Temple, and dares him to step off into the air; would he, the Son of God, not be saved by the angels? Honestly, I’ve always interpreted that as the temptation of publicly showing off his power, but as I look at it this week, a different interpretation comes to mind. Given how smarmy the Devil is in this passage, especially quoting scripture back at Jesus – that is a quote from psalm 91 – I think the Devil is tempting Jesus to strike back; I think the Devil is provoking him. Jesus responds – as Jesus always responds – on point. “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Deuteronomy again (6.16): Do not put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah.” For at Massah in the wilderness, the Israelites lost patience with the Lord. And started whining (Exodus 17). Moses and Jesus are recalling that God works in God’s ways, and not in the ways we expect. I think it was also a bit of a dig, after all, what was the Devil doing but putting Jesus to the test and through Jesus, God. We should never underestimate the subtlety of Bible characters; Jesus makes many witty and pointed remarks. We need not think him dull, to find him wise and sincere. Indeed, wisdom and love often speak more clearly when couched in thoughtfulness and good cheer.

I am told one of my more interesting traits is that I study science and religion. Some of you might want to hear about that. By way of introduction, I have a doctorate from Harvard in evolutionary biology and consult for NASA on interdisciplinary communication and the search for life in space. I am also an Episcopal Priest and am currently working at the Center of Theological Inquiry over at the Seminary on questions of Astrobiology and Theology. I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists and write and speak on related subjects. So I think about this sort of thing a lot.

My experience has been that debates around evolution – and our place in the universe, and gender, and climate, and a host of other issues – have little to do with religion versus science per se and more to do with our theology, how we interpret the Bible, and how we think about authority. Anglicans have never been too troubled about religion versus science, but starting with the assumption that they belong together, have asked how do we do religion and science well, at the same time. That’s the tricky bit. That whole Darwin business was touch and go in the late 19th century, but there were theologians and scientists on both sides. They wanted to know how to think about anthropology and biology, using the best of science and the best of theology. Likewise, stepping beyond Anglicanism for the moment, the Galileo affair was all about interpreting scripture. I highly recommend reading Galileo’s letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. He quotes Augustine and Cardinal Baronius in saying that in the Bible, the intention of the Holy Ghost is to teach us how one goes to heaven not how heaven goes.” And,

“But I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with senses, reason and intellect has intended us to forego their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.”

At that time, again, there were theologians and scientists on both sides of the debate. The question was this: who has the authority to interpret scripture? And on what matters?

Stepping farther back in time, one of my favorite quotes comes from Augustine of Hippo, some 16 centuries ago:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world… If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven?”

The authority of the Bible is very much at stake; but don’t be fooled. It is not simply a matter of believing the Bible or trusting science. It is a question of how we read the Bible, how we reason with it, and what we are willing to learn. Lives and souls are at stake as well as opinions. Let no one fool you. Bad theology and bad exegesis leads to loss of life. Hope, faith, and charity are at stake in how we read the bible. What we do here, in this place, it’s more than discovering the truth, it is discovering the truth in the hope of serving both God and neighbor.

So let us return to the gospel, bearing these things in mind. 1) The use of scripture matters to the world. 2) At stake are questions of truth and meaning that will require us to bring both reason and faith to bear – in fact all of our heart and soul and mind and strength. 3) God can be doing something straightforward and something subtle at the same time.

Let it not be said that I ignore the plain reading of scripture. There is much to be learned from this story of Jesus and the Devil, at the surface level. For the record, I do think Jesus is a historical figure, I am willing to believe he was baptized in the river Jordan and fasted for 40 days in the wilderness. The biologist in me did have to look that up, and, with water, this is near the limits of human endurance, but doable. It would somewhat dull the point if Jesus’ survival was already miraculous. I am willing to believe he encountered the Devil in person and was tempted, though I confess, I’m also open to this being an internal dialogue or a hallucination. Those seem consistent with good storytelling. Still, let us say it really happened.

Jesus was polite, if pointed, when talking to the Devil and clearly near wits end. Try arguing after fasting; it’s not fun, and it’s really not easy to be kind. Let no one fool you about what the Bible says. Jesus did get mad and accusatory, but neither persecution, nor evil, nor dire straits call for this. Jesus got mad for other reasons, which we can talk about at other times. To the devil, he was polite.

Jesus stayed on point. As Paul would say, he kept his eyes on the prize and pressed on towards the goal of the heavenly call (Philippians 3). Jesus brought the conversation back to God’s time, God’s ways, and God’s work: the redemption of the world.

I do not encourage arguments, but I do encourage you to talk to people about God and faith and reason  and how they go together. Anglicans have always been people of faith and reason, and people of words, quotes, knowledge, the refined and subtle English of the King James Bible and of Shakespeare, the insightful words of theologians and scientists. We have always believed that Jesus, The Word, is the type of all words; and, therefore, all words are worth hearing, in their time and place. We have always believed that Jesus, the logos, the divine order is the type of every order, every law and regularity and harmony; and, therefore, all laws are worth knowing (though we may not always obey).

Have you read Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection? It is another very well written book, if long and detailed. Few people know about the quotes on the inside front cover. Without going into Darwin’s beliefs about God, a topic of some debate, let me share this quote from Francis Bacon, a founder of modern science. It appears in the front of Darwin’s book.

“Let no man out of a weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain, that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God’s word, or in the book of God’s works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavor an endless progress or proficience in both.”

I do not know what Darwin himself thought of his religion. He said a variety of things that defy easy category. I will say that I am proud he had the Anglican tradition to draw on. And I am proud we saw fit to bury him in Westminster Abbey, just to the left of Isaac Newton. We value wisdom and knowledge and words. We listen when people speak. And we try, very carefully to be thoughtful and of good cheer, while being well informed to the best of our ability. This means reading the book of God’s word – scripture – and the book of God’s works – science – and doing our best to fit them together in a meaningful whole while keeping our eyes on the prize, the redemption of the world. What we do here, in this place, it’s more than discovering the truth, it is discovering the truth in the hope of serving both God and neighbor.

Who has the authority to interpret scripture? We do, together, bringing all that we are and all that we have. This lent, I challenge you to talk more about your faith with reasonable people. I challenge you to talk more about your reason with faithful people. If there was ever a time when we needed both faith and reason, it is today.

Posted by: dacalu | 31 January 2016

Entering Discomfort

One of the hardest lessons in martial arts involves learning to advance when you want to retreat. We have an instinctive desire to avoid conflict, usually a great habit to be it. It allows us to escape dangers and find space to come at a problem the right way. As with many good habits, however, it aids only most of the time. Sometimes we need to face our fears.  Sometimes we need to enter into discomfort. Sometimes the best exit requires us to go directly through the danger, or the fear, or the pain.

Relaxation exercises often involve selective tensing of the muscles, one at a time or all at once. Against our intuitions, we must tense our muscles to remind ourselves – body and mind – that we are in charge of them. We do the tensing and we do the relaxing. Once we feel in control again, we can make the choice to relax. We remember that we are the ones who tensed the muscles in the first place. Sometimes it takes doing the exact opposite of what you thought you wanted…

This process of tensing to relax has hundreds of applications, but today I want to apply it to freedom and discipline.  This word “discipline” has a bad reputation in modern culture, particularly in association with religion. In my experience, Millennials (but also GenXers, and Baby Boomers) are afraid that discipline, thinking of it as an external imposition that will limit their freedom. Ideological “individualism” and increasingly “libertarianism” have taught us to value freedom above all else. A conversation with a stranger today reminded me of this very issue. We recognize the need to get out of our rut – our bad habits in politics and economics and health – but feel unable to overcome the problems. We want the freedom to change.

We can have this freedom, but it will require a little discipline. It will require surrendering a little power over the moment to control the future. It may even require surrendering a bit of personal freedom to give our community the freedom to change. You may not believe me. Indeed, I suspect most of you will not believe me in some of my examples, and many will not believe me in even one. I said it was counter-intuitive. Indeed, one of the benefits of martial arts has been the teaching of counter-intuitive truths – convincing not only your body but also your mind – that some of its habits are not helpful. So, from my time in martial arts and in the church, let me give you a few examples, in the hopes that at least one of them will make sense. And, having understood one, perhaps it will illuminate the others.

Making Time

I start with time because it is the hardest for me. I feel like time slips through my fingers.  I am, in fact too free with my time. I have found that the discipline of devoting my time, dedicating it to daily activities, gives me greater freedom. Undisciplined time slips away from me – sometimes joyously, but most often in a fleeting chaos of unfulfilling moments. When I do not offer up my time in sizable chunks, I fail to get what I want from it. So I choose to pray every day at waking and sleeping, and I choose to practice Tai Chi every day at morning and waking. I often don’t want to do it, but I do it anyway. I dedicate the time so that when I look back over my days I can say that it was indeed my time and not just time that happened to me. I give up time in order to gain it.

A Penny Saved

Monetary discipline can be another counter-intuitive route. It is very popular in our culture to pursue money, but how many of us manage to gain control over our fortunes? Economists have begun thinking seriously about the irrational ways we spend our money. I strongly recommend picking up Nudge by Sunstein and Thaler or a more recent book on behavioral economics. We can become much more proactive in our finances by setting aside money early. It seems we will have less freedom – we give up the immediate control – but we end up having more control farther down the line. More radically, I think the tithe (giving up 10% of your income to the church) can be an empowerment. We lose individual freedom in spending the money, but gain a community as we spend the money together. [For the record I am not a fan of giving money to a church that spends it without consulting you. I am a fan of democratic and representative churches in which the money represents common life.] Perhaps one day, I’ll be wise enough to give up all money and live day to day as the Bible suggests. I’m not there yet, but I sincerely believe this represents a victory over money, rather than a loss. Whatever your discipline, the exercise of letting go of money can help you more consciously hold on or let go.

Fast and Food

Nutritionists have known for some time that we are healthiest when we eat little more than our bodies need. Our bodies reset themselves, burning fat, recycling damaged tissue, and strengthening the immune response. Limiting calories and even cutting fasting for a day or two a week (with proper medical advice!) can increase energy, make us healthier, and extend our lives. It turns out Medieval Christian practices of fasting on Wednesday and Friday are more than mortification of the flesh. They are ways for taking possession of our eating. They remind us that eating is something we choose. It can be terribly hard to remember, but that may be an even greater reason to remind ourselves, especially when our environment tries very hard to encourage us to eat poorly – often by satisfying the craving of the moment. For my part, I will be eating less this year, in hopes of enjoying and making the most of what I do eat.

Powering Down

The hardest discipline will be letting go of personal freedom. We know it’s true in education; sometimes we must hand our choices over to a teacher. Sometimes we must allow someone to push us into uncomfortable growth. How many such teachers do you have in your life? I have fewer than I would like. It takes trust and it requires good teachers, but I cannot believe the latter are so hard to find. I would guess most Americans give up teachers altogether after college. We want more power, but we fail to recognize that even power must be surrendered on occasion (thoughtfully) in order to be gained in life. We must lean into the discomfort, not only as children but as growing adults.

New Year’s is now a month behind us, but it is not too late to make a resolution. The one I am making, I’m telling you about and encouraging you to make with me. (BTW, the behavioral economists recognize a loss and gain of freedom in such public statements when they lead to accountability.) I commit to giving up more of my time and pennies, eating less, and powering down in the hopes that all of this will make me more free with the time, money, food, and power I have.

Posted by: dacalu | 15 January 2016

Where Do You Keep Your Covenant?

This evening, I had the privilege of worshiping with the community at Church Divinity School of the Pacific.  They asked me to preach and I have included my sermon, which responds to the readings and recent developments in the world. Gun violence has made the news in many forms, but particularly in questions of race and violence and in an armed standoff in Oregon. The news also includes today’s decision by Anglican Primates (heads of churches) to sanction The Episcopal Church and remove them from groups that represent the Anglican Communion (a group of churches that works together and is descended from the Church of England) to the larger world. Thus, I felt a need to respond to major tensions in world and church.

I’ve included a little more on the scripture passages than usual as they are odd and troubling.  I always hope people will read them in full, but summaries can show you what’s going on. Note that Episcopalians have chosen to read through the whole Bible (or most of it) every two years.  I didn’t pick the readings.



I Samuel 4:1c-11 (The Israelites and Philistines are at war.  The Israelites bring forth the Ark of the Covenant in hopes that it’s power will save them, as it has in the past. The Philistines win, kill the high priest and steal the Ark.)

Psalm 44:7-14, 23-26 (Easiest to sum up with 44:6 “For I do not rely on my bow and my sword does not give me victory.)

Mark 1:40-45 (“A leper came to him begging him, and kneeling he said to him, ‘If you choose, you can make me clean.’ Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, ‘I do choose. Be made clean!’ Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean.”)




Where do you keep your covenant?

The Reverend Matthew Simpson, Methodist Bishop of Philadelphia, 
related this story at Abraham Lincoln’s funeral.
 - 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.”

Our reading from Samuel is a troubling one.
The Philistines defeat the Israelites,
	they slaughtered the army, including the High Priest
	and stole away the Ark of the Covenant.
It would be easy to interpret this as a just end
	for wickedness among the Israelites
	and particularly for wickedness 
committed by Phineas and his brother Hophni.
Many commentators have taken exactly that approach.
I’ve never thought God worked that way;
	Christians say that God gives us better than we deserve,
	and so I hope.
Still, the story presents us with a very interesting question.
	Where do we place our trust?
This is not simply a matter of trusting God – 
	easy to say, hard to do –
	it is a matter of asking how we trust God
		and how we view our relationship
		with justice and mercy and the hope of life to come.
The Israelites, when faced with loss,
	brought forth the Ark of the Covenant 
as a talisman and as a sign of God’s grace
	and as God’s seat on Earth.
Inside the Ark were the stone tablets
	holding the Law given at Sinai.
The Ark went before them through the Jordan river
	and around the city of Jericho,
	when they circled and the walls came tumbling down.
Eventually it would be placed in the Holy of Holies,
	in the Temple of Jerusalem.

Many, if not all, of you here have placed your trust in God,
	but I will ask you this:
Where have you placed your Covenant?
	And where do you turn, 
when things don’t turn out as planned?
Where do you go when your agreement with God
	doesn't seem to be working out?
No doubt you, as I,
	have misunderstood the terms, once or twice,
	or wished to renegotiate.
What do you do when the Covenant is not what you thought it was?
That’s what this story is about.
	And that’s where the Good News is, as well.

Where do you keep your covenant?

We live in troubled and troubling times.
Humans, perhaps, always do.
	We certainly did at the time of Samuel, and Lincoln, 
and Martin Luther King, whom we celebrate next week.
Mary was perplexed and, I suspect troubled, when Gabriel came to her.
And many of us face this challenge;
sometimes it is that very thing God calls us to
		that most troubles us.
It is the deepest darkness that requires light.

So let us look at the world,
	and at our troubling times.
Gun violence threatens the lives of all Americans,
	and disproportionately threatens the lives of the last and least.
	Worse yet, the fear this feeds for many
a greater emotional dependence on guns.
The police arm themselves more heavily
	and become more afraid of the people they want to protect;
	and so the people become afraid of the police – 
	a vicious cycle.
Our cities are beset by violence, 
	and, so too, the countryside,
	as even in rural Oregon
	we face armed rebellion.

Within the Anglican communion,
	we are all waiting, some more patiently than others,
	for the results of a meeting,
	premised on the threat of schism.
Can we really say that the fear of division leads us,
	rather than the hope of unity?
I will not dwell on sickness,
	either the sickness of our bodies
	as we struggle with bacteria and viruses,
	or the sickness of our souls
	as we struggle with a culture
	so focused on personal economic gain
	that we are blind to the consequences,
		both social and environmental.
These are troubling times.

Where do we keep our Covenant?

Let me suggest that the Christian answer iss,
	and always has been,
	“within our hearts, written in letters of flame.”
For God made of humanity a Temple,
	in that first breath of the Holy Spirit
		stirring up the dust;
	and in the incarnation of Christ, 
		fully human and fully divine;
	and in the Spirit which descended
		upon the Church at Pentecost.
And Jesus, a temple of flesh and blood replaced the Temple of stone.
And we, as the Body of Christ,
	marked in baptism 
and joined in this meal,
	are that temple;
Neither the Church of doctrine and creed – though that is important –
	Nor the church of constitution and canon – though that is important as well –
	Nor the church of stone.
It is the living, breathing body of Christ,
	the image of God, seen in the eyes of neighbor;
	indeed when we respect the dignity of every human being,
	though we strive in the Church to be the best examples
		of that worldwide humanity.

It’s not a complicated message,
	but I think it needs saying,
	for I need to hear it today.
I must not put my trust in guns.
	I am a pacifist, but I know many conscientious activists,
	and neither I nor they will find safety or salvation in guns,
		nor in legislation about guns,
		though I think that step in the right direction.
Guns and laws do not save
God saves.
And God saves through people.
We must reach out to people,
	to bind ourselves together in communities of love, 
	that may not end the violence in our lifetimes.
To be honest I must say that.
It is not an end to violence that will be our salvation,
	though I earnestly pray for that.
It is an end to fear.
	Our hope for salvation lies in hope for a time
		when hearts are shaped by the Divine law of love,
	When we recognize God, as wild as a lion,
		as unpredictable as a hurricane,
		as baffling and deep as the depths of the sea
			and the depths of space.
	This God is more powerful than the weapons and the law,
		and more powerful than the fear,
		and this God has chosen love.
	This God has chosen healing.
	This God has chosen us.

There is a fear in that; there is a Godly fear,
	of what such a God will wreak in the world and in our lives,
	there is a fear to be had for that author
		who writes in our hearts.
It is a fear to wipe out all other fear,
	for God can change us more than all other forces.

Were it power alone that made our choice,
	this would be a terrifying world.
But is not power alone.
	It is love.
It is a God who says to us,
	“look for me in the whirlwind, and in the deep,
	but above all in the face of this man Jesus,
	and in the face of your neighbor.”

“Look for me in the eyes of the frightened child
	and the frightened gunman.
“Look for me in the eyes of the starving mother
	and the banker.
“Look for me in your heart
	and you will find me there.”

Guns don’t save people;
And laws don’t save people;
And money doesn’t save people;
And medicine doesn’t save people;
People save people.
	People with guns and laws and money and medicine.
It’s not about these things being good or evil – 
	and I have my opinions; as do you –
It’s about keeping our eyes on the prize,
	and on that law which is written in our hearts.

We must bare them for all to see.

Where do I keep my Covenant with God?
	Not in my heart, surely.
	It is neither constant enough or pure enough to bear those words,
		at least not today; at least not yet.
No, I keep my Covenant in your hearts, in your eyes, in your faces,
	Where I read it and meditate on it and seek it out.
I keep my Covenant in the words of friends,
	the love of Christians, the knowledge of academics,
	the discipline of students, the care of teachers.

I get the Covenant wrong, because I have not yet read all of it.
My heart is not pure and constant – yet
	Because it is not the full story;
	It is not the full agreement;
	It is not enough.

It will not be made complete until it has been stitched together
	from the hearts of the world.
And so I spend my days in contemplation of humanity,
	and of nature, and in meeting new parts of Creation,
	in the hopes of coming one step closer
	to that fulfillment.

I hope I never have to face someone over the barrel of a gun,
	but I have been threatened 
with the law,
	and with the establishment,
	and with sickness,
	and with violence.
I hope I always have the courage to look at whoever threatens me
	and love them.
I hope that in this way, 
	God’s purpose is working out,
	no matter the signs of the times or the present fear.
I hope that I can look into their eyes with the love of Jesus.

And I hope that when they look into my eyes, and ask for healing,
	I, too, will choose to help.

I often think in terms of sung theology and this service wrapped up with “God of Grace and God of Glory,” which I  recommend as a particularly fitting capstone.  If you think this way too, please check it out.  (It’s H82 594 for the Episcopalians.)

Posted by: dacalu | 9 January 2016

Science and Faith as Lenses

This past week, the Society of Ordained Scientists met for our biennial retreat in North America.  The focus of this year’s retreat was Epiphany and the pilgrimages of perspective we take from worlds of faith to science and back again. In our closing Eucharist, I shared these words, thinking back on wonderful presentations by Marilyn Cornwell, Ted Peters, Mark Richardson, and Lou Ann Trost.

Collect for the Society

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.


Isaiah 52:3-6 (“My people shall know my name”)

The Magnificat – Luke 1:46-55 (“My soul doth magnify the Lord”)

Revelation 2:1-7 (“repent, and do the works you did at first”)

Matthew 12:14-21 (“He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.)



C.S. Lewis wrote “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 
Today’s gospel and our reflections over the last week have led me to think more carefully
	about this concept of seeing and believing.
I wanted to say something about our role as ordained scientists,
	and return to two insights that were deeply moving to me
	as we shared our pilgrimage together this week.
One was our dependence on a community of scholars, 
and the way we form a focal point as leaders in science and religion,
	for a much bigger community endeavor.
The other was our need to deal with unsolved problems in applied science and, 
dare I say it, applied metaphysics – the concrete needs of the world.

Matthew quotes Isaiah, but what does this mean that Jesus “will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets”? How are we to understand evangelism in light of Jesus ordering his disciples to remain silent about him?
Here, and even more so in the Gospel of Mark, there is a suggestion that some things
	should be shared and some things kept quiet.

And who are we in this Society?
	I do not think we are any more mediators of God, 
or truth, or reality than any other child of God.
	And yet we are mediators of knowledge, both sacred and secular.
	We are authority figures, for good and ill, regulating what it means
		to be in community and share a common understanding of the world.
	We are asked to reflect and refract the wisdom entrusted to us.
Priests and deacons wear stoles to show we represent the larger church,
	the authority, both power and responsibility,
that comes from speaking for a greater cloud of witnesses.
Scientists, too, 
though the lab coat does not, perhaps, garner the same respect it once did,
act as experts in our society.
They have the authority, both the power and the responsibility,
to speak the truths revealed by our searching,
	to be the face of inquiry and discovery in a society that deeply values both.
Our education and experience gives us a deeper understanding
	of how the world works.

Mark Richardson suggested in his talk that we cannot truly be Evangelists 
in the modern world 
unless we can navigate the languages of science and meaning 
that move our congregations.
And I think this must be true, that the vernacular is increasingly a scientific vernacular – our challenges, our hopes, and our fears are all tinged by science.
So we must do more than solve the abstract problems.
We must bring all that we are and all that we have to finding our way in the world 
as communities.

My own passion, as most of you know, has to do with how we act responsibly
	with both kinds of authority –
	how we exercise this trust,
		to always represent the best wisdom of both worlds,
		or perhaps the best insights of both perspectives,
		in all our interactions.
	How do we fulfill the trust placed in us,
		through our education, our opportunities, and our relationships?
It’s not just about finding truth,
	it's about cultivating common understanding
	about the things that matter most,
	ourselves, our world, and our meaning.

During the talks, I was reflecting on two images:
	First the telescope, so often iconic in science.
		Lenses focus our perceptions, 
allowing us to distinguish details
		or see patterns, large and small, 
that we would otherwise miss.
	Second, stained glass, so often iconic in Christianity,
		breaking the light into colored fragments, 
to harmonize, beautify, and order the light, 
which shining alone is too bright and too full 
for us to appreciate its depth.
	Perhaps, too, stained glass and prisms reminds us 
of the ways God uses our brokenness 
as individuals and communities 
as an opportunity for grace. 
The multiple reflections and refractions 
in a proper stained glass window allow
		us to see the subtleties of light 
in a way we never would,
		when blinded by the full spectrum brilliance of God.

And I wondered, as I often wonder,
	whether these are competing images,
	whether they pull us in different directions.
I must honestly admit that a stained glass telescope would be a poor instrument,
	at least in terms of the initial metaphors.
	It would distort the image while constraining our vision.
	It would, I suppose, be a kaleidoscope, 
		a wonderful thing in and of itself, but neither fish nor fowl.

This seems to be the fear of many faith/science discussions,
	that somehow we will lose the utility of both,
	if we attempt to put them together.
Obviously, I don’t think that’s the case.
	I think we must bring our scientific and religious authority together
	in our applied science, our applied theology, and our applied community.
But it may mean re-working my metaphors.
It may mean doing a new thing.
So I want to share a new image with you.

Most of us agree, I think, that there is only one light,
	but we have trouble agreeing on what kind of lens we want to be,
	and what kind of lens we should be,
	for ourselves and for others.

How many of you are familiar with gravitational micro-lensing?
	It sounds very complicated, but it’s a beautifully simple concept,
	increasingly useful in astronomy.
For the most part, we can only see stars and planets in the sky
	when they are exceptionally bright.
Mars is, on average, 225 million kilometers away from us,
	but if you hook up a giant flashlight, 
take 2 times 10 to the 30th kilograms of hydrogen and helium and set it on fire 
– That would be the Sun –
and flash it at Mars, the light that comes back is bright enough to see.
Similarly, the Andromeda Galaxy, 2.5 million light years away,
	shows up because of the light of a trillion Suns’ worth of mass
	all merrily burning in the night.
Other objects, 
for example the light of tiny planets orbiting distant stars in the Milky Way
of the light of galaxies farther out than Andromeda,
may not be bright enough for us to see them,
	even with our best telescopes.
They are too dim.

Yet we care about them.
We care about Orion and Pleiedes and the vast expanse of interstellar space.
We care enough to ask what they are made of and where they are
	and whether they, like we, travel through the night.
And we have discovered,
	that when the stars align,
	the light from a distant star will bend around a star passing in between us and it
	and that light passes on all sides of the passing star and focuses back upon us,
	with much greater intensity
	for a moment in cosmic time.
As it does so, we learn something profound about the distant source of light,
	for we see it much more brightly,
	and about the passing star,
		for the way it passes the light onto us.
The gravity of the passing star, or even galaxy, forms a lens, a gravitational micro-lens.
	And if we watch the distant star closely, and observe how the image changes
		as is passes into focus
		we can also learn about the lens itself,
		the mass and properties of the star that passes in between.

Lensing around galaxies, when we let one galaxy to magnify a more distant galaxy,
	has allowed us to calculate galactic mass and understand dark matter –
	or more properly understand how we don’t understand dark matter.
	That is, it shows us galaxies far more massive than we would have guessed 
Based in brightness alone.
Lensing around star-systems, 
when we are lucky enough to watch a star and its planets 
pass between us and a distant object,
	has allowed us to find extra-solar planets, otherwise invisible.
As of last night, 43 planets had been discovered and reported on the basis of micro-lensing,
	including some of the smallest and most Earth-like currently known.
The details are more complicated than I could hope to capture here,
	but hopefully I’ve given you a taste of this wonderful insight,
	I hesitate even to call it a technology, 
for we have no power to align the stars ourselves
	but we have this glorious curiosity that allowed 
micro-lensing to be revealed to us
	and allowed micro-lensing to reveal things we couldn’t have imagined.
And it is, very much, both a telescope and a stained glass window,
	depending on your focus,
	a great kaleidoscope that reveals and fractures a heavenly image.

And here I have waxed too poetic even for my own sensibilities.
Let me bring this digression back to the very concrete biblical exegesis,
	and daily morality
	that it has sparked in me.
Perhaps I can worry less about what kind of lens I am,
	when I magnify and when I refract,
	when I give a true image and when I break an image into it’s components.
Instead, I shall worry more about how God has placed me
	between the light of Christ and the observer.
I shall think about how my life and my actions bend the world around me
	in a way that can reveal a more distant light
	a more distant truth,
	and, for many, a brightness they had only dreamed of.
It is not so different a metaphor than that used by the Orthodox
	speaking of icons as windows to divinity,
	or Augustine speaking of the finger pointing at the moon.
Jesus may have taken the focus off himself,
	precisely because he, as the incarnate Christ,
	was the focus of a yet more glorious light,
	a lens, through which, was focused the full intensity of God.

I don’t have that kind of intensity.
I don’t have that kind of mass.
But, returning to Marilyn’s insight from our very first reflection,
	the community gathered together,
	possesses a power
	greater than its parts.
We are something when we gather here, at this table, 
in prayer, in service, and in love.
Each of our ministries can be this, 
	and I truly believe each of our ministries is this,
	a gathering of people through our authority as leaders in science and faith,
		whether or not we wear a stole,
		whether or not we wear a lab coat,
		we have this power,
	to gather light and mass around us,
	to gather a community of knowledge and wisdom,
	that bends the very fabric of the world,
	and lets the light shine through.

Posted by: dacalu | 31 December 2015

The Blood of Life

“But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”

-John 1:12-13


My friend Rev. Kari Jo Verhulst asked me to comment on this passage. She was concerned about the potential biases here toward males and toward humans, but also toward an apparent dualism one can easily read from the passage. She also noted a rather obscure Aristotelian reading of the passage, which, if potentially historical, was not compelling. Knowing my penchant for Aristotelian and Biblical biology, she thought I might have some insights. I’ve not had a chance to look closely at the passage, but wanted to share my best guesses of the moment, in case some others find them interesting. I know I will want to come back to this later, for it is a rich passage.  Thus I must start with a heartfelt thank you to Kari Jo, for bringing it my attention.

My short answer is that I think it might be more helpful to read through the lens of Plato, noting that Jesus is the life of the cosmos, and therefore closer to the fullness of Being and the Good than mere life, mere animality, or even mere humanity. Our own fulfillment cannot come solely from any lesser form, but only from participation in the Word (logos) that orders all of Creation.

If I were to unpack that a little, I’d start by highlighting a few words that appear to be key to understanding biology and cosmology in Ancient Greek thought. To start with, Jesus is called the logos of creation. Usually translated “Word” and problematically conflated with the scriptures, the Greek logos is not an utterance, but a principle or rationality behind something. When John calls Jesus the life (zoe) and light (phos) of the world (kosmos), it comes close to meaning the soul of creation – the cause, identity, and end of all that is. [And there I am borrowing from Aristotle’s use of soul as efficient, formal, and final cause.  I doubt John thought of it so technically, but in this case it works and is consistent with broader Greek thought.] Before the 16th century, the cosmos was thought to be alive – in exactly the same way that animals are alive. It had a common activity that coordinated the parts to work together. It was an organism because it was organized by soul. [This is solid Plato – Phaedo. See C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image; Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy; and/or Michael Ruse, Science and Spirituality for how this changed between the Renaissance and Enlightenment.] That may sound complicated, but the take-home message is that John is talking biology from the very beginning of chapter 1.

In verses 12 and 13, John contrasts different types of life. The “children of God, who [are] born, not of blood (haima) or of the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) or of the will of man (thelema aner), but of God.” It has been easy to interpret this dualistically as a simple flesh (sarx) versus soul (psyche) or spirit (pneuma) contrast; and this interpretation has been common in readings of Paul, but strikes me as again a 16th century anachronism. Plato does not have this dualism. Instead, he speaks of an unformed world of “Becoming” moving toward a perfect world of “Being.” Like the process of nutrition, by which we turn chemicals into ourselves by metabolism, so the cosmos enfolds becoming into being through the logos.

The Ancients, both Greek and Hebrew, viewed blood as the vital heat or vital fluid that enlivened all living things (including some plants.). This sounds vitalist (invoking a mystical “life-stuff”) until you realize that we also talk about digesting sugars to produce calories (heat) that moves through the blood to give us the energy to live, move, and grow. It goes slightly farther in Greek and Hebrew only in the sense that the blood holds the limbs together, so that spilling the blood is removing the glue that binds them. It seems a short step to me from the Greek blood (haima) to biochemistry or metabolism.

The will of the flesh and the will of man apply similarly to what holds an animal together and what holds a human together. Ancient thinkers recognized something interesting about animals that made them more than metabolism. They acted with intentionality, sensed their environment, moved. Thus they were more than just alive. This more has been called many things – most notably “animal” from anima, the Latin word for soul. Note, however, that it is a contraction of anima sensibilis, while vegetable is a contraction of anima vegetibilis. Plants had souls, too! There is nothing supernatural about the animal soul. Plato and others called this something special the spirit or spirited aspect of the soul and it was associated with anger, courage, and will. It seems a small step in this context to say that the will of the flesh (thelema sarx) refers to that which enlivens and motivates animals. I will take a small liberty here, as the term has no modern correlate, and call it “instinct” as that comes closest in modern sensibilities to animal “reasoning” and “motivation” in many minds.

“The will of man,” at a cursory glance, seems to be a bad translation made by the crafters of the NRSV. I admit from the outset that they are much more knowledgeable than I, so take this with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, looking at other uses of aner in the Bible, it seems to emphasize masculinity particularly in the context of active reason (thinking man versus unthinking boy). Admittedly, this would have been tightly joined to common perceptions of sex (thinking man versus unthinking woman), but I don’t think it necessary or even important to the point that John is making. His emphasis is on wisdom or reason, present particularly in humanity. Indeed the word aner is occasionally used to speak about men and women. Thus, let us render the “will of man” as “human reason.”

With those reflections in mind, the passage becomes something like this: The children of God are not the product of metabolism, or the product of animal instinct, or the product of human reason but genuinely begotten of God. Plato was not a dualist (matter versus form) but a gradualist (becoming, moving through life, body, soul, and humanity, to being). Only logos can beget logos, but it does so through all of these stages, just as humans beget other humans through nutrition (present in all life) and instinct (present in animals). The higher does not oppose the lower, for it does not exist, except through the lower – at least for us. [God is something different.] To prevent us from slipping into dualism, John immediately reminds us that the logos “became flesh (sarx).” This will be reinforced later (John 6:53-56) when Jesus says you cannot have life within you unless you eat of his flesh (sarx) and drink of his blood (haima). The way of salvation is not to avoid the blood, flesh, and humanity of incarnation, but to allow them to be transformed by the logos into the very body of Christ. It is summed up neatly in Athanasius’ comment that “God became human that humans might become God.” By becoming blood and flesh, Christ has enabled us to quite literally eat and drink of that Divine order which is the life of

Posted by: dacalu | 25 November 2015

Mythic Approaches to Life

This post is part of a series on what we want from definitions of life.  It stands alone, but if you want to see the whole series, it starts here. I’ve already spoken about visceral approaches to life – as threat and opportunity. Now we turn to broader and more abstract evaluative approaches.

Is life good? Are some kinds of life better than others?

We call life good, perhaps because we are alive. How do we connect the two concepts? This approach also opens questions about how different types of life – biological, mental, spiritual – relate to one another. Is one more alive than another? Does that mean it’s better?


Version A: The Progressive Approach – Is the cosmos moving toward better life? Are agents and thinkers better forms of life?

The progressive approach seeks to understand the universe as a ladder of life states. The lowest are good, but the highest are better. Plato spoke of biological, emotional, and intellectual life as tiers in a process aimed at logos or cosmic harmony. Medieval philosophers spoke of a pyramid or ladder of nature (scala naturae) reaching from the creeping things in the dirt up to the angels in heaven, each more complex and valuable than the things below. More recent models speak of a historical progression from disorder, through plant life, animal life, rational life, and social life to spiritual or technological fulfillment. Chardin’s “noosphere,” Lovelock’s “Gaia,” and Kurzweil’s “Singularity” appear as inevitable products of cosmic evolution. Sometimes manifest destiny appears as well, as we can see in Star Trek and Interstellar.


Jewish and Christian thinkers often use physical development and evolution as a metaphor for salvation history. Paul’s “groaning of creation” (Rom 8:22) links childbirth to the coming kingdom, while Moses’ exhortation to “choose life” (Deu 30:19) links obedience to fruitfulness. Paul Tillich explicitly takes this approach (Systematic Theology III p26).


In a slightly different perspective, some modern “pro-life” perspectives suggest that more life – in this case more children – is always better. They go beyond asserting that killing is bad to asserting a moral obligation to generate more humans. Many advocates have a more sophisticated approach, but the label in itself suggests that life is always good and more life is always better.


Version B: The Romantic ApproachAre agents and thinkers worse forms of life? Do our action, thoughts, technology, etc. draw us away from natural goodness?

Biological life is (almost) always framed as good, but sometimes other life – the higher life of the progressive frame – is seen as a move away from natural order. Artifice becomes associated with evil. Intellect becomes less than – or potentially less than – life. This romanticism appears blatantly as a nature versus technology motif in Star Wars, but also in countless other works – from Lord of the Rings to Avatar. In theology, I believe this has roots in concepts of the Fall. Humans default to goodness, nature, and life, but our will allows us to choose other options. It occurs very commonly in arguments against “playing God” or “tampering with the natural order” (e.g., in response to genetic engineering, cloning, and reproductive technologies).


Version C: The Warfare Approach – Is life at war with death?

A third issue arises, when we consider a cosmic struggle between the forces of life and death. Life and death are characterized as active forces – perhaps even personalities – competing for control of the universe. This usually comes paired with versions A or B, but it can also appear on it’s own. We can view life as the inevitable winner – as in the Chronicles of Narnia and other Christian narratives of fall and redemption. Or we can view the two sides as evenly matched – as in the classic battles between Chaos and Cosmos in Babylonian mythology and between Light and Darkness in Manichaeism. Life might even be the the inevitable loser, as we can see in personifications of increasing entropy or talk of life (or reason) as a flickering candle in the dark. This last position appears Battlestar Galactica and the recent movies Gravity and The Martian.


Mythic approaches requires value orientation like the visceral approach, but it is universal value and always associated with life (as opposed to non-life or artifice). A mythic frame research program would involve looking at things of value and determining in what way life was present in them. Alternately, one might look at all things identified as living and try to find value.


Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Halloween Prayer

“From ghosties and ghoulies and long-leggity beasties and things that go bump in the night; dear Lord, deliver us.” (traditional Anglican prayer)

It sounds quaint now, but it should remind us that, for many, ghosts and ghouls are real. They are the very real and present traumas that remain from losing people close to us and the very real and present vices that feed on these traumas. I do not say this to naturalize or temporize supernatural ghosts and ghouls. Perhaps they exist; perhaps they don’t. I say it to recognize that our dead stay with us and this can be a way of talking about it. Ghosts and ghouls are just as real as the mosquitos and other long-leggity beasties that bring sickness to most of the world. They are just as real as Vikings – whose longboats when bump against the town dock in the middle of the night before a raid – and other terrors of politics beyond our control. Halloween brings us face to face with our terror and fascination for forces beyond our control which nonetheless drive our lives and our deaths.

May God protect us from the terrors of the night – and the terrors of the day; may we remember the great and terrible work of making the world a place of truth, trust, hope, and love; may we find our way amidst the storm; and may God bring us safely home. Amen.

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