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.

Posted by: dacalu | 26 October 2015

Trick and Treat

Sometimes an idea grows so large you can’t wrap your head around it in only one day. Sometimes a holiday requires multiple days. Halloween, All Saints’ Day, and the Day of the Dead give us a chance to deal with life and death, and to give the boundary between the two the space (and time) that it deserves. If you like your holidays to be nothing more than an excuse to eat, or party, or be with friends, now is the time to stop reading. Those are wonderful things – we need our excuses – but at the end of the day they are only the byproducts of a proper “holy day.”

One of my favorite descriptions of the Holy is the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans,” that which is wholly other, fearful, and fascinating. The phrase was coined by Rudolf Otto, a 19th century Lutheran theologian and scholar of comparative religion. He thought some such experience of the holy or the numinous was at the root of all religion. In just such a way, I think the triple holiday coming up gives us an opportunity to deal with death in all of its ambivalent glory. Whether you are Christian or not, I think this is a true holy day, and one not to be missed.

Each of the three festivals has its own history, though the names we give them all derive from the same Christian feast day. Halloween, is an 18th century Scottish contraction of All Hallow Even, the night before All Saints’ Day. It coincides with Samhain, the Celtic new year and beginning of winter. Day of the Dead (Spanish: Dia de los Muertos) observances have been going in on Southern Mexico for two to three thousand years, though they settled on November second, falling in with Roman Catholic observance of All Souls’ Day. The Christian holy day of All Saints’ has been broadly observed on November 1 since the 8th and 9th century and observed as a multiple day festival since the 1400s. With such ancient roots, I cannot claim to tell you what the three days should be about. I can say what they mean to me in a way that I hope respects some of the many traditions that have grown up around them.

First, I think we must respect that they are three very different days. No one has an uncomplicated relationship with death. Perhaps one day will be more important to you, but I truly believe each of us can gain something from engaging in all three. Each of us can benefit from meditating on death in a way that brings us more fully in touch with the fearful and and wonderful mystery – that allows us mental, emotional, and spiritual space to deal with our own ghosts. That said, here is my threefold observance.

Halloween gives us a chance to think about the “thinning of the veil” between life and death. We recognize the importance things past have on things present. We pause to recognize how thin the line is between living and dying. Halloween is a holiday of contingence and chance and powerlessness. It is a time when the dead come to visit the living. We bring out sweets to placate and masks to scare the dead. We flirt with our fear of death and of those who have gone before. Halloween unsettles us, as it should. Before you can deal with your dead (those you have lost) and your mortality, you must be aware of them.

All Saints’ Day flips our fear, for it reminds us that our dead have helped us, too. Despite the workings of the unknown, our loved ones have reached out to change the world we live in. People have power. Christians celebrate God reaching into history, not only in the life of Jesus, but in the lives of countless saints. They are our examples and our inspiration. They include not only those recognized by the church, but everyone who has shed light in our lives. Christians particularly remember those who gave their lives to do this – those who were martyred for love or truth or hope. All people can remember that our dead continue to helps us, that some of them truly helped the world, and that we can, too.

On the Day of the Dead, the living go to visit their dead. It is the opposite of Halloween, for on this day, we accept death. Instead of scaring or propitiating the dead, we dwell among them. We celebrate them, whether they helped or harmed us. We recognize them for who they are and for all of those forces beyond their control that they struggled with. We talk with those we no longer talk to. It is a day to be reconciled with the past, a day for forgiveness, acceptance, and peace. It is a day to anticipate our own passing from this world. We hope to leave it a better place. And we hope we go to a better country.

When I do things right, I leave the threefold holiday knowing my dead a little better – and knowing my own life a little better, because of the dead. I hope this year’s visit with the dead will help you, too.

Posted by: dacalu | 19 October 2015

Approaches to the Meaning of “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 would like to suggest five prominent approaches to how we model life. I do not claim these five ways are exclusive or exhaustive. Rather they are five well worn paths that many have taken in search of the meaning of “life.” Specific models – such as Aristotle’s nutritive soul or Schrodinger’s delayed entropy – can be assessed by the work they do in each approach. Often they will have been designed with one approach in mind and be very successful in that way. Often they will then be appropriated by thinkers to do work in another approach – with mixed success.

Each of the approaches comes associated with a focusing question or two that highlights what I see as a central concern. I hope to better identify the place of these various approaches in specific conversations – for example scientific origin-of-life research or Catholic environmental ethics – as well as global conversations on the definition of life. I will return to these questions at the end with my own concerns – how to search for life in space and how to build healthy relationships between individuals and communities. First though, I hope to improve communication between a wide variety of people with a wide variety of concerns by talking about what may be at stake for them – and for all of us – as we discuss “life” together.

The Visceral Approach – Can I eat it? Can it eat me?

The first approach frames life in the context of opportunities and dangers. At the most basic level, we ask “can I eat it?” and “can it eat me?” Evolutionary theory suggests that we would have evolved very accurate, very fast heuristics for answering those two questions. In a more generic way, we often ask whether something is alive so that we can assess it as a threat or opportunity. In medicine, we want to eliminate potential pathogens. In international law, we want to preserve common goods. Alien-as-threat and alien-as-exploitable-resource are two of the most common tropes in science fiction and they often challenge us to think of species wide interests or even life-wide interests.

Using the visceral approach requires a reference subject and some statement of their interest. To whom is this life an opportunity or danger? A visceral approach research program would involve observing and anticipating outcomes. It must be subject dependent and prospective. When we speak of Extinction Level Events – such as a meteor impact killing off the dinosaurs – we think in terms of diminished life on Earth.

More approaches in the next post!

Posted by: dacalu | 15 October 2015

That Lived in Look

I’ve been thinking about architecture today. Why do we build beautiful buildings and how do we put them to use? Being a fan of architecture, several examples came to mind.

Vista_aerea_del_Monasterio_de_El_Escorialver-1-tnHampton Court aerial 300 HB22

These are pictures of L’Escorial (17th c. Spain), Versailles (17th c. France), and Hampton Court (16th c. England). Each one is a palace and no one could mistake them for purely functional. And yet, they were built for more than luxury. Each one was established as an operational center of government for a State. Work was done in these places – not always well, certainly not democratically, but productively. Now consider three more.

Neuschwanstein StBasils Taj-Mahal-5

Neushwanstein (19th c. Bavaria), St. Basil’s (16th c. Russia), and the Taj Mahal (17th c. Mughal Empire) were all constructed as feats of architecture for a more limited audience. Neuschwanstein was a retreat for Mad King Ludwig. St. Basil’s was a Cathedral, but the interior space is quite limited – it’s more of a landmark. The Taj Mahal is a tomb. These are, in my opinion, three of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, and yet I am slightly uneasy thinking about them. The first and the third threatened national economies. The second commemorates military victories and was a demonstration of imperial power. If nothing else, they must represent for us the accumulation of immense wealth and power in the hands of a single individual.

I’d like to ask how theologies and philosophies relate to these buildings. When you go beyond a specific claim (e.g., my table is flat, it’s bad to hit your brother) to a system (e.g., Natural Law Theology, Physicalism), what kind of building are you making. How many people can live there (or work or worship…)? I don’t like ugly philosophy any more than I like ugly buildings.

Gropius Dormitories

Still, even among beautiful buildings, there is something to be said about functionality and common goods. No matter how elegant, how well crafted, how beautiful a philosophy is, it’s probably not worth living there alone – especially if other people have to work to keep you there.

What kind of philosophical building do you live in?

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