Posted by: dacalu | 20 March 2015


The question of demons has arisen in a number of my conversations and I wanted to address it directly. Let me start by saying that this is a most difficult matter and not to be entertained lightly. For most of us, there will be triggers, either as we face or avoid our own darkness. If you want to tackle the matter, eat well, sleep well, and bring a friend. Seriously, this is one to approach well fortified.

We cannot deny that there are forces in our lives acting against our own best interests. Sometimes people we know drive them; other times they appear as aspects of our own nature, products of our environment (physical or social), or integral to some institution. I will call them, for want of a better term, dark forces. The name conjures images of fantasy villains but, taken simply, it fits well in the modern scientific mindset. They are forces, mass accelerating. Their weight comes from something real in the world: the bulk of tissue in inflammation, the oppressive heat of a jungle in wartime, the expectations of real people in injustice. I have stretched the concept of mass a little, but not too much. Matter is involved. The more matter, the stronger the force. There is also acceleration – something is speeding up or slowing down. The matter isn’t just moving. It is being pushed: cancer grows, our resources run down, people feed the institution with their will and actions. In other words, “forces” mean that something drives a physical change in the world.

The word “dark” can be harder to figure out. I think of dark in terms of “against our preferences” or “against our interests.” Numerous words exist, each with their own baggage. I considered the word “bad,” but it wasn’t strong enough. I’m going to tackle how “evil” and “sick” work for us, so they were out of the question*. We will stick with traditional language – there are dark forces at work in the world. How shall we think of them?

Let me suggest two dichotomies: external vs. internal and personal vs. mechanical. When we deal with dark forces, we tend to label them in these ways and the labels affect how we react. We can speak of external personal antagonists (e.g., demons), external impersonal forces (e.g., spirits such as a spirit of discontent)**, internal personal antagonists (e.g., parasites), or internal impersonal processes (e.g., sickness).

By personalizing a dark force, we make it easier to understand and fight. Humans think in narratives, with good guys and bad guys and a struggle in between. We use those narratives to connect our situation to other situations. We create and respond to emotional pictures of the world. The metaphor of war works for us often, if not all the time. By labeling a dark force as a demon or parasite, we can work up anger against it and use that anger as a motivator. “I will fight.” We are less comfortable and less hopeful when struggling against the impersonal.

By mechanizing a dark force, we bring our reason to bear. It becomes a problem to solve, rather than an enemy to fight. Such thinking can make us less fearful. If only we can find the right lever to push, the right knot to untie, we will prevail. On the down side, this mechanization places the burden on us. Problems that can’t be fixed immediately become a personal burden. Only our will is involved, so any failure must be a failure on our part. It is far easier to simply accept an unimaginably difficult situation than to struggle against it.

By externalizing a dark force, we give ourselves a clear, discrete target to aim at. “ I will overcome.” We need not worry about how other aspects of our lives are linked. We need not question whether we are part of the problem. This can be terribly important for acting decisively. On the down side, it can also lead to scapegoating. “If only I get rid of X, things will be better.”

By internalizing the dark force, we become more aware of the brokenness of the world. That increases compassion and curiosity, but robs us of a safe place to stand, a place from which to act and make things better. For good and ill, thinking of internal dark forces makes us doubt ourselves, our ability to change things, and even our desire to change things.

Each approach helps in some ways and hurts in others. Demons and dark spirits give us ways of articulating problems viscerally and setting up solutions. Sickness and infection do as well. The question becomes, “Which one helps the most?” I suspect the answer differs according to the situation. Giving dark forces agency – making them persons who can change the world, allows us useful differentiation from the problem, but can also grant them too much power over our lives. Even more problematic, morally, will be how we assign mass to these dark forces. Internal dark forces make us ask whether some part of ourselves must be jettisoned, harming our self-concept and tempting us to self-harm. External dark forces allow us to place the blame on others and consider harming them.

Think about the words and concepts you use. Think about how they fit into your own strategies for getting to a better place. Think also about how other people tell the story of their struggles. What work are they trying to do by labeling something a demon, spirit, infection, or sickness? Can you help them tell a story that diminishes the power of dark forces in their lives? The stories we tell change who we are.


* “Darkness” has it’s own baggage, particularly when we look at questions of race. Alas, there are only so many things one can deconstruct at once.

** Entropy might also be considered an external impersonal force but, to the extent we think of it as dark, we no longer think of it scientifically. The scientific concept of entropy is just a measure of disorder. The tendency of disorder to increase with time can be good or bad, depending on your perspective. We all want our coffee to cool, but only so much.

Posted by: dacalu | 14 March 2015

Why I Believe?

A friend of mine just posted an essay about the question “Why do you believe in religion?” I think it’s an interesting question and one we ask to rarely. More rarely still, do we reply with affirmative statements. Hence the challenge to briefly say why I think what I think about religious-y stuff without talking about what I don’t think.

Why do I believe in God?

Same reason I believe in my mother. First because we talk. Second, because other people report talking to her. Third, because I really can’t imagine how I came to be without thinking about her.

Why do I believe (Anglican) Christian doctrines?

Same reason I believe in gravity and evolution by natural selection. They provide a good systematic account of what I experience in concert with what other people experience. They allow me to do work in the world. As with gravity and evolution, there are some fuzzy bits around the edges that I can’t say what exactly they do for me or anyone else, but I accept them as part of a whole system of theories that seems to work.

Why do I do (Anglican) Christian activities – rituals, etc.?

Same reason I brush my teeth and do martial arts. They keep me healthy and encourage me to pay attention to details. I don’t like doing them every time I do them, but I like the effect of doing them regularly. Also, as with martial arts and science, they keep me learning new things.

Why am I part of The Episcopal Church?

No comparison here. I try to be part of groups of people that help each other. Those groups work best, in my experience, when founded on love, curiosity, and growth. The Episcopal Church has served me well in this regard, with a very high percentage of healthy communities. Many other groups serve similar functions for me, but the Episcopal church is the largest-best one for me so far. I feel a need to balance my desire for inclusion (as many people as possible involved) with my desire for health (or my perspective/experience of health). It matters to me to be in communion with as many people as possible, but only if it’s a reasonably healthy relationship.

Why am I a priest?

God asked. My diocese asked and my local congregation and larger denomination agreed. It allows me to serve others as confidant, facilitator, and educator in ways I could not, otherwise.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 March 2015

Making Sense of the World

Tonight, I had the pleasure of talking with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) about faith and science.  Here are my notes.


“One Hope, One Faith, One Life - being priest and scientist without living two lives”

How do I think of being both priest and scientist at the same time?
	I want to start with short and sweet.
 	It has to do with helping people make sense of the world,
 		both individually and as groups.
The world is complicated and fascinating; it takes work to understand it.
We have a tendency to separate four parts of the process:
 	generating data;
 	matching the data to models;
 	finding meaning in the models,
 		that is matching them up with what we want;
 	and applying the models to get stuff done.
We call the first science, 
 	the second theory, 
 	the third philosophy, 
 	and the fourth policy or engineering.
I think we have good reason to do so
 	and I think it can be really important to keep them separate at times.
	And other times, I think we have to keep an eye on the bigger picture,
 	the flow from experience to ideas to actions.
For all of us, our values inform our science,
 	they shape what we want to discover and how we go about generating data;
 	to some extent, they even shape what we are able to see.
I’m not making some abstract point about God only being visible to believers.
I’m reporting a concrete sociological finding that our ways of thinking
	predispose us to see some things better than others,
	and to see some things more quickly than others.
Perhaps you saw the articles on color names and seeing color 
 	that went around Facebook recently.

So I see this all as one grand endeavor 
 	of making sense of the place we find ourselves in.
Call it an interdisciplinary collaboration,
	or if you like the language of sociology,
	call it worldview construction.
I feel called to help the various parts of this process work together,
	partly because I think it’s an amazing and wonderful process,
	and partly because I think we’re particularly bad at it right now.
We’re good at the pieces, but no so good at putting them all together.

I evangelize for curiosity.
I see no other way to put it.
	The world is good. We are meant for it and it for us.
	That’s not a trivial theological claim.
	It’s something many people disagree about
		both Christians and non-Christians.
It takes this sort of value judgment
	[not this one exactly, but one like it at least]
	to go about open ended investigation of the universe.
We must do more than say that some things are worth knowing.
At some level all things must be worth knowing
	if we are to have the types of scientists who are willing
	to be surprised and intrigued and delighted
	by unexpected observations.

As an individual, I want to know about all things,
	because I think God put us together for a reason.
More than that, I want to comprehend them,
	know them deeply and truly,
	have models for how they work and why they work,
	where they’re going and how they relate to one another.
	I want to have hope for them.
This desire to know and comprehend makes me a scientist.
One step more: I want to aid the things I study,
 	help them to flourish.
	That’s a difficult task,
	as it begs the question of what it means to flourish, 
	but I have found a surprising number of scientists
		really do have this underlying desire
		to be a force for good for their subjects of study
		and for the world.

So we have a trajectory for my individual relationship with nature:
	from knowing to comprehending to aiding.
There is another trajectory that goes from individual to community.
	At each stage of the process, we can reach from
		an individual’s relationship with nature,
		to an integration of individual, community, and environment.
I want to share the knowledge I have about the world with others.
I want to conceptualize my comprehension,
	turn it into models and stories, words and pictures,
	that can leave me and travel to others.
I want to work with others in building communities,
	that work together at every stage of the process.
And I see God involved in all of it – that makes me a priest.

Both knowledge and community
	look like miracles to me.
They allow us to transcend ourselves.
I want to help that happen because, for me, 
 	it has everything to do with flourishing.
I am my best self when I live in harmony with nature and neighbor.
I have that hope for you as well,
	that something will be revealed in you
	during these encounters,
	that wresting with reality and politics,
		those two favorite epithets of modern life,
	you will find yourself blessed.

By those standards I can be conscious about my preferences and my actions.
I can encourage curiosity, reason, creativity, and care.
It comes very close to the heart of my faith and my self-understanding.
	Those are my values. 
 	Those are what I’ve chosen to devote my life to.

You don’t have to have the same breadth of interest.
Because we are one body, one community,
	you can focus in on one part of the process.
I have no doubt that scientist and engineer can be true callings.
They are vocations as much as priest or teacher,
	if God calls you to them,
	if they are your answer to the needs of your heart
	and the needs of those around you.

Relationship with Nature >>
Know	Comprehend	Aid	V Relationship
Share	Conceptualize	Build	V with Neighbor
Posted by: dacalu | 9 March 2015

Sex and Metaphysics

Really? Yes, really. Sex is all about metaphysics. Wait. No, metaphysics is all about sex. One of those two. Seriously, I just read a lovely essay comparing sexual consent to consent for tea. You ask them, “Do you want tea?” and they say “yes” or “no.” Having said yes does not obligate them to drink the tea. They may, in fact, change their mind. They are under no obligation to follow through with drinking the tea. They may want tea later, but not now, or now but not later. Under no circumstances is it proper to poor the tea into them. We know this at an intuitive level, but apparently it needs to be spelled out to sexual predators, philosophers, and the occasional neuroscientist.

This is a lovely example of applied metaphysics. When we talk about “free will,” “consciousness,” and “determinism,” we are not just talking about whether genes and neurons control our behavior. We’re talking about consent. We are talking about the ability of individuals to control their behavior. We are also talking about our ability to communicate with one another about our preferences. Ethics – Christian ethics, Buddhists ethics, atheist ethics, everybody’s ethics – rests on this foundation. We must recognize that we have preferences and power and that our choices should not be made without consulting others about their preferences and their power.

Does philosophical determinism lead to rape? No. I didn’t say that. What I said was that we need a language to discuss desire and consent and how they impact our actions. We need to respect our own agency, but also the agency of others in bringing about the future. When you use those words, you’re doing metaphysics.

Next time free will comes up in your philosophical discussions, ask yourself this question: How does consent operate when I think this way? It will, I suspect, bring the issue back from philosophical abstraction to concrete consequences.

Posted by: dacalu | 20 February 2015

Axioms versus Observations

Talking about science and religion – or really anything controversial – requires careful listening. Often we want to react to an argument we remember, rather than the one we are hearing. That can slow things down or completely prevent communication. As I’ve been studying the history of definitions of life, I’ve come across two very different perspectives on science, perspectives that lead to two very different kinds of arguments against miracles. They lead to two very different kinds of arguments all together, and the difference ranges across science and religion. So let’s take a closer look at the two appeals. For myself, I’ll try to be clearer about which is which.


One type of argument draws on observations or scientific data, what we have come to call Empiricism. Pierre Gassendi, in laying the foundations for the Mechanical Philosophy (necessary for modern science), believed that God was fundamentally unpredictable. Good science meant always seeing for yourself. Science records the regularities in our observations. It can mark when a claim in inconsistent with experience, but cannot rule out extraordinary events. Thus science might say that a miracle report is implausible based on what we have observed; there would, however, be no point in observing unless we’re willing to see new things.

Gassendi believed miracles do occur, but thought we should be cautious in accepting them. Not all reports are accurate. We will be more comfortable with reports of things similar to things we see regularly. A scientific argument against miracles would be one that shows reports of miracles are irregular and unverified.


A second type of argument draws on our axioms, beliefs about the universe generated prior to observation (a priori). Rene Descartes, in his perspective on the Mechanical Philosophy, believed that God was fundamentally constrained by rational necessity. Some things can be known simply by thinking about them. Among the most common axioms are self-existence (“I think; therefore, I am”) and non-contradiction (A and not-A cannot both be true). Good science builds on the set of axioms that may be deduced by a rational mind. Observations will always be secondary. Science explores the necessary relationships and identities present in the world and connects abstract truths to specific instances. It can say when a miracle report is false because it is inconsistent with the laws of nature.

Descartes did not believe that miracles could occur, because he saw them as contrary to the rational order imposed by God’s intellect on the world. Not all reports are accurate. We can definitively rule out reports of irrational events. A scientific argument against miracles reflects the application of rules scientists have discerned about nature; it does not require observation.

We must note that you cannot have it both ways. Either observational evidence supports your claim – and could conceivably work against it – or you possess rational certainty. Gassendi (and the “Empiricists”) felt arguments based on a priori claims were baseless. Descartes (and the “Rationalists”) felt observation was unreliable. I do not doubt we all make both types of arguments. I simply want to point out that an argument has to be one or the other. It cannot hold together as both.

Miracles and Physicalism

Many modern “atheists” (really anti-theists, not just disbelievers in a personal God) wish to make “scientific” arguments against miracles. They are really making two different kinds of arguments, to which I would offer two very different responses.

Let us start with the observation-based claim. “I see no evidence of miracles and they seem contrary to the regularities I do see in the world.” I have great sympathy for this and most Empirical arguments. Personally, I see evidence of the Holy Spirit working through communities to bring about reconciliation that seemed impossible. I see evidence of God providing me with information and commentary that I don’t think I would or could provide myself. I see evidence that Jesus had an impact on the world. And, personally, I see how those statements don’t meet the standards of evidence of many of my friends. The question becomes one of how we count evidence. I need personal, emotional, and abstract grist for the decision mill on a regular basis, but science does not provide it. So I admit of multiple ways of knowing and different standards of evidence. I love this debate because it helps me refine my reasoning process. In that light, I like having the observation based-discussion with atheist friends.

Now we move to the axiom-based claim. “Miracles are inconsistent with the laws of nature.” (And, likewise, “Only physical things exist.”) I have little sympathy for this argument – largely because I don’t share the axioms and don’t know how to move from the initial conflict. In the observation-based argument, “science shows” means that the scientific method of observation and hypothesis provides evidence for… In the axiom-based argument, “science shows” means that the predominant philosophy among scientists is committed to the axiom that… This latter argument is not necessarily bad. I’m somewhat sympathetic with the idea that physicalism has proven useful, giving us reasons to stick with our axiom. Still, I have other reasons that trump that one. Namely I have work that requires me to deal with non-physical concepts, concepts I cannot (at least at present) reduce to physical bases.

I’ll even go a step farther “Science shows…” as an axiom-based claim offends against my scientific sensibilities – severely. I’m committed to science as an Empirical endeavor and anything, no matter how well intentioned, that cuts off openness to new observations harms science as science.

Reading about Gassendi and Descartes has convinced me that this divide between axiom and observation goes back to the beginnings of modern science. I should not judge people when they do science by different rules than I do. I can, however, work for observation-based science and clear articulations about when we are using the products of the scientific method (Empiricism) and when we are using the rational foundations of science (Rationalism) to make a

Posted by: dacalu | 18 February 2015

Pain, Tension, and Sin

Pain associated with stress often comes from tensing our muscles. Headaches, backaches, even stomach aches result when we tighten our muscles and don’t release them. A simple way of relaxing involves stretching or intentionally tensing the muscles even further. These actions remind our bodies that they have more than one state – they can be more tense or they can be more relaxed. Awareness of sin works much the same way.

Our default picture of sin looks like ink spilled on cotton; sin is a stain. At best we can avoid it. At worst we can wash it away afterwards. This picture doesn’t help. Think about muscle tension. Worrying about avoiding tension leads to more tension. You have to contract your muscles if you want to get things done. You can’t avoid muscle tension. Instead you have to contract and release at the right times. Trying to wash the tension away would be an even sillier idea. Tension is not something to be removed, but a force to be relaxed. No amount of new force will make the old force go away.

Jesus speaks to this theme over and over again in the gospels. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2) “Why does this fellow speak in this way? It is blasphemy! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:9) “Why are they doing what is not lawful on the Sabbath?” (Mark 2:27) Jesus responds by saying, “You’re asking the wrong question.” Paul devotes the entire letter of Romans to it (3:23-24 “For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”) Stop thinking of sin as something to be shunned, fixed up, or mollified. How we can forget this as Christians never ceased to amaze me. [Proverbs 17:13; Matthew 5:38-48; Luke 6:27-45; Romans 12:17; I Peter 2:23; 3:8-13] No amount of new force will make the old force go away. No amount of pain will eliminate the pain. No amount of hatred will eliminate hatred, even hatred of sin.

What can we do? We can become aware of pain. We can admit that we are sinful, and by this, I mean we can look within ourselves and find the tension we will not let go. We can see the areas of conflict where we push against ourselves and where we strive against one another. Sin is not God’s dissatisfaction with us, but our dissatisfaction with ourselves. We must actually believe that if the gospel is to make sense. We must actually demonstrate it in our lives, if we are to help others in demonstrating it.

And here is the key – and the great challenge. I do not identify tension and conflict for the sake of resolving it. I identify it for the sake of recognition, so that I can stop ignoring and avoiding it. I recognize the forces moving within myself (and between me and you). And I live with them.

So easily we jump to fixing. Christianity is not about fixing. The problem has been solved, the price paid, the consequences dealt with. That’s the good news. We can let our troubles come to light without fear of God taking advantage of our weakness and without fear they will overwhelm us. We can live with our tensions.

Tread carefully now. I can just hear you saying, “But what good does it do? Why should we be aware of our sins? Aren’t we better off leaving them covered up?” I want to explain how the awareness can help. I am not explaining why the awareness helps. It is not awareness for the sake of fixing, but awareness for the sake of awareness. It works in this way, but this is not the purpose of it working. Once you think of awareness for the sake of judging or fixing, it ceases to be awareness and starts to be judging. It starts to be unhealthy again. We love our defense mechanisms. They stop us from noticing the tension and conflict – even when we cannot avoid the pain they cause. Since you asked – since we all want to know – I will explain how awareness can help. But remember my caution.

Just like with muscles, simply being aware of spiritual tension reminds us that we can exist in more than one state. We recall sin and practice righteousness in the same way a dancer or a martial artist practices their set routines. Ideally the body moves gracefully, without recourse to set points and postures. Ideally we flow with the current, with the music. Still, we must remind our bodies and our souls that they can occupy all these states. We must warm them up and familiarize them with their full range of motion, so that when the current comes, they can move with it.

We all hope to be carried away. We all hope to float. That, I think, comes very close to the concept of grace, to drift in the current of God’s will, to be at one with the motion of the cosmos. We tense and relax our spiritual muscles to remind us of the range of motion. We cannot achieve grace on our own; nor would we want to. We want to dance. We want to float. Who would think that tension would serve that end? Who would think that creating conflict might help? But it does.

We cannot deny sin any more than we can embrace it. Sin arises in our own conflicts. Sometimes I do what I do not want. Sometimes I want two incompatible things. This cannot be washed away or eliminated. Still, when we are aware of them, they become part of the normal process of life. We can let them go and get on with the business of being who we want to be.

Posted by: dacalu | 11 February 2015

Scientific Order

The last three millennia of Western culture have been witness to a longstanding debate about order in the cosmos and how we might come to know it. The roots of modern science reach into Medieval Christian debates about how constrained God might be in acting. Can and does God change things on a whim? Is God limited by previous decisions or, perhaps some greater power? Two famous Scholastic theologians set the stage for science as we know it today.

Aquinas and Ockham

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) argued that the universe must be rational and knowable. Further, he was convinced that revelation (found in scripture, tradition, and prayer) must uncover the same order as observation. Our God-given intellect gave us the power to perceive and understand the natural laws that govern our existence. His perspective was called intellectualism (or rationalism) because it emphasizes God’s intellect – constructing rules – and our intellect – perceiving the rules.

William of Ockham (1288-1347) also believed in our ability to understand, but thought that we did so through observing regularities in God’s behavior, not through understanding the rules God used. He thought humans created rules based on our senses and experience. He thought reasoning from sense data was both necessary (without direct access to ideas through our intellect) and desirable (because God could always do new things). His perspective was called voluntarism because it emphasizes God’s will, which is free to do anything at any time.

In the early seventeenth century, Western European philosophers began to ask if we should go about the processes of theology, philosophy, and natural philosophy (science) in a new way. This started what we call the Enlightenment and set the groundwork for modern reasoning about the world. People have been in the business of scientia (knowing, particularly reasoned knowing about the causes of things) since before the Golden Age of Greece (>500 BCE). New perspectives on how we know would shift this broad sense of knowing the to the more constrained “science” of the modern period. Debate continues to this day about what exactly those constraints are, and that debate goes all the way back to the beginning.

Descartes and Gassendi

Two famous French philosophers attempted to reset the rules of reason. Both of them rejected Aristotle’s theories of cause and substance. Both embraced the Epicurean insights of Lucretius, rejecting Aristotle’s formal substances (real things are most fundamentally matter shaped by an idea – often with an inherent activity and end) and replacing them with particles (real things are most fundamentally tiny packets of mass kicked around by external forces). This view has been called the Mechanical Philosophy because it applied Aristotle’s mechanics (the study of human constructed things that have no inherent purpose, only human attributed purposes) to the whole universe. Clearly for both philosophers, the entire cosmos was reconceived as a tool constructed by God.

[NB: the mechanical philosophy is often described as viewing the universe as a mechanism, but the word mechanism has taken on a whole new meaning in light of this shift. Thus I prefer to emphasize the ontological shift – all particles and external forces, no inherent ends. It also reflects a huge shift in epistemology away from rational deduction toward empirical induction, but that happened later, as we will see below.]

The Mechanical Philosophy lets us think of the world as much less complex than we know it to be. It uses the type of simplifying assumptions that are common to modern science (as when physicists treat an object as though all of its mass was located at one ideal point at its center – “point mass,” “center of gravity”). For good and ill, the two thinkers used different simplifying assumptions.

Rene Descartes (1596-1650) was educated by Jesuits and studied law. He pursued a brief career as a freelance military officer, but invested well and was able to live off the proceeds for the last 27 years of his life. Descartes was an intellectualist, like Aquinas. He famously focused on those things that could be known by reasoning alone, without observation (“I think therefore I am”). He achieved the mechanical simplification by moving all of the hard questions outside the physical universe. The physical universe is made up of things that take up space (res extensa). No thing exists (physically) which does not have volume. He did not believe in vacuum, but though the universe was completely filled with particles. Human and Divine intellect, he moved to the realm of mind along with all the ideas they might hold (res cogitans). Descartes used the word anima for mind or soul. Humans had an anima in the realm of mind. It mysteriously communicated with the body through the pineal gland. Human bodies were like automobiles driven by minds, while plants and animals were simply automata like windmills, driven by external forces. It was the distance between the human soul and the physical creation that allowed science to work. That space created “objective” knowledge, held by incorporeal minds.

Descartes eliminated all final causes from physics, though held that God had purposes for the universe. Forms existed and we can reason from them (e.g., matter, as matter, can neither be created nor destroyed; God, as subsistent necessity, must exist.) The idea of the universe is like a great billiards, with atoms clacking against one another purposelessly comes from Descartes. He added to this “physics” a God who had set the balls in motion (but did not intervene) and human minds with cue sticks.

Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655) was a lifelong academic and priest. Like Ockham, he was a voluntarist and insisted that the point of science was to observe the world (and God), which could not be known a priori. By refusing the intellectualist route, he avoided the need for a second realm of mind, but also had to reject certainty in knowledge. We can only achieve probable knowledge based on observed regularities in the universe. He saw this as a pragmatic middle way between the skepticism of Plato (nothing may be known through the unreliable senses) and the a priori dogmatism of the Rationalists (some things are necessarily true). Unlike Descartes, he was happy to say that natural laws applied to a subset of the universe, those things whose regularity was understood by humans. This space allowed God to continue acting in the universe. This space also allowed for actual space, void, or vacuum, that is extension without substance.

Gassendi completely rejected forms, insisting that each thing must be known on the basis of its individual properties (nominalism and voluntarism). Those properties were primarily those of mass, velocity, color, etc. The modern sense of scientific data is much closer to this than to Descartes’ version. Gassendi thought that plants and animals had souls (animae from anima), but that they were physical entities: quickly moving, thin bodies made up of particles. Human souls had an immortal component (animus) specially created by God and added at inception. Gassendi redefined final causes as God’s purposes occasionally visible in the physical world. These external final causes were in line with Aquinas’ thoughts (but only a narrow interpretation of Aristotle’s through the lens of Alexander of Aphrodisias). Unlike Aquinas, he thought our ability to discern them was quite limited.

[NB: Until recently, I associated the mechanical philosophy as strict atomic physicalism. The only things that exist are particles; no particles, no final causes. Turns out that position was rare, though it was posed by Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Englishman known for his political philosophy. Hobbes’ subject, however, was not metaphysics and so this is never developed and seems at odds with a philosophy centered on human agents.]


Descartes’ vision of science was a complete picture of perfect knowledge about the physical world, achieved by minds in another realm. The subject matter was simplified, but the methodology remained open to a priori reasoning. We can comprehend the physical universe precisely because we are not part of it. Gassendi’s vision, on the other hand, embraced only probable knowledge about a subset of the world: those things with regular, sensible properties. The subject matter remained open, but the methodology was constrained. We can make useful models of parts of the universe. Which works better for you? Is science the study of the physical world or the physical study of the world? Or something else entirely?

Posted by: dacalu | 7 February 2015

What Knowledge Is for

Last Sunday, I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the students at the University of Arizona Episcopal Campus Ministry, in Tucson, Arizona. I ended up speaking much more conversationally during sermon time, but here is a draft sermon I wrote to collect my thoughts.


Deuteronomy 18:15-20 (The Israelites fear talking to God directly and God promises Joshua as a prophet)

Psalm 111 (“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom”)

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 (The weak and the strong)

Mark 1:21-28 (“A new teaching – with authority!”)



“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
It’s clever and, I think, one of Paul’s better one liners.
Much like the opening chapters of Romans, he’s setting us up.

Rigor in purity was considered an achievement 
and a status symbol in Paul’s culture.
Look at me; I’m strong enough that I can fast for three days and still go to work.
Look at me; I follow all of the commandments in the Torah.
Look at me; I’m rich enough to spend my days praying in the Temple
	while employees tend my land.
The economist Thorstein Veblen called them invidious (or envious) comparisons –
	showing off your wealth by doing expensive, non-productive things.
The biologist Amotz Zahavi called them costly signals – 
	proof that you are committed to the community
	instead of a free loader or possible defector.
Just like a peacock is showing how fit he is by hauling around a heavy tail,
	many scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day
	demonstrated their wealth, stamina, and commitment to Israel
	through costly displays of piety.

Paul is not condemning them.
We should not equate Paul’s “puffed up” believer with Jesus’ hypocrites –
	“whitewashed tombs,” all clean and bright on the outside
	but rotting underneath.
Paul is talking about good people,
	people who follow the rules,
	but make sure to do so in a public way.
They are showing off the fact that they are spiritual athletes,
	and this can be helpful, even inspiring to others.
Our first thought would be to call them the strong ones,
	the strong believers, the professionals, the examples.
Paul calls them the weak.

Some of us, he says, don’t need to display our piety.
Some of us don’t need to follow the strict rules.
After all, the new covenant is written in our hearts.
And the law was made for us, not us for the law.
Thus the “strong” according to Paul
	are those who do not need strict rules for piety and morality.
The strong understand that God is God of all
	and sacrificing to idols doesn’t really do anything.
The statues of Baphomet and the Elder Gods proposed by today’s atheists
	are pure fiction,
So what harm would be done by setting them up?

The weak, he says would be tempted.

It’s a lovely rhetorical device.
We can, like some Anglicans in England, refuse to acknowled women clergy.
We can, like some Protestants in the US insist that real Christians 
read their Bible every day.
But, Paul says, to do so we must first admit that we are weak.
	it is not the strong in faith who need these things,
	but those who lack faith and understanding.
It is our inability to trust God
	and not God’s inability to act outside the lines of our understanding
	that limits us.
So be suspicious of anyone who tells you 
that you must live up to their strength
while still being compassionate toward those who ask,
	in their presence, to accommodate their weakness.
It makes all the difference. 
The strong are those who pursue love of God and neighbor directly,
	not waiting for the proper time and place
	defined by tradition.

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Or, to put it another way.
Knowledge is for the sake of something,
	love is that which knowledge serves.
Knowledge is worthwhile to the exact extent
	that it empowers us to love.

That, I think, is what Mark’s Gospel is going for
	in the introduction.
Today’s passage comes from the rather unsettling first chapter.
This is a story about Jesus –	
who was God, but told everybody to shut up about it.
Take a close look at the first chapter.  
John the Baptist shows up.
John Baptizes Jesus and then Jesus goes wandering in the desert.
Jesus calls disciples.
Twice Jesus casts out demons before they can tell people about him,
	before they can tell people who he is.
Once Jesus cures a man and tells him not to tell anyone who did it.
And once, Jesus seems to be avoiding the people
	who know about him already,
	so he can go spend time with other people,
	or just be by himself.
All in the first chapter of Mark.
This is not a great start for a book proclaiming the Good News 
to be shouted from the mountain tops…
At least not if the good news is primarily
	a statement that Jesus is the Son of God.

I’m not entirely sure what it is about,
	but I think it has something to do with how Jesus interacts with others
	rather than just who he is alone.
Yes he is the Son of God, Messiah, King of Kings,
	but he is also God with us.
He is a healer and a teacher and a comforter.
The miracle is not that the Son of God exists,
	but that the Son of God chose to live among us.
It is the concrete practice of love
	we were meant to pass on,
	not an abstract set of teachings about Jesus identity.

So, once again, the gospel is less about visibility and labeling
	and more about the hard work of living together and loving one another.
Knowledge that generates curiosity, concern, and compassion
	builds us up.
Other knowledge only puffs us up.
	It convinces us we are in control even when we are not.

Few people are more ardent than I
	in defending learning and truth,
	but I defend them for the sake of a deeper understading.
My challenge for you this time around is to ask
	where you are going.
What goals do you have?
What service do you aspire to?
What place do you have in God bringing about the kingdom of heaven
	here on earth?
The university is a place to learn things.
How many of the things you “know” contribute to your goals?
What do you want and need to know to get where you’re going?

Authority for me is all about this coming together,
	this congruence of action and trust,
of knowledge about and love for.
It is not power for the sake of power,
	discipline for the sake of discipline,
	nor information for the sake of information.
It is wisdom for the sake of charity.
Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2015

The Trinity – The Long Answer

In the last post, I gave a short explanation of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity. In this post, I look in more detail at some of the theologically tricky bits.

Three Equals One?

This is one of the great “mysteries of the faith “, aspects of our relationship with God that defy strictly rational explanation. This is not to say that the doctrine is irrational. It’s just the best we can do with a cosmos too big to fit into our frame of reference. We use probability and probabilistic interpretations of reality regularly, despite being at a loss for what exactly they mean – and despite their being alien to bivalence (the idea that something must be true or false). Sometimes our minds are too small and we allow ourselves mind-stretching metaphors. Sometimes the cosmos is just weird. Sometimes theologians, like scientists, need to use counterintuitive and paradoxical ways of looking at the world to capture things we understand, sort-of, when full understanding is unavailable.

Inspiration and Reason

I make it sound as though Christians came up with a model to explain things. Don’t Christians believe that the doctrine of the Trinity was handed them by God, either in the Bible or through the Disciples? Many do believe this way. Others see the doctrine of the Trinity solely as a human invention. I fall somewhere in between. God has given us evidence that this is the best way to look at things – in passages from scripture and revelations to believers – but has also given us tools for assembling the evidence – through independent and communal reasoning. I have tried to write in a way that would be consistent with the whole range of perspectives, from passive recipients of Divine wisdom to inspired agents in the creation of doctrine.

GOD and Gods

I have spoken elsewhere about the two ideas of God: the philosophical God and the personal God. I would like to say a little more, because it’s particularly important in the case of the Trinity.

By GOD, I mean an idea developed by Plato, Aristotle, and the neoplatonists, often translated as God, the One, or the Good. GOD is that on which the cosmos rests. When I think the foundation of a book, I might either say the paper on which the marks appear or the mind of the author. The first is called materialism, the second idealism. Note, however, that no-one says the foundation of the book is nothingness. For some strange reason, modern thinkers seem committed to the idea that the universe is fundamentally a void in which stuff can be placed. This notion of space, called extension in the Enlightenment, seems to be relatively rare historically and should not be called materialism. It forces us to ask “what is space?” I find this no less troubling than “what is God?” though I admit both are a bit wonky rationally. Christians have called God that which must by necessity exist (Aquinas), that which nothing greater exists (Anselm) and the ground of being (Tillich). These are ways of saying we assemble our model of the world from God on up to human experience. GOD need not have a personality. Indeed, many theologians from Plotinus to Spinoza to Cobb have seen God more as a cosmic force than a personality. I go back and forth between thinking this is one useful way of seeing the Father or the Spirit in the Trinity and seeing it as an attempt to deny that we have personal relationships with Father, Son, or Holy Spirit.

On the other hand, a god is a being of immense power, usually associated with a personality and preferences. Plato and Buddha have both noted that the existence of multiple gods makes them a poor choice when trying to orient yourself morally. Even if we don’t view them as capricious, the existence of many gods means that they can disagree. Christians have been unwilling to consider the possibility of a split in the Trinity. We want (see) a God whose preference and will are always univocal. It wouldn’t work to have three gods in place of one God, because it would open the possibility of disagreements. We never want to find ourselves in the position of saying that the Father commands obedience while the Spirit urges change. It would work neither practically or philosophically.

Christians want (see) all three persons to be GOD and not just gods.

Why YHWH Must Be GOD

The first person of the Trinity – the Father – is identified with the creator of the world. A branch of Christian gnostics attempted to separate GOD from the creator, but their perspective never caught on. Christians are invested in the idea that the entirety of the cosmos is worthy of our curiosity, love, and care. In our Trinitarian thinking, we have also been clear in stating that the Spirit (Genesis 1:2) and Jesus (John 1:3) were involved in creation.

Christians are also committed to the idea (as was Jesus) that we are not talking about a new GOD or even a new god. The God we worship is the same as a the God of Israel, the god worshipped by Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Why Jesus Must Be GOD

At the heart of the Christian message is an idea that GOD became incarnate, that that power which underlies and transcends all reality took on human form and became subject to human will. The meaning of the passion (suffering) and crucifixion of Jesus Christ is intimately tied up with our understanding of him as not only representative, but as the ruler of all. The universe is not blind to our suffering, but suffers with us. The alienation we feel can and has been bridged by true meaning coming to us when we were incapable of reaching out to it.

Why the Holy Spirit Must Be GOD

Christians are also committed to the troublesome, infuriating, and embarrassing idea that God is present in concrete fallible communities of human beings. We think that God continues to live with us as we live – again, not as a representative of heaven or as a perfect overlord, but as a frail human amongst other frail humans. Christianity is not an explanation of the universe (though it has some elements of that) but a response to the world we find ourselves in. Perhaps the most glorious thing about Christianity for the first believers and for us today is this community of faith, hope, and love, this miraculous life we find in our common struggles and squabbling. To state that this messy process is identical to the ground of reality and value is both profound and practical. We will not escape to blessedness, but must find it here amongst the humans.

Against Modalism

Theologians have argued against Modalism, the view that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are modes or operations of one person, instead of three persons. It’s tempting to say that there is just one god (and GOD) whom we see acting in three modes. The problem with this is that it encourages us to see one or another of the modes as a less complete manifestation of God’s personality or underlying reality. It’s often used to prioritize the Father in a way that denies the fullness of Divinity experienced by those who interact primarily with the Son or the Spirit. This can lead us to overemphasize our obedience and underemphasize our friendship and participation. Of course those three nouns are themselves an oversimplification, but you get the point.

Because I object to Modalism, I also shy away from referring to God as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” I do indeed think God does all those things and does each in each of the three persons, so I don’t think the formulation is incorrect. I just think it does very different work than “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” The traditional Trinitarian formulation names three concrete people in our common stories and in our personal experience. They are names (nicknames, not proper names) for people, whose reality goes beyond their particular roles. The fullness of God rests in Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – at least the fullness of God revealed to the Church. It does not dwell in God’s function as Creator, Redeemer, or Sanctifier of the world – or even in the combination of the three. God is a person and not just an action.

Posted by: dacalu | 6 February 2015

The Trinity

Several people have asked for my thoughts on the Christian idea of the Trinity and it appears they have never made it into blog form, so here goes.

The Short Answer

Two millennia ago, a bunch of people were standing around trying to make sense of the world in light of the life, death, and apparent resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. I say apparent not to call it into doubt, but to say it was something strange that they were trying to account for and needed a new way of thinking to do so. They discovered that they were more than just a bunch of people thinking. Rather, they were a community, bound together by common faith, hope, and love. Their lives were intimately associated with their beliefs, their practices, and their relationships, so individual answers would not be enough; they needed a common understanding.

Many of them, perhaps the majority, said that Jesus must be God – not just >a< god or even >the< god, but GOD in the sense of the philosophers. They saw Jesus as that which was more fundamentally real than anything else, that on which the universe was built. At the very least, he was that on which their common life was built. Jesus was a real person and not an abstraction. Many had seen, heard, and touched him. The best way to keep their priorities straight was to stay focused on the man, Jesus. They would tell his story, follow his example, and try to do as he had asked.

A second group noted that Jesus was Jewish and prayed to someone else, whom Jesus called Father. They identified the Father with the God of Israel, whose proper name is YHWH (usually not pronounced in common conversation out of respect). This god, they said had created all things and Jesus deferred to him, so he should be viewed as GOD. Worship (the attribution of worth) should be directed at the Father.

A third group, said no. For them the spirit (life, wisdom, value) of Jesus had been imparted to the community or Church. This Holy Spirit was neither fixed in history like Jesus nor universally transcendent like the Father. This Holy Spirit, they said was with them and continued to inspire and lead them. Community seemeed hard, perhaps impossible without this spirit among them. Such a Spirit continues to grow and change with the people, whom they saw very literally as the continuing body of Christ (one title for Jesus). This Spirit was the locus of true religion. This Spirit was GOD.

As they assembled common scriptures, rituals, and rules of life, people from all three points of view came to accept one another as a single community. They came to respect all three perspectives as accurately reflecting reality and real value in the cosmos. They came to see Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons – three ways of relating to the same GOD. More than that, they agreed that a full relationship could be had with GOD in each or in all.

To this day, Christians still fall into (at least) these three camps. I’ve asked people at churches where I’ve spoken, “which person of the Trinity do you interact with primarily (worship, meditate on, talk to…)?” I was surprised to get about 1/3 vote for each. (I thought it would be more lopsided.) We continue as one community with one GOD, approached in three ways.

In the next post, I’ll dive into some the theological challenges to this point of view.

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