Posted by: dacalu | 4 February 2015

Aristotle’s Vegetable Souls

This is the next installment in the long delayed series on the history of souls. The series began with a blog on the different uses of the concept through the ages. In the last few posts, I talked about Aristotle’s causes, substances, and thoughts on life.

For Aristotle, the soul was a special kind of scientific explanation. He wanted to reduce all motion in the world a set of first principles. Some authors prefer to think of them in very abstract philosophical or religious terms. I prefer to treat them as the basic rules by which we describe the way the world works, much like gravity and magnetism in modern science.

Aristotle speaks of four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. He presents them as concentric spheres, surrounded by an unchanging aether (the “fifth element”). In our realm below the moon the four elements seek their natural places; earth always sinks; fire always rises; water and air settle in between. This need not be mysterious as it matches well with modern concepts of density dependent sorting. Think of a pond with silt settling to the bottom and air bubbles rising to the top. Fire, in turn explained the movement of smoke upward through the air. Aristotle thought that one element could transform into another and that abiotic movement – what we think of as physics – was caused by the cycling of the four elements. A bit of earth would sink until it reached the sphere of earth or was transformed into water or air.

Some things just weren’t captured in this scheme. Volcanoes are easy – fire goes up. Living things were hard. Aristotle needed some further explanation for them, particularly the apparently goal directed processes of nutrition, reproduction, motion, sensation, and reason. For these, he suggests the three-fold cause or “soul.”

The Three-fold Cause

Aristotle introduces the idea that sometimes the formal cause (what a thing is, essentially), the efficient cause (what brings it about), and the final cause (where it’s going) are all the same thing. The simplest case is reproduction. What is a living thing but something that reproduces, is a copy of a parent, and works toward the end of making offspring. That comes suspiciously close to modern definitions of life based on evolution by natural selection. Reproduction is the defining feature, the cause, and the effect of life.

Aristotle thought in slightly different terms. For him the simplest case was nutrition. Remember that he saw everything as a combination of form and matter. A living thing was a form that was actively imposing itself on more matter. A living thing eats and the stuff it eats loses its original form (cookie) and takes on a new form (Sharon), despite never changing it’s matter (carbohydrates and fats). Every time you eat something, you are engaged in this process of incarnation, imposing form on matter.

The soul was not some supernatural entity that magically gave living things the power of nutrition. (Sadly it was read that way in the Renaissance.) It was the active process (energeion – in action) and achieved goal (entelecheia – in completion) of perpetuating a pattern in tangible stuff. The “vegetable soul” for Aristotle was the same thing as nutrition in action.

Posted by: dacalu | 21 January 2015

Arizona Schedule 24 Jan-2 Feb 2014

Dear Friends, I’ll be in Arizona at the end of January and am giving a number of talks.  I’ve posted all the details here for convenience. Scroll down for Phoenix.


Monday 26 January: Noon, LPL 309 (UA)

Overlapping Definitions of Life” UA Origins Seminar

Over the past 10 years, it has become unpopular to talk about definitions of life, under the assumption that attempts at a precise definition are counterproductive.  Recent attempts have failed to meet strict philosophical criteria for definitions and have failed to reach consensus. Overlapping and provisional definitions, when clearly articulated, can be a useful tool in astrobiology and origin of life studies. Four possibilities will be presented for discussion. Darwin Life exhibits evolution by natural selection; Woese Life possesses small subunit RNA (that can be placed on a common tree); Haldane Life exhibits metabolism and maintenance; Aristotle Life is capable of repurposing matter to serve organismal functions.

Tuesday 27 January: 3:30pm, Life Sciences South 340 (UA)

“Defending Definitions of Life in Biology”

On Monday evening Jan 26, Guy Consolmagno will be giving a public College of Science talk on the question “What is life?”, kicking off the Life In The Universe series.  Are definitions of life useful for biologists?  In what ways can they help or hinder research into novel forms of life?  On Tuesday, Lucas Mix, astrobiologist and specialist in biological philosophy, will briefly summarize his proposal for provisional definitions, why they are necessary for clear communication and good science.  Darwin Life exhibits evolution by natural selection; Woese Life possesses small subunit RNA (that can be placed on a common tree); Haldane Life exhibits metabolism and maintenance. We will then open up discussion on the practical use of such definitions – strengths and weaknesses – in science.  Lucas and Guy will both be present to answer questions.

Thursday 29 January: 6:15pm, Bear Down Weight Room (UA)


Brewster’s Hapkido class is starting up again.  If you’re interested in martial arts, come see what it’s all about.  First time students are encouraged to come on Tuesday.  I’ll be teaching “balance taking” on Wednesday and hope to see some friends from Aikido as well.

Sunday 1 February: 10:00am, St. Philips Episcopal Church

4440 North Campbell Avenue, Tucson, AZ 85718

“The God of Ebola? Faith, Science, and Sickness”

God calls us to care for the world and yet the world can be alien and frightening. Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix will speak about the importance of science, faith, and will as we approach Ebola and other scary parts of the natural world.  His remarks will open a discussion on how we integrate knowledge from science and Christianity and apply it to service in the world.

Sunday 1 February: 6:00pm, Campus Christian Center (UA)

If you’re not watching the Superbowl, come join us for the UA Episcopal Campus Ministry weekly worship and fellowship.


Wednesday 28 January: Trinity Cathedral

Dinner at 6:00pm, Presentation and Discussion starts at 6:30pm

The God of Ebola? Faith, Science, and Sickness

God calls us to care for the world and yet the world can be alien and frightening. Rev. Dr. Lucas Mix will speak about the importance of science, faith, and will as we approach Ebola and other scary parts of the natural world.  His remarks will open a discussion on how we integrate knowledge from science and Christianity and apply it to service in the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 29 December 2014

Christmas Poem


Lucas Mix [12/28/14]


Let all mortal flesh keep silent

Waiting for his cry.

Let the world with bated breath

hear his drawing nigh.


Let the snowfall cover sin

Shrouding war with white.

Let the wisest still their tongues

On this silent night.


Let the past be for a time

Lost in newfound grace.

Let the future wait a spell

For its time and place.


Let the clocklike heavens

Mark the passing hour.

Let the countless ages run

Under their own power.


Let your heartbeat keep the time.

Forget why and how.

Still your thoughts, let go your fears,

And idle in the now.


Let the starlight guide you home.

Let the word be true.

Let the baby nap a while,

In a world made new.


Let the Lord of broadness gather,

Far off nations seek.

Peace, be still, and listen close

for lo, the Lord may speak.


For one word fills the heavens,

And one word made the earth,

And one word dwells among us,

Spoken in that birth.


In you the Lord finds favor;

Ponder it anew.

For the God who waits in silence

Is a God who listens, too.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 December 2014

5 Tips for Keeping Good News Good

Merry Christmas. At this time of year, Christians celebrate the good news of Emmanuel, literally “God with us.” We remember that Jesus Christ, light from light, God from God, very God from very God came to live and die as one of us. We remember a time when God was so vulnerable that our petty vanities put him to death. And we remember he rose again and returned to us. The kingdom of God has come near in this child of Mary.

As we celebrate the birth (“nativity”) and revelation (“epiphany”) of Jesus Christ, I’d like to share 5 tips for evangelism: how to keep the Good News good.

  1. Good news is not bad news.

Christians believe that Jesus’ life and death solved very real problems in the world, but no one needs to evangelize for those problems. People know that life is difficult, humans are fallible, and that selfishness and foolishness abound. If your concept of Jesus helps you with a particular problem – perhaps original sin or total depravity – share that, but don’t project your problems onto others. If they feel the same challenges, they will be moved that you’ve found a way out. If they don’t, no amount of talking will convince them. People have enough problems of their own and Jesus is, I think, a sufficiently broad remedy. Share the solution.

  1. Good news is a gift.

When I tell people about my relationship with God, I do exactly that. I share with them something wonderful in my life, something important to me. They can take it or leave it. We are tempted to present the good news as a contract (If you do X, God will do Y) or an ultimatum (unless you do X, God will do Y). There is no gift in that and people are right to be suspicious until they read the fine print. It’s enough to offer your own perspective and get out of the way. God is surprisingly good at making relationships.

  1. Give because you love the recipient.

The best gifts take personality into account. It’s worth knowing people’s hopes and fears before attempting to give them a gift. The good news cannot be spread through a mass-mailed flyer. It has to do with real people taking real care of one another. In this case, no gift at all is better than a gift given grudgingly or belligerently. God gave godself to the world in Christ Jesus and we must be as free with ourselves. The joyful and compassionate sharing shapes the message as much as the words we say. People will receive whatever we offer, so if we offer judgment, fear, or hate, that is exactly what they will receive or reject. Only when we offer love can they receive love.

  1. Add to. Don’t take from.

Have you ever looked at someone and wished you could shake the stupid out? You wish there were something you could remove that would make them a better person. It doesn’t work that way. Whether it is fear or self-righteousness, ignorance or pride, you cannot remove things from people. Time insures that we always move forward. New beliefs get layered on top of old. We know this in teaching, but forget it sometimes in evangelism. The good news is something that helps people move forward from where they are. Turning around (repentance, metanoia) is something they must do for themselves. It comes from recognizing they are not where they want to be – and never from knowing you disapprove. The good news should be something added to their lives and never something taken away.

  1. Listen.

God is sneaky and manages to arrive everywhere before we arrive. That means I never speak the good news without also listening for it. Everyone you meet will have something interesting to say, some wisdom to share, some love worth learning. One of my favorite Christmas hymns is It came upon the midnight clear, with words by Edmund Hamilton Shears. The last verse sums up my feelings well.

For lo!, the days are hastening on,

By prophet bards foretold,

When with the ever-circling years

Comes round the age of gold

When peace shall over all the earth

Its ancient splendors fling,

And the whole world give back the song

Which now the angels sing.

We strain to hear it and we work to hear it, even as we sing our own part. We will only know that word has spread to all when we can all sing together, each in our own voice.

Whether you are an ardent believer, a seeker, or a skeptic, I wish you light and life this season. I hope you find thoughtful reflection, honest communication, and love for one another. Those are the greatest gifts I know. For me, that is the good news of Jesus Christ – God loved us so that we might love one another.

Posted by: dacalu | 15 December 2014

God Be with You

It’s funny how you can hear the same thing over and over again and not really understand it’s meaning until it hits you in just the right way.  This evening, I was listening to the wonderful service of carols in Memorial Church at Harvard and received the word in a new way.

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favoured one! The Lord is with you.’” (Luke 1:26-8)

I’m not a good enough scholar of Greek to explain the original, but I can speak to the Latin: Dominus tecum benedicta, “The Lord is with you, blessed one.” It is this phrase, Dominus tecum, that will be appropriated for the opening of many Latin rites and (eventually) nearly all the Anglican services. I’ve preached on it any number of times, but I never made the connection to the annunciation. “The Lord be with you” is both an invocation (May God be with you) and a recognition (God is with you). The ambiguity is clear in the Latin and the older English. [If you have any doubts, take a closer look at Shakespeare’s 116th sonnet.  “If this be error and upon me proved.”]

Christians recognize God in one another, and I’ve always seen that as a wonderful theological and liturgical statement, but I’ve never understood it viscerally. Gabriel stands before Mary and says Dominus tecum benedicta and he means, literally that the Lord is within her. This is Emmanuel, God with us – not abstractly in word or concept or thought, not even in spirit (though in Spirit). This is God with us in the flesh.

The phrase “God be with you” does more than orient us to the divine image, present in all humans. It recalls that very specific time when the word was made flesh and dwelt among us. It testifies to God’s presence in the world and in the church – in us. We are blessed in this presence and in this recognition. We play the role of angel and of theotokos (“God bearer” a traditional Orthodox title for Mary) every time we say the words to one another. We remember and reenact that holy moment.

As we prepare for Christmas, give some thought to how you greet people. Say “Merry Christmas” but say also “The Lord be with you.” And mean it.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 December 2014

Don’t Wait for Sex – Prepare for It

I’ve been reading up on sexuality in college. In March, I will be teaching an online course on sex and relationship counseling for college chaplains, and covering similar ground to my blog series on Anglican sexual morality. This week one thing stood out in particular. Church leaders send this message to young adults all the time: “Wait to have sex.” Wait until marriage. Or, if you’re of a more liberal bent, wait until you’re in a committed relationship.

This is the wrong message.

The idea is good. I believe that marriage is the best context for marriage, but I’ve realized it creates a ridiculous dichotomy. Sex is something you have within marriage and until then you…wait for it…”wait.” It’s as though the concept of chastity (sexual morality) were completely different in the two realms. Surprisingly little advice is given for how we are to navigate singleness other than a list of don’ts. Surprisingly little advice is given for developing a healthy sexual relationship within marriage as well and newlyweds who have waited can find the process unenjoyable and unfulfilling.

The most popular alternative, at least among college students, seems to be blind trial and error. (Okay, high school students as well, but let me keep a little of my idealism.) Find someone and try it out. They too report being dissatisfied with their early experiences of sex. Most of us are still figuring out what it means to have friends well into the early twenties. Our social networks are largely imposed by family, school and church in childhood. Not until we live on our own do we truly appreciate the work of forming new relationships. And, when friendships are difficult and confusing, romances are even more so.

Let me propose an alternative way of looking at it.

Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.

Figure out what it might mean to you first before figuring out what it does mean. We have little respect for people who decide to pick up hiking by simply wandering off into the woods. Sex is one of the few areas where we leave people to their own devices, largely because we’re scared to talk about it. With that in mind, let me suggest a few ways someone might prepare for sex.

Spend some time with your body. Get to know the way you operate, and not just in the crude and simple ways. We often go into sex expecting a partner to know more about our anatomy than we do. Be practical. Give some thought to how you feel based on diet and exercise. Many have naïve assumptions about how alcohol affects their emotions and no assumptions about how it affects their body, and yet they assume alcohol will make sex easier or better. If you want to experiment, be a good scientist and work with one variable at a time.

Spend some time with your desires. It’s easy to be unaware of what you really want. Religious culture teaches us to suppress sexual thoughts and feelings and secular culture sets up unrealistic, competitive, and highly unrealistic standards for sex and relationships. I recommend meditation and prayer on this – really. Take a hard look at what you think you want and what you might really want. You probably won’t know until you try a few things, but you can rule out some options. Sex, for instance, is not a good time to figure out how you feel about boys vs. girls. Find people you trust to talk to. If you’re lucky, go to close friends and mentors with experience in sex and relationships. Don’t assume on the basis of scripture or culture that God feels a certain way. Talk to God about it.

Start slow, shallow, and diverse. One of my students said her father wouldn’t let her have a boyfriend until she’d been on dates with at least 20 different boys. I found that a little too formal, but I think the idea is sound. It can be easy to jump at the first hint of romance and attempt to make it everything, but that romance – and others – are better served by taking the time to think about what you like and dislike about a relationship. I think it’s sad that American culture has lost most of its dating rituals. There were times when activities – a dance, a long conversation, a shared meal, a walk – were decoded for us by the culture. Now there are very few fixed markers. It’s worth taking the time to experience a variety of relationships before starting physical intimacy and it’s worth getting to know one another’s hopes, fears, and expectations. I think the friendships discovered and traumas avoided are well worth the time.

Enjoy yourself. Make sure activities are fun and informative for everyone involved. It amazes me how many people seem to miss this principle when planning dates. (You knew I was talking about dates, right? … Really? … Yes, it applies to other things as well.)

Build gradually. Make life and love a learning experience. Figure out what that means to you. Maybe you should keep a journal or talk regularly with friends. Think about where you are and where you are going. As with all forms of learning you start out misinformed and clueless. That’s okay, as long as you don’t start at a gallop. Take it one step at a time and find ways toward your goals.

Integrate your life. Sex and relationships are not independent of the rest of your life – though they do need a certain amount of room to grow. It matters how your sex life affects your prayer life and your friendships and your work and your family. It will matter in marriage and it matters now. Pay attention to how these things overlap and interrelate.

In short, chastity really is the same throughout life. It means caring about people and how you relate to them sexually, romantically, and emotionally. It means paying attention to how your actions shape your character and the world around you. It has to do with whether you understand and love better after than before. For many, this will mean sex is harder than they thought; it takes preparatory work, practice, and analysis, just like everything else in life. It also means sex and romance are manageable. There really are rules for what works and what doesn’t, how relationships form and develop. So let me say it one more time.

Don’t wait for sex; prepare for it.

If you really want quidelines for when to start having sex, l say more about that here (when and with whom) and here (sex before marriage?).

Posted by: dacalu | 17 November 2014

Bite Size Jesus: The Old Testament

Christians remember a long history of communication between the world and its Author. Through angels and prophets we worked to repair the alienation between the two. The Old Testament (book) provides perspectives on the long relationship between the Author and a particular people, Israel. Angels visited the prophet Abraham and he made an agreement with the Author on behalf of his family sometime around 2000 BC. His descendants go by the name of his grandson Jacob, called Israel (“wrestles with God”).

The people of Israel updated their agreement through the prophet Moses in the fourteenth century BC. The “Mosaic covenant”, which Christians also call the Old Testament (covenant), said that the Author would be the God of Israel, abiding with them and protecting them. Israel agreed to keep the 613 commandments given to Moses at Sinai, the first 10 of which are recorded in Exodus 34. They include rules for behavior, cleanliness, food, clothing, and regular animal sacrifices. Originally the sacrifices were performed at a moveable tent (tabernacle) but eventually they settled at a permanent building called the Temple in Jerusalem.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 November 2014

Psalm 1

By the waters, by the still waters, by the still smooth waters of the river,

I am reflected.

By the Tigris and Euphrates,

we wept for lost Israel,

the people we thought we were,

but were no longer.

Under the Mediterranean,

we learned to stomach prophecy,

to speak the words burnt into our lips.

The sea was not enough to force the breath from our lungs.

On Gennesaret,

We gazed upon true power,

and feared its gaze upon us.

Who is man that thou art mindful of him?

Now, by Jordan we see ourselves,

walking through the waters,

passing through our own reflections

to the one who sees us clearly.

Peace! Be still.

You and are fearfully and wonderfully made,

so that you might be a mirror

for light that shines in the darkness.

By the waters, by the still waters, by the still smooth waters of the river,

I am reflected

In God’s eyes.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 November 2014

Bite Size Jesus: Prophets

The Author of the world wants to communicate with us, but that process proves difficult. Contact with life beyond the pages of our story always unsettles us. Thus, angels usually being their messages by saying, “fear not.” Thus, the Author has chosen a few individuals to bear the brunt of Divine communication, to talk to God and humans. We call these people prophets and generally think of them having extremely difficult lives. Sanity is hard when your mind tries to live in two worlds. Life is hard when you see things others do not. Still, they help us orient ourselves to the Author and the story-arc of the world.

We seldom recognize prophets because their primary purpose is to tell us things we don’t want to hear – truths about the world we have failed to see or accept. Usually we only know them in retrospect. The most famous prophets brokered agreements between the Author and humans that try to bring us back into harmony: Noah, Abraham, and Moses. We remember them for providing key insights into the way the world works.

[Many books of the Hebrew Scriptures (aka Old Testament or Tanakh) are titled for the prophets they describe or by whom they were composed. The “Major Prophets” speak at length and to broad topics. They are Isaiah, Jeremiah, (the author of) Lamentations, Ezekiel, and Daniel. The “Minor Prophets” deal more concretely with specific instances or times. They are Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. Moses’ contribution extends to all of the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy).]

Posted by: dacalu | 28 October 2014

Rhyme, Reason, and the Laws of Nature

Does God break the laws of nature?

If yes, can we detect these interventions and, thus, prove the existence of God?

If no, how can we say God cares for us as individuals?

I am beginning to think that both questions miss the forest for the trees.

Several authors have suggested that God acts at the quantum level.  The idea has never appealed to me because I viewed it in a particular way.

1) I saw it as an appeal to something we don’t understand well – quantum indeterminacy – to explain something else we don’t understand well.

2) I saw it as an appeal to ignorance; because we can’t predict what will happen at the quantum scale, God may be acting there invisibly.

3) I saw it as an “interventionist” approach to chance and miracles.  Step 1: God set up a universe with probabilistic laws. Step 2: At times, God intervenes with a hand on the roulette wheel, stopping the ball in a particular slot.  The rest of the time probability applies.

Today, for the first time, I thought of another option. We tend to emphasize the irregularities of chance, the unpredictability, but that’s only one side of the coin. Chance only gets interesting when it is somewhat regular. Think of our conviction that all six sides of a fair die are equally likely to end up face up.  Probability has to do with things that are regular and predictable, but only when you consider them in batches.  I really don’t know which number will come up when I roll the die, but I’m confident that if I roll it 6000 times, each number will appear about about 1000 times.  That is a regularity.

It offends against my scientific and statistical sensibilities to say that God first creates the distribution and second removes one event from it.  This is intervention and it goes against the regularity of the system.

There is another way.

What if God, existing outside of time, plans things at multiple levels? What if God orders the distribution of events while selecting, them, so that every event is chosen and the collection of events forms a regular pattern? Consider couplets in poetry. Most poets do not begin with pairs of rhymed words and then build verses around them. Instead they start with a theme and search for words that rhyme. So, step 1 has God providentially choosing an event and step 2 has God pairing the events up so that they have statistical regularity.

Personally, I think of God outside time, so neither step actually comes before the other, but seeing them in this order removes the conflict for me. It makes sense that God would harmonize the universe.  True, you cannot prove that God exists based on some inconsistency with the larger pattern – but I’m not sure I like what that opposition says about God anyway.  True, you cannot use the success of the righteous to prove either Providence or righteousness – but again, I’ve never noticed that the righteous are more successful.  That would be a strange sort of Christianity, where self-sacrifice, was always enlightened self-interest.

So, I’m okay with God acting at the quantum level, as long we think of God acting at every other level as well.  And, I’m okay with God acting (providentially) with care for individuals AND acting (as sovereign) to set the laws of nature, so long as we are careful to note that these are not different types of action. God rhymes while composing, a trait I associate with the better poets.

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