Posted by: dacalu | 3 October 2016

One with Creation

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



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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: dacalu | 18 September 2016

Visiting the South

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


Public Talk on Astrobiology and the Meanings of Life

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

3098 St Annes Ln NW, Atlanta, GA 30327


Academic Talks on the the Various Definitions of Life

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

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

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

Posted by: dacalu | 5 September 2016

Is Labor Holy?

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



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



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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Posted by: dacalu | 26 June 2016

Christian Change

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



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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Posted by: dacalu | 25 June 2016

Making Choices

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by: dacalu | 9 June 2016

The Call

In 1996, Gerald Soffen received a phone call from NASA Headquarters. Researchers at the Johnson Space Flight Center were reporting evidence of alien life in a Martian meteorite. The discovery was about to go public, the president was going to make a statement, what should he know. Soffen, who had been project scientist for the Viking mission – Martian landers from 20 years before – was the world expert on the search for alien life. What did he think? Was the science solid? There was little time and they needed an expert opinion.

The Allen Hills Meteorite (ALH84001) contains interesting carbon formations that look like microfossils. Seeing the research report, Soffen said yes, this looks like evidence for life, but not proof of life. More work needed to be done. NASA would be accused of hiding the truth if they didn’t say something right away, but the meteorite was promising. On August 7, 1996 President Bill Clinton made a public statement about the meteorite, the possibility that it harbored fossils, and the path of future research.

I was an undergraduate working for Gerald Soffen that summer. To this day, I consider myself both lucky and blessed to have been there. In the coming weeks and years, the scientific community investigated. We found that we were not convinced. Still, the arguments and the evidence spurred the development of astrobiology, a new way of looking at the search for life beyond Earth. Astrobiology integrates of many natural sciences and engineering. The Martian meteorite, along with discoveries of extrasolar planets and extreme organisms, led to a new scientific endeavor. Soffen convinced me to be part of the project. Though it would not be completed in his lifetime, or even mine, it was something important. We should think critically, search thoughtfully, and create an integrated picture of life in the universe.

Twenty years later I dread – and devoutly hope – that I, too, will receive a phone call. “We’ve seen something wriggling on Europa. We need to tell the world. What should we say?” These days I’m one of the experts, not only in astrobiology as a science, but something we call “astrobiology and society.” Life is a tricky concept and it means different things to different people. How can NASA as a public institution respect the beliefs of citizens, while being thoughtful about the science? When the public funds the search for life, what are they asking us to do? And how will they respond to what we find?

In recent years, the NASA Astrobiology Institute has funded several astrobiology and society programs, including a chair at the Library of Congress and a program at the Center of Theological Inquiry in Princeton. These programs do not conflate religion and science. They do give us a chance to think critically about the questions. What makes life interesting? How can we search for life, study life on Earth, and communicate the results in a way that will satisfy the deep curiosity of the general public?

Thinking ahead, we may also have to answer some very difficult questions. If we do encounter life, will we have an ethical obligation to turn off the spacecraft? We don’t want to inadvertently harm something on Europa. That type of question rests solidly on what we, as a society, think about the value of life both on Earth and beyond. I’m proud to be one of the people laying the ground work so that when the time comes, we will be ready. I’m proud of my role in getting the best science to scholars of the humanities and the best of the humanities to scientists. The call may come tomorrow, or in a hundred years, but I think we will be ready.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 June 2016

To Be Human

I was having a discussion yesterday with colleagues at CTI about human distinctiveness – how we differentiate ourselves from other animals. Largely this has to do with privilege – treating ourselves as better or more free – and duty – asking more of ourselves. The issue arises again and again in science and religion discussions. This time it had to do with astrobiology and theology. How does our scientific investigation of the origin, extent, and future of life impact our view of ourselves and our place in the cosmos?

I keep returning to one issue. Most of us think humans are, in some way unique, but what do we mean by “human”? At first the question sounds pedantic and obnoxious. We all know what human is, don’t we? Yes, and no. I want to suggest that we have different distinct ideas about “human” and, though we each know what we mean, we don’t all know what others mean. This will come up in discussions of human dignity, the beginning of human life, and human rights. At stake in all of these will be how you draw the boundaries of humanity. We must take care with words because this discussion centers on what those words mean. In order to ask about human uniqueness, we must understand the way we speak.

Let me start by saying that “human” is both an adjective and a noun. The adjective human refers either to a scientific concept – things related to the species Homo sapiens – or to a related common sense concept – things related to us. I can speak of human tissue, human habitations, human culture. We might quibble, but I think I can use the adjective quite clearly and know that we are communicating.

The noun is more problematic. Historically, it comes from the adjective and it refers to something more specific: a human being. We might say it is a human person, a human individual, or just “a human.” That added word does all the heavy lifting. To take the most political example, no one doubts that a human fetus is human (adj.). No one claims that an alien has found its way into a mother. The real debate has to do with whether it is a human being. Thus the beginning of human life generally must be distinguished from the beginning of >a< human life. The first occurred ages ago. As a society, we debate whether the latter occurs at conception, at birth, or somewhere in between.

Human rights, likewise, do not apply to all things incidentally human. Human hair deserves no unique dignity or privileges. Human beings do.

Too often, people worry that scientific discoveries about humans will weaken our concepts of human dignity. They are mistaken. The science tells us things about human flesh and blood, about human history and human relationships. Human dignity does not suffer when we know about these things. It suffers when we reduce human beings to flesh and blood, history and conditioning. That latter step, that reduction to the physical and phenomenal, has not been produced by science. It was produced by confidence that physical science is sufficient to explain the world.

To my mind, our uniqueness does not come from our flesh. It comes from our freedom, our reason, and our relationships. What we know about the species Homo sapiens and about our flesh is fascinating. It tells us we are related to other animals and to all life on Earth. How could that not be wonderful and empowering. The hard work of rights and dignities does not spring from this flesh – or from this flesh alone. In Christianity (and many other faiths) it comes from something else, something we have always understood poorly and which we hesitantly call the soul.

Any real dialogue about human dignity and human rights, any real dialogue about the uniqueness of humanity or the beginning and end of a life, turns on what it means to be a human being. What additional work is done when we specify not just a human (adjective) thing, but a human being – a human (noun)? That’s where the real conflict lies – not in biology, but in philosophy. Let the reductionists out there defend why they think a human being is only a human biological organism. Let their opponents state what must be added or taken away. But let us all stop simply saying “human” as though we knew what we were talking about. We have a long way to go before we understand our selves.

Posted by: dacalu | 19 April 2016

Astrobio Haiku

A few haiku

on astrobiology

at a party:


– Susan Mix

Floating through the void

of a starry summer night,



– William Mix

Cool celestial peeking

morning sunshine off my face

post messages through time.


– Lucas Mix

Petals fall gently

onto wind harrowed sands;



Pluto and Charon

dance in the fading sunlight;

New Horizons.



unconstrained by numbers

populates the stars.


Drifting through space-time,

life leaves trails of carbon on

unsettled planets.

Posted by: dacalu | 2 April 2016

Silly Humans

The world does not revolve around you. It never did. You’ve heard the story no doubt; we all have. Once upon a time, perhaps 500 years ago, humans were foolish. Our silly ancestors thought they were the center of the universe. Luckily for us, science showed us how unimportant we really are. Copernicus showed us that the Earth goes around the Sun, and not the other way around. Darwin discovered relationships between all living things, reducing us to animals. Freud dove into the depths of the psyche, uncovering just how much our unconscious selves rule our lives. It is one of the myths of our age that we are better off than our silly ancestors, who thought too much of themselves, and too much of humanity.

That much is true. At least I believe it to be true. We have found a humility once lacking in humanity. But who exactly were our silly ancestors? That question matters. I suspect you’ve been told that the silly humans were religious, specifically Christian, while the wise descendants followed the path of reason and science. Not so much. The disciples of reason and science – many of them Christians, of course – were the ones who convinced us we were special in the first place. Indeed, Christians have long held that humans are not so special as they would imagine. So here is the story behind the story.

One thousand years ago, humans counted themselves less wise than we do today. No one thought humanity was the center of the world. And, if you think a bit, you know this… though you may not know that you know. They thought that Hell was the center of the world. The Earth revolved around Satan, as the stars revolve around the Earth. Not the answer you were expecting, was it? Still, if you think about…if you think about what “down” meant 1000 years ago…you’ll realize that I’m right. So let’s get to the bottom of things.

Forget what you were told about Christopher Columbus. Anyone with a decent education knew the Earth was round 2000 years ago. Lucretius thought the Earth was flat just before the time of Christ, but others were catching on. Using trigonometry, Eratosthenes gave us a good estimate of the Earth’s size two centuries before.

Plato and Aristotle both, living five centuries before the Roman Empire, felt certain the Earth was a sphere. Aristotle explained gravity as things falling toward the center. He didn’t get gravitation and mass, but he did know that physics would get really messy if things fell any other way. Not just a spherical planet, but a spherical universe simplified the problem.

Augustine of Hippo (roughly 400 ce), perhaps the most influential theologian in the history of Christianity, points out that Creation could not have taken place in six 24-hour days. That would be silly. The Earth is round and the Sun can’t be shining on all sides at once. The book of Genesis must mean something else.

If the Earth is round, what will we find in the center? Hell. We can blame this on Plato, actually. He writes about the underworld of Hades and below that, deep down in the bowels of the Earth, Tartarus. There the unredeemable suffer fiery punishment for their sins. (Bet you thought that was the Bible. Nope, but that’s a story for another time.) There may be something below Tartarus, but that is as low as Plato goes. Aristotle may have a less heated picture, but even he values heavenly fire above Earthly muck. Down is bad.

Getting back to the late Middle Ages (say 1300), Dante paints a memorable picture of Hell in his book Inferno. The Earth is still round, but now Satan is right in the middle. Of course he’s in the middle, because you can’t fall any farther than that.

So, Satan is face down in the dung heap. Medieval Christians explain this quiet poetically. Humans are messed up. Ever since we broke with God – some nonsense with an apple – we’ve gotten things backward. The true center is God. Everything revolves around God and we orbit at a vast distance – though slightly closer than the Devil.

In our blindness, we invert things, seeing God in the vastness behind the stars. Note, this is not space. Space is the heavens, the sky, the firmament. God is behind those things. Just like saying “beyond the West,” no one took it literally. It meant farther than far. Things got less perfect the closer to humanity they got. And then things got worse.

Whether you have the God-centered cosmos or the inverted cosmos, you realize that humans exist somewhere in between, either in the suburbs of Heaven, or with the flies on the surface of Hell. Being in the middle gave us no pride of place – quite the opposite. We were neither here nor there.

Who told us we were special? The Humanists. Humanism was a movement in the early Renaissance that said people should be our focus. Human perspective, human intellect, and human needs should be the center of our reality.

The earliest Humanists were devout Christians (Petrarch and Erasmus), but by the 18th century people began confusing the study of human nature and human interests with a desire to replace God.

In the earliest days of Modern Science, scholars thought we could know things about the world because we could read the mind of God. Human nature and destiny called us to speak about divine order, invisible to other creatures.

Copernicus thought the Sun was more fitting to God’s dignity than the Earth – hence, it should be the center. [I guess no one told him about the inversion problem.] Darwin had problems with God and humans, but for entirely different reasons; he felt there was too much suffering in the world. And Freud…well we all know he had issues with his mother. He, by the way, was the first to compare himself to Copernicus and Darwin as a scientific revolutionary. Ego, much?

I like humanism. I value science immensely. I just don’t think we can tell this story anymore and pretend that science and humanism saved us from the Christians. Christians know better. Christians know that humans are one among countless species under God’s eye. Read Job if you need convincing.

Christians know that humans are animals. Aristotle called them animals; Augustine called them animals; Aquinas called them animals. Neither our location, nor our bodies, nor our species ever laid claim to be the center of the world. It was our minds. It was the Humanists, and worse, the Enlightenment thinkers who presumed we, and only we, could know the mind of God. We, and only we, could act as the rulers of nature. They put us in the center.

Luckily, this same philosophy pushed us out again. This science that I love dearly, showed us that even our reason is less than we thought it was. Even our reason is no reason to think ourselves masters of the universe.

We must learn to learn the right lesson. We must not continue saying science saved us from faith, especially not if we are advocating for Humanism or atheism. We were never the center of the world until the Humanists told us so. We were never more important than God until the Enlightenment.

Modern science restored a humility thrown away by the Humanists and Enlightenment thinkers as they took the first steps to knowledge. We were, quite literally, sophomores, wise fools who thought we knew more than we did in the first years of our education. If science returns us to humility, it can also return us to an openness to God and to a middling place in the universe – neither above the heavens nor under the dead, but somewhere in-between.

If you don’t see God in the center, I understand. Perhaps you will place something else there, perhaps even humans, but do so with your eyes open. Science will not put us there. Nor will Christianity (or Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism…).

If we are better than our ancestors, it is because we grew up. We graduated to an understanding of ourselves as part of something bigger. To put all our hope on science (or mind or reason) would be a step backward. Silly humans.

Posted by: dacalu | 22 March 2016

Batman v Superman

I’m a geek. (“This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate.”) That is to say I can geek out about both superheroes and theology. A preacher friend of mine expressed annoyance at being roped into talking about the upcoming Batman v Superman movie. I had the opposite response; what better way of introducing the good news of Jesus Christ? Well, the resurrection and Easter to be sure, but next week there’s no reason every preacher should not be talking about this movie. It reminded me of a song we used to sing at Church Camp. One of the verses goes a little like this:

O, you can’t get to heaven on Superman.

No, you can’t get to heaven on Superman.

O, you can’t get to heaven on Superman,

‘cuz the Lord’s a Batman fan.

All my sins are washed away; I’ve been redeemed.

Why? (Oh Dear Lord, Why?)

First, pop culture is exactly that – popular. It reflects and animates the concerns of people. Otherwise it would not be popular. In this case we have a great reflection of the question of whether we are saved – in a very physical sense – by our gifts or by our hard work. The very premise of the movie, Superman versus Batman, arises because the two heroes exemplify two extremes of what it means to be a hero. Superman is literally a superman. He has inborn gifts that give him the power to deal with the world’s problems in a way no one else can. Batman on the other hand (despite wealth and privilege), has no superpowers. All of his abilities come from hard work, both through training and technology. Batman represents the American dream (or nightmare as the case may be). Batman did it all by himself. And, if that’s not enough, the movie has a plucky hero who’s just as powerful and resourceful, but gets almost no attention because she’s a woman. Add a crazy billionaire peddling fear, promoting war, and trying to take over… there’s no reason you should not be talking about this movie. Merit and cooperation, gender, and politics – any preacher who can’t get to the Gospel from there needs to go back to seminary. I have no doubt my friend will knock it out of the park, once he gets going. So, let me geek out for a bit. I’ve not seen the movie yet; it may be awful (though I have hopes), but it certainly is fodder for some good discussions about ethics and theology.

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

Batman is a story about about madness, community, and activism. Really. Our story takes place in the city of Gotham. Though New York received the nickname “Gotham City” from Washington Irving in 1807, the name is much older. The town of Gotham in Nottinghamshire is famous for it’s madmen. Legend has it that King John went on procession around England. It was common for the king to move his “court” around the country, so that he could try cases and otherwise do all those governmental things that we now associate with a capital city. The travelling court was important for the running of the country, but it could also be terribly expensive for the locals, who had to provide food and housing for the travelling officials. “Less government” was a very important thing for small towns who wanted the king to pass them by. The burghers of Gotham came up with a plan; they would all pretend to be mad so the King would divert his progress and go someplace else. Gotham became a byword in England for a place where everyone was crazy and neither the government nor community could be trusted.

Batman is a vigilante. He takes justice into his own hands because the community cannot be trusted. Worse yet, there is always a lurking question of whether Batman himself is mad. When he breaks the law in order to serve his personal sense of justice, is he doing more harm than good? Can Gotham be saved, or would it be better to wash our hands of it all together and move someplace else, like Metropolis? Though Batman in the mid 20th century was a much more lighthearted, even camp, figure, the original Batman and the 1980s reboot tackle this moral ambiguity head on.

Look, Up in the Sky

Superman is a story about heroism. From his earliest incarnations, Superman has stood for truth, justice, and the American way. He speaks to the hero that is in all of us, when we let our true nature come out from behind the glasses. The community is fundamentally good, but we need to be protect it from criminals and aliens. Superman is generally viewed as perfect, sound in body and mind with a true heart and an unwavering moral compass. He embodies both privilege and virtue within the context of a healthy community. This rose colored blend of power, nationalism, and ethics has been called into question (most notably in Watchmen and The Incredibles), but Superman retains a squeaky clean, better-than-human image.

Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch

Coming back to the camp song quoted above, I think we can say something important about salvation, by looking at Batman and Superman. Do we think we will be saved (made happy, healthy, and whole; reconciled to God) by struggle (against self and neighbor) or by acceptance (of self and neighbor)? Do we press onward (Philippians 3:14) or let our light shine (Matthew 5:16)? Is it better to see the world as a film noir detective story in which we can trust no one, not even ourselves? Or is it a tale of progress and community where catching the bad guy will restore us to the harmony that is our birthright?

We all need to have the conversation, not because one answer is truly right and the other wrong, but because we all negotiate between the two. We try to understand ourselves as heroes – and as those in need of saving. We are, I think, saved by grace alone, God acting through us and through our neighbors. We are fallen people among our fallen friends. We must struggle and constantly question ourselves and our communities. No magic alien or political savior can save us from ourselves; Each of us has a roll to play in saving the world. And yet each of us has unique and special talents; we should take pride in our excellence – as individuals, as a country, and as a church. We do things no one else can. Above all we strive for justice and peace that extends to and includes everyone. (And yes, there is a magic alien that does the work of saving us; just don’t mistake anyone else for Him.)

I don’t know whether the Lord is more of a Batman fan or a Superman fan. I think they are two sides of the same coin – one urging us to personal greatness, one to a greater wholeness. Sometimes we need to hear from one and sometimes from the other. The scapegoating and radical distrust of this election cycle makes me feel like I live in Gotham City. I think we could use a little more common idealism. The desire for an “outsider” who will save us from ourselves smacks too much of idolatry for me. We could use a little less hero worship and a little more elbow grease.

I believe we are saved by God acting through us. I will be saved through my very geekiness, just as you will be saved through whatever lies closest to your heart. Still, don’t discount popular culture. It tells us what lies close to the hearts of our nation – if only we’ll listen. I don’t care if you watch the movie, but I hope you’ll have the discussion. Are you with Batman or Superman?





« Newer Posts - Older Posts »