Posted by: dacalu | 23 April 2015

Fact and Myth in Scripture

A friend asked a question about the plain reading of scripture and I thought it was worth sharing along with my initial thoughts.

How do you distinguish between biblical metaphor and biblical reality? If we can safely say the creation is biblical myth, how then can we say Jesus walked on water?

I think we can only call the genesis creation story a “myth” if we understand myth as a story that conveys a fundamental truth.  Myth does not mean false, just as it does not mean “historically factual.” Henry VIII’s divorce and the Continental Congress both come close to mythical status.  They were historical events.  Because they are also myths, they have accumulated a great deal of commentary – some of it helpful, some of it not.

I would put the question like this:

If the plain reading of scripture is not always inerrantly true (unambiguously factual with regard to science and history as well as faith and morals), how do we know when it is and when it isn’t?

The first question to ask is “what is the central message?” (Read Karen Armstrong’s The Case for God for an account of “belief” as giving your heart to something, rather than assenting.)  The first point (of many) to be found in Genesis 1-3 is about our relationship with God.

The second question to ask is “does the Bible (or tradition or reason) tell a conflicting story?” The conflict will always tell you something important.  Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 do not agree on the sequence of events. They are radically different from the the account of creation in John.  This tells us we need to approach them carefully and look for where they agree – God is the source of light, life, and order; God is the context in which all other things make sense. (Read Donn Morgan’s Fighting with the Bible, L William Countryman’s Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? or really any academic Bible scholarship post 1950.  Walter Brueggemann is one of the most broadly respected scholars.)

The third question is “does science or logic suggest that the plain reading will not work?” If God is a sophisticated author, as I believe is the case, there will be layers of meaning in any text. Logical or physical inconsistency is either a sign that we have misread OR a clue. Teachers often present material that is off in some way to prompt students to react. (Read Augustine’s On the Literal Interpretation of Genesis. Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter and Phil Dowe’s Galileo, Darwin, and Hawking touch on Galileo’s reading of Augustine.)

In more general terms, I recommend Guy Consolmagno’s Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? for a very readable introduction.

As to your specific question – Jesus walking on water – let’s take a look.

What is the central message? Jesus power is greater than the elements. Jesus defies expectations.  Jesus’ power extends to his followers (Peter). Jesus hydrophobicity appears to be secondary.

Does the Bible have conflicting stories? No, and this story appears three times.  The Gospels do not always agree, but on this point they do. Luke does not contain the story, but also does not deny it.

Does tradition or reason (within the tradition) have a conflicting story? No.

Is walking on water inconsistent with physics as we know it? Yes, but note that that’s part of the point of the story. As with the resurrection, we are told that people reacted with surprise and fear. This is understood as a highly unusual event.

So, on the whole, I think the story is true factually as well as mythically.  Scripture is the story of those who followed. For those of us who follow, it is instructive.

Posted by: dacalu | 13 April 2015

What Was Forgiven

Today, I had the pleasure of worshiping with the Anglican Episcopal Student Fellowship at Harvard Divinity School.  Here is the sermon I shared.


Collect (summary prayer)

Almighty and everlasting God, who in the Paschal mystery established the new covenant of reconciliation: Grant that all who have been reborn into the fellowship of Christ’s Body may show forth in their lives what they profess by their faith; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.



Acts 4:32-35 (no private ownership among the disciples)

Psalm 133 (“how good and pleasant it is, when brethren live together in unity”)

I John 1:1-2:2 (“If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves”)

John 20:19-31 (Doubting Thomas; “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe”)

[NB: the NRSV reads “the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews.” While this is an accurate translation, it invites misinterpretation. The Galilean disciples had locked the doors for fear of the people of Judea, the country around Jerusalem, in which they were foreigners. It has nothing to do with the religion of the people in question – Galileans and Judeans, Jesus’ followers and Sadducees and Pharisees all worshiped the God of Israel.]



We limit not the truth of God (H82 629)

Now the Green Blade Riseth (H82 204)




I love preaching on doubting Thomas.
And I love preaching on skeptical Christianity,
so I looked back and, surely enough, I preached here
on Easter 2 last year.
So I might have to come up with something new to say.
Not that a good sermon does not bear repeating, now and again…

Last time, I preached on what we do not know,
even though some people think we do.
This time, I want to preach on what we do know,
though many think we don’t.
I want to preach on forgiveness,
how and why and to what end it works.
Forgiveness may be the hardest of the Christian disciplines,
and I call it a discipline quite intentionally.
It is a blessing and a gift, a grace and a joy,
but above all, it is something very difficult we strive for,

What is forgiveness?
It is the other side of metanoia, repentence.
It is granting someone else the opportunity to change their mind,
to change their very self,
in relation to you and to the world.
Forgiveness allows others to change.

It appears most starkly when we forgive our enemies.
We meet it in that context.
Someone has done something awful,
torture and crucifixion come to mind.
The authorities
and the public
in first century Judea
made it quite clear
the kind of relationship they wanted with Jesus.
And Jesus forgave them.

It can be more complicated, though.
Pilate and Herod both wanted something from Jesus,
I can’t be certain what,
though many preachers have speculated.
They were unable to forgive Jesus
for not filling in the other half of a relationship they wanted:
Messiah, or subject, or hero, or politician.
Judas, I think, was unable to forgive Jesus
for not living up to Messianic expectations.
Thomas was unwilling, unprepared I suspect,
for the universe to be other than he thought it was.
We do it all the time;
we curse and lament,
when people don’t conform,
when the universe doesn’t conform,
indeed, when we ourselves don’t live up to our own expectations.
We call it forgiveness when we allow someone else
to be other than we thought they were.
Jesus asked God to forgive
the authorities and the public for not being
good creatures, good children.

It was a sad thing,
but I don’t think it came with the judgmental baggage
so often associated with forgiveness –
the passive aggressive addendum.
It’s okay for you to be what you are,
but you’d be better if you weren’t.
It’s okay for you to change,
but I’d love you even more, if you’d change back.

We meet Jesus after the resurrection,
in this strange space.
Have you never wondered that Jesus does not pull Peter aside
and say “I told you so…”
or perhaps, “what was up with you and Elsie…
“she asked if you were with me
and you said what?”
Have you never wondered that Jesus
does not start the conversation with,
“where were you?”

I don’t think for a minute
that forgiving and forgetting are the same thing.
Hopefully at this point in seminary,
you’ve all dealt with that question already.
Forgiveness that forgets is not love.
Why would you forget something about the person you care for?
Forgiveness means dealing with them as they are,
and accepting, if not approving the choices they made.
Forgiveness requires us to adjust
to this new situation,
this new world,
in which the person we care about has made
a different choice than the one we hoped for.
Often it was a bad choice – and all of us live with the consequences.
Sometimes it was a good choice – we just haven’t realized, yet.
Both are the same.
Both are opportunities for love, listening,
and working for a new equilibrium.

Forgiveness is so difficult, because it is never over.
Forgiveness is never complete.
It is not a fixed state, in which we rest,
but the kingdom come,
a perpetual act of hope.

The story of Thomas makes the most sense in that context.
The juxtaposition of peace be with you,
forgiveness of sins,
and blessed are they who have not seen
and yet believe.

We want to make Jesus comment,
another form of passive aggressive forgiveness;
it’s what we have come to expect from one another.
“Yes Thomas, I’ll give you special treatment
because you are a disciple, but if you were a true disciple…”
We must not take this step.
Thomas’ lack of faith is as nothing
compared to the lack of faith
Peter and the disciples showed in the Passion.
Perhaps in the Gospel of John,
we can claim that John stuck with Jesus to the end;
most accounts say no one did.
In the wake of that betrayal,
what does Jesus do?
He says, “Peace be with you.”
He shows them his hands and his side.
There’s meaning in that.
They saw what was done to him.
It’s not a pretty story.
He gives them a task.
In short, Jesus builds a new relationship.

This is the discipline of forgiveness,
we must learn to keep up with people,
when they fail to be the people we expect.
We must learn to reach out to people,
no matter how far away they seem.
It would be hard enough, just doing this,
but the task is made more complex by ignorance.

We live in a world where few people understand
love and forgiveness.
They know these words,
but they associate them with completely different concepts.
Some think of love as desire, friendship, or abandon –
all worthwhile, but not truly love.
Others think of love as lust, possession, or manipulation.
Some think of forgiveness as balance keeping or strategy.
Others see it as obliviousness or harming the self for the sake of another.
True forgiveness must be demonstrated
to be understood.

It was in showing up after the crucifixion
that Jesus gave us this gift.
It was in arriving without recrimination,
still bearing the scars,
and still wishing them peace,
that he taught us what it means to be Christians.

Desomond Tutu has a great book
called No Future without Forgiveness.
It tells tales of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
in South Africa at the end of Apartheid.
It gives concrete examples.
I could tell you of the constancy of my family and teachers
through my own trespasses,
but I suspect each of us has to work this out
for ourselves.
So many of the things that need forgiveness
are trespasses others do not even recognize,
slights and expectations
that seem so rational when we analyze them
and yet profoundly affect us.
So many of our blessings and hopes
are unique.
We must learn that no one, not even ourselves,
live up to our expectations,
and live with that knowledge.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for,
the conviction of things not seen.”
Our faith in God is a following,
not a staying in place.
I am a skeptic, because I do not trust authorities.
Above all, I do not trust the Lucas Mix of 24 hours ago.
He was a wise and learned man,
but he had some serious blind spots.
Best not to put too much trust in him.
I owe that man, the same trust and faith
I owe to each of you:
To listen charitably, to learn where possible, and to forgive.

The Holy Spirit is too busy working
for us to capture her in one moment.
Jesus is already on his way to Galilee.
Neither he, nor we, can carry the weight of past expectations.
They get in the way of genuine memory,
genuine trust, and hope.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 April 2015

Life without Jesus

Every year in the two days between Good Friday and Easter, I take a serious look at the question of God. Who would I be in a world without God? Or, more to the point, who would I be if God were dead? It is, perhaps, unorthodox, but I think it can be useful. What would be different about my life?

Here I need to make a brief digression. I have come to think of God in two ways. First, there is the God of philosophy, the unmoved mover and sustainer of the universe. I see that God as a fundamental cosmological assertion, a way of looking at the universe. That God answers the question, “why something instead of nothing?” It makes no sense (to me) to speak of myself without this God. It makes no sense to speak of anything. I regularly ask whether this works as a philosophical system, so am not particularly interested in it here. Second, there is the narrative God of the Old and New Testament, the personal God of Israel and, for Christians, Jesus of Nazareth. Today I want to talk about the narrative God. What does it mean to say Jesus is dead? I might even question whether he existed at all. How would I be a different person?

In a very important way, I would not be different. When it comes to the choices I make, how I treat people, what I value, I don’t know that I would change at all. Christianity has helped shape these things. My relationship with God, with whom I talk daily, has helped me become who I am. And yet, I am not that person for the sake of God. I am that person because that is the person I choose to be. These are the things I value and I would continue to value them even If I no longer had God to talk to.

I think God has told me something true in sharing faith, hope, and love. I respect the one who told me; that respect made it easier to learn and the learning increased my respect. And yet, should I discover God was not what I thought, I would still have this thing I discovered. I would still have love. Everything I know, I learned from teachers, many of whom I respect deeply, but that respect never stops me from disagreeing with them. I would not stop using evolutionary biology if my doctoral advisor (in evolutionary biology) decided to stop using it. I did not stop doing Hapkido (Korean martial art) when my teacher died, nor would I have stopped if he had stopped while he was still alive. [For the record the thought of David Haig dismissing evolution or Kwang Sik Myung giving up on Hapkido sounds thoroughly ridiculous to me. Of course, so does God dying. So maybe it’s worth considering.]

This year, as every year, I have come to the conclusion that my life would change very little. I might no longer hold the same positions philosophically. I might no longer advocate for an unmoved mover. I might no longer belong to the Episcopal Church, but most things would not change. I would still count the well-being of others as equal to my own. I would still work for communities to love one another, to reason and work together. I would still study the wonders of the world and work to build institutions that explore, preserve, and serve them.

Would I still love God? Mostly I love God through loving my neighbor. The worst abuses of Christianity, as far as I can tell are those times when, somehow, love of God and neighbor are opposed. The Bible seems pretty clear that they always go together – though I admit others read it differently. That leaves only prayer and worship. I think I would still shout into the darkness, even if I thought nothing was there to talk back. [It’s not as though I always hear a clear answer anyway.] I would still listen – for listening is always rewarded. I might “worship” less. I do not know. Worship makes me feel good. It binds me to others. It orients me.

I would not be a priest. I would not lie to people and say I believed something when I didn’t. I would still be an elder, a community builder, and a counselor. I would still welcome, listen, empower, gather, bind together, and remember whenever I could. I have no doubt I would find a way to be a priest in some fashion or another, even if I were not a Presbyter of the Episcopal Church.

In the last few hours before Easter – I go to sunrise service – I find that my life would not be that different. If I died and found myself confronted with Anubis sitting with a pair of scales (Egyptian judgment), I would tell him a story about a carpenter from Nazareth. I would tell the good news of love. I couldn’t deny reality, but I could still work good in the world – whatever world it is.

On Easter, I will rejoice that the Lord of Love is also the Lord of Life, the creator, redeemer, and sustainer of the cosmos. I will rejoice that God’s love overcame human strife. I will consider anew the lesson that even death can be forgiven. But I will not change my priorities. True faith is the faith that continues to love and work through the darkness of Good Friday and Holy Saturday. True faith means loving what Jesus loved and doing the work Jesus gave us to do, even if he is dead; I’ve always been suspicious of those who think otherwise. Christianity is not about being on the winning side. It’s about being on Jesus’ side, even when he loses.

Only in this way, does the winning really change the world.

Posted by: dacalu | 3 April 2015

The Point

Yesterday my spiritual director asked me if my Lenten discipline was having the desired effect.  I paused for a moment, confused.  I have chosen daily silence, not just physical silence, but the mental releasing of cares.  As usual, the question provoked thought.  Did my discipline need a goal?  Can it not be silence for silence’ sake?

I began thinking of meditation, in the Buddhist sense.  For Buddhists, tranquil awareness is the goal.  They do not meditate in order to get something else, to achieve peace or enlightenment or insight – though those might be products.  Rather, enlightenment is neither more nor less than true meditation.  They seek to find that all life has become meditative.  Goals get in the way.  In a very real sense, meditation with a goal is no longer really meditation. Because it looks beyond itself, it cannot be wholly centered in the moment.

Christian meditation need not be the same, though I think that contemplation (as in St. Theresa) comes awfully close.  It is a type of prayer that seeks nothing more than tranquil awareness of God’s grace.

In teaching religion, and teaching about religion, few things have been harder to communicate than this idea that we might do things for their own sake.  Consider a chain of desire: I want to go out…because I want ice cream…because I want to satisfy my craving for sugar and fat…  Every chain must end somewhere.  Every chain of desire must have an anchor.  The anchor for this might be “…because I want to be happy” or something else entirely.  Philosophers might critique this as naive.  It is not logically necessary for a chain of desire to be rational or discrete.  I’ll accept that.  Nonetheless, when I attempt to address my desires consciously – when I think critically about what I want and what I want to want – I create rational and discrete chains of desire to convince myself and others.  These chains require anchors.

In Buddhism, tranquil awareness or something very close (perhaps meditation or enlightenment) anchors the chain.  To claim that Buddhists meditate for some other reason misses the point.  Again, I must be very careful here.  I’m talking about a chain of desire – rationally thinking about what we want – not a chain of causes – trying to explain, often scientifically why something occurred.  An individual Buddhist will meditate for any number of reasons – habit, boredom, social pressure.  Still, when I speak of Buddhism in practice and theory, I speak of the chain of desire most commonly used to justify and advocate for specific choices.

Frequently, when talking with others, we assume that their chains of desire must eventually come around to our own anchor.  This leads to rampant miscommunication.  It may be true that your chains always end (or you hope they end) in tranquil awareness while mine end in obedience to God.  Alternatively, yours may end in service to the community and mine in increasing happiness for humans.

One of the major functions of religion is to help us set anchors.  You can, of course, do this without any appeal to the supernatural or authority figures.  You cannot, in my opinion, do so without being profoundly impacted by your community, your history, and the language you use.  You cannot separate your ideas about what exists from your ideas of what you value.  You cannot separate your preferences – both conscious and unconscious – from your behaviors, routines, and rituals.  Science and the major religions all tell us so.  We are incarnate, social, thinking beings.

When you anchor on something, someone who controls that thing (or appears to) controls you.  Atheists often worry that Christians who anchor on salvation will be susceptible to authority figures claiming to control who goes to heaven and hell.  Christians often worry that Atheists who anchor on physical well being will be susceptible to military and civil leaders exercising control over weapons and money.  Both are, to me, very real concerns.  Jesus died because he succeeded in changing people’s anchors; he was a threat to religious and civil powers in Judea.  Martin Luther King, Jr. died for similar reasons.

Today, Christians observe Good Friday in remembrance of Jesus, who judged his life of less import than his message and who was crucified for changing people.  I challenge you to think this day about where your anchors rest, how those anchors give power to others, and just what you’d be willing to give up to follow through.

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.

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