Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

The History of Life

This blog is part of a short series setting forth my plans for research in the 2015-2016 academic year.  It starts with a brief introduction, but each of the pieces stands alone. In this installment, I give a quick and dirty summary of the history of life-concepts in Western culture (Europe and North America from ~1000 BCE to the present).

Concepts of life are as old as recorded history. They are rarely explicit definitions, but they consistently oppose life and non-life/death, either in exclusive categories or as ends of a continuum. [1]

Greek and Hebrew conversations set the stage for Western discussion. Homer wants to know what holds the limbs together and what remains after death. Genesis identifies life with the breath of God, which gives form, animal life, human life, and spiritual life. Parmenides, Pythagoras, and Plato associate life with the fundamental harmony that orders the universe, while Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius want to disentangle the two so that we are free to dissolve into nothingness at death. Thales and Aristotle are more concerned with reconciling biological and abiological causation and explanation. All of them want to understand why and how life manages to surprise us in ways that non-life does not.

Life concepts in the West came to be dominated by the concept of psyche as interpreted by Plato (through Plotinus) – discrete, substantial eternal units of life – and Aristotle – dynamic processes in material substrates. By the Middle Ages, the life of humans takes on a Platonic air, driven by theologians who want to attach it to will, intellect, and the image of God. Meanwhile, the life of plants and animals takes on an Aristotelian air, driven by a desire to conceive of the cosmos as a unified whole. Curiously, both are called psyche or anima. Aquinas attempts to integrate the two with mixed success.

By the start of the 17th century, Aristotelian ideas of formal and final causes have come to be used in ways increasingly unpalatable to natural philosophers. Descartes and Gassendi usher in a “mechanical philosophy,” eliminating those elements. [2] As formal and final causes are central to the Aristotelian model of life, plant and animal life lose their meaning and human life shifts definitively to a Platonic frame. Life becomes mysterious in the new worldview, and no consensus can be found on how biological causation relates to general causation. This is fertile ground for epistemological inquiries over the next two centuries as the rules of modern science are set. Kant wants to understand living things, while Goethe, Hegel, and others seek to construct historical narratives. In this period, both Progressive and Romantic approaches develop.

Modern science constructed under the mechanical paradigm may not be able to meaningfully differentiate life and non-life. Kant attempted a pragmatic solution, appealing to a concept of organism – parts moving with a common end. He was aware that such an end constitutes a final cause and was, therefore, not justifiable empirically (Critique of Judgment §64-65). Instead he accepted that they must simply be asserted if we want to understand life. Foucault (The Order of Things) describes a broader epistemological shift at this time, from uncovering inherent meaning to taking on the ideal perspective.

In light of this history, Paley did not invent “Design” arguments for living properties. [3] Instead, he followed Descartes and later enlightenment thinkers in moving the goal-directedness of living things from intrinsic purpose (Aristotelian final cause) to extrinsic Divine purpose. Gassendi, Kant, Hume and others had rejected attempts to determine such purpose empirically, leaving open the question of whether “science” was allowed to determine them in some other way (a priori necessity a la Descartes or pragmatically a la Kant).

In the 19th and early 20th centuries numerous life concepts arose, each gaining only temporary or local popularity. Life might be made up of living stuff. Lucretius proposed “soul-seeds” and Chardin “spirit-matter.” Ruthorford and Soddy suggest radioactive elements as “metabolons.” Moving up into chemical components (rather than atomic) Abernethy proposes a fluid like electricity while Huxley speaks of “protoplasm.” [4] The Miller-Urey Experiment (1952) was the most famous in a series of experiments establishing that the same components make up life and non-life.

Alternatively, life could be a question of natural laws, with some life-force driving the biosphere toward a particular end, just as the second law of thermodynamics drives the universe toward heat-death. Concepts of “orthogenesis” or progressive evolution became popular among biologists and economists (e.g., Haeckel and Spencer), but they were never fruitful in terms of predictions and were firmly rejected in biology in the early 20th century. [5]

In the 20th century, life concepts focused on unique functions of life such as metabolism and reproduction. Like life, they appear intuitively distinct and significant. Like life, we have not found any rigorous definitions that match our intuitions. These approaches have opened up productive avenues of research, they have not as of yet provided us with a dominant concept of life. Theologians, philosophers, and ethicists noted the dangers of operationalizing or reducing life and losing value components.

Most recently, we have begun to explore concepts of feedback loops and integrated systems. Von Neumann pioneered this approach with his concept of “cybernetics” and Sara Walker represents the cutting edge of such research applied to definitions of life. The promise lies in recognizing scalable relational properties of physical systems, rather than compositional or energetic properties. These moves were consonant with the process philosophy of Whitehead as well as expressly relational anthropologies, dating at least from Hegel and appearing as I/Thou in Buber.

The next post will explore various modern questions that hang on our model of life.



[Note 1: Non-life and death are not always equivalent.]

[Note 2: See Margaret Osler, Divine Will and the Mechanical Philosophy.]

[Note 3: William Paley is famous as the originator of modern “intelligent design” argument. You may have heard of a watch found on the ground – arguing that it must have been designed because of how it works – or his book, Natural Theology, or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity.]

[Note 4: In fiction, the first drives the plot in Frankenstein, the second in R.U.R (Rossum’s Universal Robots).]

[Note 5: See Micheal Ruse’s book, Monad to Man.)]

Posted by: dacalu | 30 September 2015

What do you want from “life”?

The next few blogs lay out the overarching theme for my research this year at Princeton.  They are adapted from a paper I presented here at the Center of Theological Inquiry.

What do you want from “life”?

We feel intuitively that life is both distinct and significant to our understanding of the world. And yet attempts to define life – or at least generate a conceptual framework for understanding it – have failed to achieve consensus for at least two hundred years.  We may be using competing criteria that prohibit agreement. For these reasons, I would like to look at who is asking the question at what they have at stake in an answer. Specifically, I hope to address these three questions:

What work do we need a concept of life to do?

How do we frame concepts of life?

Which frames satisfy which needs?


For example, when Moses says “choose life” (Deu 30:15-20) the concept of life does normative work; “life” means living well. Irwin Schrödinger equates death with thermodynamic equilibrium and life as that which delays decay into death (What is Life? 1944). Does Schrödinger’s concept suit Moses’ needs?  Cross-fertilization is valuable but, as with Planetary protection, we need to be careful of certain types of contamination. What belongs where when we talk about life concepts?

The next post sets out a history of life-concepts or models for understanding life in order to highlight the work that people have tried to do with it in the past.

Posted by: dacalu | 12 September 2015

Diversity and Teaching

In one of my job applications (for a professor position), I was asked how I would address issues of diversity in course materials and activities.  Because it started a great Facebook discussion, I thought I would post my final essay here.

[We are] committed to recruiting, hiring and supporting ethnically and culturally diverse faculty and to developing curriculum that emphasizes cultural competence and reconciliation.  Please respond to this statement by briefly describing how you would address issues of diversity (such as race, ethnicity, social class, gender) in course material and class sessions.

I watched a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. She spoke on the danger of a single story – how we can become biased when we think of people and places only in terms of a single narrative: my poor neighbor or that oppressed country. I found this helpful in thinking about teaching and more broadly in thinking about both epistemology and Christian love. Diverse stories stir our curiosity, inviting us into deeper thought and more careful attention.

In teaching biology, I want to provide multiple stories to the students, encouraging them to create their own stories about the material. This starts with a conversation about what kinds of story make for good scientific work – generally concise, fruitful, concrete models of how a system works or how things fit together. They need not all agree with one another – but each needs to do a particular kind of work. It opens the door for students to discover their own ability to do science and encourages them to look for diverse positions on any topic. Where possible, I like to bring in examples of scientists with diverse backgrounds. I also want to introduce the idea that “we” as a class and “we” including all scientists are trying to tell a group of stories together so students can think about what that means, when it works, and when it might be challenging. Biology provides wonderful examples of dangerous ideology (Lysenkoism), misappropriation of science (eugenics), popular controversy (sex, gender, and orientation) and conflicting perspectives (adaptationism, levels of selection, biological altruism). We must think carefully about what work we expect it to do – and what work we don’t expect it to do.

The process requires diverse avenues for students to respond, as well. Studies suggest benefits to cold-calling students systematically and creating discussion spaces in which each student has an uninterrupted turn. I think free discussion can be invaluable, but it should be balanced with opportunities for students to prepare remarks. This can include short prepared reports, structured discussion, and scheduled meetings outside of class. It requires careful thought not only about the content of conversation, but the framework – issues such as not always calling on the first person to raise their hand, immediately stopping as hominem arguments, and rotating discussion/study partners.

One of the most important aspects for me is to be available to students as a person as well as a teacher and to reinforce the importance of their concerns and their perspective in achieving what will ultimately be their knowledge.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2015


“Judge not lest ye be judged.” Matthew 7:1

As a Christian I take this rule fairly seriously. It appears repeatedly in the New Testament. I’d tell you how good I am at following my own advice, but that would be cheating.

How can I assess my own behavior without judging whether I live up to standards? Repentance calls for self-knowledge and Christianity asks for repentance. Worse yet: how can I be truly curious about another person, without wanting to know their standards, both what they practice and what they profess? Love calls for curiosity and Christianity calls for love. Indeed, Christianity calls for love above all else. So, the issue of judgment cannot simply be ignored.

I have heard that we should be “discerning” but not “judgmental.” I have heard it most often from people who are discerning that I am not right with God. This makes it less helpful. That kind of talk is exactly the judgment Jesus seems to be ruling out.

I go, but I go carefully, recognizing the danger. And I go openly, so that you can follow along, up until I fall into the quicksand. With luck, you will help me out again. Deal?

With those preliminaries out of the way, let’s talk about what it means to be curious about people. I ask for more than surface curiosity. Yes, I’d like to know where you work and what music you listen to. I’d like to hear where you vacation and what you read. I’d even like to know what religious label you identify with, be it Atheist, Buddhist, Neo-Pagan, Presbyterian, or Post-Denominational. I’m interested. And for all of those categories, I don’t think I’m supposed to judge whether you are closer to or farther from God/Enlightenment/Goodness/What have you. I’m not supposed to have a little meter in my mind that goes from evil to holy, ridiculous to sublime, or even simply bad to good. I think of these as “soteriometers” which is just a theology geek way of saying, devices to measure salvation. I avoid the soteriometers, because, nine times out of ten, they have fine print. Just like the speedometers on foreign cars that have kilometers in big numbers and little miles-per-hour numbers underneath, most soteriometers run from “negligible” to “fascinating.” We use them as excuses to ignore people who don’t measure up.

Worse yet, the final one in ten soteriometers attempt to measure dignity – how much people are worth. They run from “worthless” to “praiseworthy.’ Worthless people don’t measure up and harming them is, to those who read these meters, no big deal. Just as I would not consider a rock’s feelings when I move it out the way to sit down, so I would not consider the feelings of a worthless person when choosing my actions.

For the record: there are no worthless people.

Neither are some people worth more than others. Think about that for a while. I strive to care about the feelings and priorities of everyone I meet. Here’s the rub. Deep curiosity (and love or compassion) requires you to ask exactly this question. What are his feelings? What are her priorities? Those are the meaningful questions I want to ask and the profound answers I want to hear. That’s what I look for. And, because I care about those things, I will be looking for times when your priorities don’t match up – when what you say, what you do, and what I thought of you don’t all match up.

It’s not the same as judgment. There is no scale running from bad to good. Instead, I see a range from comprehension – this is the person I know – to confusion – this is someone new. Comprehension is comforting and confusion provocative. One is not better than another, though there is definitely a time and a place for each.

When someone tells me they are Christian and does not show love, it confuses me. I have to hold my idea of “Christian” in tension with their demonstration of “Christian.” That’s frustrating. It is not (or should not be) a judgment of their worth. Rather it is a judgment of our relationship with one another. It invites me to learn more. It also causes pain. We always feel pain when we realize our picture of the world is incomplete.

We can respond to that pain by making the provocation disappear; we can ignore or even eliminate the problem. Or we can respond with curiosity.

Whenever someone applies a religious label to themselves, it sparks this kind of curiosity in me. The word means something. What does it mean? And what does it tell me about the person? And does that word match up with all of the other words shouted by their actions?

“Atheist” causes problems when it comes to values. I could take the word at face value and assume that a person has no substantial priorities, no feelings or preferences, which I could respect or ignore. I have yet to meet a single atheist for whom this was the case. I know many atheists with profound ethical commitments lived out beautifully. Honestly, I care more passionately about what you hold dear than I do about your abstract intellectual commitment to a personal all-powerful deity. If I say, “I’m a Christian,” and you respond, “I’m an Atheist,” we may be talking past each other.

Most atheists in my experience, don’t take the word at face value either. The ones I know are usually rationalists (who value thinking clearly and worry that belief in God works against it). I enter these discussions with the assumption that I share a value for rationality with them. When someone tells me that they are Atheist and then demonstrates poor reasoning, it confuses me.

I’m tougher on Atheists than I am on Christians when it comes to reasoning, just as I am tougher on Christians than I am on Atheists when it comes to love. It has to do with my best guess about their priorities and how to honor them. It has to do with how I attempt to communicate with the words I use. It has to do with curiosity and, when I’m doing well, it has nothing to do with judgment.

I listen and talk in the hopes of honoring other people’s priorities. I have noticed that many Christians and Atheists do this silent work of judging – the good kind and the bad kind – while speaking of their “faith” or “lack of faith,” but fail to communicate. They worry that the other person is avoiding the “real issue,” partly because they have different ideas about what the real issue is. For me it’s love-as-curiosity and for that reason, I hope reading this will help you listen and talk just a bit more clearly.

Posted by: dacalu | 24 July 2015

“Species of Love”

My book of poetry, Species of Love is now available in paperback and Kindle editions.  I hope you’ll check it out.

“Lucas Mix shares 18 poems dealing with love and communication. How do we understand desire, loss, and fulfillment? How do we understand ourselves in light of our relationships with others? Mix offers humor and vulnerability, but also a deep sense of the interconnectedness of science, theology, and personal experience as we make sense of the world. Ultimately hopeful, the book deals squarely with the pain and challenge of falling in love – whether with God or with another person.”

On Amazon

Posted by: dacalu | 14 July 2015

Pluto on the Horizon

This evening, the New Horizons spacecraft will arrive at Pluto. In honor of this engineering marvel, here are few facts that stand out for me as we wait for the next batch of data.

The spacecraft launched a decade ago – 19 January 2016 – and has traveled nearly 3,000,000,000 miles, making it the longest trip and the farthest target in human history. That’s about 10 times the distance from Earth to the Sun. Traveling at the speed of light, data will take four and a half hours to reach us.

Pluto was discovered in 1930 and considered a planet until 2006, at which point we knew it was one of several large Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs).  We now know of at least one of similar size: Eris.

Pluto has 1/3 the volume of Earth’s Moon, but far less mass, being made up of much lighter elements.

Pluto has 5 known moons: Charon, Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra.

This will complete NASA’s survey of the once 9 planets in our system.  Here are the first NASA missions to each planet.

MercuryMariner 10 – 1974

(Later Messenger – 2011)

VenusMariner 2 – 1962

MarsMariner 4 – 1965

(Later Viking 1976 and a host of others)

JupiterPioneer 10 – 1973

(Later Voyager 1979, Galileo 1995, and several others)

Saturn – Pioneer 11 – 1979

(Later Cassini/Huygens 2004 and several others)

UranusVoyager 2 – 1986

NeptuneVoyager 2 – 1989

Congratulations to the huge crew of scientists and engineers who made this happen!  I look forward to seeing more data soon.

Posted by: dacalu | 5 July 2015

Passionate Curiosity

This morning I had the pleasure of worshiping with the people of the Manchester Cathedral (dedicated to St. George, St. Denys, and St. Mary).  Here are the words I shared.



Ezekiel 2:1-5 (God sends Ezekiel)

Psalm 123 (“To you I lift up my eyes”)

II Corinthians 12:2-10 (“I will not boast, except of my weaknesses”)

Mark 6:1-13 (Jesus in his hometown, the sending of the disciples)



“on my own behalf I will not boast, 
except of my weaknesses” (II Cor. 12:5b)
A strange place to start, 
	but let us start there.
Christianity is unconventional.
	When we do it right it doesn’t look like wisdom
		and yet it delivers truth.
I want to talk about that truth,
	the unconventional, unexpected, satisfying truth
	promised by both Christianity and science.

I am a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists,
	a group of priests and deacons, mostly Anglican,
	who are also educated in the sciences.
For my part, I have a doctorate in organismic and evolutionary biology
	from Harvard University, over in the other Cambridge.
For my Ph.D. I worked on the evolution of photosynthesis,
	and I consult with NASA on questions related to 
the search for life in space.
	So I think I can boast of a little knowledge about science.
I have also been blessed to attend seminary,
	have worked as a pastor, 
and have taught the history of science and religion
		at three universities.
	So I can say I know something of
theology, philosophy, and history.
And yet I am not nearly so proud of this learning
	as I am of that which I do not know.

As a member of the Society of Ordained Scientists,
	I frequently encounter concerns about faith and reason.
As a Christian and an evolutionary biologist, 
	particularly in the United States,
	the question arises.
So, as I am in town for the retreat,
	and as Bishop David and the Dean were kind enough to ask,
	I wanted to speak about how we know things,
		and what things we know
		in science and in Christianity.

As usual, the Lectionary has been more than helpful.
It got me thinking about strength and weakness
	and the strange balance between
	bringing truth and awaiting truth.
All of our readings today highlight
	the role of prophets as unexpected
	and extraordinary truth tellers.
First, we must accept that expected and ordinary truth tellers,
	while sometimes useful,
	don’t leave much of an impression.
It’s morning.  It’s a Sunday.  We are in Manchester.
See.  Not so interesting.
Even if I were to tell you something new, but unexciting…
	There will be a barbeque after the service.
	The Episcopal Church in the US had our version of Synod
		last week.
That probably won’t stick.

So let me tell you something unexpected:
In science, not knowing is better than knowing.
		Even worse:
	The same is true of Christianity.
Now you’re awake.

We remember Moses, Ezekiel, Peter, and Paul
	because they got things wrong before they got things right.
We remember Moses claiming his own incompetence before God – 
	Don’t send me to Pharoah.  I’m no public speaker.
We remember Ezekiel. God literally put words in his mouth,
	so that he might speak them to Israel.
We remember Paul, persecuting Christians,
	before becoming one on the road to Damascus.
We remember poor Peter, who seems to get things wrong 
more often than not.
It can be so easy to think they were wrong,
	and then they found God – or God found them – 
	and they were magically right for the rest of their lives.
But scripture doesn’t give us this picture at all.
Abraham and Moses wrangle with God all of their lives,
	they fall and recover over and over again,
	reaching for God.
Paul speaks of constant temptation and weakness,
	that simply will not go away.
My friend Nadia jokes: 
“This is Peter.  Dumb as a rock.
And on this rock I will build my church.”
Don’t even get me started on Jonah and Job.

Even Jesus, and I hesitate to say this, fails to communicate
	when he is in his home town.
	The neighbors simply cannot reconcile
		what they are actually hearing,
		with what they expect
			“Mary’s boy, 
you know the one who makes the nice tables.
			Why doesn’t he just find a nice girl and settle down?”

Christianity and science are both about
	breaking us out of our old habits of knowing,
	so that we can appreciate what’s right
		in front of us.
In Christianity, we call it humility.
In science, we tend to say curiosity,
	but I’d like to suggest it as the same thing – 
The constant willingness,
	to have been wrong so that we may become right.

Truth, like love – or God for that matter –
	is not a simple thing to be possessed;
	we must pursue it.
We must run after it with abandon.
And we must be willing to be found by it,
	no matter whose voice utters the words,
	no matter what avenue provides it.
And at the same time, we must constantly 
	check in on the truth we already have.
Is it still true? Is it still meaningful? Is it still surprising?
Honestly I have very few arguments with truth seekers,
	whether Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, or Atheists.
The real arguments arise when I meet people
	who are unwilling to ask the questions,
	unwilling to talk as though God were there,
		just to see if God answers back,
	or unwilling to pray about certain things,
		just because they are afraid of how God might answer.
God did something different with Ezekiel;
	he led the people back from captivity,
	using the power of the captor.
In some ways, he was the mirror of Moses,
	who defied the ruler, to save the people.
It is never enough to remember what God did,
	we must keep our eyes open to what God is doing.

So Christians pray without ceasing,
	and we take pride in our weakness,
	in our repentance,
	and in our constant reformation of the church.
So scientists strain our brains
	to think clearly and control every last detail of an experiment,
	and record the results,
	so that we can hear what the world is telling us,
		even when we were looking for something completely different.
Neither one is about certainty.

Jesus sent the disciples out with nothing – 
		no bread, no bag, no money – 
	because what they found when they arrived,
		would play a crucial role in the tale they had to tell.
God was the power that welcomed them
	and fed them and abided with the families
	long after they had gone.
They did not carry the Gospel,
		but they did reveal it.
	They knit together the experience of Jesus Christ
		with the Holy Spirit that upholds all things,
		the Spirit that resides in and goes before all of us,
		as familiar as the air we breathe.
Prophets and apostles are important, even necessary.
They make the common truth uncommonly visible.
And they made the invisible transparent.

I firmly believe that this is our job as Christians,
	to help manifest God’s grace,
	which is already present in creation – 
to be truth-tellers and unveilers and midwives.
And because the truth was already there, 
	we too will be surprised, amazed, astonished,
	even struck dumb,
	by what we discover.
How could we not be?

For many years I met arguments about creation and evolution
		with facts.
	“We know it’s true, because of these finches, and these lizards…”
	Facts and theories are important.
Later, I learned to meet such arguments with philosophy.
	“We cannot know anything for certain,
		but science gives us confidence,
		based on reproducibility.”
	“Paul and Aquinas and CS Lewis all embrace scientific reasoning.”
	Philosophical sophistication and clear reasoning are important too.
But in the last few years, I have taken a new tack.
I meet arguments with curiosity.
	“Why is this important to you?”
	“What do you hope for when you say that?”
	“What do you fear?”
And here I must emphasize – it has to be genuine curiosity;
	it can’t just be a conversational gambit or a logical trap.
We have to care and listen.

I find I learn a great deal more.
	I build relationships,
		and often I relax the anxieties that led to the argument
		in the first place.
	I find that God is doing work in Creationists and Atheists
		and all manner of people.
	The trick is to figure out what,
		and help where I can.
I find that helping them be right,
	is far more important to me
	than proving I’m right.
And so, I am an evangelist for passionate curiosity
	and for the ability to accept correction graciously.
Hold fast to what is good because it is good,
	but not because it is what you are holding.
Be ready at all times to speak the truth that is in you,
	and also be ready to let go.
You never know when you will discover a pearl of great price,
	and be called upon to lose all that you have,
	so that you can accept this one new thing.

The search for truth is never over,
	at least not in this lifetime.
God has so much more for us to see and do and love.

To bring love is to wait for love.
	It doesn’t work any other way.
To bring truth is to wait for truth.

So I will continue to boast in my weakness,
and I will continue to travel light,
	knowing that God can, and will, and does
	provide infinitely more than I can ask or imagine,
	at every stop along the way.


Posted by: dacalu | 29 June 2015

Peter and Paul, Faith and Reason

I had the honor and pleasure of worshiping with the congregation of St. Mary’s, Prestwich (near Manchester, UK) yesterday.  Here is the sermon I shared.


Feast of Saints Peter and Paul



Zachariah 4 (“the two anointed ones”)

Acts 12:1-11 (An angel leads Peter from prison)

Matthew 16: 13-19 (“But who do you say that I am?”)




Peter and Paul make an interesting pair.

Peter, first among the followers of Jesus,
	prominent in Jerusalem,
	he was the first Christian insider.
Peter was known for his willingness to act.
Indeed, we often see him speaking up or diving in,
	even when he doesn’t know what’s going on.
We remember Peter for his enthusiasm.

Paul, on the other hand, started as a persecutor of the Church.
	A strict legalist and defender of the religious establishment,
	he was struck blind on the road to Damascus
	and changed everything.
Paul became the ultimate outsider,
	bringing the Gospel to the gentiles,
	challenging the authority of the Twelve in Jerusalem,
	he even claimed the status of Apostle,
	though he had never met Jesus in the flesh.
Two millennia later, he seems a great authority figure,
	but at the founding of the church, this was not so obvious.
At the same time, Paul was the consummate intellectual,
	trained as a theologian and familiar with philosophy.
We remember Paul for his sophistication and knowledge.

What are we to make of the two of them together?
It is, I think, one of God’s little jokes,
	that they were joined in martyrdom
	to found the church in Rome.

Today is the Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul,
And I thought it would be a good opportunity to talk about faith and reason.
	I am, after all, in town on my way to a retreat
	with the Society of Ordained Scientists.
The Society has roughly 150 members in the UK and the United States,
	all of us trained both as clergy and as scientists.
Faith and reason comes up quite frequently,
	even more so in the US, 
where we seem to be struggling with the question
	as a nation.
I don’t think there is any question
	that faith and reason CAN go together.
The question I have for you today
	is can they ever be opposed to one another?
	And what would that mean?
I want you to think of a time when your beliefs
	and your education ran into each other.
	What did you do?
	Did you, like Peter, dive right in with enthusiasm.
	Or did you ponder it deeply
		waiting like Paul, for God to hit you over the head?

Recent surveys, in both the US and the UK,
	suggest that Evangelical Christians, 
along with the general public,
have a high opinion of science and the work it can do.
Likewise, scientists, engineers, and other academics
	commonly report personal faith in God,
	though they are less likely to attend services
	or subscribe to an organized religion.
Despite the rhetoric, we rarely meet anyone without faith 
or without knowledge.
Nor do I think Peter and Paul’s attempts to understand
	the radically new Jesus Christ
	in light of tradition, learning, and common sense,
	were all that different from modern
	confusion on the same issues.
In Christ we are presented with something quite challenging.
We are asked to accept that some things 
are more important than life and death.
We are asked to pray for our enemies, forgive those who harm us,
	give away our wealth, and rely on God for food and shelter.
The Gospel is powerful precisely because it
	works against what we know.
God is attempting to show us something.
In our reading from Acts,
	God asks Peter to leave the ordinary rules of the world,
	and simply walk out of prison.
In the Gospel, it is Peter who recognizes the radical otherness
	of Jesus.
Or perhaps, I should say that Peter recognizes
	the radical otherness of the world to which we are accustomed.
	Jesus, after all, is the real world;
	the common sense of our daily lives
		is the illusion.
We are often called to make a leap of faith.
We must make this leap because the world is broken.
	I cannot say whether this is original sin,
		or someone’s fault,
		or just entropy,
	but I know the world is unsatisfactory.
	I know the world is, in some way, corrupt.
And I also know, that attempting to fix that corruption
	with more of the same,
	is doomed to fail.
The world is broken because we don’t understand one another,
	and we don’t understand ourselves.
Jesus’ teaching means something,
	because it is something different.
It aims to break us out of our bad habits.
I could stop there.
I could say faith wins out over reason,
	but that would be wrong.
It would be, if you’ll forgive me,
	Robbing Paul to pay Peter;
	giving one his due, but not the other.
I am a priest, but I am also an evolutionary biologist and a historian.
	And I know there is more to the story.

Christ asks us to give up ourselves,
	but not to give up the grace we have already found
	in the world God created.
Peter had to reconcile being a fisher, with being an Apostle.
At the end of the Gospels, he is still a fisher.
Nor do I think he gave that up to be a teacher, preacher, and leader
	in the Church.
Jesus asked him to become a fisher for people,
	and I suspect he continued to fish for fish…
	Why give that up.
Paul became a follower of Jesus,
	but he did not lose his love and learning of scripture.
He did not forget his deep knowledge of Genesis and Isaiah.
He did not lose his understanding of Platonic philosophy,
	which appears again and again in his letters,
	as he reaches out to the educated and uneducated.
In his own words, he seeks to be all things to all people,
	so that some might be saved.

I do not think our modern struggles to understand science
	in light of Christianity – 
	or Christianity in light of science – 
	are all that different from the struggles of Peter
		who wanted the Messiah not to die
	and of Paul,
		who struggles at length to fit spirit, soul, body, and flesh
		into one, complete picture of the world.
Saint Augustine did this, as did Saint Macrina of Capadocia,
Saint Aquinas and Saint Catherine,
Luther, Calvin, and Mary Baker Eddy.
I don’t agree with all of their answers,
	but I recognize their struggle,
	to understand the old creation and the new,
	their lives by birth and their lives by baptism,
	their tradition and their hope.
The question is not which to pick – faith or reason.
The question is how do we handle those rare times
	when they do not line up.

What do you do when your love of God,
	and your respect for the teachings of the church
	come into conflict?
What do you do when your hope for God’s Kingdom
	runs afoul of your secular education,
	or popular opinion,
	or cutting edge science?

That is my passion and my Good News to share.
We are, in fact, all struggling with this.
We must get past the mindset that says
	everyone must choose one side or the other.
The most ardent Fundamentalist Christian
	and the most unrepentant Evangelical Atheist,
	are both trying to make sense of the world.
Saint Augustine asks us to bend our 
memory, reason, and will to the love of God.
We want desperately for others to be clearly wrong
	so that we can be clearly right.
	It’s relaxing to think we have successfully navigated the shoals
		to come to our opinion.
	But even if there is exactly one right answer,
		and even if we have found it,
		Jesus did not ask us to conquer,
			but to care,
			even to suffer for the sake of those 
who are in the wrong.
	What then, can we do to help others reason better
		AND have better faith?
	What can we do that honors both 
		Peter’s enthusiasm and Paul’s intellect?
	And their ability, together, to give all of themselves
		to the Church and to God?
You know the answer already.
I know you do.
	you have not made the connection
		from prayer and liturgy,
	to all the fancy questions of philosophy and ethics.
I want to suggest the rules are the same.
We practice here, who we want to be in the world,
	in our reason and in our society,
	in our human interactions
	and in the things we claim to know.

Be silent – listen for God and listen to people.
	Hear not only what they are saying, but why they say it.
	Listen with your heart.
Read – both the book of nature and book of scripture.
	God has written interesting, useful things in both.
Think deeply, bringing all of yourself
	to the promises and problems you see and hear.
Forgive – yourself and others.
	It’s hard to imagine failing as dramatically
		as Peter, who denied Jesus at his trial,
		or Paul, who held people’s coats
			while they killed Saint Stephen.
	It’s hard to imagine redemption as wondrous
		as their transformation, service as great as
		the two men we credit with founding the Church.
Share peace and food – bring the gifts found here into every interaction,
	from your family to the annoying neighbor and the trying boss,
	from bumbling employee to the tired women ahead of you in a queue,
	and even to those who would actively harm and hinder you.
Bless – when you find something worthwhile, give it away.
I forget that I have this opportunity
	to make all of life an extension of this ritual.
I forget that the same rules apply.
Until Peter and Paul remind me
	that my faith and reason work together,
that only by bringing all of myself to this table, 
	can I bring this table to the world.
And so I pray for reasonable enthusiasm and enthusiastic reason.
I pray that the raw goodness in me may be refined,
	properly fitted and accompanied by others, 
who have what I lack.

And I hope that for you, as well.

God bless and keep us,
	and make us whole.



Posted by: dacalu | 23 June 2015

Astrobiology and Religion

I just returned from the Astrobiology Science Conference in Chicago and was thinking about astrobiology and religion.  How does our exploration of life in the universe relate to our faith?  Here are some very basic questions to get the ball rolling, but I’d love to hear other questions from readers.

Christianity: Does the entire cosmos suffer from sin, just life, or just humans?  Is the whole cosmos redeemed, just life, or just humans?  Is there one Messiah or many?  If one, do we have an obligation to spread the faith to other planets?  If many, how do we pair religions?
Islam: Humans are God’s representatives on Earth (classically “vicegerents”); do we have this responsibility relative to other places, or just Earth?  Are alien life forms responsible for Islam (submission to God) or just humans?  Would alien Islam be the same as human Islam?
Hinduism: Can one be reincarnated as an alien?  If so, what obligations do aliens have in life?
Buddhism: Are their non-terrestrial sentients?  How does the study of life here and the search for life elsewhere shape our attachment/aversion to our own unique location? How can studying these things help us understand the non-duality of self and other.
Judaism: Are aliens kosher? That’s an imprecise way of putting it, but it sums up the central question of how non-terrestrial life fits into our obligations for purity as God’s covenant people?

Posted by: dacalu | 28 May 2015

Applied Faith

This week I had the privilege of worshiping with the Lutheran Episcopal Ministry at MIT. Here are the words I shared.  I’ll note here that they come in the context of discussions about the the rites of Eucharist and Baptism, whether we can and should change them in certain circumstances (e.g., to be more inclusize), and who gets to decide (i.e., the community, the presider, the denomination…). Though the words stand on their own, they carry that as well.



Micah 6:6-8 (“what does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”)

John 21:1-19 (“Feed my sheep”)



One of my favorite comics (Cowbirds in Love #46 to be precise)
	goes something like this:

“Figure 1: Why did you build a death ray?
Figure 2: To take over the world. (cue maniacal laughter)
Figure 1: No, I mean what mad hypothesis are you testing? Or are you just making mad observations?
Figure 2: Look, I’m just trying to take over the world.
Figure 1: You’re at least going to leave some of the world as a mad control group, right?

Sad truth: most “mad scientists” are actually just mad engineers.”

Our lessons today are all about the fundamentals of Christianity,
	the core of our faith, if you will.
“Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly before God.”
“Feed my sheep.”
Countless commentaries have been written on these passages,
	arguing for mercy over justice – or justice over mercy,
	faith before works, or practicing what you preach.
Being the person I am, I thought of Cowbirds.
	What can I say?
I am not a Christian Scientist,
but maybe I am a Christian Engineer.
(On the side I should say that my Grandfather was a Christian Scientist,
	in the Mary Baker Eddy sense.
	I have great respect for many Christian Scientists,
	but that’s not really what I’m aiming for here.)
Another way to put it would be to ask whether
	my focus is on the truth
		“and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” Jn 8:32
	or whether my focus is on action
		“Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these 
who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Jn 25:40
Scientists find things out and Engineers get things done.
Many Christians think that faith 
is about finding correct propositions about the world
or at least having the right mindset
Other Christians think faith
	is about accomplishing things in the world.
What do you think?

Both positions leave me a bit cold.
I don’t like faith as science.
	While there is an aspect of observation and hypothesis.
	There is no control group, no fixed parameters.
	I don’t try loving Thea but not Kari Jo to see what the different effects are.
	I don’t compare the Lutheran Eucharistic Prayer
		to the Episcopal to see which one makes better Jesus.
I’ll admit Jesus could be saying:
	Watch the goats and watch the sheep and see which one fares better.
		But truthfully the goats do better by most popular measures,
			so that’s not really helpful 
(despite what some Calvinists tell you).
	God has a soft spot for the chosen people and it usually means
		sacrifice for the sake of others.
Alternatively, Jesus could be saying:
	Feed the sheep and see what they turn into…
	This is, I think, I little closer to the truth,
		but it’s more a matter of curiosity than testing.
	Nowhere are we asked to “not feed” the goats.
		Nowhere are we called to create a control group of outsiders.
		To mangle a popular saying:
			Christians are about all of the sheep, all of the time.
Paul does tell us to “test everything and hold fast to what is good”
(I Thessalonians 5:21).
Still, I think neither truth nor careful inquiry is at the heart of Christianity.
	They are important additives.

Nor do I really like faith as engineering.
	That seems to imply that I have a goal in mind before-hand
		and I’m just using my faith to get there.
Jesus could be saying:
	Be sure that all the sheep are fed,
		but presumably Jesus could have actually fed the sheep himself:
		manna, loaves and fishes, you get the idea.
	So I think a strictly goal oriented approach to faith
		misses out, whether our goal be earthly justice
			(as the liberation theologians propose)
		or purity or inclusion or enlightenment or submission…
	All of these are important, but I think they cannot be all important.
Are any of you familiar with Soylent and Schmoylent
	and the array of drinkable foods that streamline nutrition?
I must admit that I’ve considered it – I still do.
But somehow, I don’t think Jesus would really be happy with
	a werehouse filled with sheep hooked up to IVs.
If that sounds too far fetched, I’d be happy to direct you to Aquinas,
	who feels comfortable telling us about the least possible
	elements necessary for Eucharist and Baptism.
	(He was a Christian Engineer par excellence.)
	Only one kind is necessary (bread or wine) and you can receive visually,
		if necessary.
	Only a drop of water is necessary.
	All of which has led to some very silly rituals of feeding and washing
		that utterly fail to communicate nutrition or cleanliness
		to anyone who is not, likewise, a Christian Engineer.
So I don’t think we are given faith in quite that light.
	The “get the job done” mentality
		is a bit too mercenary.
Once again, Hebrews says we must 
“run with perseverance the race” (Hebrews 12:1).
I do not claim that this future focus is necessarily wrong,
	but it appears to be attached to something else.

The conclusion I’ve come to, this week at least, is that I am
	mostly a Christian technician.
	I carry out the protocols handed down to me.
	Like any good technician, I pay attention and try to improve the protocol.
	I tweak and adjust:
		sometimes it makes things better. Often it has little or no effect.

A big part of the protocol for me IS true curiosity.
And a big part of the protocol IS tinkering for the sake of better results –
	where better results are measured by people loving other people.
But at the end of the day, there is a certain amount
	of entering into the experience,
	following the steps without being entirely sure why,
		or where they lead.

So, when I look at the Gospel,
	I see this.
Jesus is giving Peter something to do.
It’s not a command – what the philosophers call deontological ethics:
	morality as obedience to a standard.
Nor is it, strictly speaking, philosophy – 
done for the sake of coming into harmony with the cosmos.
(Though I suppose there is an element of that.)
It’s something Jesus did, and it worked, and he asked us to keep doing it.

I’m going away for a while; would you water the plants?
I’ll be at a conference, could you check the power levels while I’m gone?

We feed the sheep because we care about the shepherd,
And we feed the sheep because we care about the sheep.

We may not understand how it works – though it’s worth trying.
We may not always see the results – though that shapes our concern.
It’s a protocol; and it works.

[Protocol definition 3.1 from the OED: a procedure for carrying out a scientific experiment or a course of medical treatment.]

And, lest you mistake me – I will add this caveat:
	No one blindly follows protocols.
	No one waters the plants after the house has flooded.
	No one checks the power levels when the CPU is smoking.
	And no one attempts to feed sheep that are throwing up.
Oh, wait.
	Sometimes Christians do.  It is a metaphor after all.
Protocols require some understanding,
	even though they don’t require complete comprehension.
Indeed, they are often the best tool we have
	for learning from those who’ve done it before.

This week I ask you to join me in thinking about Christian protocols,
	why and how we do them.
I ask you to help me remember what we have been asked to do,
	as we live in this strange world
	of nurturing an experiment in progress.
	Or was that carrying out a technological plan?
God can be a bit inscrutable after all.

Let me suggest that every time we
Join, or 
we are invited into a protocol for making the whole world new.


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