Archive for January, 2011

Joseph Priestly: A Man of Faith; A Man of Science

January 28, 2011 - 10:13 am 134 Comments

Joseph Priestley: Man of Faith; Man of Science

The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.

This morning I will begin this morning with a quick quiz: Who discovered soda water? Joseph Priestley! Who invented “laughing gas? JP Who discovered carbon dioxide? JP Along with his greater discovery, which, at first, he had labeled phogeston, and that we now call oxygen, Joseph Priestley, the Unitarian minister, theologian, and famous scientist gave much to our world… In fact, he might be the most famous Unitarian that no one knows! So please remember him, each time you breathe, or each time you get gassed at the dentist’s, or at least each time you order a scotch and soda!

Furthermore, Priestley along with his new collaborator, Ben Franklin, wrote a definitive history of electricity, and he is also credited with being the first person to identify plant respiration and photosynthesis! So you can readily see that there is a great deal to know about Priestley, the scientist, however, less is commonly known about his philosophical and religious thinking… So I will begin with a brief overview of his life, and then with an emphasis on his religious ideas, I will make some comments on science and faith, ethics and invention that have been personally instructive and eye-opening for me…

Priestley was born in Yorkshire England, on March 15th in the year 1733. His life is one we modern liberal thinkers should take seriously; he contributed much to the world of science and to the realm of faith, and did not see them as opposites or opponents. Rather than take contrasting positions as we commonly do in our modern, polarizing world, Priestley’s life story attests to how science and faith can be harmonious and complementary.

Priestley was raised by his maternal aunt, a strict Calvinist, after his mother died in childbirth, with his younger brother. He was always a frail and sickly child- and he found his refuge in books, and with family encouragement, soon found himself being able to speak four languages, and being widely read in philosophy and religion.

You see, his aunt wanted him to become a Calvinist minister, and so she shipped him off, at age nineteen, to a Daventry Academy, to prepare him to be a dissenting minister…. dissenting only from the Church of England…


But, to her dismay, he went beyond his aunt’s wishes… Quickly, he found himself to be someone who didn’t accept mainline Protestant teachings either! He was, in short, a scandalous liberal; he affirmed his belief in free will; he doubted the virgin birth, and he questioned the divinity of Jesus… All issues that are mild for today’s world, but back then, it was enough to arouse violent attacks and all sorts of antisocial digs and diatribes… Maybe most of all, he became intensely committed to the necessity that one’s religion should assist your personal and intellectual quest for truth, and that investigations into the new frontiers of science were supportive and synergistic to your personal religious search. When it concerns the greater understanding the nature and the creation story, Priestley affirms that embracing a scientific basis for life, and for human well being, can only serve to encourage a liberal, open minded faith.

In his twenties, he was able to overcome a large barrier for a minister- a stuttering problem- and so he found himself more comfortable with small study groups, and with question and answer formats. He went on to author the leading philosophy on class size and the quality of instruction, for which he was awarded a doctorate in Humanities from Edinburgh in 1766.

Later, while serving a church in Birmingham, he began researching and writing a religious expose; entitled “The History of the Corruptions in Christianity.” In this book, he detailed the various alien, and obtuse ideas that crept into Christian thought from rival cultures. He saw these additions as unnecessary layering of complexity and contradictions that were an intrusion on understanding the core teachings of Jesus. These foreign ideas obscured the value of his moral leadership, and often rendered it overly pious and incomprehensible! Of course, the public opinion that greeted his book was harsh and negative- it was considered blasphemous, and its publication set up a fierce opposition to him in neighboring churches. Not content to merely question religious ideas, Priestley went on to publicly support the goals of the American and then the French Revolution, and he expressed his disgust for the English involvement in the slave trade… As a whole, within English society, he was branded as a royal pain…

He was, an official antagonist to the Anglican church, a political irritant to King George, and as a worrisome opponent by almost every conservative group!


As the venom and the vitriolic reaction to Priestley grew, it finally erupted in the hate filled act of burning down his home and laboratory. On Bastille day in 1791, an incensed group of Anglicans, acting as a zealous mob, burned everything to the ground: not one unscorched book remained; 30 years of work, incinerated. It was quite fortunate that Priestly, his wife and children, were away that evening…

Despite the utter chaos such intolerance created in his life, as a mark of his character, his next sermon to his congregation was entitled, ” Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” As the famous biographer of early Unitarianism,

Earl Morris Wilbur, states it: ” Out of the fire of his ordeal, sparked the flame of freedom.” … (When I first read that story, some 26 years ago, I felt two things; He is a far greater and more forgiving man than I could ever be, and therefore, I need to take his spiritual and ethical example seriously, and see how it might apply to my life…)

In 1794, at the age of 61, Priestley set sail for America. He brought with him an outstanding reputation in both science and theological inquiry, and was warmly welcomed by Franklin, Adams, and especially Jefferson. The clergy, however, were far more cautious; given that Priestley’s Unitarian ideas were not yet accepted…

Landing in Philadelphia, he eventually settled in the rural northeast region called Northumberland, to be near his sons who had come over ten years earlier… He declined becoming the chair of chemistry at UPenn, and instead chose to establish a church in Northumberland that was the first to publicly declare Unitarian views.

I consider it to be a shame that so little is commonly known about Joseph Priestley. Our science books mention him briefly as the discoverer of oxygen, but then he is quickly dismissed. Like so many famous people, his depth is dispensed with in order to cover the span of history and science, thereby not teaching our children about the human side of science: the countless trials and experiments, being faced by doubt and uncertainty, the faith filled sacrifices a scientist has to make to be true to one’s personal search for answers and to find the elusive breakthrough. Remember, Priestley always saw himself as minister first, and then as a scientist. And it was his intense pursuit of truth- be it considered to be divine and natural, that was his principal concern.


It could be said that he was an advocate of an empirical faith and a religiously based science… Here are some words from his personal journal that have influenced my outlook the most:

“All those who labor in the discovery and communication of truth,

IF they are actuated by the love of it, and its importance to the

happiness of all [humankind, then] may consider themselves to be

workers together with God.”

This outlook, that one’s motivations for science or discovery need to serve God or the common good made a lasting impression… It calls into question the profit motive, even within a capitalist culture. Personally, it has warned me to always be diligent about what one will work for… It recall the saying that we make good, by doing good….

His life and outlook have taught me that we, in our modern world, need to look carefully and become far more vigilant when appraising the motives behind scientific discoveries. We have to admit to the need for an ethical perspective, and an abiding concern for the greater good, that needs to be maintained. Otherwise, it becomes science for science’s sake- an amoral aloof enterprise, and without a sustaining moral compass, there are many technologies, and many inventions and chemical advances that can, I would say, that have clearly backfired on society or have been used in expedient ways that exploit humanity for crass profit or competitive advantage.

Priestley’s passion was to understand the how’s and why’s of the universe. His was a sacred quest for truth; a search that made theology and science come together as mutual and complementary servants to the advancement and appreciative understanding of our natural world. (In today’s scientific frontiers, it seems as if physicists and physicians are doing the best theological and metaphysical research!)

From his writings, I have gleaned that Priestley believed in a benevolent Creator who gave curiosity, a love for learning, and wisdom to all humans, so they could discover for themselves what they needed to know- so that we humans can invent or discover new approaches that preserved or that advanced the human good.


His outlook and approach was a call to humane science, and to having an ethical perspective that oversees the results and consequences of invention and technology. When we invent or create technology without being earnestly concerned for its effects and consequences, then we place in jeopardy not only the quality of our human lives, but we endanger the creation itself.

Consider, for a moment, how far we have strayed from Priestley’s ideals… We each can make a list of dire consequences from technology; global warming begins the list: What to do with the waste from nuclear power plants, agribusiness and the poisoning of our top soil and rivers, abuses within our food safety regulations, and so forth… I have to wonder if, in today’s industrially created world, I wonder if a pure scientific idealism like Priestley’s can truly exist- the ideal of having an uncompromised desire to know, to discover, to find out, without affixing a moral price tag or having some political and industrial intrigue attached to it… The conservative estimate is that 70% of all of our significant natural science research has either a military or an industrial connection to it… And remember what did General Eisenhower say about that complicity, and entanglement???

If only our college science curriculum were taught with reverence, and taught to examine any ethical concerns; if only our universities did not sell out to businesses and the government, or be willing to skew their research to only present positive results!

Looking at it positively, if they did create such practical liaisons, that they would agree not compromise health, safety, and would refuse to ignore the long term consequences of their discoveries and new compounds… (Domino Sugar)

As an under grad at Boston University, I had the privilege of being taught a systemic and ethical approach to biology by Dr. John Jablonski. He was a philosopher and a scientist… He was the first to teach me about human engineering, and the ecological consequences of pollution… Coming from Pittsburgh, when it still was a steel town, he experienced the soot and particulate matter in the air first hand… (Charleston’s air?)

He taught me that science and values have to agree; if not, the risk of estrangement and abuse increases… We have to discourage invention or technology that is crassly made without thought of its ethical, or environmental repercussions…


Ironically, it was some twenty years later, when I was in U-U ministry about ten years, when I heard his name again… You see, as he prepared for his retirement from the biology department, he also started taking some classes at B.U.’s theology school… And four years after his retirement, at the age of 62, he became my U-U colleague!

He was a humanist with a deep regard for sustaining values, ecological awareness, and industrial safety; it was a joy to reunite with a beloved professor, and I truly enjoyed our conversations. He served three small churches in greater Boston, until his death at age 75, five years ago…

The potentials for a beautiful marriage between science and religion has often been jilted. Outside of belonging to our progressive, rational and open minded faith tradition, most of the time, the quest for scientific knowledge has resulted in severe repercussions and so the scientist feels compelled to leave his or her childhood or traditional religion behind. All too often, the strict, fearful doctrines of religion are placed in opposition to modernity or the new approaches that science provides. The scientific person receives antagonism or feels rejected because of where her or his knowledge has led them. The stories of Galileo and De Chardin are well known examples of the fear within reactionary religion; and no matter how devout the scientist, many church hierarchies remained suspicious of change, and wary of any progressive revelations based on empirical biological evidence and technological progress…

However, in today’s world, it seems that the power of the religious sanction has become reversed. It is now the power of corporate labs and moneyed universities that seem to lack any acceptance of religious conviction. We are experiencing the results of a generation of scientism, and the general lack of wonder and awe in our society that seems to discount or dismiss an appreciation for the transcendent, the spiritual, and the inspirational side of academic or scientific life.

What is “scientism?” It is a relatively new word for the belief in science as one’s religion, or making science a substitute for God or having a religious beliefs. It is totally linear, and holds to a reductionist world view that reduces human existence to only what can be measured or proven by a strict scientific method.


Now this definition is not mine… When it came to me, it was quite an eye-opener! I first heard the term when I was attending a doctoral seminar on Science, Experience, Culture and Faith at MIT in the early 1980’s. The professors that were offering this seminar announced that the idea came to them after reading the results of an EDS doctoral project that centered on the task of cooperatively creating a blessing or dedication service for a new lab that was to open that Spring. Ten faculty researchers had individually volunteered to create or participate in this dedication service. The ministers, after getting the researchers to participate, decided to write an article for the MIT school paper with the intention of announcing that this dedication ceremony would be held on such a date, and then asked the ten scientists to sign or endorse the article with them. They could not. They stated that to be so public would be a threat to their security, reputation, peer acceptance, even job tenure! It was clear… You could maintain a personal or private faith as a scientist, but it was far too risky to publicly attest to a religious belief !

Then convening scholars turned to the ministers in attendance and asked, “Have we, as a culture, slipped into the assumption that Is it scientific? Equates with the question: is it real? Is it Worthy? Have we bleached science of its inspirational and intuitive or faith-filled qualities to declare: If it cannot be measured, does it have real value?

One need not be religious conservative to raise some serious questions about the dominant role of science in our lives; and the daily, long lasting impact of science, chemistry, and mechanics has in our lives. I am certain that Priestley would question a world where knowledge without morality, advancement without ethics has became commonplace.

In rethinking about my earlier or formative experiences, and after rereading Priestley’s biography and assorted memoirs of his conversations with Thomas Jefferson and with Universalist physician, Benjamin Rush, I find it perplexing that the congruence of science and faith, invention and ethics, can remain such a difficult quandary for our society. Have we not seen enough of what blind religion or in this case, lame science can give us? What money and profit motives in bed with science can produce? For example, there was a recent 60 Minutes expose on the drug named taxitol, I think it


was, that research on its negative, life threatening effects was withheld, because it would cut into its substantial profits… so at the rate of a death a day, the information was withheld from the FDA for 1000 days; only under pressure, did the disastrous truth become known…

From my perspective, I see that scientists utilize the same faith filled approaches when they pose questions about the properties and elemental possibilities- when they acknowledge that there is an important role for intuition or when they have the persistent faith to pursue answers through or despite a variety of difficulties before reaching their best answers. In a complementary way, religion acts scientifically when it grounds itself in human experience, or scientifically, so that it urges believers to be more socially aware and more environmentally responsible.

Now, I do not see myself as a NeoLuddite- someone who shuns progress… Instead, I see myself as a spiritual descendent of Priestley who believes that science and faith can complement and should complete one another. I marvel at what science can and has done on humanity’s behalf, but I also can well up in anger when I consider oil spills, drug formulas, and toxic manufacturing plants that listen to the beckoning of making a quick dollar more than to the sustaining call of conscience… I wish to see a world where science serves the common good, and can produce, as far as it is possible, products that are that they are responsible, recyclable, and mindful of their long term effects.

I believe that creation is a wonder, and that planetary life, and human existence cannot be reduced down to mere chemicals or genes. I feel that every U-Uist can learn from Priestley, and that we can work cooperatively to rectify the abuses of religion and the abuses of science, and allow both of these areas of human investigation to affirm the wonder of life, the wisdom from experience, and the gracious qualities of life around and within us. This blending of science and faith, is what every scientist and every religious thinker needs to affirm and support, so that all human endeavor can serve noble, safe goals, and will attest to humanity’s highest hopes and most sincere and compassionate ideals. So Be It!

Advice and Admonitions on Church in America: Radical Reflections on the Words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr

January 15, 2011 - 4:13 pm 120 Comments

“… we must not forget that there were three men crucified on Calvery’s hill… two for immorality and theft, living below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, for truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. So, after all, maybe the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists.”

… Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things just as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century

. I am meeting young people everyday whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.

Maybe again, I have been too optimistic, Is organized religion too in extricable bound to the status quo to save our nation and the world? Maybe I must turn my faith to the inner spiritual church, the church within the church, as the true ecclesia, and the hope for our world.”

from Letters From The Birmingham Jail

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

As I see it, without a willingness to consider becoming creative extremists, the mission and vision of any spiritual and/or religious group is at risk of never developing beyond being an irritant to the status quo, a socially troublesome but treatable rash, that will easily be placated and then ignored.

With being willing to become more “creatively maladjusted” is there enough of a sense of dignity and justice that makes any person or group capable of presenting the dis-ease and lament of the people of God effectively and powerfully enough to those who oppose them and who, by patriarchal religious and often penitential tradition and their theological assertions have effectively have controlled them.

Throughout the centuries of Western civilization, churches have come to occupy places of religious prominence and cultural importance. There is an undeniable historical reality that informs us… But that fact of culture and history cannot limit our understanding of what a church is, or what it stands for in our respective communities. Just as it is certain that there is a need for our churches to stand against any intrusions by government concerning one’s right to worship as one sees fit, and to remain separate from mutual entanglements, so, too, is it important for churches to assert their ethical presence in a community. As I see it, our progressively minded churches stand as stately sentinels; they can act as the guardians of individual freedom, and stand watch over the issues of justice and compassion in all civic affairs and interpersonal relationships.. In a world that seems to have lost its moral compass, our inclusive churches can act decisively to promote a concern for corporate responsibility, governmental accountability, and personal ethics. Furthermore, their presence in any conservative community acts as a vibrant religious alternative; a place that promotes freedom and safety, dialogue and self discovery, along the many diverse paths of human and spiritual inquiry towards greater comprehension and understanding. Our progressive and inclusive communities offer a welcoming and affirming environment that promotes a variety of opportunities for rational exploration, self discovery, and personal affirmation, which was traditionally aligned with the idea of the ripening and maturity of one’s soul or awareness.

If King is right in his prophetic sense of where the church of our contemporary culture is today, then the world of culture, consciousness and church life is now, more than ever before, in need of creative extremists. The time for timidity is over; it is Gospel based temerity that longs to assert itself- to present itself as being fully believable- fully and without reservation on the side of compassion, justice, equality and radical change.

If the mission and vision of a spiritual and/or religious group is sincere, it will have to be honest about the degree of obstinacy and frustration it faces in our larger religious world. The power of clerical inertia and the hierarchical arrogance that lies at the base of that power it held on to fiercely. Its desire for keeping up the dysfunctional status quo will remain stolid, intransigent, cold, and callous to the need for change, unless it go unheeded, and people vote to secede with their wallets and their feet! In that regard, it is not too strong to suggest that much of what functions in our culture as mainstream church, and what passes for a purposeful or meaningful spiritual life has already separated from the people of God it claims to serve!

Ask yourself this: If King waited until all the churches aligned with him on civil rights, then the battle would not yet have begun… If Ghandi waited until the English Raj and the Crown police demurred, or until they saw the errors of their inhospitable, dehumanizing ways, then India would still be a colony. So, too, if the faithful today have to ask ourselves this preeminent question: Are we willing to wait?

The history of the Western Church has evolved violently- It was through disagreement with the powers that were ensconced or enshrined, be they be creed, book, prince, or tradition, and that only through reformation, revolution and reform, did visionaries and dissenters have sufficient energy and impetus to create all the many varieties of church that can fill many almanacs and reference books.

As one radical example among many- Who is to say that the time is not right for an American Catholic Church? Or a People’s Catholic Church?

If there is an earnest desire to defeat the systemic evils that we clamor to remove, its arrogant crassness and the icy unresponsiveness that creates so much of the heartache in the women and men of conscience within the institutional church, then to simply protest by declining to agree is insufficient– a rash that is treated with indifference.

Only substantive action will create meaningful reform. Only with an acceptance that one has to be maladjusted to the status quo can there be enough energy generated that will definitively support deep reform and foster genuine change. Only with the affirming and encouraging creation of a new paradigm for spiritual community and ethical service, can the real or true ecclesia that King recommends come into being; Only then will energy of an inclusive and compassionate mission manifest, and only then can a vision that is clear and strong to be seen that exposes the long held, tolerated abuses of the Senex and patriarchal mentality. It is only then that we will arise as the hope for the world, and affirm ” Let the revolution of God’s people ” begin!

Beginning The Year -Spiritually Speaking

January 2, 2011 - 1:48 pm 54 Comments
How we begin, and in what direction our soul point our attention towards is central; That intention and direction guides its evolution, the process of ripening and deepening, and needs to become the central concern for our spiritual aspirations.

As this is the first part of the first month of the new year… It is our wintering or our time of introspection before the bursts of energy and creativity that mark the Spring, I have chosen a few quotes and insights from my personal collection of daily readings to share with you… May they foster insight and contemplation, and assist your growth in awareness and compassion in the coming year…

“The one thing in the world, of value, is the active soul. This every [person is entitled to, and is contained within them, although in almost all of us it is obstructed and unborn.] In this action, it is genius, not the privilege of here and there a favorite, but the sound estate of every [person.] In its essence, it is progressive.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson From A Year With Emerson by Richard Grossman


” I love all beginnings, despite their anxiousness and their uncertainty, which belong to every commencement. If I have earned a pleasure or a reward, or if I wish that something had not happened, if I doubt the worth of an experience and remain in my past- then I choose to begin at this very second. Begin what? I begin. I have already thus begun a thousand lives.

 From the early Journals and the Book, Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke by Joanna Macy and Anita Barrows


“If, like a Cherokee warrior, I can look at the new year as an opportunity to stand on new ground, then strength and courage are on my side. If I have waited a long time for everything to be perfect- and therre have been moments, brief as they were, that filled my expectations- then I can face the challenges….

I will be still and steady, because there is nothing to be gained by showing fear in a chaotic world. I can turn from ignorance and prejudice toward a light that never goes out.

The death of fear is in doing what you fear to do.”

Sequichie Comingdeer



“The greatest accomplishment in life is to be who and what you are, and that is what God wanted you to be when [God} created you.” Abbot Thomas Keating

… “As we begin the new year, let us each look within to identify our true self and work throughout the year to express it.” Brother Wayne Teasdale from his book, The Mystic Hours


“One of the cardinal rules of the spiritual life is that we are to live in the present moment. … There is no need to move in haste. Think only of laying a solid foundation. See that this foundation is deep and broad by absolutely renouncing yourself , and by abandoning yourself without reserve to the requirements of God. Then let God raise upon this foundation whatever type of building {God} pleases. Shut your eyes and commit yourself to God. How wonderful is this walking with Abraham in pure faith, not knowing where you are going! And how full of blessings is the path!

God will be your Guide. [God} will travel with you, as we are told that God traveled with the Israelites bringing them, step-by-step across the desert to the Promised Land. …

From Talking With God, a contemporary translation,                         by Bishop Francois Fenelon


 Meister Eckhart wrote:

“A perfect and true will is one that always is perfectly aligned with God and is empty of everything else. The more a person succeeds in following God’s will, the more she or he unites

With their depth with God’s. By aligning with God’s will, a person takes on the taste of God. Grief and joy, bitterness and sweetness, darkness and light, all of life becomes a divine gift.”

I have kept that quote on a stand on my desk for twenty years… Andrew Harvey

From a collection of essays he wrote and that were included in the Book, One Heart- Universal Wisdom from the World’s Scriptures


 ”There are many paths available for seeking the light within. To start, you have to recognize that there is something precious within to be found, in spite of our culture’s pressure to keep us externally oriented, looking for happiness by being consumers of external goods.

You have to continually struggle against the social current, of course; people who go within are dangerous and unpredictable, so society distrusts, discourages, and often punishes them…

All paths require courage: courage to buck the social tide, courage to see yourself as you really are, courage to take risks. Progress on any genuine path is a gift to us all, as well as a gain for yourself.”

From the book, Waking Up by Dr. Charles Tart, and included in the collection, Meditations for The New Age edited by Carol Tonsing