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Calculating God, by Bill Lewellis

Calculating God
The root of Christian living: Be who you are

Bill Lewellis
The Morning Call, May 17, 2014

My son Matt makes me wonder what I'm missing by disinterest in science fiction and fantasy literature. I try occasionally to discover what that might be.

I stayed recently with a 2000 Robert Sawyer science fiction novel, Calculating God, because part of it surfaced my bias that theology, specifically moral theology in this instance, is more art than science. More intuitive than analytical and deductive.

So much of what is right and wrong is difficult to determine. That’s from the book, but it’s also the experience of many who try to live good lives and do good in the process.

In Calculating God, an extra-terrestrial, Hollus, who believes in God, told a Canadian paleontologist, Thomas Jericho, who does not, about the extra-terrestrial Wreeds whom math confounds just as "philosophical questions about the meaning of life, ethics and morality confound us.”

Though we have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, Hollus said, every theory of morality we come up with fails because we tend toward reducing morality to logic. Mathematical morality. The longer we live, experience suggests we can’t.  

“We attempt to apply mathematics –– something we are good at –– to ethics, something we are not good at,” Hollus tells Jericho. Such attempts always fail us. Intuitive morality, the more complex the question, defies mathematical logic.

I have written sermons and columns for some 50 years. Lately, I’ve focused on those who take their doubts more seriously than themselves, who find comfort, not anxiety, in questions.

I was fortunate to have teachers in the ‘60s who had one foot in classical theology which tended to be analytical and another in intuitive creativity where God is still speaking.

A German Jesuit, Father Joseph Fuchs, who taught at the Gregorian University in Rome, informed my first experience of truly Christian moral theology.

I was expecting to study the law… God’s law, church law, case studies. Math become morality.

I was primed for answers.

During the first few weeks of class, however, Josef Fuchs read and commented on passages from St. Paul’s letters. Hello, I thought. Was this the moral theology class? There’s someone here reading from the bible.

So at odds with my expectations, Josef Fuchs gleaned from St. Paul’s writings those passages where he says we have been changed, transformed, reborn. In Christ.

He suggested again and again that in that change, in that transformation, in that rebirth — in Christ — we discover the defining moment for Christian living: that the answer to “What must I do?” is contained in the question, “Who am I?” and that the Christian moral imperative is rooted not in law but in Jesus Christ and in the person I have become in Christ.

Paul often follows “You are a new creation,” Josef Fuchs pointed out, with “Therefore, BE (who you are)!” This sequence, Fuchs said, was Paul’s moral theology.” You are a new creation in Christ. You are mystery. Let the mystery unfold. Let the secret be told. Be reconciled. Be glad. Be thankful. Be compassionate. Be who you are. Be that new creation in Christ.

That, he suggested, was the heart of Christian morality: Jesus Christ and the new creation we have become in Christ. Josef Fuchs called it the Pauline Indicative-Imperative: You are a new creation in Christ. Therefore, be…

Yes, I do miss something crucial by disinterest in science fiction and fantasy literature. I miss that God touches our hearts and imaginations as much if not more than God reaches us through cold and artless logic. I miss the unlimited artful scope of intuition.

[Canon Bill Lewellis,, a retired Episcopal priest, served on the Bishop’s staff of the Episcopal Diocese of Bethlehem for 24 years and on the Bishop’s staff of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Allentown for 13 years before that.]







Bill Lewellis

Dear Bruce

Were I inclined to respond to a column such as I had written, I can imagine myself saying much of what you have said, though I would probably have said it not so well.

I tried in my column simply to counter in a general way the belief that it is possible to pose and solve moral dilemmas as if they were problems in classical logic, with rational syllogisms. There is, of course, technical and practical knowledge. The former can be put in a textbook on moral theology. The latter adds current intuition, introspection and personal experience… and exists only in use. It is my opinion that technical knowledge simplifies reality by prescinding from the rest of what we know, i.e., from intuition, introspection and experience. (A few ideas in this paragraph were borrowed from “Rationalism in Politics” by Michael Oakeshott.)

While a student at the Gregorian University in Rome, many years ago, I asked one of my Jesuit professors in moral theology if he thought there were moral absolutes. Yes, he said (I paraphrase), but in this world none of us will ever be sufficiently keen to articulate them.

At the same time, I bow to you with a line from George Eliot's Middlemarch: “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.”


Bruce W. Marold

This line of thought is misleading in some respects, in downplaying the role of mathematics or logic in moral thinking. (Part of the way it is misleading is by referring to 'mathematical logic'. Statistics (applied math) is far more likely to be useful than 'mathematical logic'. The main role of logic is in detecting fallacies in reasoning (the kind of fallacy committed by Job's three friends, for example.)

No reputable moralist reduces moral thinking to mathematics. That is an out and out straw man, easy to defeat, but misleading. And to say we are "not good at ethics" is another misleading statement, which essentially confirms what I will say below. People trained in the field are good at ethics, and the most typical of these are Doctors and Economists, both of whom use lots of math, especially probability. (see below)

The cleverness of this article is that it takes an extra-terrestrial point of view, assuming that this privileged view will somehow be clear than our own. Nonsense.

For example, in order to determine that there is something fundamentally and morally wrong with our distribution of wealth, it takes a very astute economist (basically a user of applied math) and lots of data collected to show that (off the top of my head, don't quote me) the top 2% of U.S. citizens hold as much wealth as the bottom 50%. No amount of intuition could tell you that, even though a decent prophet could sniff it out, it takes hard numbers to influence social policy (a branch of applied moral thinking).

It is not only the detection of such problems, it is also needed to evaluate methods for solving this imbalance, without, for example, creating a backlash, the kind which lead to the storming of the Bastille. The main problem is that the policy must demonstrate that it is only levelling from the very top, and will not affect those incomes of most average "middle class" families. And you need math to separate the middle class from the strata above and below.

Jeremiads are nice, but today, you need Paul Krugman (Nobel prize winning economist) to spell out the problems in mathematically sound research and insight.

Intuition IS important when split second decisions, the kind doctors, police, soldiers, and firemen have to make in their work, but those decisions are based on training, which, in turn, is based on "the odds" as calculated by a statistician and a computer. Watching "House" shows how much medicine is based on "the odds". Social policy decisions are "urgent", but there is generally enough time to run through the numbers to be sure one is not doing more harm than good.

(Hypothetical) case in point: 1000 people in a community have $100 billion among them ($100 million apiece). The remaining 10,000 in the community have $1 million among them ($10,000 apiece). How do you decide where the injustice is, and how do you decide how to rectify the problem? Math. Of course.

(Another hypothetical) Two patients need a liver transplant. The one is an unreformed alcoholic, where the chances of surviving with a new liver are 1 in 10 over the first year. The other is a vegetarian, who contracted a disease in the liver. Their chances of survival over the first year is 19 in 20. How do you decide who to give the liver to? Math.

These are not uncommon examples. I suspect part of the problem is that math, which is incorruptible, gets to be so complex, it begins to defy intuition or worse, emotions and personal interest. Give me math over intuition any day of the week, and twice on Sunday.

Yes, God gives us the basic premises. Applying those rules where billions of people, or even two, requires logic, demographics, and statistics. Ignore them and the chances you will be working more on the basis of self interest than on sound application of principles becomes a matter of politics rather than genuine morality.

I would suggest the editor of this blog screen material like this for credibility, and not because it "sounds good".

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