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The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 1

The laws of thermodynamics and the church Part 1

by Maria L. Evans

Part 1/3:

“Heat and work are forms of energy transfer. Energy is invariably conserved, however the internal energy of a closed system may change as heat is transferred into or out of the system or work is done on or by the system. It is a convention to say that the work that is done by the system has a positive sign and connotes a transfer of energy from the system to its surroundings, while work done on the system has a negative sign. For example, changes in molecular energy (potential energy), are generally considered to remain within the system. Similarly, the rotational and vibrational energies of polyatomic molecules remain within the system.”

–First law of thermodynamics

I’m going to let you in on one of my secret heresies. I believe that God-stuff and classical physics are not mutually exclusive. One of the things I think about all the time when I hear the first part of Genesis 1 is one of the transformation of that world without form and void into our world was the insertion of the laws of physics, with God being the master of physics.

So in that vein, I often see the laws of thermodynamics as a parable for the church.

The first law of thermodynamics addresses the transfer of energy. In lay terms, what this says is this: Energy is transformed in two ways: work and heat. Work transfers energy into the larger system and is considered a positive form of energy transfer. When this is not happening in a closed system. energy is transferred as heat, and that’s considered a negative transfer of energy.

Doing the work of the church has two forms of energy transfer, too. “Work” comprises the things we do “out in the larger system”–mission, evangelism, and all the things we do and are outside the walls of the church. “Heat” is composed of the things we do within the walls of the church–liturgy, structure, governance.

The one given in this scenario is energy is always going to be transferred, whether we want it to be or not, as long as the temperature is somewhere above absolute zero…and guess what? Nothing germane to my life or yours lives at absolute zero. (Yeah, yeah, I know tardigrades–little microscopic critters also known as moss piglets–can live at absolute zero, but you get my drift.)

Energy WILL be transferred–and our choices are work and heat. Really, it’s all about balance.

If we, the church, don’t do enough work that goes outside in the larger system–the world, guess what? It’s gonna create heat, and that heat is going to dissipate in odd ways–in the ways that institutional churches become too self-focusing. If a vestry meeting is all about personalities and not about Gospel principles, it’s a sure sign that there’s too much heat being generated and not enough work.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little heat being generated. One of the beautiful things about worship in the Episcopal Church is our music, our liturgy, our shared love of the Book of Common Prayer, and Eucharistic worship. It gives us enough heat to feel comfortable walking out the door to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord.” That’s a good thing. No one wants to sit and shiver. Shivering is not conducive to movement. Yet, if we don’t do enough work, it gets too hot inside and stuff shrivels and dies. I suspect a lot of the woes mainline churches have had to address in recent years has to do with the fact people outside of those doors don’t find walking into a sauna in their street clothes to look very pleasurable, frankly.

However, if we focus on finding ways to transfer energy into work–when we are out in the world being who we are called to be as Christians and as a community of Christians–and that energy is transferred into the colder places in the world–someone, somewhere is going to want to come in and warm up. They will follow the vapor trail to our door. The only issue is that we don’t get a blueprint. We have no idea who sees it and acts on account of it. Often, it’s not the object of our work, but a casual observer to that work. It’s not even “our” work. It’s Christ’s. We’re simply the conduits that carry it.

When you do an energy audit on your community of faith or of your personal faith life, how much is work and how much is heat?

Maria Evans, a surgical pathologist from Kirksville, MO, writes about the obscurities of life, medicine, faith, and the Episcopal Church on her blog, Kirkepiscatoid


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