I’ve been reading about the infamous Galileo controversy. And guess what? Everybody who has hurled a dung heap of invective at the Church for denying the “truth” of Galileo’s heliocentric theory, listen up. Galileo’s point was not that our sun was the center of the solar system. Nope. His contention was that our sun was the center of the universe! That idea (which he did not originate and which he presented as fact which he failed to prove) the Church rejected, although she did not forbid Galileo to present the idea as a conjecture. It was the misleading claim of proven fact that she objected to, among other things. The Church didn’t hate Galileo’s idea; she just didn’t want to commit herself to someone’s fanciful opinion without knowing more about it and carefully weighing the evidence.
And, as it turns out, the Church was right. No scientist today thinks that our sun is the center of the universe, though we do realize that the sun is, indeed, the center of our solar system. And I’m glad the Church rejected the earlier, and erroneous, theory disguised as fact.
I can’t help but notice, as I read various accounts of this story around the web, that most versions sound so alike that they could have been copied from the same source and pasted into the various posts. The lack of citations and sources is most annoying too. Below are some links to some of the more interesting versions. I don’t see any reason to link to the standard tellings so ubiquitous on the web, and which promote error as if it were fact (ironically one of the things that got Galileo into trouble so long ago).
More about the Galileo myth
- The Galileo Myth: Science, Religion and Galileo. From Bagnall Beach Observatory. (Note: Links not working as of May 25 2010. I may have saved the page. I’ll look through the external drives this week; if I find it, I’ll post it. Meanwhile, someone had quoted part of the page on his blog. I’ve posted that quote below.)
- The Galileo Controversy. From Catholic Answers.
- Article by Dinesh D’Souza. It is (or at least part of it is) adapted from his book, What’s So Great About Christianity? There are no sources listed in the online article but he says that citations and sources are listed in his book.
One caveat here: D’Souza says, basically, that Galileo got the heliocentric theory right but for the wrong reasons, though it would seem from other accounts that Galileo got it wrong and for the wrong reasons. Turns out ol’ Galileo was unwilling to let go of a little thing called epicycles long after Kepler had. So even his planetary motion observations we hear so much about were wrong.
The Church and Science
One of the clearest explanations of the Christian Church’s approach to science at the time of Galileo is actually given by Galileo himself. In his Letter to Castelli (21 December, 1613), Galileo wrote:
“For the Holy Scripture and nature both equally derive from the divine Word, the former as the dictation of the Holy spirit, the latter as the most obedient executrix of God’s commands; …”
Galileo’s theological interpretation is even more fully developed in his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina (1615) where he writes:
“…God reveals Himself to us no less excellently in the effects of nature than in the words of sacred Scripture, …”
Galileo goes on to quote Augustine and Tertullian in support of his arguments. Obviously these arguments did not begin with Galileo. They were part of Christian tradition he inherited, in which nature was understood to be a book which revealed God. However, while the early Church Fathers understood the Book of Nature to be speaking in allegories of the spiritual life, by the beginning of the second millennium the Book of Nature was being interpreted more literally by Christian thinkers. Nature, which hitherto had been a mere source of allegory for the spiritual life, was now being seen as a source of scientific knowledge which revealed God. This new approach to nature expressed itself in a new theology. In the 12th century, Hugh of St Victor (d.1142) perhaps most clearly expressed the thinking of his contemporary peers in declaring that the whole material creation consisted of letters written ‘by the finger of God’. There thus became two sources of revelation, with the Book of Nature standing alongside the Book of Scripture. Professor Peter Harrison sums up the situation concisely: “Nature was a new authority, an alternative text, a doorway to the divine which could stand alongside the sacred page.” The exploration of the natural world was thus approached as a quest for the divine – an approach to Nature which characterised many of the great scientific minds of the second millennium.
Reflection on these theological assertions resulted in a new confidence in the material world as a means to the knowledge of God. As Peter Harrison puts it, “Albert the Great (c.1200-1280), sounding rather like an eighteenth century British empiricist, announced that all universal knowledge arises out of sense experience. His famous protÃ©gÃ©, Thomas Aquinas (c.1225-1274), agreed that ‘all our knowledge takes its rise from sensation,’ and that ‘it is the knowledge we have of creatures that enables us to refer to God.’ ”
In England, church functionaries devoted themselves to the discovery of God as revealed in Nature. Robert Grosseteste (1168-1253), first chancellor of Oxford University and later Bishop of Lincoln, pursued the study of light, explaining the rainbow as an outcome of refraction. His follower, Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon (1214-1292), wrote three major works campaigning for mathematics and experimental science. All of these men saw science, not as the enemy of religion, but as part of the religious quest. Roger Bacon credited science first and foremost as “the handmaiden of theology”.
The assumption that the natural world was a means of revelation of God became the chief impetus to the development of science, almost to the end of the second millennium.
So, far from being opposed to science, the Christian Church in the West saw it as a means to revelation of God, and this motivated an intense scientific search.