Friday, May 29, 2009

Galileo and Christianity

In 1610 Galileo published his defense of Heliocentrism, his discoveries are celebrating their 400 year anniversary this year, with the thought that it took him at least a year to document and write down his discoveries before they could be published. His discoveries and defense of Heliocentrism were quite controversial at the time, and he ended up under house arrest for his pains at the hand of the inquisition.
Christianity and science are often pitted against each other in popular discourse. One of the most common examples cited is that of Galileo Galilei’s fight with Pope Urban VIII, and subsequent trial and condemnation for heresy, concerning his heliocentric sympathies. Heliocentric meaning the idea that the solar system revolves around the sun. However this theory was not new to Galileo, Copernicus had put it forward some sixty years before at the encouragement of the professors of the Lutheran Wittenberg University. In fact, Philip Melanchthon, a theological father of Lutheranism, was instrumental in getting Copernicus’s theory published in the Lutheran city of Nuremburg. As Lutheranism is Christian it would be wrong to say Christianity had a problem with Copernicus or Galileo. (Luther himself, it should be said, did not put much stock in Copernicus’s theory, but never claimed to be a scientist either.) However, certain Christians did have a problem with the theory, and did not act very Christ like in this controversy.
Christianity, strictly speaking, is belief in the Gospel, and really doesn’t have to concern itself in questions of science. It is concerned first and foremost with the death and resurrection of Christ, which has won salvation for all mankind by reconciling the world to God. This is an historical event that cannot be examined by telescopes, or microscopes. If one wants to investigate Christianity they have to subject that event to historical investigation. The death and resurrection of Christ though have many implications for us living today. Whether or not the earth revolves around the sun or vice versa is not one of those implications.
However, the Bible was drawn into the debate by a Pope who acted in a very unwise and unlearned fundamentalist manner concerning its interpretation. This was not really necessary as St. Augustine had already set the precedent some 1300 years earlier for Biblical interpretation that would be kinder to Galileo. In fact, Galileo, a very learned Christian who was not a theological dunce, used Augustinian principles of biblical interpretation in defense of his heliocentric position. Galileo, himself was a Christian, and would not have thought of himself as anything but a Christian. He saw no need to abandon the Bible as the word of God based on his discoveries. He was smart enough not to quote poetical phrases of the Bible as gospel truth concerning the nature of the world.
The truth is that both sides in the controversy were Christian, yet they held two different philosophical views, and the one side uncharitably used the Bible to defend its views. The idea that the earth revolves around the sun had its origins with Aristotle, who did not have a telescope with which to correct his theories. Aristotle’s philosophy found dogmatic acceptance in the church through the work of Thomas Aquinas, who used Aristotle extensively in his theological writings, and his intellectual defense of the Christian faith over and against philosophical attacks on the Christian faith by the Muslim philosophers Avicenna, and Averroes. Thomas Aquinas was not a dumb man, and neither was Aristotle, but it should be admitted that without great investigation, and barring any pressing reason to investigate, it would seem natural to think that the sun revolves around the earth.
It is distressing that today being Christian and being a scientist are considered to be contradictory, and Galileo, who was a Christian, is cited as one example of how the two are not compatible. Many of the controversies of science (including that of evolution) do not really have their roots in a fundamentalist approach to the Bible, but in competing philosophies. It is even admitted by atheist philosophers like Thomas Nagel that current theories of evolution fail to answer crucial questions concerning the development of life, and that the theory of Intelligent Design, which many Christians and non-Christians alike hold to, is in fact intelligent and reasonable. He not only being a Professor of Philosophy, but also a Professor of Law at the prestigious New York University, sees no reason that Intelligent Design could not be taught in public schools. In fact, in the case of Gregory Mendel it was a dogmatic adherence to the evolutionary theory of Charles Darwin that was to blame for impeding scientific progress. Gregory Mendel, and Augustinian Monk and father of modern genetics, was ignored because his theory was not compatible with Darwin’s.
Christianity and science are not opposed to each other. To say they are shows a great deal of ignorance as to the history of science, and for that matter the history of philosophy not to mention Christianity. Christianity and science operate are different subjects, the way history and biology are separate subjects. Though at times these subjects find themselves interrelated, by and large they operate in different spheres altogether. But Christianity has been a great patron of the sciences in general. Not only have many great Christian men such as Galileo and Copernicus made great contributions to the development of scientific thought. The Christian church has also been responsible for establishing many of the universities where the research has taken place. But dogma, Christian or secular, never serves science well.

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