God's Shrinking Space

One of my mother’s favorite hymns celebrates god’s great power:

Oh Lord, my God

When I, in awesome wonder

Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made

I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder

Thy power throughout the universe displayed

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee

How great Thou art, how great Thou art

I can hear her singing this hymn and am moved by the memory even now. Yet the hymn celebrates a bygone time. This hymn envisions the universe as god’s creation and under god’s control. The space for god’s activity has been shrinking since Copernicus argued that the earth revolves around the sun and what is under god’s control has only continued to shrink. Revisiting this pivotal moment can help us understand how we got to where we are today.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543) was a multi-talented man who made important contributions to the Renaissance. He was a Catholic priest with a doctorate in Canon Law, as well as training in medicine and mathematics. He served both the church and the prince as an ambassador. He made major contributions to economic theory. In the true spirit of the Renaissance, there appeared to be little he could not do.

A drawing from "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium." The publication in 1539 of his theory on the motion of the planets, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1539), was both a major event in the history of science and the catalyst  for the first major confrontation between the Catholic Church and science.

The mathematics and observations that form the basis of Copernicus’ theory are complex, but its point is simple. Geocentrism, the tradition of the ancients supported by the authority Aristotle and Ptolemy, maintained that the planets and the sun revolved around the earth. Copernicus argued that the earth and the planets revolved around the sun (heliocentrism). The earth, and by implication we humans, were not the center of the universe. What we call the solar system, they called the universe. They did not know about the Milky Way; Galileo was the first to discover that. The universe was going to get unimaginably more immense. Their three-story universe made up of a vault of heaven, earth, and hell underneath seems so tiny and petty in comparison.

Before the publication of Copernicus’ book, his theories were presented in a series of lectures to the papal count of Pope Clement VII (1533) and were received with interest. Following the publication of Copernicus’ book in Germany, it drew the attention of both scientists and churchmen, both Catholic and Protestant. The revolutionary nature of Copernicus’ proposal was evident. Many began to see the evident truth of it, but others saw how it challenged the wisdom of the ancients and the Bible. The challenge came both on scientific and theological grounds. The hold of the past and in particular the power of Aristotle on the understanding of nature is almost impossible for us to understand today. My concern is with the theological debate that centered around the Bible. There were two main arguments. The general assumption of the Scriptures that the sun revolved around the earth and the specific example from Joshua 10:12–13.The Joshua passage makes both the general and particular issues clear. The larger context in Joshua is relevant.

And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who inflicted a great slaughter on them at Gibeon, chased them by the way of the ascent of Beth-horon, and struck them down as far as Azekah and Makkedah. As they fled before Israel, while they were going down the slope of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down huge stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died; there were more who died because of the hailstones than the Israelites killed with the sword. (Joshua 10:10–11)

This is the description of the great victory that God gave to the Israelites, what we would call ethnic cleansing. While I find this view of god appalling, it is not only Israel’s view, but also that of Luther, Calvin, and the popes.

The critical verses in the Copernicus debate are the next two. So that the slaughter may continue, Joshua prays for god to lengthen the day:

On the day when the Lord gave the Amorites over to the Israelites,

Joshua spoke to the Lord; and he said in the sight of Israel,

“Sun, stand still at Gibeon,

and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon.”

And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped,

until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. (Joshua 10:12–13)

Obviously, this story assumes that both the sun and the moon revolve around the earth. For Luther, Calvin, and many Catholic authorities this was enough to argue that Copernicus’ theory contradicted Scripture and divine revelation and therefore was wrong.

For sixty years Copernicus’ theory was debated both on its scientific and theological merits, but it remained just that: a debate.

Two new factors caused events to come to a head. With his new telescope, Galileo had empirical evidence that Copernicus and the heliocentric view were correct and that Aristotle, Ptolemy, and the Bible were wrong. Gradually with mounting empirical evidence, the scientists of Europe came around to the heliocentric view. This was the beginning of the loosening of Aristotle’s iron grip on natural philosophy as it was called and the true beginning of modern scientific method: data trumps authority.

But the biblical evidence remained a problem. While the tale of Galileo’s involvement in the ecclesiastical debate is a bit twisted, the basic facts are these. After investigating Galileo’s writings on heliocentrism, in 1616 the Inquisition found heliocentrism heretical and Copernicus’ book was placed on the Index of Forbidden Books. Galileo was told to abandon heliocentrism. He was in effect silenced but not condemned.

In 1623 events shifted. The new pope, Urban VIII, was a friend of Galileo and had disagreed with the decree of the Inquisition condemning heliocentrism. The pope even went so far as to ask Galileo to write a book explaining the arguments for and against heliocentrism, but importantly not to take a stance as to either position.

In Galileo’s subsequent book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, one character represents heliocentrism, i.e., Copernicus and Galileo’s position; another character is the neutral observer; while the third character defends the traditional position of Aristotle and Ptolemy. There were two problems. The clear winner was the character arguing for heliocentrism. It is hard to write a strong case for something that you do not believe in and furthermore is wrong. The name of the third character was Simplicio, who was an actual sixth-century commentator on Aristotle, but more importantly, in Italian the name means “simpleton.”

Pope Urban VIII took offense and the Inquisition moved against Galileo. He was condemned, his writings put on the church’s Index of Forbidden Books, and he lived out his life under house arrest. (James Reston, Galileo, is still one of the best popular books on Galileo).With the Inquisition’s condemnation of Galileo, the die was cast. Eventually his books were removed from the Index (1836), but by then science had long since won the day. In 1990, Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the church had erred in condemning Galileo. In my judgment, too little and too late.

A comparison with Protestantism is instructive. Despite clear statements on the part of the reformers Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin against heliocentrism, there was no formal condemnation. Calvin clearly understood both the scientific and theological elements of the debate. In his commentary on Psalm 93:1 he notes, “The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion.... How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God's hand? By what means could it maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it?” (Calvin on Psalm 93:1).Calvin’s concern about our experiencing no concussion is a nod to the scientific debate. If the earth were revolving around the sun, it would be moving very fast, yet we experience no such motion. The wind from earth’s velocity around the sun should blow us off the earth. It feels still, at rest as Aristotle said. Therefore, it is not moving.

Despite the explicit condemnation by important reformers, the debate went on until it was settled in science’s favor and became a part of our modern common sense. With the Copernican revolution, a new common sense, that the earth revolves around the sun, replaced an old common sense, that the sun revolves around the earth. An old authority, Aristotle and Ptolemy, were placed by a new authority, science.

We think it naïve or strange that it was considered a serious argument against the heliocentric view that we don’t fall off the earth. Yet given Aristotle’s understanding of motion, it was impossible to understand how, if the earth was in motion, we were not swept off its surface. An understanding of gravity solved this problem. Significantly, given the new common sense, our everyday experience that had produced the first common sense did not change. We still experience the sun rising and setting and the earth appearing still. Yet we have a different, deeper explanation and understand this language as antique or metaphorical, but not literal.

By allowing the debate to continue, elements of Protestantism evolved a more sophisticated understanding of Scripture. It became evident that geocentrism was part of the worldview of the ancients and not part of revelation. Most Protestants and many Catholics moved on. Once in a while a fundamentalist stumbles on the explanation of Joshua 10:12, but even then they do not deny heliocentrism but argue that the earth stopped rotating around the sun.

Continuing debate has several advantages. It allows the correct answer to emerge over time. This is no small advantage because it allows religion to be on the right side, not the wrong side. Moreover, ongoing debate allows evolution and innovation. Ending debate by ecclesiastical fiat stops both evolution and innovation. While church or biblical authority is preserved by stopping the debate, this is only a short-term gain. The loss of authority and more importantly credibility is heightened by eventually being on the wrong side of the debate. This is evident in the Roman Catholic Church’s condemnation of Galileo. Eventually Copernicus and Galileo were proven right, the Roman Church was left with an indefensible position, which it eventually had to retract. Furthermore, they did not net the gain of innovation and experimentation.

The response of Protestantism and Catholicism to Copernicus and Galileo suggests an intriguing thought experiment. What would Christianity look like today if following each new scientific discovery, religious authorities had allowed debate to continue to a resolution? Protestantism’s response to Copernicus and Galileo suggests that allowing debate to continue will allow innovative understandings to evolve. Unlike Catholicism, which felt it had to defend the infallibility of Scripture and the authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy, Protestants learned to separate the world view of the ancients from revelation. While the evolution and innovation of theological positions among various Protestant groups were uneven and controversial, even fundamentalists who defend the infallibility of Scripture have accepted heliocentrism. The lesson is clear: when religion tries to determine scientific truth, religion loses.

The Copernican revolution is the first time that the space for god’s operation got smaller. With time, this would become the most serious outcome for religion. Before Copernicus god controlled the whole chessboard, so to speak. And those who spoke for god could claim a major place. But Copernicus did not need god or gods for his explanation. This shrinking of space for god begins with Copernicus, but it accelerates with Darwin, who explained the origins of humans without a divine creator and then in the twentieth century with modern cosmology, which can explain the origin of the universe without a creator god. Now there is no apparent space remaining in which god can operate.

As the chessboard on which god operates continues to shrink, theologies have looked for places unoccupied by science as a new place for god. For some this is before the big bang, so god must be the first principle that initiated the big bang. But such a “god” bears little resemblance to a god of classic theism. Or god is located in the mysteries of human consciousness. But these searches for god in a shrinking space appear to me as a lost cause. When science explains that yet remaining mystery, another space is loss.

God's Chessboard

Photo credit: chess.geniusprophecy

This shrinking space for god’s activity provokes a whole host of questions that continue to haunt us. Is there any place left for god? What is truth? Was it fixed in the past or continuously revisable and open to the future? The very nature of truth shifted with Copernicus. What then is religious truth? Is it of a different kind? What is religious authority and authority over what? Just what is the proper role of religion? These are now open and pressing questions. If Christianity or any religion is to survive, answers must be found.

Those committed to a pre-Copernican view think truth is fixed and unchangeable. Religion cannot change because it is eternal. But religion has changed and continues to change, as historical studies have demonstrated time after time, regardless of various religious claims to the contrary.

The question now is what will religion change into, will it become ever more nativist, anti-science, anti-fact, revanchist, and resentful? This is the path on which many of the world’s religions appear headed. Or can it have a positive future? If so, what would that require? What can it leave behind? History suggests that a religion can leave behind a great deal more than might be imagined.

My ultimate point is not that religion should go away, although if it continues on its current nativist, anti-science, anti-fact trajectory, it will become increasingly dangerous and a threat to modern societies. We see this in the current resistance of a majority of those who identify as Christian to the CDC’s recommendations about vaccines and mask wearing (see my blog “Evangelicals, Q-Anon, and Bibliolatry”). Religion has an important role to play in society and the various religious traditions of the world offer rich resources in this regard.

The radical changes required of religion to be a positive influence is a very heavy lift now, so heavy that it faces dwindling into insignificance. If Christianity had evolved with science and not in resistance to science, we would be in a very different situation. But not to change is death; evolving is life.

My mother’s favorite hymn, “How Great Thou Art” does indeed celebrate a bygone time. Likewise, in the hymn “Give me that old-time religion” the various verses celebrate a figure from olden times. “It was good enough for Paul and Silas.” But if the singer ever encountered the religion of Paul it would look nothing like that old-time religion envisioned by the hymn which was a very modern creation.

Bernard Brandon Scott is Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma. He is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and historical-jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.

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