What Galileo's Telescope Can't See
What Galileo's Telescope Can't See
Analogies have persuasive power, a suggestive force that operates on an almost unconscious level. To say that A is "like" B is to suggest that everything we associate with A should also be associated with B—whether good, bad, or ugly.
So, for example, if I describe American soldiers as "crusaders," I have just painted them with an analogical brush that colors them as religiously motivated warriors guilty of the worst bigotries of the West. The analogy is loaded with a moral depiction that exceeds what's actually said. So all the disdain we have towards our (usually caricatured) understanding of the Crusades is now overlaid on our perception of military operations in Iraq or Afghanistan.
Conversely, if I describe the proponents of my cause as "prophets" or "martyrs," I have loaded the perceptual deck with images of heroism and purity. Just by the analogy, we get to don our white hats and claim the moral high ground. Or if we describe our regime as "Camelot," we associate ourselves with romance and royal privilege. Never underestimate the power of an analogy. And never simply accept it.
We are all Galileans now
There is a particular analogy often invoked in current discussions about the relationship between Christian faith and science. Ours, we are told, is a "Galilean" moment: a critical time in history when new findings in the natural sciences threaten to topple fundamental Christian beliefs, just as Galileo's proposed heliocentrism rocked the ecclesiastical establishment of his day. This parallel is usually invoked in the context of genetic, evolutionary, and archaeological evidence about human origins that challenges traditional Christian understandings.
Historical analogies like this are often particularly loaded because our age is characterized by chronological snobbery and a self-congratulatory sense of our maturity and progress. Since we now tend to look at the church's response to Galileo as misguided, reactionary, and backward, this "Galilean" framing of contemporary discussions does two things—before any "evidence" is ever put on the table.
First, it casts scientists—and those Christian scholars who champion such science—as heroes and martyrs willing to embrace progress and enlightenment. Second, and as a result, this framing of the debate depicts those concerned with preserving Christian orthodoxy as backward, timid, and fundamentalist. With heads in flat-earth sand, any who voice hesitation or skepticism about the "assured/obvious" implications of evolutionary evidence are cast in the villainous role of Galileo's putative persecutor, Cardinal Bellarmine.
It bears mention, of course, that the conventional Galileo narrative—pitting narrow-minded, inquisitorial clerics against a courageous champion of open scientific inquiry—partakes in large part of historical myth. Careful scholars of science and religion have come to reject this simplistic picture of church dogma stifling what today we might call "academic freedom."
But even if the Galileo myth was factually accurate, it should hardly supply the symbolism that governs all subsequent dialogue between theology and science. The "Galilean" framing of these conversations assumes a paradigm in which science is taken to be a neutral "describer" of "the way things are." Consequently, it treats theology as a kind of bias—an inherently conservative take on the world that has to face up to the cold, hard realities disclosed by the natural sciences and historical research. Christian scholars and theologians who (perhaps unwittingly) buy into this paradigm are often characterized by deference to "what science says." They become increasingly embarrassed by both the theological tradition and the community of believers who are not so eager to embrace scientific "progress" and an updated faith.