Making Friends With Galileo

As a recent reversal by the Catholic church suggests, faith and science need not be enemies.

Last fall, Pope John Paul proclaimed that the Roman Catholic Church erred in condemning Galileo for arguing against the accepted view of the Earth as the center of the universe. The pontiff noted that the verdict of the 1633 trial became a symbol of the church’s “supposed rejection of scientific progress.”

What implications does this admission have for the church today? How can Galileo serve as a current model for understanding the scientific and biblical views of nature?

First we need to put the record straight. Galileo’s primary enemies who engineered his downfall were the Aristotelian natural philosophers (scientists) in the academic establishment. Beginning with his student years in 1581 at the University of Pisa, he continually challenged his professors. On point after point, he demonstrated how their inherited science was in error.

Galileo promoted an entirely new way of doing science based on experiment and mathematical analysis. He was not content to argue in Latin in the faculty lounge, but attacked the professors in lectures and pamphlets. Galileo’s major lifelong battle was to free the new science from the authority of philosophy.

After 20 years of defeat on academic turf, Galileo’s bitter enemies formed a league to muzzle him on theological grounds. In 1614 they enlisted a fiery young priest to condemn as heresy his promotion of the Copernican theory of a moving Earth. Galileo then showed himself a competent theologian in his presentation to the Holy Office. He made two major points: astronomical theories could not be matters of faith; the new cosmology was in harmony with the Bible, which speaks in the ordinary language of the people. The scientist declared, “The Bible tells how one goes to Heaven, not how the heavens go!”

Nevertheless, at his trial in 1633 the Inquisition found the “mobility of the earth” contrary to Scripture. Galileo was forced to recant. He spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest near Florence, where he continued his scientific writing.

Galileo did not try to persuade his church to accept the Copernican view; he wanted it to stay out of all scientific arguments. He fought to free the new science from the authority of theology as well as philosophy.

The scientist remained loyal to his church even though it had turned its back on him. He recognized that his suffering was due primarily to the Aristotelian scientists.

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Science lessons

Galileo’s life can teach us several important lessons. First, contrary to a long-standing mythology, his science and theology were not enemies but partners—two “books of God.” “God is known by Nature in his works, and by doctrine in his revealed word.” The Book of Nature is written in the “language of mathematics”; the Book of Scripture is in everyday language of the people primarily for “the salvation of souls and the service of God.” (This partnership was also recognized by such scientific pioneers as Copernicus, Kepler, Pascal, Newton, and Hoyle.)

Second, attempts today by some scholars to make modern science support their New Age or naturalistic philosophy reverses Galileo’s “scientific revolution.” It is a blatant misuse of science.

Third, current attempts by some theologians to derive or evaluate science from the Bible is equally misguided. It repeats the 1633 error that has given Christianity an antiscience stigma.

John Paul also noted about biology and biogenics, “Many recent scientific discoveries and their possible applications affect man more directly than ever before … to the point of seeming to threaten the very basis of what is human.” As Christians we must resist the temptation to make the Bible do science. Then we can seek its guidance on how to use science and technology for the glory of God and the good of his creation.

By Charles E. Hummel, author of The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible. He is the former director of faculty ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

Sins And Other Obsessions

Many people view the church as some kind of regulatory agency for the kingdom of God, a spiritual OSHA that multiplies rules just because it has nothing better to do. As a result, they tend to reduce the Christian faith to ethics. That perception was reinforced late last year by the way the media reported the first comprehensive, official statement of Roman Catholic teaching since 1566, when the Council of Trent responded to the Protestant Reformers.

This new 500-page catechism is very likely a significant milestone in the history of Christian theology, since it is the first comprehensive doctrinal formulation to incorporate the insights of Vatican II.

The importance of the event was, however, obscured by the news media’s focus in reporting it. “New catechism asks tolerance of gays,” ran the headline in Chicago’s largest paper. The article went on to summarize the catechism’s catalogue of sins. On homosexuality: Homosexual acts are “intrinsically dissolute [and] contrary to natural law”; while homosexuals are instructed to practice chastity and the rest of us are urged to “avoid unjust discrimination against them.” In addition, financial speculation, abuse of the environment, artificial insemination, forging checks, and badly performed work are all on the sin list.

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This is important information for those who want to avoid causing our loving heavenly Father unnecessary pain. But was ethics all there was in the catechism’s many pages? Since an English edition is not yet available, we called Father John Pollard at the U.S. Catholic Conference. He confirmed our suspicions. Not just our Chicago paper, said a distressed Pollard, but the news media in general had focused on do’s and don’ts. There was, however, much more. Of the volume’s 230 chapters, only 80 have to do with moral issues.

We know one reason why the media focused their catechism coverage on sin: Sin sells. Murder, graft, and scandal sell newspapers.

Another reason: Studies have shown that news journalists are among the least churched, least religiously informed groups in the United States—right along with university professors. Because the unchurched often view the church as an officious parent saying don’t, don’t, don’t, sin may be the only aspect of religious teaching most news reporters can grasp.

But before we cry shame, let us look to our own, evangelical one-sidedness.

Barely two weeks before the Catholic hierarchy announced its new catechism, we sat in a press conference where a massive initiative was announced to restore the teaching of Christian moral principles to the schools of the former Soviet Union. The organizations responding to the (mainly) Russian invitation had established credentials as evangelistic ministries. But the carefully worded invitation from the Russian education ministry kept the focus on the role of Christian moral principles in building good citizens. They clearly wanted morality, but could not promote religion. These ministries face the danger of allowing the Christian faith to be reduced to mere morals. In the momentary glow of being invited to take on moral education, could they fail to communicate its basis?

Classical liberal theology was an attempt to reduce the teaching of Jesus to a set of universal moral precepts. That effort is now discredited. But do evangelicals avoid the trap? Of course, we have known since the Reformation that faith was more than being on our best behavior. We know that through faith we stand in a justified relationship with the living God who is both judge and savior. And we know that theology, the truth about God, will shape our relationship with him.

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But how many of our youth, growing up in our homes and our churches and learning more from our behavior than from our teaching, gain the impression that being Christian primarily means being heterosexual, monogamous, and hard-working? How often have we heard teens complain that no one has told them Christianity is far more than acting respectable?

Christianity has always had to battle the temptation to reduce religion to rules. As the restrictive character of the rules has faded, many of our churches still seem devoted to promoting a religion of rules—positive, helpful rules, but rules nonetheless. Thus we preach rules for success, rules for healthy relationships, rules for positive self-esteem. We now have positive rules rather than negative rules. But self-help Christianity still tends to reduce religion to rules.

Perhaps it is our American lust for relevance and application that bedevils us, always wanting to know what the faith means for daily living. Perhaps it is a lack of security that drives us to substitute performance standards for safety in the Father’s love. But God, our Father, and Christ, our Bridegroom, call us to fuller knowledge and a restored relationship. And as Bride and Offspring, obedience is the flower and not the root of our faith.

By David Neff.

No Comment Department

From revised lyrics to “Amazing Grace” as sung at San Francisco’s notoriously liberal Glide Memorial United Methodist Church:

’Twas guilt that taught my heart to fear,

And pride my fears relieved;

How precious did that pride appear,

The hour I first believed!

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