By Bill Leonard
In The Galileo Affair, George Johnston quotes Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 19th-century assessment of Galileo’s 16th-century “crusade” to establish the veracity of the heliocentric Copernican idea that the earth revolves around the sun. Writing long after Galileo was forced to repudiate that thesis while kneeling before church authorities, Newman observed that “had I been brought up in the belief of the immobility of the earth as though a dogma of Revelation, and had associated it in my mind with the incommunicable dignity of man among created beings, with the destinies of the human race, with the locality of purgatory and hell, and other Christian doctrines, and then for the first time had heard of Galileo’s thesis … I should have been at once indignant at its presumption and frightened at its speciousness, as I can never be, at any parallel novelties in other human sciences bearing on religion.”
In 2014, evangelical columnist Cal Thomas raised similar difficulties confronted by Christians attempting to offer “a moral and biblical argument” challenging court decisions that made same-sex marriage legal in multiple states. Thomas asked how conservatives might “persuade people who don’t believe traditional marriage was God’s idea and should remain as He intended?” “They can’t,” he concluded, caught in “a political power play with one side quoting Scripture or history and the other side demanding ‘equality.’”
Frustrated by what might happen next, Thomas asked: “Is the acceptance of everything simply a matter of conditioning, or are there some things that are true for all time, regardless of the age?”
The comments of the Cardinal and the Columnist are well worth considering. The so-called “Galileo Crusade” and “Gay Agenda” reflect distinct yet parallel hermeneutical, doctrinal and spiritual challenges that confront Christians in every age. They compel the church to revisit what Newman called the “dogma of revelation,” sometimes rediscovering and preserving “timeless truth,” while at other times adapting, even relinquishing, long held theological and doctrinal absolutes. The “Galileo affair” is a historical case in point.
In a critique of the “mythic” historical view that Galileo’s confrontation with the church was a classic battle between scientific truth and religious intolerance, Catholic apologist George Johnston insists that the late medieval church was willing to permit dialogue regarding the Ptolemaic “theory” that the sun revolved around the earth, and the Copernican “theory” that it was the other way around. (Pun intended.)
But, says Johnston, “Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom.” Through his “caustic manner and aggressive tactics” he “gave the Church authorities no room to maneuver: they either had to accept Copernicanism as a fact (even though it had not been proved) and reinterpret Scripture accordingly; or they had to condemn it. He refused the reasonable third position which the Church offered him: that Copernicanism might be considered a hypothesis, one even superior to the Ptolemaic system, until further proof could be adduced.”
In his 2013 “Moon Man” essay in the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik offers another perspective, noting that while Copernicus (and perhaps Galileo) “didn’t see any big ideas flowing from the sun-centered system, the Church was slowly beginning to suspect that heliocentrism, heretically, elbowed man right out of the center of things.” The theory clearly defied the Psalmist’s declaration (104:5) that God “set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken”; and Ecclesiastes’ affirmation (1:5): “The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hurries to the place where it rises.” To challenge the essentially anthropocentric idea that the sun revolved around the earth was one thing; to make it a scientific reality was another, creating a slippery slope that undermined biblical authority and Christological orthodoxy.
Gopnik wrote that for the medieval church, “Man must be at the center of a universe on a stable planet, or else the core Catholic claim that the omnipotent ruler of the cosmos could satisfy his sense of justice only by sending his son here to be tortured to death begins to seem a little frayed.” Galileo recanted; time passed and, Johnston reminds us, Benedict XIV had the Church’s imprimatur added “to the first edition of the Complete Works of Galileo” (1741).
Truth is, Christians have long changed, adapted or overlooked “timeless” dogmas, once grounded in “unchanging” texts. New gospel insights, borne of culture, theology or conscience, constrained the ever-Jewish Saul of Tarsus to “preach the gospel to the Gentiles”; led Catholics to move Galileo’s cosmology from theory to fact; compelled pro-slavery evangelicals to relinquish their precious Pauline proof-texts; required (some) strict Calvinists to “modify” their views of global missions; and convinced New England Puritans that they could live next door to Quakers instead of hanging them on Boston Common.
Struggles over the “dogma of revelation” are ever present, as evidenced in the recent Synod of Bishops where Pope Francis, Christ’s “Vicar on Earth,” pressed the “successors of the Apostles” to revisit seemingly unchanging approaches to marriage, divorce and same-sex relationships. Who’d have thought?
We Christians would do well to claim the certainty and conviction of timeless gospel truths. Yet we, like Jesus of Nazareth, would also do well to remember that sometimes (Matt. 15:27) “even the dogs eat the crumbs from the Master’s table.” Uh oh!