Tuesday marks the 406th anniversary of Galileo’s telescope, an invention which helped promote the Copernican view of the universe. It also is seen by many as the start of the divergence of religion and science, something which C S Lewis (Christian apologist and author of The Chronicles of Narnia) believed was unfortunate. (More on this later.)
Before Copernicus, at the turn of the sixteenth century, science saw the earth as the center of the universe. Some mistakenly think that this is an idea which comes out of the Bible, but it is not. It is actually a pagan belief espoused by Aristotle in the fourth century B.C. His ideas were adopted by the Catholic Church because they were the accepted science before Copernicus. Unfortunately, long before the sixteenth century the Roman Church had put Aristotle’s ideas on the same level with the Bible and other Church dogma.
Between the time of Copernicus and Galileo, the Christian Reformation, which was already challenging the authority of the Roman Church, had begun. This, as well as the prevailing scientific views of the day, caused the Church to continue to reject the ideas of Copernicus even after Galileo’s discoveries supported a sun-centered universe. (The modern concept of galaxies came much later.)
Although the Church’s persecution of Galileo is seen by many in modern times to be evidence that religion and science do not mix, he did not share this view. Galileo had a high view of scripture, as is shown in his letter to Madame Christina (cited in What were Galileo’s scientific and biblical conflicts with the Church?):
“I think in the first place that it is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth—whenever its true meaning is understood.“
In the same letter he asserts that Copernicus “knew very well that if his doctrine were proved, then it could not contradict the Scripture when they were rightly understood.” This agrees with the writings of St. Augustine:
“If anyone shall set the authority of Holy Writ against clear and manifest reason, he who does this knows not what he has undertaken; for he opposes to the truth not the meaning of the Bible, which is beyond his comprehension, but rather his own interpretation; not what is in the Bible, but what he has found in himself and imagines to be there.“
The problem for Rome was not that the new science was not in agreement with the Bible, but that the Church had adopted extra-biblical views and had made these views canonical. Views tied to the Church, and by extension (fairly or not) to God, were beginning to be discredited. It is easy to see how this paved the way for the rise of skepticism in the centuries to follow.
Into an age of growing skepticism was born C S Lewis, who, in his early thirties, rejected the skepticism and accepted Christianity. As a professor of sixteenth century literature, he appreciated the concepts of the pre-Copernican mind, not because they were closer to the scientific truth, but because he understood that the objects in the heavens had more than just an objective, material truth. They also have spiritual significance. As Ramadu tells Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, “Even in your world, my son, that [a huge ball of flaming gas] is not what a star is but only what it is made of.” (See Perseid meteor showers and Dawn Treader stars)
Dr. Michael Ward shows that Lewis’s concern was that science had reduced the cosmos to a huge machine, and the planets had been “steadily evacuated of spiritual significance.” [C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem]
“Because the pre-Copernican model of the cosmos viewed the planets as more than merely material it was a model worth keeping in mind. It was, in this sense, a more Christian model than the Newtonian or Einsteinian versions which have succeeded it.“
The pre-Copernican model was “more Christian” only in the sense that it preserved the spiritual significance of the cosmos. Ward quotes from Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteen Century:
“By reducing Nature to her mathematical elements it substituted a mechanical for a genial or animistic conception of the universe. The world was emptied, first of her indwelling spirits, then of her occult sympathies and antipathies, finally of her colours, smells, and tastes. (Kepler at the beginning of his career explained the motion of the planets by their anima motrices; before he died, he explained it mechanically.) The result was dualism rather than materialism. The mind, on whose ideal constructions the whole method depended, stood over against its object in ever sharper dissimilarity. Man with his new powers became rich like Midas but all that he touched had gone dead and cold. This process, slowly working, ensured during the next century the loss of the old mythical imagination…“
How important is imagination? As Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”
Before Galileo was able to show the validity of Copernican ideas, Copernicus had to imagine a universe no one had thought of yet. The imaginations of Newton and Einstein brought us closer to the truth in our concepts of the universe. The next genius who will have a model of the universe named after him will need more than cold, dead data; he will need a good imagination.
For further study:
- “What were Galileo’s scientific and biblical conflicts with the Church?”
- “What is the lesson that Christians should learn from Galileo?”
- “Galileo Galilei: Misjudged astronomer”
- “C. S. Lewis and the Star of Bethlehem: Recovering the medieval imagination”
- C. S. Lewis, “The Language of Religion,” Christian Reflections, 1967 William B. Eerdamns