Science & the Bible

Did anyone ever read Galileo’s Daughter by Dava Sobel? It’s an unforgettable story of how Galileo’s faith filled eyes beheld God’s wonder and majesty as the scientist tracked the sun and stars through his telescope. The Church did not respond to Galileo’s discoveries with the same enthusiastic worship. Instead they pressured Galileo to recant his findings or recant his Christian faith.

Galileo died in 1642. Yet it seems the antagonism and the skepticism between science & faith can seem just as common today. How else do we explain the recent poll published at CCN’s beliefnet noting that almost 50% of protestant pastors believe the earth is approximately 6,000 years old? What causes church leaders to stare in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence and simply ignore it?

I’m traveling to a conference in March run by the BioLogos foundation to talk with other pastors about how this divide can be bridged. And to help me prepare I’ve been reading a wonderful book by Dr. Kenneth Miller form Brown University called “Finding Darwin’s God” It’s a page turner, even for a less than enthusiastic science student like me.  As I read I think about how different it may have turned out if the church hadn’t responded in such fear when Galileo made his shattering discoveries. Instead of squaring off into their respective corners, perhaps the church could have led the way in revealing one of the greatest truths she knows: that all truth is ultimately God’s truth.


5 thoughts on “Science & the Bible

  1. As someone with scientific background, I’d like to say that the more I learn about science, the intricacies, etc, the bigger my view of God becomes, the more I am amazed by His power, imagination, and sense of humor. I’ve never quite understood why some in the church feel threatened by science. God created it! And He’s created us in His image with brains and a drive for exploration and creation that allow us to get small glimpses into who He is through what we learn. Amen to “all truth is ultimately God’s truth”.

  2. Galileo’s situation was far more complex than most people realize who have spent their adult lives on topics other than the 17th century: he has become a poster boy for literal-minded secularists, who can be as careless with the facts as literal-minded believers. Galileo was rebuked for advocating “Copernicanism,” but for Copernicus (a) a heliocentric system was merely a conceptual possibility, not a position clearly advocated and demonstrated, and (b) planetary orbits had to be perfectly circular. As a result, the star charts Copernicus produced offered no great gain in accuracy over Ptolemy’s. Galileo was a really brilliant physicist, as Sobel’s quite delightful novel dramatizes, but he was more a star-gazer than an astronomer in the full sense that, say, Tycho Brahe was–painstaking observations over many years, complex calculations, all of that. His fabulous lenses let Galileo see moons orbiting other planets, but as a real systematic astronomer he was no great shakes
    In short, Pope Urban was right that the Copernican model was in fact only a speculative possibility, and a defective one at that. Nonetheless, Urban encouraged Galileo to write his “Dialogue concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), asking only that Galileo say that the Copernican system was merely one way of explaining the observations and data that had been collected to date. I’ve studied this treatise at least twice in very different graduate courses, and I’ve read it again since then. Galileo does gratuitously insult the Church. It’s really over-the-top rhetoric (which is part of why we were studying it in the English dept). And the result of Galileo’s insult, as David Bentley Hart rightly judges in his “Atheist Delusions” (2009), was “a clash between men of titanic egotism.”
    Despite the clash between Urban and Galileo, the fact remains, as Hart explains, that “Christian scientists educated in Christian universities and following a Christian tradition of scientific and mathematical speculation overturned a pagan cosmology and physics, and arrived at conclusions that would have been unimaginable within the confines of the Hellenistic scientific traditions. For despite all our vague talk of ancient or medieval ‘science,’ pagan, Muslim, or Christian, what we mean today by science–its methods,its controls and guiding principles, its desire to unite theory to empirical discovery, its trust in a unified set of physical laws, and so on–came into existence, for whatever reasons, and for better or worse, only within Christendom, and under the hands of believing Christians.” Hart goes on to document fully the fact that “Galileo had enjoyed the amity and support of a number of important men within the the church. He was respected–even revered–by some of the most brilliant Jesuit astronomers of his time, who confirmed many of his observations. . . .[E]ven when Galileo had more or less confessed himself a Copernican in 1613, he was not repudiated by his friends or censured by the church, and he even acquired new allies” (pp, 62-64).
    Hart’s conclusion is pointed: “Galileo elected, that is, to propound a theory whose truth he had not demonstrated, while needlessly mocking a powerful man who had treated him with honor and indulgence. And the irony is, strange to say, that it was the church that was demanding proof, and Galileo who was demanding blind assent–to a model that was wrong [ie, perfectly circular planetary orbits]. None of which exculpates the Catholic hierarchy of its foolish decision or its authoritarian meddling. But it is rather ridiculous to treat Urban VIII as a man driven by religious fanaticism–there is good reason to doubt that even believed in God with any particular conviction–or Galileo as the blameless defender of scientific empiricism” (p. 66).
    In short, Galileo was right about heliocentrism, but for the wrong reason: he did not have empirical evidence for that claim. And he was hugely wrong on a major major issue, which is whether planets MUST follow the perfectly circular orbits classical antiquity assumed. And along the way, sigh, he undercut a key metaphor used in explaining the Lord’s Supper. Was that intentional? Was it carelessness? Was it ignorance of fine-grain theological jargon? I’ve never been able to decide. What it was for sure was dynamite.
    Hart is a scholar of titanic ego himself: I do object to his tone in places in this book. But when he calms down and just does the historian thing of closely documenting sources and telling a story, he’s terrific. And to my mind as a cultural historian Hart is flat-out correct that what we understand as science could not–and did not–arise in Hellenic cultures. According the Plato et al, “the heavens” are purely strictly rational– that’s why planetary orbits MUST be perfect circles–and this dull sublunary world is so trivial and so inconsistent that it’s not worth worrying about. THAT was the orthodoxy that had to be challenged for science as we know it to arise–not Christianity. And this argument for the intelligible and systematic consistency of all of creation was an argument first made by a monk. It was a Christian claim that a consistent, reasonable God had created everything from the stars to the lifecycles of earthworms, and so material reality at every possible level had to be (a) essentially consistent in its fundamental laws and (b) governed by laws that are intelligible or comprehensible to the closely observant human intellect, which is the echo within us of the coherence of God. We have two great books of revelation, it was said: the book of sacred scripture and the book of nature. Both deserve our close and careful study. A really great book on this topic is Alfred Crosby, “The Measure of Reality: Quantification and Western Society, 1250-1600” (1997).
    In short, I think the deeper and more authentic Christian tradition for a long time has been that “all truth is God’s truth.” Everything else is fundamentalists (secular or religious) lobbing spit balls at one another in ways that are irresponsible both historically and philosophically, both theologically and scientifically. Those who are convinced that science is at odds with religion understand neither domain in any adequate way.
    For more on what’s reprehensibly fundamentalist about the “new atheists” on the nature of what they revere as “science,” see John Dupre, “Human Nature and the Limits of Science” (2001). Dupre is a philosopher of science, so this is fairly dense stuff. But persuasive enough for me to put “new atheist” version of science in the same large box as Christian fundamentalist versions of planetary age.
    And then tape that box closed.

  3. My favorite book on this topic is by Ken Wilbur- Marriage of Sense and Soul. He talks about three aspects of life/philosophy:
    Art – Beauty which is about I….as in beauty is in the eye of the beholder
    Morals-Good which is about we interact and love each other-this is primarily the realm of religion
    Science-Truth which is about It. This is about facts. It is concrete. It is not about beauty or morality. I see this all the time in the scientific world. We can do genetic engineering. Science does not have the language to decide if genetic engineering is Good or not. It doesn’t really even have the language to ask the question.
    Llkewise, religion is not equipped to decide if the earth revolved around the sun. It certainly is not equipped to discern how old the earth is or what evolution means. But there are parts of evolution that are testable and science is good at that. On the other hand, science is not really equipped to ponder “How did it all begin?” (which is why questions about Creation seem very different to me than questions about evolution). We don’t really have testable hypotheses when it comes to Creation.
    Finally neither religion nor science excels in the area of beauty-whether it is a symphony, the Grand Canyon, or a painting.

  4. @Dave: so there’s a book I need to read. CPL has two copies, and I’ve just put one of them on hold. According to CPL, the name is spelled “Wilber.” The trouble with Christendom–with any form of totalitarianism, theocratic or not–is that religious authority/ ideological authority tries to take over other the other two domains, and by so doing manages to corrupt all three.

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