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Valid and Invalid Conclusions from the Galileo Controversy

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In 1614, Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei wrote a letter to the Grand Duchess Christina in which he defended his position regarding the authority of the Church in matters of scientific inquiry. On the basis of that letter, and the subsequently published work, “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” Galileo was censured and punished by the Papal authority of Pope Urban III as a heretic for his teaching of heliocentrism, despite initially having the support of the former Cardinal Barberini.

The church’s denial and suppression of scientific observations, which were ultimately proven to be true, on the basis of theological doctrine has become one of the most frequently invoked polemics against the Christian faith in modern history. Many skeptics cast Galileo as a fellow skeptic and renegade agnostic fighting against the potentially fascist control of the Church. While there are shades of truth in such a picture, I would argue that it is irresponsible to distort the struggle of Galileo for the purposes of debunking Christianity. While an obvious response to such a move would be to recall the warning of Augustine, that one must not judge a philosophy by its abuse, I think there is more to this to be discussed. Needless to say, to conclude that because the Church was in error in the Galileo affair therefore Christianity is false is unwarranted.

Actually, Galileo was a devout and committed Christian, believing that God had created a world with certain laws which made scientific study possible. To Galileo, scientific inquiry was a means through which to better understand his creator and to bring glory to Him. His study, however, did reveal some tensions between what the Church had taught regarding the created world and his own documented observations. In his letter to the Grand Duchess, Galileo explained,

The reason produced for condemning the opinion that the Earth moves and the Sun stands still is that in many places in the Bible one may read that the Sun moves and the Earth stands still…It is very pious to say and prudent to affirm that the Holy Bible can never speak untruth- whenever its true meaning is understood…It is necessary for the Bible, in order to be accommodated to the understanding of every man, to speak many things which appear to differ from the absolute truth so far as the bare meaning of the words is concerned. (All of the statements of Galileo quoted in this article are found in his letter to the Grand Duchess Christina, of 1614.)

It seems that Galileo calibrated his scientific study by affirming what should be the authority, both for the scientist and for any discerner of truth. Despite the seeming tensions between the accepted teaching of the Church and his observations, Galileo was certain that an explanation which favored both the authority of the scriptures and the truth of his observations could be found. By taking his observations of God’s creation and understanding them in light of His Word, it became apparent that much of the Biblical descriptive language, especially as it pertains to the created world, is phenomenological in nature. In other words, much of the Biblical description of the created world is in language which reflects how certain phenomena appears from the point of view of mankind. Galileo defended this conclusion on the basis of the theological position of Augustine, which indicated various genres of literature within the scriptures as indicative of the different means by which interpretation is established.

Galileo continued, “Since the Holy Ghost did not intend to teach us whether heaven moves or stands still, whether its shape is spherical or like a discus or extended in a plane, nor whether the Earth is located at its center or off to one side, then so much the less was it intended to settle for us any other conclusion of the same kind.”

This makes a crucial point regarding the truth and teaching of Scripture. Galileo says, and I think quite correctly so, that while the scriptures cannot speak falsely and should be regarded as quite correct in all propositions they make, they may not carry a particular doctrinal mandate in regard to the Earth’s position and behavior in the universe. So, while the Bible does in fact make many statements about the Earth being immoveable or having four corners, the emphasis is on the point of view of mankind and is often poetic rather than scientific. Thus, to create a doctrine from a literal interpretation of descriptive phenomenological language would be tenuous at best and irresponsible and heretical at worst!

Galileo advocates for the freedom of scientific inquiry, proceeding from reverence and honor of God, His Word, and His creation, rather than the censuring of such a practice out of fear.

To prohibit the whole science would be but to censure a hundred passages of Holy Scripture which teach us that the glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.”

In other words, the Bible itself seems to affirm that the Heavens, too, are a truth-telling source of testimony to the glory of God. Thus, our observations of it must be combined with the scriptures to provided the most accurate and comprehensive description of our Creator available to us. Perhaps, then, the argument should be that neither science nor the Church, which is merely the corporate name of God’s people, should have final epistemological authority, but that the two should participate in concert, guided by the truth of the Word, in the effort to discern the truth of God and His creation.

Sadly, Galileo was never vindicated in his lifetime. Cardinal Barberini, who had initially encouraged him to produce the “Dialogue,” was later displeased by how Galileo’s work unfavorably characterized the church and too strongly advocated for heliocentrism. When Barberini became Pope Urban III, he called Galileo before the Inquisition to answer for charges of heresy, for which he was ultimately condemned and placed under house arrest for the remainder of his life. It wasn’t until 1758 that the Vatican formally accepted the heliocentric scheme of the solar system and affirmed its agreement with scripture. Much later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II wrote of his regret over how the Church handled the dispute, indicating that Galileo’s desire for the cooperation of science and scripture was indeed correct.

Written by Christopher Butler

April 17, 2006 at 3:11 pm