A wonderful thing happened some four hundred years ago. Renaissance man Galileo Galilei thought to himself, “I wonder what the stars would look like through my telescope?” And so, he took an instrument that most in Europe had viewed as a toy, and he pointed it toward the heavens. The viewed startled him. Among other things, he saw small orbs circling Jupiter and craters on the moon. And he kept copious notes of his observations, filling page after page with drawings and equations. As he did, Galileo slowly came to the realization that his discoveries were going to completely overturn the then long-held Aristotelian cosmology baptized by the Catholic hierarchy. This enthralled him, for he naively believed that his beloved Church, for which he had sincere affection, would celebrate his discoveries since it helped humanity on its long pilgrimage to know truth.
Little did he know how wrong he was.
And in Galileo’s defense, there were many renaissance men in leadership in the Church who did appreciate his work. When Galileo published some of his early observations in the Starry Messenger, these friends hailed the breakthroughs. But sadly, there simply weren’t enough of them. And even worse, there were too many powerful and vocal critics who deemed these findings as dangerous. One such Jesuit scholar named Father Clavius attempted to refute Galileo’s observation of pock marks on the moon by suggesting that there must be an invisible surface covering the craters and valleys on the lunar surface. Thus, the moon really is a perfect orb, it just doesn’t look that way.
Unfortunately for Galileo, others like Father Clavius came into power, and soon Galileo found himself accused of heresy. In particular, they found his defense of the Copernican solar system (Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, 1632) particularly troubling, landing him squarely in the “Public Enemy #1” category.
You see, the church had long held that the Earth remained fixed and that the stars and the planets and the sun revolved around it. After all, humanity was the apex of God’s creation; it made sense that He put us in the center of the universe. This presupposition led to baffling attempts to explain the retrograde motion observed in the sky when planets appear to stop and reverse course from time to time before moving forward again. The Copernican theory elegantly solved this problem by placing the sun in the middle of the solar system.
And Galileo knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was right.
But the Church refused to believe the evidence. Instead, biblical scholars turned to Joshua 10:12, where Joshua needed more time to annihilate the Amorites and prayed, “Sun, stand still at Gibeon, and Moon, in the valley of Aijalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped….(NRSV)” See! Joshua didn’t command the earth to stand still (and thus keep it from rotating, as Copernicus argued). He ordered the sun and the moon to stand still from revolving around the earth. What further proof do we need than that?!
In 1633, Galileo was called before the Holy Office of the Inquisition where he was told that despite all of his observations, equations, and pages of notes, he was wrong because he contradicted the teachings of the Church. Despite fervent attempts from powerful friends, Galileo was found guilty of being “vehemently suspected of heresy” for believing that the “sun is the center of the world” and that the “earth moves.” But being graceful inquisitors, they were willing to lighten his sentence if Galileo recanted.
What would you do in this situation?
The 70-year-old Galileo Galilei knelt before his judges and read a signed confession in humble repentance, stating, “I abjure with a sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I curse and detest the said errors and heresies, and generally all and every error and sect contrary to the Holy Catholic Church.” He then hobbled to his feet, knees cracking, and eyes downcast. Tradition has it that as he rose he muttered under his breath, “Eppur si muove” (but still it moves); however, this is doubtful. More than likely he expressed this sentiment much later to close friends. But regardless, Galileo finished out his remaining few years on the earth as a prisoner under house arrest for teaching what we all know now as the truth.
It wasn’t until several years ago that Pope John Paul II admitted that the Church had made a mistake. Well, he called it a “tragic mutual incomprehension.” And one has to wonder what other “tragic mutual incomprehensions” are going on in the church.
St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits about a century before Galileo’s trial, famously said, “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the hierarchy of the Church so decides.”
Now, let’s have some fun with this quote by changing it just a little so that it strikes a little closer to home. “We should always be disposed to believe that that which appears white is really black, if the Bible says so.”
Now, before you drag me before the Holy See of the Protestant Inquisitors for attacking the beloved doctrine of “Sola Scriptura” please hear me out. The issue is not “Sola Scriptura.” It’s humility. For however high in authority one places the Bible, it still needs to be interpreted. And in this act we draw upon our own experiences, presuppositions, culture, and rational abilities to figure out what the Bible means.
So here’s the question: if overwhelming evidence contradicted your interpretation of the Bible, would you be willing to change your mind? Or would you still label something black when it’s really white?
Allow me to illustrate. Over a century ago, Baptist statesman Richard Furman wrote this, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in holy scriptures, both by precept and example.” In other words, “The Bible says that slavery is OK.” Today, I don’t know of a reputable Baptist theologian who would agree with that. And yet, many prominent, sincere, bible-believing Christians in the 19th century not only believed it, they were willing to kill you over it.
Furman was defending his culture. And he used the Bible to call something black which was really white.
So can you handle the truth? Well, can you?
OK, here it is: you and I might very well be wrong.
Kelly Pigott is a church history professor who teaches at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas. You can find more musings on history, culture, contemplative spirituality and theology, along with interviews with authors . Follow him on twitter @kellypigott.