Can You Handle the Truth? On Galileo, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Courage to Question

Can You Handle the Truth? On Galileo, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Courage to Question September 22, 2014

650px-Galileo-sustermansA 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.

pigott-1Kelly 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.


Browse Our Archives

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment

14 responses to “Can You Handle the Truth? On Galileo, Biblical Inerrancy, and the Courage to Question”

  1. Hi Darach,

    Thanks for the comment.

    I’m not a scientist, so I’ll be the first to admit that I’m walking into shaky territory. But my understanding was that he had both good and bad arguments, and some pretty compelling observations that refuted a geocentric universe. For example, he observed that Venus had phases, and that the moons of Jupiter orbited the planet. This contradicted a geocentric universe.

    Speaking from experience, I wouldn’t call be a curmudgeon a problem 😉 I do, however, think it’s a major problem when an institution devoted to truth silences thoughtful dialogue. And it commits an even greater error when it participates in the imprisonment of voices that disagree. My post was more about the courage to question, and in this I find Galileo’s story quite compelling.

  2. I think it’s fair to say that Galileo’s observations of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter did contradict some of the geocentric Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model of the universe. When Galileo saw the moons of Jupiter apparently orbit Jupiter, he saw something that contradicted the belief that all celestial bodies orbit the earth. Moreover, Galileo’s observations of the craters on the moon contradicted the assumption that celestial objects were eternal and immutable and perfect (since they were made of quintessence, whereas terrestrial objects are composed to varying degrees of the four elements air, earth, fire, and water).

    The Copernican revolution is the perfect example of the scientific method which does not use direct observation (nobody has witnessed the earth orbit around the sun), but indirectly using mathematical models. The observational facts that planets seem to get brighter and dimmer at different parts of their orbits, that planets seem to speed up and slow down at different parts of their orbits, and that Mars appears to move in a retrograde pattern can’t be explained easily by the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model; the imperfections of sunspots (observed by Galileo), the craters of the moon (observed by Galileo), and the moons of Jupiter (observed by Galileo) fundamentally contradict the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model. Galileo (following Copernicus) proposed a mathematical model for the universe that could explain the observations more simply and with more explanatory power.

    Of course, both Galileo and Copernicus were wrong about the orbits. They assumed that the orbits of the planets must be perfectly circular (an assumption borrowed from Aristotle and Ptolemy). Kepler demonstrated that the orbits are actually elliptical.

  3. Am I correct in my understanding that although simplification was the goal, both Copernicus and Galileo had to retain epi-cycles and the Ptolemaic model was actually more accurate for predicting the position of the stars at any given point?

  4. Re your article on literalism: you make two historical points that are extremely common, but that historians of science will all tell you are deeply problematic (especially the first–they will probably be less knowledgable about slavery, but even there, that story is beginning to permeate secular historians of science).

    I find it unremarkable (not literally obviously) that you select the two areas where the “literalism is quite naughty” argument has the most resonance: Galileo and slavery. But even in those cases, the story is far more complex and ambiguous. (I do sympathize, however, with the limitations of trying to communicate a lot of information in a short article.)

    I would highly recommend a quick glance at a book called Galileo Goes To Jail, published by Harvard U Press in 2010. There are about 25-30 very short chapters written by mostly secular (but all preeminent) historians of science. Each of them was required to tackle their area of expertise, briefly and in layman’s terms. One of the chapters is by Maurice Finocchiaro, who is the most celebrated scholar of what we call The Galileo Affair, mainly bc he dug around and found almost all the primary sources related to the conflict, which he then translated from the Italian and turned into a 300 page book.

    The details are too numerous for me to communicate here. But the short story is as follows: While it is true that the Church ultimately erred by banning Copernicanism as being true and inconsistent with Scripture (they had no problem with it being taught as a theory used to explain stellar movements as long as it was taught as a hypothetical and not truth) Galileo erred by arguing that his view that the earth orbited around the sun was obvious and irrefutable. (The business about craters on the moon, etc. was not really a big deal and was actually generally accepted by the Jesuits. The big problem was the earth’s movement.) in point of fact, Galileo’s view defied common sense, failed to meet certain critical scientific requirement (especially the presence of stellar parallax, which would not be discovered for 200 more years), and explained no more of the evidence at hand than the most commonly held view developed by non-Catholic Tycho Brahe, one of the most important contributors to astronomy in human history.(Arguably, without his stellar measurements, you do not get Newton.) it was called geoheliocentrism. his argument was that the heavenly bodies revolved around the sun, and then all of those bodies revolved around a stationary earth. Brahe’s view explained all the phenomena, including those that Galileo did not.

    Owen Gingerich, who at one time was the chair of Harvard’s History of Science dept. has made it clear that at Galileo’s time, there was no way to determine which of the two theories was correct, nor would there be for 200 years.

    In addition, when one looks at the docs surrounding Galileo’s trial, one finds that the Pope is incensed not as much by the idea that the earth moves per se, but more by Galileo’s violation of an earlier order that he not teach Copernicanism and by Galileo’s caricature of the Pope as a simpleton (called Simplicio in the Dialogue). Galileo also never went to jail (thus the title of the Harvard book is deliberately ironic–even though the book is about multiple myths, not just Galileo, the editors wanted to use a title that communicated a sense of irony). He was “imprisoned” in the Tuscan ambassador’s home (think the Plaza or the Pierre in Manhattan) and then in the prosecutor’s home (!) during the trial, and subsequently was sentenced to house arrest in his villa.

    The slavery issue will take a separate post.

    But really, the problem is that the critique of literalism ignores the role literalism played in the rise of science (see Dr. Pete Harrison’s Gifford Lectures or books on the topic–essentially a revival of the secular and highly Weberian Merton Thesis re. the role religion played in the rise of modern science). So while the larger point that one ought to have the courage to question the conventional wisdom on topics is spot on, I would encourage the author to do just that. The Christian intelligentsia has grown far too comfortable in its entrapment in a classic poststructural doube-binary, in this case of scholars/fundamentalists: analogy/literalism.

  5. Kelly,

    Nice post. I wanted to get your reflection about something that has been rattling around in my head that this post touches on. Religious institutions, like virtually all institutions, are by nature conservative. Although it is often frustrating, is it necessarily a bad thing? In hindsight Galileo was proven mostly correct. But he was going against thousands of years of established knowledge, not just doctrine. Do we want our institutions to hop on every new development that pops up, or does it make for a more stable society if we are reluctant to embrace change? As an example, let’s consider something like nutrition. This seems to be a developing science and every year new ideas come out, ones that purport to have some sort of scientific validity. We are then bombarded with this information to the point where I have no idea what I am actually supposed to eat as a healthy diet: Vegetarian? Vegan? Paleo? No Carb? Low Fat? No idea. The proliferation of ideas has not made me more informed but less. Would we be better off with a mitigating institution that fully vetted claims before they were allowed to go public, even if it slowed down the process? Turning back to religion for a moment, we seem to have progressed to a point where in addition to the 30,000 some-odd denominations, we have countless denominations of 1. Since we have been taught that any crack-pot idea, my own included, have to be considered. I’m not sure it has really gotten us in a better place. Of course, I have no solution either, the alternative being prone to outright oppression…

  6. Yes, I think so. They were so attached to the idea of circular orbits that they got the large picture wrong. But Galileo’s observations really did discover anomalies that the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic model couldn’t handle as well as the Copernican model.

  7. So I’ve always wondered how much the practical reinforced the ideological? If the models were more accurate than the A-P models, it may have been more difficult to argue against.

  8. Eventually, that’s what happened: with more observational data from Tyco Brahe, an elliptical model proposed by Kepler, by the time Newton articulated his laws of motion (with the help of newly discovered calculus), no one could seriously support the old paradigm. (What’s interesting is that Kepler was actually strongly motivated by ideology when he accepted a heliocentric model of the universe. If God is like the sun, then it made more sense to him to say that God/the sun was at the center of the universe. Why would God/the sun orbit around the earth?)

    Of course, the best discussion of this is found in Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions where he used the Copernican revolution as an example of a paradigm shift. The normal science of Aristotelianism underwent a crisis with the discoveries of Galileo, Brahe, and Kepler. The anomalies they discovered couldn’t be ignored, so eventually the scientific paradigm shifted from Aristotle to Newton.

    I like Kuhn’s emphasis on the social dimension of science and knowledge. It was easy for the Church to ignore or dismiss the evidence offered by Galileo because what he said didn’t fit the accepted paradigm. Moreover, the Aristotelian paradigm reinforced the political structure of the church (the church was a microcosm of the macrocosm, and both reflected a hierarchy with God/the pope at the top, planets/bishops next, etc., down to the people). They had both material and ideal interests to reject Galileo’s “evidence.” But the old paradigm became displaced when the new paradigm explained the world better.

  9. I will have to check out Kuhn’s book. I read Kepler’s Witch by James Conner a couple of years back. It makes sense that Galileo is always the go to guy for the religion v science people since Kepler, the guy who finally put all the pieces together, was both a famous astrologer and a devout Lutheran. Hard to make him a hero for rationalism. 🙂

  10. Scot and R Vogal, I’ve really enjoyed your dialogue and have learned a few things. Thanks!

  11. The short answer is, “no,” I don’t think the fact that the church has traditionally been conservative is a bad thing at all. In fact i think it’s a strength. There has been a natural process over the centuries of old paradigms getting pushed to the side, giving birth to new paradigms. It’s a painful and necessary process. Because the church has been slow with these changes it has preserved cherished doctrines and practices. But the paradigm shifts have kept these doctrines and practices from becoming stagnant. 16th century reformation being a classic example. The Jesus movement has always been dynamic and fluid, and each culture has contributed both positively and negatively. Over time, the negative stuff tends to get pushed to the side and the positive stuff retained.

    This leads to your next question, do we need a mitigating institution? Even if a group of leaders felt like this was a great idea (and there are many), there is no way to enforce it. When Luther put the Bible in the hands of laypeople, the RCC criticized him for opening up a Pandora’s box of doctrine and practices. And they were right. But Luther was right, too. And now we live in world where an ecclesiastical court governing all tradition would be an impossibility.

    And I think that’s a good thing. My motto is that truth always finds a way. We shouldn’t be frightened of the process.

    Hope this helps.

  12. This article was not an attempt to defend Galileo’s science or character. It was an essay intended for a popular audience illustrating how arrogance has led to unjust and even immoral behavior, with the tagged conclusion that humility is needed, especially when interpreting the Bible. To read anything more into it is to push the article beyond what I intended (to use a somewhat structuralist argument).

    In addition, you are essentially making the same arguments as Darach, all of which I’m quite familiar with. To sum: Galileo utilized some bad science, he was a grump, and he was only under house arrest. I’m fully aware that there were several motives and reasons for his incarceration, including politics, and foolish responses from Galileo. I only had a 1000 words to tell a complicated story, and oversimplification is necessary. And I’m willing to concede that the sentence “But the Church refused to believe the evidence.” Was an over statement that didn’t acknowledge the complexities of the debate.

    But at the end of the day you still have a man who presented ideas for scientific dialogue with theological implications who was forced to live out the remainder of his days at home; a sentence that he clearly felt unjust. And in this, he was correct. Censorship is unethical, with a few exceptions where speech wrongly harms others. And oppression is equally immoral. One cannot escape the fact that biblical literalism played a role in Galileo’s condemnation.

    So the intent of the article was to put a human face to this recurring problem among fundamentalists.

    If I’m understanding your response correctly, you are attempting to defend literalism’s shady reputation for being “naughty.” I’m assuming you mean biblical literalism within the context of Christian fundamentalism (If I
    missed it, then you can stop reading now because the rest of this will just
    sound stupid.)

    I criticize the role biblical literalism has played in oppressing people not
    because I’ve succumbed to some unfair critique that fails to see the contribution of religion to science. Christians, including biblical literalists have contributed positively to science and social issues. I’ve used no blanket statements suggesting otherwise.

    Nor have I fallen prey to post-structuralism because it’s some sort of fad among the Christian intelligentsia. They kicked me out of their club a long time ago. This is not to say that postmodernism hasn’t influenced me. But I, for one, don’t consider that as a bad thing.

    This article criticizes fundamentalism/biblical literalism because of the many ugly ways it has fleshed itself out.

    Galileo’s story and slavery are hardly the only egregious examples of where this hermeneutic has led some (not all) people to oppress, harm, and censor.

    Biblical literalism has been used to justify beating and subjugating women, to promote white supremacy, to pass Jim Crow laws, to censor the teaching of evolution in the classroom, to promote anti-semitism, to practice spiritual abuse, to exploit the poor, and perhaps worst of all, to produce the “Left Behind” movies.

    And that’s just the stuff I can think of off the top of my head.

    I also criticize literalism because I’ve experienced its abuses firsthand. In the 1980s, fundamentalists forced a hostile takeover of my seminary. They were very vocal about their rationale being that faculty didn’t believe the Bible literally enough. They used it to declare a “holy war” (their words) and to justify the shameful treatment of some of my favorite professors. Since then, they have abused other colleagues and friends in horrible ways. And they have attacked my wife for being a woman teaching the Old Testament at a university when the bible “literally” teaches a woman should keep silent.

    I criticize the egregious actions of fundamentalism and biblical literalists because they deserve to be criticized. This comes from both my study of church history and my own personal experiences.

    I repeat, not all biblical literalists have engaged in this behavior. And there are different expressions of biblical literalism. But there are clearly some very bad stories attached to the movement. And I have the scars to prove it.

  13. Now I understand why all my philosopher friends hate poststructuralism and prefer the analytic tradition. I was not accusing you of being poststructural or postmodern, but rather being caught in what PS’s refer to as a double binary. (My philosopher friends can take comfort that Derrida’s literal death will probably soon be accompanied by the death of his methodology.) I did mention my sympathy for the limits placed upon you by the need for brevity in this medium. And if anything, I think that secular historians of science have become too sympathetic toward religion, perhaps to overcompensate for the secularist echo chamber characteristic of almost all other fields, a problem aptly discussed by Jon Haidt and others.

    However, your banner-waving for illiteralism is at least suggestive of the increasingly tiresome Enlightenment 2.0 rhetoric that ignores the important scholarly findings (so not David Barton) regarding the critical role biblical literalism played in the rise, rapid demise, and then resurrection of proto-feminist, socialist, and democratic theories from the English Civil War to roughly 1800 (e.g., M. Walzer, Daniel Elazar, George Kateb, or more recently Eric Nelson’s The Hebrew Republic published by Harvard U Press, 2010, and scholars of feminist history like Patricia Crawford, Sara Mendelson, and Jacqueline Stevens).

    Once again I find myself unable to address the slave issue in depth, but suffice it to say that I found this part of your argument more plausible. However, while you are right that Southerners used biblical literalism to justify slavery, and Northerners used more generously compassionate non-literal interpretations, this Northern disposition was not due to a lack of the availability of literalist exegesis,which was plentiful among European theologians, as much as an abandonment of the “letter” for the “spirit” among Northerners in general.

    More to the point of the article’s emphasis on the history of science, a more even-handed account would also at least mention the mountain of scholarship connecting biblical literalism to the rise of modern science. Having access to more of Isaac Newton’s writings on religion and a renewed interest in Islamic history have, of course, helped put the canard that secularization FINALLY allowed science to “come into its own” to rest (with Peter Harrison’s Gifford Lectures and books probably providing the most convenient and accessible array of evidence on this point). But even popularized sources of the old modernization thesis as applied to science, like James Burke’s PBS 1980’s series The Day The Universe Changed, managed to communicate a nuanced view of literalism, with the chapter on Darwin pointing out that literalism led both toward and away from evolutionary theory. Moreover, he manages to remind his audience that fundamentalist literalism in the late 19th and early 20th C’s was motivated in part by an opposition to the Social Darwinism and eugenics so enthusiastically endorsed by some progressive theologians wanting to make sure their theology remained informed by science.

    This last point leads to what I hope by now is an obvious conclusion, namely that literalism is a bit like science insofar as both have led to great and terrible consequences. As someone whose wife has also been a university instructor subject to disrespectful attitudes from fundamentalist students, I share your normative concerns regarding the potential damage literal readings of some passages can do (can we admit we are all literalists and illiteralists depending on which verses are at stake?). But I think it important that the empirical record not suffer from what I’m sure is our mutual distaste of obnoxious displays of literalism gone awry (wrote the poststructuralist without the least hint of irony).