Kansas Board of Education vs. the Truth, Part 1 (1/9/05)
Rev. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
The first telescopes were used as naval tools. A ship’s captain could look through a primitive version of the telescope and assess the strength of his opponent’s fleet. In the early part of the 17th Century, Galileo did something that evidently had not occurred to anybody before. Instead of using a telescope to look out over the horizon, he pointed it toward the sky.
It would be another half-century before Isaac Newton invented the refracting telescope, which uses reflecting mirrors to focus and magnify images. But back in 1609, Galileo had improved the lenses of primitive telescopes to the point he was seeing some amazing and troubling things when he looked at the night sky.
Now, before we move on we should consider the way people thought about the universe in 1609. The worldview of people at that time had not changed much in two-thousand years. Sometime around 350 B.C. Aristotle concluded that the universe is finite and spherical with a stationary earth at its center. This was a couple of millennia before rocketry, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to see that the earth was sitting still, and the sun, moon and stars were orbiting around it.
It was about 500 years later, in the second century A.D., that a mathematician named Ptolemy tried to make sense of Aristotle’s earth-centered, or geocentric universe, with mathematics. So the idea of the earth as the center of the universe, and everything else revolving around the earth, became known as the Ptolemaic system.
Christian theologians through the ages, from Clement and Origen in the second and third centuries, to St. Augustine in the fifth century, to Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century, incorporated the worldview of Aristotle and Ptolemy into their theology. And it made great sense. God created humanity in his own image, and humanity was the central player in God’s creation. Obviously, the entire universe—all of creation—revolved around the world on which human beings lived.
One of the most brilliant people who ever lived was named Nicholas Copernicus. He was born a century before Galileo, in 1473, and over his seventy years of life he became a true Renaissance man, educated in the classics, law, theology, mathematics, metaphysics, languages, and astronomy. As he tracked the movement of the planets, he found no way to mathematically place the earth at the center of the universe. Aristotle and Ptolemy simply had to be wrong. He developed a cosmology that said the earth was spinning around on a polar axis, and that the earth and the other planets were circling the sun.
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Copernicus knew the church would not put up with such nonsense, and he pretty much kept his ideas to himself, circulating them only to a few scientific minded friends. The text of his book which explained this heliocentric—sun-centered—universe was not published until the year he died.
The church simply could not tolerate this view of the universe. The church had woven the scientific worldview of the ancient world into its theology. It all made sense. Human beings lived in the center of God’s creation. God was up in the sky. Somewhere down below the earth was the region of death, where those not favored by God suffered for their wrongs in life. People knew that what lies beneath the earth is a hot and terrible place—they were familiar with volcanoes.
And the church backed itself into a corner. By claiming to have arrived at the ultimate truth, their concept of God relied on the universe being just like they assumed it to be. If somebody proposed a worldview—a way of thinking about the universe—that was different than what the church believed was true, that person was attacking God. Because the church had God all figured out, and the church’s God had created a perfectly uniform, mechanical universe with the earth, and humanity, at the center. And this next point is important to understanding the implications of what Galileo saw through his telescope. The church believed that the whole universe was pristine and perfect with the exception of the earth, which humanity had corrupted with its sin.
And that brings us back to Galileo and what he saw when he pointed his telescope up instead of out. He made three discoveries that rocked the world of science and theology, proving the theories of Copernicus, and placing the church in a most awkward position.
First, with his superior telescope, he looked at the moon. He looked closer, and closer, and closer, and… ought oh! The moon, that perfect celestial orb that God had placed in the sky to rule over the night, had lots and lots of imperfections! It had pits, and craters, and was obviously a place of change and decay.
That alone would have caused panic in the church: the heavens are imperfect! But what Galileo discovered next was simply too much. He magnified the planet Jupiter as much as he possibly could, and discovered four small planets—four moons—orbiting around Jupiter.
We can hardly imagine how shocking this would have been to people of the early 17th century. But his next discovery simply blew apart the universe the church insisted God had created. Galileo started following the planet Venus through the sky, and the results were conclusive. There was simply no way that Venus was revolving around the earth. In fact, there was no doubt about it: Venus was orbiting the sun.
Galileo released a book in 1632 explaining his findings in detail. The church forced him to recant his views, and placed him under house arrest for the rest of his life. I will read the words from the famous Holy Tribunal in which the church condemned Galileo:
Quote: The proposition that the sun is the center of the universe and does not move from its place is absurd and false philosophically and formally heretical, because it is expressly contrary to Holy Scripture. The proposition that the earth is not the center of the universe and immovable, but that it moves…is equally absurd… false philosophically and theologically… [and] erroneous in faith.
What’s the bottom line in all of this? Simple. The church decided it had to protect God from the truth. The church eventually saw the error of its ways. Of course, by that time the notion that the earth was the center of the entire universe had been pretty much dispelled. In 1969, using Galileo’s basic view of the solar system, human beings sent people to the moon and brought them home safely. The church that had condemned Galileo as a heretic and kept him under house arrest for life did eventually admit it was wrong, and officially forgave him—in 1981.
So what does all of this have to do with the Kansas Board of Education? The answer is obvious enough. Four hundred years after Galileo, we once again find good people, with the best of intentions—people who are truly committed to their faith—trying to protect God from the truth, this time by insisting the state of Kansas downplay evolution in our science classrooms.
First of all, we must ask the question: Is evolution a theory? And the answer is yes, evolution is a scientific theory that so far has held up to scientific scrutiny. And that’s why it should be taught in science class. But before we turn our attention to the current debate over evolution, we should spend a little more time in the scientific world of Copernicus and Galileo, because they and the scientist who came after them provide a great example of the way science should work.
Like evolution, our current view of the universe is also a theory, based largely on the mathematics of Copernicus and the observations of Galileo and their successors. But science is modifying our view of the universe all the time. As it turns out those two men were wrong about lots of things. The sun was not the center of the universe. It was simply the center of the solar system. What a shock for both science and religion when improved telescopes revealed that our sun is not the center of all creation but is instead one of countless billions of stars. The sun is a star.
When we came to this realization, we might have thought we had pretty much absorbed all the shock our human minds could tolerate. Scientists thought they had the universe figured out. The universe was this huge pinwheel of stars, rotating very slowly on an axis.
But then, early in the 20th century, astronomers kept discovering these strange clouds of light at the edge of the known universe. They didn’t act like stars. And then, as telescopes improved, they discovered the reason they didn’t behave like stars. They weren’t stars. They were galaxies. Those tiny blobs of light were in fact billions of stars, rotating in systems very much like what we had previously thought was the whole universe. So we called this galaxy of stars in which we live the Milky Way galaxy, and soon realized there are billions of other galaxies out there.
It would seem things couldn’t have gotten any crazier, but then, in 1929, a scientist named Edwin Hubble started making some calculations about all those galaxies out there and discovered something really troubling. All those galaxies were hurtling away from us. They were flying away from the Milky Way galaxy as if we had been cursed with galactic bad breath. But wait. It gets even weirder. Those galaxies were also flying away from each other!
It didn’t take long for scientists to look at the facts and create a theory. If all the stars, all the matter, everything in the universe is expanding, there must have been a time when it was all packed together. The universe must have begun with a colossal Big Bang. That’s why we now have what we call the Big Bang Theory that attempts to explain, according to our scientific knowledge, the earliest moments of the universe. And that is why we should teach that theory in science class. The facts, as we understand them, point in that direction.
But it is only a theory. A flat earth at the center of the universe was a theory. Our sun as the center of the universe was a theory, held by Galileo. The Milky Way galaxy as the whole of creation was a theory. And the Big Bang theory is… obviously, a theory.
Good science is always looking for a flaw in the theory. Science—the search for truth in the material world—must always attempt to disprove its existing theories. That’s the nature of good science. And without delving any further into the world of physics, current scientific inquiry into the field of quantum physics is turning the whole universe as we understand it upside down and inside out. Quantum physicists now tell us that this world we see before our eyes is sort of an illusion of human consciousness. It is only a part of a universe where most of the ideas upon which we base our knowledge are no longer valid. Ideas like up and down, left and right, near and far, and even before and after, don’t apply in the world of quantum physics. And they now insist that we human beings exist in bodies that perceive the universe in four dimensions—height, width, depth and time—but that there are in fact 11 dimensions. If any of you understand that, please look me up after church and explain it to me.
But let’s make the point. Protecting God from the truth has to be about the most ridiculous idea the human mind has managed to come up with. Oh, every age has its scientists who believe they have found the final and ultimate truth. But they are always wrong. The most a scientist can do is build on the work that has come before and try to add another brick in the ever-growing structure of human knowledge. Good science is humble. It knows that at every turn there is more truth to be discovered. Good science understands that when we look back on the greatest scientific minds of any age, they were only seeing a small part of the whole picture.
As a person of faith, I love science. We teach science to add to our knowledge of creation. We teach science to learn from the experiments, theories, and mistakes of the past. But science, by its very nature, cannot be emotional. It has to stick to the facts as we understand them. It has to study, question, and revise the theories upon which we try to understand the world in which we live.
What if we had buried our collective heads in the sand and insisted our earth was the center of the universe? Would that make it so? Of course not. And even though Copernicus and Galileo were wrong about many things, they were right about enough to advance the human search for understanding.
If there is one thing I wish people of faith would understand, it is this: We do not need to protect God from the truth. Not now, not ever. God is always there in the truth. There is no fact we can discover, no ancient set of dinosaur bones we can uncover, no theory we can state that will make God go away.
With every discovery we make there are two things that happen. Human beings get smaller, and God gets bigger. The church made a horrible mistake from its very early days when it associated God with a particular view of the universe. The Creator of the Universe will not fit into any of the boxes we create to hold God. God is not bound by the limits of the human imagination.
For those who look at the sky and cannot accept we live in a universe that is billions of years old, with countless billions of stars, spread across a canvas that is broader in scope than our minds can possibly conceive—they just need to let God out of their box. God didn’t disappear when we realized the earth was not the center of the universe. We just realized that God is much greater than we had previously envisioned. We changed—God remained the same.
When we discovered that our sun was not the center of the universe, and that it was one of billions of stars in a pinwheel shaped cluster of stars, God did not disappear. We changed—God remained the same. When we discovered that our Milky Way Galaxy was one of billions of galaxies spread across distances beyond the grasp of human understanding, God did not disappear. We changed—God remained the same.
I’m not sure what it is with human beings. I don’t know if we can’t stand being so little, or we can’t handle God being so big. Next week we will turn to the subject of evolution, and see how the view of many contemporary people of faith parallels the views of our predecessors in faith, who too often insisted on protecting God from the truth.
Until then, I want you to ponder something that I personally believe with all my heart, something that cannot be empirically tested and physically measured, and therefore has no place in our science classrooms. In this amazingly vast universe, where God seems to get bigger and bigger and we seem to get smaller and smaller with every new piece of information we add to the store of human knowledge, God is still as near as the beating of our hearts, as close as our next breath. God is big, not distant. God is so big, there is not a single prayer any one of us can offer from our hearts that God does not hear. Amen.