The trial of Galileo has been used to illustrate the assumed conflict between science and religion for the last four hundred years. But there is a false dichotomy here. It’s really not about science versus religion. Francis Bacon, an early scientist and Christian said: “Let no woman or man, out of conceit or laziness, think or believe that anyone can search too far or be too well informed in the Book of God’s Works or the Book of God’s Words.” Galileo himself said: “The glory and greatness of Almighty God are marvelously discerned in all His works and divinely read in the open book of Heaven.” God reveals His glory and greatness in the Book of His Works just as He does within the Book of His Word.
For many years, Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens and demonstrated that Jupiter had moons, Venus had phases, and the moon had mountains, among other astronomical discoveries. He became convinced from his observations that the sun-centered theory of Nicholaus Copernicus was correct. But in 1616, the Inquisition declared heliocentrism to be heretical, and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending such ideas. He was able to hold his tongue until 1632, when he published Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems. He almost got away with it, as he had cleverly woven his arguments into a fictional dialogue between three individuals. This hypothetical discussion had been permitted by the Inquisition. His mistake was putting a concluding argument used by the pope in the mouth of the character named Simplico. You don’t need to know Italian to guess what that name means.
Galileo’s enemies were able to convince Pope Urban that if the statement came from Simplicio, Galileo had intended to make fun of it and Urban himself. Ironically, church censors had directed Galileo to include the argument in the book as a standard papal argument against heliocentrism. This led to Galileo’s trial for heresy on June 22, 1633. Under the threat of torture, imprisonment and even being burned at the stake, he was forced to renounce his belief “that the sun, not Earth, was the center of the universe and that Earth moved around the sun and not vice versa, as ecclesiastical teaching dictated.” It wasn’t until October 31, 2009 that the Vatican formally corrected the record with a “not guilty” finding.
To be fair, it seems Galileo could be arrogant at times, and it might be that enemies he made from his sharp tongue were responsible for his coming before the Inquisition. Here is one example of his acerbicness from a letter he wrote to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler in 1610, six years before heliocentrism was first declared to be heresy. He complained to Kepler, that some philosophers had refused to even look through his telescope to see for themselves what he had discovered about the heavens.
My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.
Today, among Christians that false dichotomy is not between astronomy and the Bible, but with evolution and the Bible. Some Christians affirm what is called a “creation science” understanding of the Bible. They hold that God “created the world quickly and completely through dramatic, miraculous interventions.” According to Denis Lamoureux, an evolutionary creationist (yes there can be bible-believing Christians who believe in evolution):
The greatest problem with young earth creation is that it completely contradicts every modern scientific discipline that investigates the origins of the universe and life. There are very few scientists working in the disciplines of cosmology, geology, and biology who accept this anti-evolutionary position. (Lamoureux, I Love Jesus & I Accept Evolution, p. 22).
Creation science holds to a hermeneutic for determining the age of the earth that was influenced by Anglican bishop James Ussher. He based his chronological calculations on the questionable assumption that the genealogical lists in Genesis (5:1-4; 11:10-32) and other passages of Scripture described a literal, unbroken succession. Assuming there to be no gaps in the generations, he calculated the exact date of creation to be Sunday, October 23, 4004 BC. Deborah and Loren Haarsema noted that even if the genealogies had gaps, the date of creation wouldn’t be more than 8 or 10 thousand years ago.
In order to explain the acceptance of evolution by modern science, creation scientists like Henry Morris say Satan blinds the minds of hundreds of thousands of scientists. This would include many Christians who accept evolution as God’s method of creation, setting the stage for uncharitable exchanges and even division in the church. In an article titled “Strong Delusion,” Henry Morris marveled that the pseudo-scientific evolutionary worldview, which he said was not based on any real scientific evidence, could be believed so passionately. He wondered how those who believe in evolution can be won to Christ “when their minds have been blinded by Satan and are under such strong delusion that they have become sincerely committed to the false worldview of evolution?”
The Two Books idea, the Book of God’s work in nature, and the Book of God’s Words in Scripture is where Christians can go for help in resolving this dilemma. Deborah and Loren Haarsma, the authors of the book Origins, have put together a series of short videos on topics discussed at length in their book. Session 2, “Origins: It’s Not About Science versus Scripture,” tackles this issue and even includes Galileo in their discussion. Since God is the Author of revelation in nature and Scripture, there is no conflict. “We trust that God would not tell one story in nature, and a contradictory story in Scripture.”
Even in the midst of difficult conflict, we trust that God is telling us one story. There is a harmony. And it gives us a strategy. When the two sides seem to conflict, we don’t simply throw out one and hold on to the other. Instead, we hold onto both sides and dig deeper to test our human interpretations. . . . By listening to both nature and Scripture, we gain a fuller understanding of God’s story in creation.
Extracting the story of Galileo and his trial from history as “proof” of the war between science and religion is akin to proof texting with Biblical passages isolated from the whole of Scripture. The full story shows how science was able to clearly demonstrate the universe was not earth-centered. And we see that what occurred with Galileo was a misinterpretation of Scripture by the church. When Psalm 93:1 says: “The world is established; it shall never be moved”, it was using phenomenological language, and not affirming an earth-centered universe. “The conflict arises when we get one or both interpretations wrong.”
God tells us one story. He would not contradict himself by saying one thing in Scripture and another in nature. Creation science seems to hold on so tight to Scripture, that they willingly deny well-received scientific findings like the age of the earth and universe.
When there is apparent conflict, as seems to be occurring with Scripture and science over evolution, we need to hold onto both. We can’t jettison Scripture or its hard won doctrines for a dystelological version of evolution. And we can’t shoe horn scientific truth into—or between—the passages of Scripture. We have to hold on to and dig deeper into both.
In a post script, NASA’s Juno mission entered orbit around the planet Jupiter on July 4th and began a two year study of the planet. On board are three specially constructed LEGO figurines including one of Galileo, who discovered the four largest moons of Jupiter. When its mission is complete, Juno will take a suicide plunge into Jupiter’s atmosphere. NASA doesn’t want to take a chance of any rogue microbes on the spacecraft unintentionally contaminating Jupiter’s moons, especially Europa and Ganymede, which are believed to have oceans and the possibility of life.