(This is part 2 in a series on the history behind the story of Galileo’s persecution by the church. Click here for part one.)
In the first post in this series we looked at the need to be clear on history before we use it in contemporary discussions about our Christianity. The story of Galileo is a great test-case because it is so well known and because it has parallels with some current discussions. This passage from early in Kirsten Birkett’s article starts to get to the heart of the issues surrounding Galileo and how his new discoveries impacted his world:
For decades historians of science and early modern Europe have recognized this glib picture [of the church persecuting Galileo for his science] as a caricature—yet the caricature refuses to die, held up by those whose propaganda it suits. The ‘Galileo incident’ as it has come to be known in the literature, can be described as any number of things, but to see it as an example of church dogmatism versus free thought rather misses the point. It was a political battle between warring academics and academic traditions, fought over the issues of disciplinary boundaries and academic prestige; it was a clash between medieval and modern conceptions of knowledge; it was a matter of power politics. It was a time when the educational structure was changing and old-school academics fought hard to maintain their traditional privileges; and when the individual state was taking over from medieval structures and political battles were fought over intellectual rights. Put this against the background of Reformation and counter-Reformation, after the Catholic church had been shaken to the roots by Protestant demands for the individual’s right to personal access to the Bible, and it is not surprising that somewhere along the line, someone was charged with heresy. The fact that it was the Copernican system that precipitated the trial is (for the Catholic church at least) historically unfortunate. Crises could have occurred over a range of other issues, given different circumstances; and had Galileo been a less abrasive character, had his involvement in academic politics been less prominent, had the political situation been different, it might not have happened at all.
Galileo’s career does not demonstrate an instance of Christianity versus science. It does demonstrate what happens when old science is challenged by a new theory—many of those in the scientific establishment react with skepticism and dismiss the new challenger. Galileo’s story is really about Aristotelianism versus modern science. Galileo fought for a new science, against the entrenched conservatism of an intellectual system which had been accepted for centuries (Aristotelian philosophy) and against individuals in the universities who were not at all willing to have their jobs and their professional reputations challenged. The main lessons we learn from Galileo are about how science changes. Apart from that, Galileo’s career demonstrates how dangerous politics can be—for once Galileo became embroiled in the political scene of the seventeenth-century papal court, he was in a very risky position.
Here is another great reminder about the need to remember how complicated real life can be. When someone frames Galileo’s life and discoveries as being about “fact” or “science” as opposed to “faith,” they’re not doing justice to the actual life and work of Galileo. It’s just not what happened.
Similarly, if we frame the current discussions of Christian doctrine in light of the findings of science in the same, simplistic way, we don’t do justice to the actual nature of reality, especially the academic and scholarly realities, of all the various reasons why someone may or may not hold to or promote certain views. This is not said in order to discredit anyone or do an end-run around scientific findings. It is only that we have the need, in our day, to recognize the complicated nature of these discussions. As Christians, we can keep our intellectual footing more easily if we remember that unbelieving scientists are not, as a general rule, on a simple and dispassionate search for truth. There are always larger things afoot, and quite often, they have nothing to do with science at all.
This becomes clear, in Galileo’s case, when we start to look at the historical context surrounding his scientific findings. More on all this to come…