from “Anthem”, by Leonard Cohen

Monday, November 25, 2013

Galileo, Sunspots, and Theologians of the Time

Florence, Italy 1613  
400 Novembers ago, exactly.


Galileo had published his remarkable book,
Letters on the Solar Spots
after which, at the speed of horse and printing press,
his scientific conclusions went viral all over Europe.

In his book, Galileo described the precise and careful method by which he had observed, over the course of several months, mysterious dark blotches appearing on the surface of the sun.

He described how each “sun spot” seemed to traverse the surface of the sun, disappear over its right “edge”, and then a few days later, reappear on the left side of the sun’s face.

The pattern repeated itself about every 28 days.

He concluded that the movement of sunspots indicated that the sun, just like the earth, rotated.

It was a dramatic confirmation of his cosmology.

After publishing his observations in the summer of ‘13, Galileo was well on his way to becoming a rock star.

Holy Church was not amused.

Storm clouds of ecclesiastical discontent and disapproval quickly gathered around Galileo and, by late autumn, Church’s self righteous rage thundered angrily against him.

It began with a sermon delivered by Niccolò Lorini, 400 years ago this month.
It was an excoriating assault against Galileo.

Lorini was a member of the Dominican Order.

In that era, the Dominicans considered themselves zealous for the work of rooting out heresy in the name of Jesus.

No known copies of Lorini’s sermon survive, but witnesses remember it as a long, damning harangue against the person and work of Galileo.

Ironically, it was preached on All Soul’s Day as part of the celebration when the church’s martyrs were honored !

In Church’s view, Galileo advocated an astronomical orientation which was incompatible with Christian teaching.

Imagining that the Bible’s integrity was at risk and believing that Galileo’s “private astrological conclusions” were a threat to the Church’s order, charges were brought against him.

Church posted warnings, advising that . . .

publicly advocates that

God created sunspots or that
sunspots are a normal and natural phenomenon or that
belief in sunspots does not contradict Christian teaching,

Among the princes of Church in those days, one Christoph Scheiner, a conservative Jesuit priest, was especially infuriated that Galileo had published his discoveries.

Scheiner decided that God’s perfect creation needed defending against the likes of Galileo and that he himself was just the man to do the job.

Countering Galileo, Scheiner declared, without a shred of evidence, that it was impossible for the sun to have any offending spots or other blemishes on it because -

since God is perfect,
he (sic) could not have created
an imperfect sun.

Therefore, the sun,
a creation of a perfect God,
is obviously without spots of any kind.

That was it.
That was the essence of his theological argument.

What appeared to be dark spots, he continued, were in fact shadows on the sun, not spots.

These “shadows” on the sun were caused by various objects God had (apparently) floated in the space just above the sun.

With such stellar logic, Scheiner defended God’s reputation as a flawless Creator, while simultaneously attempting to trash Galileo’s “tale” about a blotchy sun.

Scheiner was triumphant.
At least for awhile.

Yet, Galileo’s theology from the lens of a telescope was not his only problem.

Church also argued, naturally, that Galileo’s astronomical observations were wrong because they contradicted Holy Scripture.

At his eventual trial, church counsel would enter (as evidence against Galileo) the 6  cosmological “clobber passages” in the Bible which confirm Church’s teachings over and against  Galileo’s learning.*

And so, within a year and a half of Lorini’s wretched diatribe (in the name of gentle Jesus) against Galileo, Church initiated a long, painful, bitter, graceless grinding toward a foolish, costly and unnecessary trial.

When church court finally announced the verdict of guilty upon him, Galileo was given two options.

He could either pledge to uphold the Discipline of Church in its entirety, or prepare for torture.

To avoid pointless torture, Galileo signed an apology, recanted of all his hard won scientific knowledge, promised not to speak or write anything more about his ideas and concurred publicly with Church’s (medieval) teachings about its cosmology.

After trial, he remained under “house arrest” until the day he died.

  - - - - - - - - -

In November of 1992, Pope John Paul II tried to explain why the Roman Catholic Church had failed to welcome Galileo’s insights. The pope said,

“The error of the theologians of the time,
when they maintained
the centrality of the Earth,
was to think that our understanding
of the physical world's structure was,
in some way, imposed by the
literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”

May I be so bold as to suggest that some years from now,
when church historians try to explain
why our beloved  United Methodist Church
was unable to fully accept and celebrate
gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender human beings
will their explanation be much different than this . . . ?

“The error of the theologians of the time,
when they maintained the
exclusiveness of heterosexuality,
was to think that our understanding
of human sexuality was,
in some way, imposed by the
literal sense of Sacred Scripture.”

- - - - - - - -

In November of 2013, the bishops of the United Methodist Church announced they were bringing a complaint against their colleague, Bishop Talbert. Their charge is that he officiated at a wedding for a gay couple; a practice, they allege, against their rulebook.

In November of 2013, a trial court in the United Methodist Church found the Rev. Frank Schaefer guilty of officiating at his gay son’s wedding. The court then ordered him to decide - either continue in ministry without officiating at gay weddings or lose ordination credentials.

- - - - - - - -

* The most prominent among Bible story chosen by Church to “clobber” Galileo’s facts was a selection from Joshua 10. There it is recorded that God “stopped the sun” in order to give the Israelites additional daylight to win an important battle. Had the Bible said “God stopped the earth from revolving”, Galileo could have used the Bible in his own defense!