A reflection on truth in tribute to Galileo Galilei born 15th February 1564
We begin with a story,
The Truth Shop by Anthony De Mello
“I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the name of the shop: The Truth Shop.
The saleswoman was very polite: What type of truth did I wish to purchase, partial or whole? The whole truth of course. No deceptions for me, no defences, no rationalisations. I want my truth plain and unadulterated. She waved me on to another side of the store.
The salesman there pointed to the price tag. “The price is very high sir”, he said. “What is it?” I asked, determined to get to the whole truth, no matter what it cost. “Your security sir”, he answered.
I came away with a heavy heart.
I still need the safety of my unquestioned beliefs.” (Mello, 1982)
Galileo was what is referred to today as a polymath, someone who could study different areas of human knowledge and add to it with his creative genius. He was a mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer; and it was because of this last interest, astronomy, that he found himself in trouble and brought before the papal authorities and to be tried for heresy. It is a famous trial that is sometimes characterised as science versus religion, but this is really a modern take on it. There was no such thing as science then. Galileo himself is credited as being one of the first to develop what we would truly call scientific methods, but he was also a religious man and continued to be so even after his trial. What it was really about was biblical interpretation, religious intolerance and intransigence, a search for truth and the fear of what that truth may hold.
In 1543, before Galileo was born, a polish scholar named Nicolaus Copernicus published a treatise called “On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies”, which proposed that the earth orbited the sun (known as the heliocentric model). For over a thousand years before that the accepted norm was that the sun, and all celestial bodies, orbited the earth. This is known as the geocentric model, originally devised by Claudius Ptolemy, who worked in Alexandria in the second century, building on the ideas of Aristotle. The idea that the sun orbits the earth was considered to be self-evident and seems to cohere with our everyday experience even today. It was also supported by the most influential book of the day in Europe, the Bible. But, although Copernicus’ ideas caused a mild flurry of interest, they passed by largely unnoticed.
One problem with Copernicus’ idea was that he proposed a circular orbit for the earth and this couldn’t be proven mathematically. Adjustments had to be made. It wasn’t until 1609 that German astronomer Johann Kepler proposed an elliptical orbit for Mars; which he extended to all planetary bodies in 1619. No adjustments were then necessary.
Galileo was something of a celebrity in his home country. Teaching at various establishments including the University of Padua, and rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful. Amazing them with his inventions and intellectual insights; and making him hugely influential and popular. After hearing of a telescope being invented elsewhere, he made his own, and developed it. Through his observations he discovered the moons of Jupiter, which showed him that earth was not at the centre of all motions. He also observed the phases of Venus which fitted with Copernicus’ earlier assumptions.
Galileo therefore advocated the heliocentric model and argued his case with his fellow academics. But it was not just academics he was arguing with, it was the church too. Why was the church interested? Well as we have heard it was the accepted world view that the earth was at the centre of the universe and therefore the solar system and this had become church teaching, which of course was inviolable, and it was supported in scripture. For example, we have in Ecclesiastes 1:5, ”And the sun rises and sets and returns to its place”, and in Psalm 104:5, “the Lord set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved.” There are other examples too that seem to support this geocentric view when taken literally.
And this was one of the key points of this affair, which built up over many years, culminating in Galileo’s trial in 1633. How should we interpret the Bible? There is of course the literal approach, where a passage is taken at face value. There is the allegorical approach, where a passage is considered in a non-literal or poetic way, from which meaning can be derived. And thirdly there is the idea of accommodation, where understanding of a passage has to take into account the original writer and audience, so is read in context. All these methods were available to theologians in Galileo’s day, but on this issue the church argued the literal method.
The passage that was used at his trial was Joshua 10: 12-14
“12 On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel:
“Sun, stand still over Gibeon,
and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”
13 So the sun stood still,
and the moon stopped,
till the nation avenged itself on its enemies,
as it is written in the Book of Jashar.
The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day. 14 There has never been a day like it before or since, a day when the Lord listened to a human being. Surely the Lord was fighting for Israel!”
Galileo’s argument was that this was just a turn of phrase, simply a common way of speaking and Joshua did not know the workings of the solar system. The church did not agree. He was found guilty of heresy. This would normally be a capital offence, but because he agreed to recant (at least in public) – I say agreed, he was on his knees under threat of torture – he was kept under house arrest for the remainder of his life. Some view this as a bit of a let off. A few years earlier, in 1600, philosopher Giordano Bruno had been burnt at the stake for expressing the view that the universe may be infinite. So, giving voice to opinions that may have been viewed as heretical was a dangerous business back then.
The background to the debate was a complex one and included the emergence of Protestantism in northern Europe, which clearly made the Catholic Church feel vulnerable. The teachings of the church were supposed to be timeless and unchanging. One French Bishop said, “false doctrine is recognised at once because it is new”. If the church was to admit to being wrong about this, what else might people question? Fear of where this may lead to was significant, these were the issues that worried the Cardinals. As Anthony DeMello put it they felt they needed the safety of their unquestioned beliefs. Galileo himself may have made things worse too by writing a book of the debate in which the Pope’s views were expressed by a character called “Simplicio” which of course has connotations of simpleton.
Facing a new and challenging truth is not easy. The truth about the Earth moving around the Sun was always there, it just needed to be discovered and understood. Something that wasn’t really fully accepted until many years after Galileo’s death, when the evidence became overwhelming and perhaps more understandable. Now it is something we take for granted. Science today plays an ever more important role in our lives, continuing to change our understanding of the world and the universe, and to drive change through developments in areas such as technology or medicine; and unfortunately, negatively, in areas such as the development of weapons of war. Scientific methods can demonstrate the truth of many physical aspects of the world, but science doesn’t address all our human needs.
There are absolute truths and relative truths, and there are differences between scientific and religious truths. Science is sometimes characterised as asking “how” questions, how things work; and religion is sometimes characterised as asking “why” questions, why are things as they are. However, there is often no satisfactory answer to the “why” question in the way that science might answer the “how” question; and so for some this devalues religious enquiry today. But, in my view, spiritual truths cannot be captured in formulas, equations and literal language. Spiritual truths seem to have more to do with those things that are at the core of our being that may manifest more as feelings and emotions, that can be better accessed through our imagination than through an instruction book; and can perhaps be better expressed through poetry, prayers, music, art or stories. John Keats says this about how we should experience poetry for example:
“A poem needs understanding through the senses. The point of diving into a lake is not immediately to swim to the shore; it is to be in the lake, to luxuriate in the sensation of the water. You do not work the lake out. It is an experience beyond thought. Poetry soothes and emboldens the soul to accept mystery.” (Brehm, 2017)
We can’t easily express what that “mystery” is, but perhaps we can glimpse it sometimes. It can be experienced by an individual, but it also somehow connects us as living beings. For many of course the ultimate and absolute expression of spiritual truth is God, where others may use a different language. When we see the sun disappear over the horizon, we maybe in awe of our spinning world, but be may also simply be captivated by its sheer beauty.
So, on Galileo’s birthday perhaps we can re-commit ourselves to seeking and honouring the truth. We may be uncertain or unsure, but when a new truth emerges, we mustn’t turn away from it. Even if it turns our world upside down, we must accept it and be prepared to think again about what we believe.
May we keep our hearts and minds open to truth, in all its forms.
Brehm, J. (2017). The Poetry of Impermanence. Mindfulness, and Joy. Somerville: Wisdom Publications.
McGrath, A. E. (2010). Science and Religion. Chichester: John Wiley and Sons.
Mello, A. d. (1982). The Song of the Bird. New York: Doubleday.