A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, January 22, 2012
You know, the Christian Church has not always been kind to its best, most gifted, and most forward-thinking members. As you probably know, some of the best and most brilliant minds have been ignored, silenced, imprisoned, persecuted, even burned at the stake. And all because they saw a better way, a more enlightened way, and spoke out against the status quo.
Take, for instance, Galileo, that 15th and 16th century Italian astronomer and physicist who is often called the “father of modern physics.” Albert Einstein called him the “father of modern science.” Yet, Galileo was branded by the Church as a heretic, and he was ordered to go to Rome to stand trial where he was interrogated. He was threatened with torture if he did not change his views and tell the truth. He was sentenced to formal imprisonment, but then his sentence was changed to house arrest, which he remained under for the rest of his life. His writings were banned and publication of any other works he might write was forbidden. On top of that, Galileo was ordered to read the seven penitential psalms once a week for three years.
And what was Galileo’s great crime that branded him as a heretic and caused him so much trouble? He defended heliocentrism , the theory that the sun, and not the earth, is the center of our solar system. Previously, the accepted view was that the earth was the center of the universe and the sun revolved around the earth. After all, doesn’t the Bible say “the sun rises and the sun goes down”? (Ecc. 1:5). In beautiful poetic fashion, Psalm 19 states that “in the heavens God has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them;” (Psalm 19:4-6). So, you can see the problem. For Galileo to have claimed that the sun, and not the earth, was at the center of our solar system was contrary to the teachings of the Bible, which in the 15th and 16th centuries was a big problem.
Now, the fact is, Galileo was not the first to believe that the earth was not the center of the solar system or universe. From your elementary science days, you may remember that Copernicus had already formulated some years earlier a comprehensive heliocentric cosmology which displaced the earth from the center of the universe. The earth revolved around the sun, Copernicus taught, and not the other way around. But evidently, Copernicus did not go to the lengths that Galileo would to defend the idea. By 1616, the attacks on the ideas of Copernicus had reached a head, so Galileo went to Rome (the center of Christendom) to try to persuade the Catholic Church authorities not to ban Copernicus’s ideas. What resulted was a decree declaring that the idea that the sun stood still and the earth moved were “false” and “altogether contrary to Holy Scripture.” And thus, Galileo was decreed to be heretical in his views and punished accordingly.
Now, here is the point: there has long been tension between religion and science. When science and new discoveries have called into question long-held religious beliefs, all kinds of trouble often have followed. In the beginning, religious ideas and natural experiences were pretty much blended into one. Religion sought to understand and explain natural phenomena. But as science grew and could explain natural occurrences, religion and science began to diverge. But as religious-minded humans, often we don’t want our religious beliefs tampered with. If I have to give into the possibility that the earth is not the center of the universe, or the idea that the earth is not at the center of God’s attention, as the Bible would seem to indicate, then what other beliefs might I need to call into question as well? Such is the way human minds tend to work.
Well, where is all of this going? you may be asking. I got to thinking about all of us because of recent astronomical discoveries. I don’t know if you caught it or not, but since early last year the Kepler space telescope has detected about 2,000 potential planets that are circling our own sun’s starry neighbors. It is thought that a number of those potential planets fall within their star’s temperate habitable zone where oceans could persist, which means they are capable of supporting life. Geoff Marcy of the University of California-Berkeley, a Kepler investigator, stated “This is a phenomenal discovery in the course of human history” (USA Today, Dec. 6, 2011).
Now, if we accept the fact that there may be other planets out there similar to our earth and capable of containing life, how might that alter our idea of God and possibly our faith? After all, don’t we tend to think of humans as the center of God’s attention? What if there are other like beings on other planets in other solar systems? Would such mean that we are any less special or any less important in the overall scheme of things? Or, would it merely indicate that God is so much bigger than we may have previously fathomed?
It is helpful for me to visualize a diagram with a circle in the middle, and where everything within that circle represents Science, data, the Known, and everything outside that circle represents Faith, spiritual experience, and the Unknown. Can you visualize that with me? Visualize an endless, blank sheet of paper with a circle drawn in the center. Inside that circle is the Known, Scientific fact, provable data. Then everything else outside the circle on the remaining endless sheet of paper represents the Unknown, Faith, spiritual experience. The more we learn through Science, the larger the circle of the Known grows. But at the same time, that which lies outside the circle—the Unknown, unprovable spiritual experience, Faith—continues to grow as well. Also, the more we know, the more we realize we don’t know. So as scientific discovery grows and changes, so does the realm of Faith and our conceptions of God. Science shows that the truth—natural and religious—may be larger, grander, more mysteriously beautiful than we could have ever imagined. The pre-Copernicus Christian Church could not have fathomed thousands of solar systems like our own with multiple planets like Planet Earth.
Some people are not able to embrace such radical changes in the way they view reality. And hence, the tension between science and faith. For some, if there seems to be a discrepancy between science and faith or the Bible, then faith wins out. It is interesting how, as intelligent people, we can check our brains at the front door of the church. Then others give up faith altogether, giving sole allegiance to science, unable to see the value of faith even if the Bible shouldn’t always be taken literally.
Galileo had the right idea almost 400 years ago, contending that the Bible and science are not contrary one to the other since the writers of the Bible were operating from a terrestrial or earthly worldview. And most often, the verses in the Bible where the sun is pictured as revolving around the earth are poetical in nature and weren’t intended to be taken literally.
So, regarding the question, “Where in the universe is God?”, the answer is a lot more than we may once have thought. As our knowledge about the universe continues to grow, so do our ideas about God or the Sacred at the heart of the universe. Or to put it another way, as our knowledge and understanding change, including how they are informed by science, we are also forced to grapple with our religious understanding. But the fact that there may be more planets in the universe similar to planet Earth shouldn’t change the way that we feel about God—or that God feels about us—in the least. We’re just learning that the power, majesty and grace of God extend much further than we previously thought. And our discoveries can lead us to greater beauty, a greater experience of the Divine-Sacred-God than we could have ever imagined. Amen.