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Galileo Galilei: Reconciling Faith and Modern Astronomy

Galileo Galilei

Galileo Galilei

The name Galileo is often mentioned in discussions of the relationship between science and faith as a heroic defender of science against religion. However, contrary to such public misconception, Galileo did not fight against religion. He was a man of faith and wanted to do his science in harmony with the teaching of the church. In fact, when he faced the Inquisition on June 22, 1633, he pleaded to the council, “Do not make me say I have not been a good Catholic, for I have been one and will remain one no matter what my enemies say.” Galileo was a devout member of the Catholic church even until death. Even his most controversial works he submitted to the church to obtain permission for publication. While not all the interactions with Galileo and the church were positive, Galileo’s struggle between maintaining academic integrity and his commitment to the doctrinal teachings during his time provide a good case study for scientific doxologists as they try to glorify God through their research.

Born on Feb. 15, 1564 in Pisa, Galileo Galilei’s father had planned for him to become a medical doctor. However, Galileo was fascinated by mathematics. In pondering celestial systems, he preferred the simple mathematical elegance of the sun-centered Copernican system over the more mathematically complex earth-centered Aristotelian cosmos. Starting in 1610, with the first telescope in the world used for the study astronomy, Galileo started to gather evidence that confirmed the Copernican model. Reflecting about this discovery, he said, “I render infinite thanks to God for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”

As a scientific doxologist, Galileo understood that he was uncovering the truths of the world that God created and was not at all at odds with his religious faith. He had immense gratitude towards God his discoveries. In “Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina” (1615), Galileo wrote that God had given us reason, senses and intellect and expected us to use them as tools to interpret Scripture. “For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.”

What happened subsequently was where the mistakes were made. During the controversy over the physical realities of cosmos, the church adopted the Aristotelian model in 1616 as its official stance. The expert panel concluded that the Copernican system was “foolish and absurd in philosophy” and contrary to Holy Scripture. That year, Galileo was cautioned by his friend Cardinal Bellarmine that Copernicanism was contrary to Holy Scripture and could not be defended or held. However, Galileo believed that he could still write about Copernicanism, if he was postulating it as a hypothesis. So when Cardinal Barberini became Pope in 1623, he thought that the time was right to do so.

In 1632, Galileo received the church’s permission to publish his Dialogue Concerning the Two World Systems. In the book, he constantly criticized Aristotle’s followers for ignoring the evidence of their senses and blindly following authority, which criticism he later admitted to be excessive. In addition, he argued strongly against the Pope’s support for Aristotelian model. This made the Pope furious and led to Galileo’s sentence of being “vehemently suspected of heresy.” Fortunately, he was treated leniently and allowed to return to Florence. There he was kept under house arrest for the last ten years of his life. It was during this time that he wrote the Dialogue Concerning Two New Sciences setting the foundation for modern physics.
While both the church and Galileo made mistakes in handling the scientific controversy between Aristotelian versus Copernican model of the universe, we still can learn a lot from Galileo’s life. As an ardent believer and scientist, Galileo realized treated his scientific enterprise as a form of worship. The beauty, simplicity, and majesty of the skies reveal its Creator. As we all search for truth in our disciplines, when encountered with differences with current understanding of Scripture, may we with much humility, charity, and grace approach the apparent disparity and openly and lovingly dialogue with other brothers and sisters in Christ. On this side of heaven, we see but a poor reflection of the perfect truth. Let us long for the day when all truth is revealed and we see Truth, face to face.

References
Blackwell, Richard J. Behind the Scenes at Galileo’s Trial. Notre Dame, Indiana: Notre Dame Press, 2006.
Galilei, Galileo. Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. 2nd. Translated by Stillman Drake. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1967.
Galileo, Galilei. Modern History Sourcebook: Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina of Tuscany, 1615. www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/galileo-tuscany.html (accessed August 1, 2011).
Shea, William R.; Artigas, Mariano. Galileo in Rome. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.
Sobel, Dava. Galileo’s Daughter-A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

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