Debunking Science & Religion Myths: The Copernican Revolution Wasn’t a Demotion

Whoa, he's Polish!

Whoa, he’s Polish!

The science and religion debates are chock-full of ideological myths.

Nowadays the scientific side usually has the upper hand in the construction of history.  This position means its stories should arouse healthy suspicion and invite demythologizing.

Everyone has rehearsed all those terribly touching stories, perhaps even with a tear in the eye, about the persecution of the brave scientific martyrs by the ecclesiastical Grand Inquisitor(s).  Let’s ignore the fact the Inquisition had more respect for due process and evidentiary rules than the Bush-Obama White Houses and explore something more moving.

The shifting of the Earth from the center of the universe, coupled with the setting of the planet in motion around the sun, is usually presented as a real cosmic bummer from which we’ll never recover.

John Hedley Brooke, in Science and Religion: Some Historical Perspectives, says nothing could be further from the truth (if you take 16th century cosmology into consideration),

“Even if men and women were removed from the center of the cosmos, this was not necessarily to diminish their status.  The center of the geocentric cosmos had not been salubrious.  It was the point to which earthly matter fell, the focus of change and impurity, the physical correlate of humanity’s fallen state.  To be placed on a planet was to move upmarket.  It was to be delivered from a dump that was, in reality, diabolocentric.  Galileo was certainly conscious of this, rejoicing that there was an escape from the refuse.  Kepler, too, spoke of an enhanced status for the earth.  At last it enjoyed legal citizenship in the heavens.  Not surprisingly, John Wilkins was to say that a prevalent objection to the Copernican system was not man’s dethronement but an elevation about his true stature.”

Oh merde!

Oh merde!

Feel free to annoy your starry-eyed science-geek friends with these newly-learned facts.  Why not also pass along the story I published here and the conclusion to the one here while you’re at it?

By the way, the above passage from John Hedley Brooke was cited by Larry Chapp in his groundbreaking tome The God of Covenant and Creation.  You’ll be hearing about it a lot more in the near future.  I’m still reading it (with great enthusiasm).

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

I could only find an untypically modest-sized picture.

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Athens and Jerusalem: Philosophy as a Way of Life

Must read.

Must read.

In De praescriptione, vii Tertullian asks, ” What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church?”

As it turns out, quite a lot.  Michael J. Buckley in his must-read Denying and Disclosing God: The Ambiguous Progress of Modern Atheism lays out how a too close association between religion and early modern science eventually led to the propagation of atheism.

Yes, you read that right, the relationship was not not marked by antagonism (yet another Enlightenment myth exposed).  Poor and mad Giordano Bruno was an exception that proves the rule.  The close marriage between science and religion in representative figures such as Galileo, Kepler, and Newton caused trouble for religion, because the arguments of the scientists-believers were impersonal and decontextualized faith in God.  Buckley (SJ) believes the natural turf for theological lies elsewhere:

“More astonishing in their absence–within Christian Europe–were the two trinitarian modes of divine self-disclosure and communication: the self-expression of God become an incarnate component within human history or the Spirit transforming human subjectivity in its awareness, affectivity, and experience.”

In other words, in another language, “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”  I’d prefer to see this badly translated as “You must other [verb] your life,” but below you’ll find a more conventional rendition along with the torso of Apollo from the Louvre that inspired Rilke’s ejaculation:

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur: would not, from all the borders of itself, burst like a star: for here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

The implication of this is that the lives of the saints flesh out the arguments with narratives of changed actions and transformed subjectivities.  If religion is not about changing your heart of stone into a heart of flesh, then it’s irrelevant.   Buckley approvingly quotes one of Wittgenstein’s letters as recommending such an approach:

“If you and I are to live religious lives, it mustn’t be that we talk a lot about religion, but that our manner of life is different.  It is my belief that only if you try to be helpful to other people will you in the end find your way to God.”

Be well = do good work.

Be well = do good work.

In many ways this might be the intention behind the recent words of Pope Francis about the CDF:

“Say you err, [or] make a blunder – it happens! Maybe you’ll receive a letter from the Congregation for Doctrine [sic], saying that they were told this or that thing…. But don’t let it bother you. Explain what you have to explain, but keep going forward…. Open doors, do something where life is calling out [to you].”

CatholicPassion2

Sides with Claudel

However, all of this should not drive a wedge between philosophy and theology when philosophy is properly understood.  The temptation is great as the otherwise commendable The Catholic Passion (an attempt at a more fleshly, incarnate, and subjective-transformative approach to theology) demonstrates:

“In this book I chose to go with Claudel [as oppose to writing a commentary on the Baltimore Catechism] to explain Catholicism by way of the experience and faith expressions of real Catholics–saints, composers, poets, playwrights, missionaries, ordinary believers.  This approach seems appropriate to Catholicism, which is not a philosophy of life so much as a personal encounter and relationship with a divine person, Jesus.  The church’s creeds, dogmas, and doctrines are indispensable–they ensure that this encounter with Jesus is true–but if this neat order of rules and laws is the theorem, then Catholicism’s proof will always be found in what Catholics think and hope for, how they pray, and what they do with their lives.”

The misstatement lies in the opposition between Catholicism and a “philosophy of life.”  We must understand philosophy, at least ancient philosophy, but also more recent philosophers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, in the way Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Epictetus, et al all did, that is, as a way of life, as a set of spiritual exercises, practiced and lived out in philosophic communities.

What’s more, Tertullian, for all his anti-philosophical bluster (a style he borrowed from Greek and Roman philosophical schools), actually stole many other things from Athens in the service of Jerusalem.  The following passage comes from Dariusz Karłowicz’s Socrates and Other Saints, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post here:

“In Tertullian we can find all the Stoic-Platonic exercises mentioned by Philo of Alexandria. For example: study, meditation (meletai), cures for the passions (therapeiai), recalling the beautiful, self-control, doing one’s duties, or others, such as: listening with a constant attention that is turned upon oneself (prosoche) and indifference toward indifferent things. There was no lack of typical Cynical exercises to combat the passions through bodily mortification. These exercises became so rooted in Christian spirituality that our contemporaries are surprised to discover the ancient philosophical roots of Tertullian’s advice to meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer by first purifying oneself of anger or an unquiet heart. One can confidently say that for Tertullian constant spiritual exercises constitute the content of daily life for members of Christ’s church.”

Step back Harnack.

Adolf von Harnack

Miffed.

In related news: Laura Keynes, a great-great-great-granddaughter of the English naturalist Charles Darwin, has gone papist.

Rejoicing – Or the Torments of Religious Speech

Forthcoming July 2013

It is noteworthy whenever the French philosopher of science Bruno Latour (author of We Have Never Been Modern, The Politics of Nature, and countless other influential books) has a new book coming.  This one digs into his first passion: theology (he wrote a dissertation on the Catholic poet Charles Peguy).  It appears his book Rejoicing will intensify the personal tone he’s known for reinserting back into our understanding of how science works.  Here’s a small sample:

“Rejoicing – or the torments of religious speech: that is what he wants to talk about, that is what he can’t actually seem to talk about: it’s as though the cat had got his tongue; as though he was spoilt for choice when it comes to words; as though it was impossible to articulate; he can’t actually seem to share what, for so long, he has held so dear to his heart; before his nearest and dearest, he is forced to cover up; he can only stutter; how can he own up to his friends, to his colleagues, his nephews, his students?  He is ashamed of not daring to speak out and ashamed of wanting to speak out, regardless. Ashamed, too, for those who don’t make it any easier for him, thrusting his head underwater while claiming to rescue him, or, instead of throwing him a lifebuoy, throwing words as heavy as a mooring buoy at him. Weighted with lead, that’s it –they’ve weighted him with lead. Yes, he goes to mass, and often, on Sunday, but it doesn’t mean anything. Alas, no, it doesn’t mean anything really; it can’t mean anything anymore to anyone. There is no diction anymore for these things, no tone, no tonality, no regime of speech or utterance. It’s a twisted situation: he is ashamed of what he hears on Sunday from the pulpit when he goes to mass; but ashamed, too, of the incredulous hatred or amused indifference of those who laugh at people who go to church. Ashamed that he goes, ashamed of not daring to say he goes. He grinds his teeth when he hears the things said inside the church; but he boils with rage when he hears the things said outside the church. All that’s left for him to do is hang his head, weary, sheepish, before the horrors and misconceptions on the inside as well as before the horrors and misconceptions on the outside; it’s a double cowardice, double shame, and he has no words to express this, as though he were caught between two opposing currents, with the resultant clash leaving him whirling on the spot.”

If you are one of the few people who hasn’t encountered his work, you can find out more through his outstanding website, especially the collection of articles it features.