Intersection: Science and the Church

  1. a division or contrast between two things that are or are represented as being opposed or entirely different.

Science and religion form what is called a false dichotomy. They are represented as being opposed to one another by our own choices, not by their own attributes.  Did you notice in my last post (Day 4) that the astronomer I referenced is a vatican astronomer? We sit in a place now where the church embraces and commissions its own scientific endeavors. But we also find ourselves still believing that science and faith are irreconcilable. After centuries of religion and science being in fruitful conversation with one another, we are still painting these two things as opposing forces.

Few people can understand this false dichotomy better than Galileo (link to his Wikipedia page below).¹ He was both devoutly catholic and devoutly curious. His work put him in the center of controversy. An astronomer, physicist, mathematician, philosopher, and engineer, Galileo Galilei disrupted the cherished tenants of both academia and the Roman Catholic Church.

His discoveries and subsequent publications began pulling at the threads of a tightly woven understanding of how the world (and the universe) worked. These threads, woven into the fabric of all scholarship, were adopted philosophies of Ptolemy and Aristotle and so engrained that their origins and flaws were indistinguishable. Galileo began questioning things that scholars inside and outside the church never thought questionable.

There are a few dimensions of early interpretation of the cosmos that Galileo’s work challenged. First, there is what was understood about “the heavens.” If the place where all of these objects are “the heavens,” then these objects are “heavenly bodies,” and therefore must be both perfect and immutable. The heavens can’t change, so it was thought, and the heavenly, spherical bodies could only possibly be perfectly spherical and unblemished. “And it is like the face of the Earth itself,” Galileo wrote, “which is marked here and there with chains of mountains and depths of valleys.”[1] His observations were seen as blasphemy.

Galileo also observed what was then called a “nova” in 1604, a new star. According to Aristotelian order, the elements on the earth underwent constant change, but not so with the heavens. The heavens themselves were the unchangeable “fifth element,” incorruptible.[2] This birth of a new star directly challenged the idea that the heavens were unchangeable.

The church’s interpretation of the Cosmos also hinged on the earth itself. Our place in the universe is at its center. This seemed a necessary position if we are to understand ourselves as the crown of God’s creation. We can hardly blame anyone for coming to this conclusion prior to telescopic observation (the exception being Copernicus). Standing on the earth and observing the motion of the “heavenly bodies” gives one the impression that the earth is static while constant motion is taking place “out there.” Galileo’s work posited that the universe was not geocentric after all, but heliocentric. You can imagine the backlash of being one of the first people to claim that humans are not the center of the universe!

One can sympathize with the immediate resistance to some of Galileo’s work. The revelations did violence to doctrinal construction held almost worldwide, by academia and the Church. These discoveries required a complete paradigm shift, a reimagining of who we are and where we are. These beliefs are wrapped up in identity, tradition, and God.

It is good to consider how far we’ve come: we once thought the earth was the center of the universe and completely unique in creative character and purpose. Now we know that the infinite number of galaxies probably contain another planet much like ours, carrying with it the possibility of intelligent life. But it also would do us well to consider how little we’ve learned from the conflict between Galileo and the Church. Galileo did not see any disparity between Scripture and scientific discovery at all. What Galileo and those who came after (and some even before) proved was not that Scripture was wrong, but that the purpose and function of Scripture was not scientific exposition.

The story of Galileo and the church has been handed down to us as a story about an epic battle between science and the Church. But it is not that at all. As I said before, Galileo was both Catholic and curious. This is the story of a man who did not find these things mutually exclusive, thus changing the way we read Scripture and changing the way humans will forever view the world.

As with all dichotomies, there is always more to the story. If you are interested in exploring the long and storied history of the “debate” between science and the church, I would highly recommend the book, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel.²  Human lives are behind these big ideological concepts that we pit against one another, and human lives are intricate and complex. Sobel helps us rescue the debate from dichotomy and generalization by inviting us into the story of the person Galileo.


[1] Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love (New York: Bloomsbury, 1999), 31.

[2] Sobel, 52.






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