All posts from "August 2009"August 27, 2009
Happy 400th anniversary of not-quite-a-milestone in science!
I’ve got to admit: Google’s Galileo logo on Tuesday was pretty cool. The site explained that it celebrating the “400th Anniversary of Galileo's First Telescope.”
Well, that’s accurate in its generality if not in the specifics. On August 25, 1609, Galileo first demonstrated his “spyglass” to officials in Venice. He apparently created it sometime earlier.
Yes, that's an annoying nitpick that completely misses the point of the celebration. Let's call Google close enough. But far less accurate are many of the other big “facts” that went through people’s minds when they heard of the anniversary this week.
1. Galileo invented the telescope.
No. Others had figured out that if you put two lenses together you could see distant objects. Dutch lensmaker Hans Lipperhey applied for a patent in 1608. Galileo’s was better. But it wasn’t his first. As he :
About ten months ago a report reached my ears that a certain Fleming had constructed a spyglass by means of which visible objects, though very distant from the eye of the observer, were distinctly seen as if nearby. [The report] caused me to apply myself wholeheartedly to inquire into the means by which I might arrive at the invention of a similar instrument. This I did shortly afterwards, my basis being the theory of refraction. First I prepared a tube of lead, at the ends of which I fitted two glass lenses, both plane on one side while on the other side was one spherically convex and the other concave. Then placing my eye near the concave lens I perceived objects satisfactorily large and near, for they appeared three times closer and nine times larger than when seen with the naked eye alone. Next I constructed another one, more accurate, which represented objects as enlarged more than sixty times. Finally, sparing neither labor nor expense, I succeeded in constructing for myself so excellent an instrument that objects seen by means of it appeared nearly one thousand times larger and over thirty times closer than when regarded with our natural vision.
Well, eventually, anyway. National Geographic describes the version that Galileo took to the Venetian leaders like this: “Made of wood and leather, Galileo's telescope had eight-times magnification, a convex main lens, and a concave eyepiece that—unlike other telescopes of the period—presented the image the right way up.”
By the way, the word telescope wasn’t used until 1611.
2. So he didn’t invent it, but he was the first to use it to look into space.
Actually, he told the Venetian officials that it was for terrestrial purposes. Oxford science historian Alan Chapman told National Geographic, "Galileo [took] a number of senators up to one of the bell towers in Venice where you can see ships out in the lagoon.” At the time, Venetian vessels were being attacked by the Turks. As Saswato R. Das wrote in The New York Times this week, the telescope let watchmen “see ships sailing into Venice’s harbor a full two hours before they became visible to the naked eye.”
Thomas Harriot meanwhile, was using a telescope to make sketches of the moon’s surface. If you wanted to celebrate that 400th anniversary, too late: it was July 26.
3. Well, “firsters” often aren’t first. The important thing is that when he did look into space and published his findings that the earth really wasn’t the center of the universe, it caused outrage throughout Christendom.
“It's tempting to see it representing a fundamental break in the relations between science and religion, but I don't think it represented anything of the sort,” says science historian Ron Numbers, editor of the recently published Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press). “In fact, at the time, it aroused relatively little interest. It was only in later decades and centuries that it came to be seen as a representation of what supposedly happens to scientific pioneers when they dare to try to correct the church's teachings.”
In Sightings, Karl E. Johnson recently summarized some of the other facts that get in the way of the science vs. faith narrative.
Galileo's Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, the source of controversy, previously had been read and approved by the Church's censors; and Pope Urban VIII, who presided over the trial, was Galileo's friend and admirer. Consider also: prior to the trial, Galileo stayed in the Tuscan embassy; during the trial, he was put up in a six-room apartment, complete with servant; following the trial, his "house arrest" consisted of being entertained at the palaces of the grand duke of Tuscany and the Archbishop of Siena. Galileo, apparently, was no ordinary heretic.
4. Friendly or not, the Roman Catholic Church thought Galileo’s science contradicted Scripture and therefore could not be true! That’s why Cardinal Bellarmine ordered Galileo to back away from Copernican theory.
Well, there is this quote:
In the learned books of worldly authors are contained some propositions about nature which are truly demonstrated, and others which are simply taught; in regard to the former, the task of wise theologians is to show that they are not contrary to Holy Scripture; as for the latter (which are taught but not demonstrated with necessity), if they contain anything contrary to the Holy Writ, then they must be considered indubitably false and must be demonstrated such by every possible means.
But that came from Galileo. Cardinal Bellarmine, a friend of Galileo, said this:
If there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the centre of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.
At issue were biblical texts that said the earth “cannot be moved.” But a geocentric view of the universe owed more to the Greek mathematician Ptolemy than to Scripture.
5. Bellarmine or no, the church declared Galileo a heretic and had him tortured.
Well, that Galileo believed in the authority of Scripture is not to say that he and the Church agreed. He was, after all, forced to recant his belief in heliocentrism. “Who can doubt that it will lead to the worst disorders when minds created free by God are compelled to submit slavishly to an outside will?” he wrote “When we are told to deny our senses and subject them to the whim of others?”
But Voltaire’s line that Galileo “groaned away his days in the dungeons of the Inquisition” (or Sam Harris’s line that the church had a habit of “torturing scholars to the point of madness for merely speculating about the nature of the stars”? Not true.
As Numbers says:
Galileo suffered very little abuse at the hands of the Catholic Church. He was never tortured, he never faced death. In fact, he was never imprisoned. His penalty was house arrest at a pleasant villa on the outskirts of Florence, Italy.
Galileo's problems with the church stemmed far less from his astronomical and physical views than from his lack of diplomacy, and from his impertinence in trying to instruct the church on how to interpret Scriptures, as some Protestants had attempted to do in the previous century. Furthermore, in writing his controversial book, Galileo had the impertinence to attribute the Pope's views to a simple-minded character named Simplicius. This Pope [Urban VIII] had once been a patron of Galileo's and had supported his scientific efforts, so such a lack of diplomacy turned even the Pope against his one-time friend. ... There was never any indication in the court records of death being a possible penalty, and no other scientists were put to death for their scientific views.
Voltaire and Harris aside, the widespread belief that Galileo was tortured probably doesn't stem from malice toward religious belief. Rather, Maurice Finocchiaro argues in Galileo Goes to Jail, the Inquisition's declaration that it would subject Galileo to "rigorous examination" was probably understood by many contemporaries to mean he would be tortured, since that was a common euphemism at the time (though it was rare in Rome's Inquisition). Indeed, the record shows that there was an actual threat of torture. But all historical indications are that Galileo didn't suffer it.
6. Still, the bottom line is that Galileo was right and the church was wrong.
One of Galileo’s main points in proving heliocentrism is that the earth’s revolving around the sun is responsible for the tides. Similarly, he said the planets orbited the sun in perfect circles. Johannes Kepler, meanwhile, was right on both issues, and did a better job of showing evidence for his claims. He also, by the way, came up with a better way of making telescopes two years after Galileo’s demonstration in Venice. But Galileo never adopted Kepler’s improvements.
(For more on Galileo, Kepler, and their contemporaries, see Christian History’s issue 76: The Christian Face of the Scientific Revolution)
Image: Painting of Galileo Galilei, 1605, by Domenico Robusti via Wikimedia Commons.
The century-old observance is scarcely observed, but its concerns remain current.
Unless you are part of the United Church of Christ, you likely do not know that Labor Sunday is coming up September 6, 2009. I’ve never encountered this observance in a lifetime of attending assorted denominational and non-denominational churches. The UCC website suggests ways to bring the concerns of workers before the congregation, but Web searches on “Labor Sunday” plus the names of other denominations bring up only very old documents like a 1907 Assembly Herald (Presbyterian) and a 1911 Herald of Gospel Liberty (General Convention of the Christian Church). The latter declared, “This day stands for the united action of the churches in the field of industrial life, a fact of supreme importance in the history of religion. … And yet how many preachers, and how many church members are familiar with the ‘Social Creed of the Churches,’ and its requirements[?]”
Though Labor Sunday precedes Labor Day on the calendar, Labor Day is the older holiday. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, either Peter J. McGuire, cofounder of the American Federation of Labor, or Matthew Maguire, secretary of the Central Labor Union in New York, proposed the holiday in the early 1880s. In the middle of that decade, municipalities across the country declared a “workingman’s holiday” on the first Monday of September. Congress recognized the date in 1894. Typical celebrations included a parade, intended to demonstrate “the strength and esprit de corps of the trade and labor organizations,” speeches, and amusements for workers and their families.
Churches organized alongside labor interests in the first decade of the twentieth century.
In 1907, the (Northern) Presbyterian Department of Church and Labor asked ministers to preach on workers’ problems the day before Labor Day. The Rev. Charles Stelzle, Presbyterian minister and author of The Social Application of Religion, reported that the effort was a great success. Some labor unions gathered members in their halls and marched together to church to hear the special messages. Newspapers reprinted the sermons the next day, and ministers were invited to address workers at their shops. These events brought together people who did not often mingle. “Both sides discovered that each had been misunderstanding the other,” Stelzle wrote. “Many a preacher, in his study, preparatory to the service, got a new vision of what the labor movement stands for; and many a workingman, listening to his Labor Day address, caught a glimpse of the purpose of the Church, which he had never dreamed of.”
When the Federal Council of Churches formed the next year, one of its first important moves was to endorse a “Social Creed of the Churches,” affirming principles sketched by Methodist activist Harry F. Ward. The creed called for “equal rights and complete justice for all men in all stations of life,” a living wage, abatement of poverty, and numerous worker protections, including arbitration, shortened workdays, safer conditions, the abolition of child labor, regulation of women’s labor, and assistance to elderly and incapacitated workers. Like all decisions of the Federal Council, this one was both weighty and ephemeral. The Social Creed articulated, in 14 succinct points, ideas that would become policy in the Progressive Era, but, as The Herald of Gospel Liberty sighed, many ministers and church members paid little attention to the document. The Federal Council could not enforce its decisions, and the denominational representatives that attended its meetings tended to be more urban, more educated, and more liberal than their churches’ rank and file, meaning that they were, demographically at least, not really very representative.
All of which brings us to Labor Sunday, adopted by a resolution of the American Federation of Labor in 1909. This observance added educational and spiritual heft to Labor Day while also giving the Federal Council an opportunity to convey social messages to congregations through suggested sermons. Media attention to the sermons amplified the messages.
For example, the Labor Sunday sermon for 1931 caught the attention of Time magazine, which ran a short feature on its content and context. Back in 1929, before the market crash, the council had warned, “[The churches] have called attention to serious and persistent unemployment, to the economic insecurity of old age among the workers, and to low standards of income and therefore of living in large sections of the population.” And then, of course, everything got much worse. After the Depression hit, the council pled for relief (remember, welfare did not yet exist) and condemned the greed and short-sightedness that had engendered economic collapse. In 1931 its annual statement lamented, “Our economic life now seems to be without a chart.” We all know how that feels.
I’m skeptical about pronouncements like the “Social Creed of the Churches.” Ancient creeds owed their authority to liturgical repetition across time and geography. They could be changed, through much deliberation, in response to major theological questions (most often, heresies), but they were never topical or occasional, never directly political. On the other hand, I’m drawn to the idea of Labor Sunday, albeit minus the prescribed sermons and marching trade unionists. Why not take a week off from the latest sermon series to consider the challenges facing the working and jobless poor? Heaven knows these concerns weigh on many hearts this year, and since heaven already knows, the subject is certainly something we can talk about in church.
Famed evangelist had help with the revival that almost wasn't.
Sixty years ago this summer, Billy Graham reached a decision that changed the course of evangelical events. Shaken by his friend Charles Templeton’s growing skepticism of biblical authority, Graham wondered whether he could continue to preach. The doubts grew so strong that he even considered going back to North Carolina to work as a dairy farmer. With evangelistic meetings being planned for Los Angeles that fall, Graham needed a quick resolution one way or another. He conferred with Henrietta Mears, who founded the Forest Home Christian conference center where he was speaking. He confessed his concerns to God and wrestled for an answer. Fortunately for evangelicals, Graham resolved to accept God’s Word by faith. “I’m going to allow faith to go beyond my intellectual questions and doubts,” Graham prayed, “and I will believe this to be Your inspired Word.”
And the rest, as they say, is history. During his first sermon under the tent in Los Angeles, Graham thundered, “God Almighty is going to bring judgment upon this city unless people repent and believe—unless God sends an old-fashioned, heaven-sent, Holy Ghost revival.” He punctuated the end of every description of what ailed America with the refrain, “We need revival!” God heard his pleas. Aided by favorable media coverage of Hollywood conversions, Graham’s tent meetings lasted eight weeks, attracting hundreds of thousands. And the lanky Southern farm boy with the fiery delivery became a national celebrity.
This part of the story is familiar to many evangelicals. But they might not be aware of the people and events that preceded this well-known demonstration of the mid-century revival.
“By the eve of the evangelistic campaign in September 1949, there were some eight hundred prayer groups throughout the region,” historian Joel Carpenter writes in his book Revive Us Again: The Reawakening of American Fundamentalism. “The evangelical forces of the city were mobilized as never before.”
The man most responsible for these prayer groups was one-time Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor Armin Gesswein. Beginning in 1941 and 1942, he organized the Ministers’ Prayer Fellowship for Revival in Los Angeles. Gesswein had seen the Norwegian revival in person in 1937 and 1938 and brought this zeal back across the Atlantic. These prayer meetings became a key rallying point for believers who would welcome the later revivals near the end of the decade. Revival historian and advocate J. Edwin Orr likened them to the businessmen’s prayer meetings in 1857-58, especially in how they avoided controversy and united Christians across opposing views on soteriology, polity, and baptism. They somehow also managed to overcome divisions over Pentecostal teaching on the second blessing and whether evangelicals should strictly separate from liberals. As the pastors prayed together, “theory was abandoned for a practical ecumenicity of seeking together for spiritual revival,” Orr wrote.
But if Graham had followed Orr’s advice, the fall campaign might never have built upon these stirrings of the Spirit. That summer, Orr had discouraged Graham from holding the Los Angeles meetings, believing he should wait to allow the Spirit to continue preparing the way. Afterward, Orr was thankful the evangelist continued as planned. Reporting in December for United Evangelical Action, Orr gave thanks for the work of God in Los Angeles. “It is about time some good people made a choice between their sterile, faith-destroying, eschatological pessimism and the optimism which springs from the sure knowledge that God will revive His work in the midst of the years preceding the Coming, despite apostasy and because of it.”
Image: Billy Graham in Duisberg, Germany, 1954. Bundesarchiv of the Federal Republic of Germany via Wikimedia Commons.
Sometimes we just need to hear stories.
Well, it really exists now. My first book (beyond the dissertation, which is a whole different animal). It’s called Patron Saints for Postmoderns (InterVarsity Press), and it was midwifed by my unfailingly patient and encouraging editor, Cindy Bunch. I will spare readers the usual excited yelps and smug self-back-patting of the first-time author. But CT editor and co-blogger David Neff has invited me to talk a bit about the book this week, so I will.
David said I might ask and answer a question like this: Why do postmoderns need saints?
Well, many of us may not feel like it (many of my students don’t), but we’re all postmoderns, I suppose: We live in a secularized age in which all traditions, commitments, codes of life have been exploded and the bits lie scattered over our psychic landscape. The church hasn’t escaped this holocaust of traditions either, of course, and our church lives have a ramshackle, cobbled-together feel too.
This is one reason, I think, that a small but growing group of young Christians have found the Reformed theological system so attractive. There is comfort in its intellectual coherence, even seamlessness.
I have to confess my own sympathies lie in another direction. For me, it is enough that all things cohere in Christ. I don’t ask to understand how they do. But I do need reassurance that they do. On days when I get up and I have a sinus headache, the bills have piled up, my kids need school supplies that I can’t afford, the words of a recent argument with my wife ring in my ears, and I just don’t feel ready to live out another day, let alone praise God, a theological explanation of Romans 8:28 just won’t do it. Systematic theologians have an important job. (I have to say that: some of my best friends and colleagues are theologians!) But it’s not one I usually feel the need for in my gut, and it’s certainly not one I feel well-suited to do myself.
Where my own existential need lies is in the area, not of intellectual coherence, but of something like “practical” coherence. I need to be reminded repeatedly that my chosen faith has integrity not so much as a thought-system, but as a way of life. And the only way I know to receive that life-giving reminder is through the stories of those both today and long ago who have lived with God—as Paul would say, the “saints.”
I remember as a young Christian attending the Sunday worship service and charging up the faith engines—then becoming progressively unhinged from my faith through the week. What brought me back and energized me without fail was being at a home group or running into someone at a restaurant and hearing one of my new brothers or sisters talk about what God was doing in their lives. Wow. Nothing sorted me out faster.
I can hear the objection now: what do you need the stories of saints for if you’ve got the Bible?
Well, one answer to this, of course, is that Scripture itself belongs—at least in many of its parts—to this realm of stories. Its 66 books are filled with a riot of tales (true tales!), and those tales have been formative for the historic faith. They ring true to reality in deep ways, and our own stories ring truest when they resonate with them.
But it’s hard, as Dorothy L. Sayers discovered when she set out to rewrite Christ’s life in her stirring serial radio drama The Man Born to Be King, to scrape from the Bible’s stories their encrusted, 2,000-year-old shells of sentimentality, ecclesial coercion, ethical guilt-mongering, theological bludgeoning, and simple ennui-by-overuse. To truly connect with the Bible, especially for those who have spent some years in the faith, seems often to demand some perspective-changing experience or new “filter.”
I am reminded of the testimony of many who were touched by the charismatic renewal in America: their electrifying experiences in the Spirit had as much variety as the Spirit himself. Their own stories were being invaded and changed in radical, life-changing ways that differed radically from person to person. But along with this variety almost always came a common-denominator phenomenon: a new vibrancy in their reading of Scripture. The Spirit, whom they now met in startlingly direct ways, also held out the Word anew and illuminated its reading. Hmmm. Come to think of it, that’s just what Mr. Calvin said would happen . . .
Well, the Spirit comes in many guises and many forms, and I’ve convinced the number one reason why the church always treasured her saints was because their stories made The Story of creation, redemption, and eschatological fulfillment come alive again. The saints’ lives served as amplifiers for The Word. Or to put a sharper point on it: people’s stories meet us in a way analogous to the way Christ himself met us in his brief earthly life—they incarnate spiritual truth in human lives. Yes, yes, I know: there has only ever been one Incarnation. But Paul himself talked in incarnational terms about the church: the church (the saints) = “the body of Christ” in history.
I won’t claim anything so grandiose for the stories I tell in Patron Saints for Postmoderns. But if the Spirit brings Christ more sharply into focus for those who read the lives of Antony of Egypt, Gregory the Great, Dante Alighieri, Margery Kempe, John Amos Comenius, John Newton, Charles Simeon, Amanda Berry Smith, Charles M. Sheldon, and Dorothy Sayers, then I will feel I’ve done something more than shore up my own postmodern doubts. What I really hope for readers is that as they encounter the varied and fascinating people described in this book, they will be drawn, in ways as diverse and wonderful as their own personalities, to follow these ten saints as they themselves followed Christ.