The crucial year for Mystery is 1633. The pivot point. Three hundred sixty-some years later, you look at the whole episode and wonder why.
Why did the Roman Catholic Church dig in its heels over an elegant but wrongheaded theory of the universe? Why drag Galileo before the Inquisition? Why take an often friendly and fruitful relationship -- the cooperation between Western religion and science -- and turn it into a power trip?
Galileo was no iconoclast. He was the favorite scientist of the bishops in Tuscany. In fact, he was an old friend of Maffeo Barberini, now known as Pope Urban VIII. Hadn't the two of them, Galileo and the pope, met several times to discuss the motions of the spheres?
True, they disagreed. Galileo, with his revolutionary telescopes and his mastery of mathematics and pre-Newtonian physics, was sure that the Polish radical Copernicus had been correct. The Earth was not the center of the universe; it was a satellite spinning around the sun. The pope held to the old belief: Man -- God's image on Earth -- was the center of all creation, and therefore it was obvious, as a matter of reason and faith, that everything visible must revolve around us.
They disagreed, yes, but it seemed like an amiable argument. Galileo enjoyed the patronage of the church and wished to keep it. He agreed to write about his theories only as a notion, just one hypothesis, no better or more certain than the old model. The pope was happy. But when Galileo's book came out, Galileo's theory was presented in compelling terms, while the pope's views were expressed by a character named Simplicio.
The pope was a very proud man.
So there was Galileo, on trial before the Inquisition.
Was he threatened with the rack? Sort of. People still argue about this, but it makes not a whit of difference anymore. What matters is this: Galileo was right about the universe, but he was forced publicly to confess error. He became the first great martyr for the scientific method, which was, even then, becoming the most important way of thinking in our millennium.
What if . . . ?
What if the pope had said the smart thing, the true thing? "Galileo Galilei, my old friend, I'm in the religion business, not the science business. Like all men, I wonder about the stars -- but whether they move, and how, has nothing to do with our souls. There are questions for telescopes, and questions for faith."
The pope did not.
A millennium's worth of confusion and hubris -- and, ultimately, catastrophe -- are summed up in that simple mistake. It compounds to this very day.
The Big Questions
There are mysteries in this millennium and there are Mysteries. The little-m mysteries include: Where is the Inca gold? How did the first Virginia colonists die? What happened to Judge Crater?
We don't care about these.
Our concern is the big-M Mysteries. And these fall into two categories. Many have been scientific in nature -- from the shape and extent of the universe to the building blocks of life; from the origin of species to the laws of thermodynamics and the causes of illness. Many other Mysteries are religious, or mythological, or anagogic or moral. What is the purpose of our lives? Where are the roots of happiness? Of goodness? Is there a dimension or realm beyond the material, and how does it influence our lives? Is there some meaning to human existence beyond replication of genes? Is there anything beyond the life of the flesh?
Confusion between these two categories has been one of the great dramas of the millennium.
This is what's pivotal about 1633 and the trial of Galileo. It is the classic illustration of a religion trying to horn in on a scientific question. As scientists quickly proved, theology is the wrong tool for figuring out whether the Earth moves through space. The confusion can work in the opposite direction, too.
Again and again, science has expounded on religious questions -- explaining murder by damaged brain lobes, adultery by Darwinian seed-scattering, graven images by anthropology, and onward through all 10 Commandments. And religion continues to tread on scientific turf. To this day, few things stir up debate like a scientist trying to explain away sin, or a Bible fundamentalist trying to disprove the fossil record.
You might think that the entire material world would be enough to satisfy scientists. Or that the whole noumenal, spiritual, moral realm would be enough to keep religions occupied. But no. Everyone is greedy for the other guy's questions. The fact people want meaning; the meaning people want proofs.
A thousand years ago, no one talked about a war between science and religion. In the year 1000, Pope Silvester II was the head of the Catholic Church and one of the world's leading scientists, too. A Renaissance man 400 years before the Renaissance, Silvester was among the first Western leaders to seize on the intellectual achievements of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, importing the astrolabe and other advanced instruments and theories. He was so gifted in so many fields that people gossiped that he was in league with the Devil.
In the 13th and 14th centuries, bishops and religious orders founded the great universities of Europe, and these were staffed by monks and other religious men. A Franciscan friar named Roger Bacon spent some 20 years, beginning around 1250, compiling much of the world's scientific knowledge into a series of secret works for Pope Clement IV. Bacon assured the pontiff that scientific examination of nature would confirm the Christian faith. In those days the religious mind-set and the scientific mind-set -- in the West and in most of the Islamic world -- combined fairly happily under the patronage of church leaders and the omnipresent shadow of Aristotle.
No one represented this sublime blend of theology and Aristotelian logic as well as Thomas Aquinas. His work seems strange to us now, some 750 years later. But to the intellectuals of his time, and for many centuries after, his was among the most elegant inquiries into Divine Mysteries in human history.
Aquinas's "Summa Theologica" is a huge book, the work of a brilliant man's entire life. In it, he sets out to prove, as if by science, every element of Christian thinking, from the purpose of life, to right morals, to the nature of the Trinity and, famously, the very existence of God. Though the "Summa" runs hundreds of thousands of words, it is divided into tiny bites. Thomas operates like a scientist: He poses a point of doctrine, a hypothesis. Then he states as many objections to it as he can imagine, neatly numbered 1, 2, 3, 4. Then, just as neatly, he disposes of each objection in turn, reasoning from the proven authorities of Scripture and earlier theologians. At last he arrives at his conclusion -- which is, in its context, as rock-hard as geometry.
The "Summa Theologica" is a mind-blowing exercise in pure rationality and strict logical order. If it were possible to prove a religion by the force of reason and argument, Thomas Aquinas surely would have succeeded. Aquinas -- and other scholars of his day -- went through Mysteries like ripe hay. They mowed 'em and bundled 'em and spread 'em before the flock.
In an odd way, the genius of Aquinas and company perhaps made the fiasco with Galileo inevitable. Like the church leaders, you, too, might imagine that you knew everything, if you had a library of books like the "Summa." If you had Ptolemy's authority for the shape of the heavens -- rendered so compellingly and passionately by Dante. If you were patron to the universities and censor of all important books.
The pope with his long shelves of learned books hauled Galileo before the Inquisition in 1633, and the marriage of church and science was ended. With rising intensity as the centuries passed, intellectuals came to see Galileo's trial as the last tyrannical gasp of a superstitious power oppressing the questing spirit of Fact.
After Galileo, everything changed. With time, scientists came to see themselves battling for their lives and their freedom against faith. This happened slowly at first. Isaac Newton apparently felt it very little. But by the mid-19th century, when Charles Darwin sailed aboard the Beagle and hatched his theory of evolution by natural selection, the confrontation was acute.
Like Pope Clement IV defending his discredited cosmology, many Victorian religious leaders went on the attack against Darwinism. There is, after all, nothing in the Bible about random genetic variation or survival of the fittest. The confrontation over Darwin between the cool atheist Clarence Darrow and the aging fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan at the 1925 Scopes trial became a touchstone of American intellectual history.
Darrow grilled Bryan for two grueling hours in a steamy Tennessee courtroom on Bible miracles and scientific laws. Darrow was mocking and patronizing. Bryan was pompous and intractable. Historians have swooned over Darrow, but the courtroom crowd was pulling for Bryan.
"What is the purpose of this examination?" an attorney interjected after about an hour.
MR. BRYAN: "The purpose is to cast ridicule on everybody who believes in the Bible, and I am perfectly willing that the world shall know that these gentlemen have no other purpose than ridiculing every person who believes in the Bible."
MR. DARROW: "We have the purpose of preventing bigots and ignoramuses from controlling the education of the United States, and you know it, and that is all."
MR. BRYAN: ". . . I am simply trying to protect the Word of God against the greatest atheist or agnostic in the United States. [Prolonged applause] I want the papers to know I am not afraid to get on the stand in front of him and let him do his worst. I want the world to know that agnosticism is trying to force agnosticism on our colleges and on our schools, and the people of Tennessee will not permit it to be done."
More prolonged applause.
This year, the Kansas school board made the teaching of evolution optional in state high schools, and authorities in Oklahoma required warning stickers in textbooks that present evolution as a fact. Scientists have responded with outrage and full-page ads.
This is war.
Shrouded in Mystery
Given the dazzling progress of science in this millennium, it's easy to conclude that with enough time, the scientific method will answer every Mystery. The efficiency and near-magic of scientific inquiry in the past five centuries has been breathtaking -- which is why, perhaps, so many religious people wish they could grab a piece of it.
Consider just one story:
In 1988, after many years of negotiations, scientists were given several tiny cuttings from a 14-foot piece of antique linen known as the Shroud of Turin. These were taken to laboratories in England, France, Switzerland and the United States and subjected to the latest carbon-dating technology. The four labs reached remarkably consistent results: The cloth was woven sometime in the 13th or 14th century.
The conclusion was striking, because the machines pegged the creation of the shroud at the same moment that history first took note of its existence. A memorandum written in 1389 reported that the shroud went on display around 1355 in the French village of Lirey, where it had been revealed by a knight named Geoffrey de Charny.
The news was shattering to a lot of people who believed that the faint human image on the shroud belongs to Jesus of Nazareth; that the fabric is the very cloth with which the crucified Christ was entombed; that the marks of his battered body were seared into the linen at the moment of His resurrection.
Yet the "sindologists" -- as shroud students call themselves -- have not given up on the effort to prove the cloth is 2,000 years old. Indeed, their efforts become more and more elaborate. One shroud scientist, August Accetta of California, injected himself with radioactive material and photographed the resulting glow with a gamma camera.
Another researcher, physicist John Jackson, has theorized that the image on the cloth occurred when an entirely unknown physical force caused the instantaneous dematerialization of the body wrapped inside it. Every nucleus in the corpse "decoupled," and, as Canadian professor Thaddeus Trenn summarizes: "the ensuing pion decay would naturally release heavy electrons (muons) that could yield discrete impact events" -- and screw up the carbon dating process to boot.
Millions of people will visit Turin in 2000 for an eight-week exhibition of the shroud. Most of them, it seems safe to say, will not get deeply into muons and pions. No doubt most of them wish the shroud were authentic. But science is only one way to view it. As church officials have said, the cloth, with its haunting, spectral image, hints at something ineffable and important, a compelling story of suffering and humiliation redeemed triumphally by God. The shroud is a vehicle for contemplation, whether it is a work of art or an authentic relic.
The shroud scientists, on the other hand, are drawn to the power of material fact. They are in love with data. They covet the concrete. We see them and their kind all around the world, wherever an icon weeps oil or a Buddha statue confers good fortune. "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe," Jesus said ruefully.
At the same time, scientists covet the narrative and contemplative power of religions and myths. As the millennium reaches its end, there's a growing understanding that some Mysteries almost certainly won't be solved by the scientific method. Science answers questions of material fact: What are things made of? How do they work? Why do they break down? How can they be fixed?
Science does not seem to answer questions of purpose or value. And these endure as some of the most important Mysteries in our lives: What's the meaning of life? How should we treat one another? How should we confront suffering and joy? These sorts of things.
No matter how devoted a person may be to science, unscientific Mysteries keep cropping up. And the framework for answering them is inevitably shaped by centuries of religious culture. For this reason, it is virtually impossible to escape from religious influence, just as it's nearly impossible in the modern world to escape the light of science.
Even that zesty atheist Clarence Darrow, bearing down on rickety old Mr. Bryan, had religion in his pores. His belief in materialism, without God or gods, was, you might say, his religion. An atheist who insists he has overcome religion is like a person who lives in a minimalist apartment because he rejects architecture, or wears jeans and T-shirts because he doesn't believe in fashion.
Consider this next scene, the legacy of a man some consider one of the great scientists of his day.
Church of the Subconscious
Once a week or more, the people come to quiet, private chambers. They are burdened by confusion, fear, guilt and sins. In the quiet chambers they confess their dark actions, their worst anxieties, to a person who listens mostly in silence, which he breaks only rarely, offering gentle encouragement to continue. This person is obliged by his calling to keep this conversation forever private.
After the people are finished, they feel relief. They are still alone, and still frightened, but they feel connected to something greater than themselves. They know they will err and fall short again, and, soon enough, they'll be back inside this room.
This is psychotherapy, a quasi-mythology invented early in this century by a relentless and brilliant storyteller who convinced himself, and millions of others, that his parables were actually science. It is not a religion of God and miracles and exemplary lives of the saints. It is the religion of the subconscious and repressed traumas and the foundation myth of Oedipus. Christianity has Father, Son and Holy Spirit; Freudianism has id, ego and superego; oral, anal and genital.
Sigmund Freud's theories are some of the most influential ideas of the 20th century. Like the core principles of religious thinking, they ring true -- or, at the least, are richly suggestive -- in the experience and intuition of millions of people.
But they aren't science.
After all, what experimental proof is there of an id, or ego, or superego? Where are they in the brain? Where's the data proving the theory of penis envy? How did Freud test his hypothesis that dreams have specific meanings? And so on.
In a recent exchange in Prospect magazine, biologist Lewis Wolpert wrote: "Let me explain why I, like so many others, cannot take seriously psychoanalysis's claim to scientific status. The problem is that its ideas are so vague and all-inclusive that it is not possible to test them and thus show whether they are right or wrong." Wolpert praised the "poetic appeal" of Freud's work, but doubted that a single scientifically valid experiment had ever confirmed it.
A noted analyst named Peter Fonagy responded in the same magazine. Rather than acknowledge that the power of Freud's theories is mythical, even religious, he defended them as science. Many people treated by analysis have improved, he said.
Of course, many, many more people through the years have felt better and happier because of their religious faith. This is not to impugn Freud -- science is, after all, not the only way of getting at important Mysteries.
As psychologist William James wrote in the masterpiece "The Varieties of Religious Experience": "The universe [is] a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. . . . Why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true?"
The Certain Disaster
Q. Why did families in certain rural sections of China exchange children in the early 1960s?
A. Because they could not bring themselves to eat their own babies.
Only one thing could be worse that a jealous struggle over the Mysteries of our existence. That's the absence of struggle.
This is the millennial lesson. For there have been moments and places in the past 1,000 years when this person or that group has cornered the market on Mysteries, and something about this always goes wrong. Badly wrong. The many paths of knowledge are sealed off, and all traffic is diverted onto the One True Path. The Inquisition, the Paris Commune, Nazism, the Taliban -- woe to those who must live under a regime that has all The Answers.
In Europe, the grim reign of the Inquisition was broken only by the earthquake of the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Again with the French Revolution, which brought in a whole new anti-church world, from fresh politics to a new calendar. Next came tyranny.
In our century, at least 85 million people have been killed in pursuit of an answer to all Mysteries known as communism; as Michael Scammell, an expert on Soviet ideology, has noted, Lenin and his students -- Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and others -- laid claim to all the turf, scientific and religious. Opposing religions have been brutalized -- Tibetan Buddhists, Russian Christians, lately a sect called the Falun Gong. Communism was dogma, Scammell writes, "but avowedly atheist in character. . . . for religious truth it substituted `scientific' truth and claimed to be conforming to the iron laws of progress.
In the name of these so-called laws -- these harsh moral and spiritual judgments masquerading as scientific facts -- unspeakable things were done. During China's "Great Leap Forward," begun in 1959, at least 20 million and perhaps more than 40 million people were murdered or starved. In the rural province of Henan, "children were sometimes eaten as a communal decision," as one historian put it. This took place at village tables -- cutlery was banned from private homes because it might encourage theft. It made perverse, sick sense, to sacrifice children who were destined to starve anyway. But the impulse to swap children is entirely understandable.
Why does certainty slide so easily and almost inevitably into tyranny and corruption?
Why do governments with all the answers tend to oppress and even murder their people?
Why, after these 1,000 years, has there been nothing . . . nothing . . . worse than a land without intellectual dissent? Why does the house with just one window look out on bloody desolation?
This is just one more Mystery.
One more precious, saving Mystery.