'How the Heavens Go'
By Kenneth L. Woodward
That many contemporary scientists make room for God in their understanding of the cosmos should hardly be surprising. For most of history, religion and science have been siblings feeding off and sparring with each other rather than outright adversaries in the common human quest for understanding. Only in the West, and only after the French Enlightenment in the 18th century, did the votaries of science and religion drift into separate ideological camps. And only in the 19th century, after Darwin, was the supposed irreconcilability between "God" and "science" elevated to the status of cultural myth. History tells a different, more complicated story.
In the ancient world, religious myth invested nature and the cosmos with divine emanations and powers. But this celestial pantheism did not prevent sober observation of the heavens and sophisticated mathematical calculations. By 1400 B.C. the Chinese had established a solar year of 365 days. Ancient India formulated the decimal system. Ancient Greece bequeathed Euclidean geometry, Ptolemy's map of the solar system and Aristotle's classification of living organisms, which served biologists until Darwin.
But none of these advances seriously disrupted religion's more comprehensive worldviews. Buddhists, for example, showed no interest in investigating nature since it was both impermanent and, at bottom, an illusion. Islam made great advances in algebra, geometry and optics, as well as philosophy. But Muslim scholars left the mysteries of physics motion, causality, etc. to the power of Allah and to the aphorisms of Aristotle, whose works they recovered and transmitted to the Christian West.
The Bible, of course, has its own creation myth, and it is that very story that eventually led scientists to realize that nature had to be discovered empirically and so fostered the development of science in the Christian West. The universe created by a rational God had to be rational and consistent that much the Greeks already knew. But a universe created out of nothing, as Genesis described, also had to be contingent. In other words, it could have turned out other than it did. It was only one of an infinite number of possibilities open to a wholly transcendent deity. Gradually, scientists realized that the laws governing such a universe could not be deduced from pure thought as Aristotle supposed but instead needed to be discovered through experiment. Thus was experimental science nurtured by religious doctrine.
When the scientific revolution did occur, in Europe early in the 17th century, and researchers for the first time began to regard the world as a mechanism whose workings they could probe through the scientific method, it wasn't God's existence that was thrown in doubt. Rather, it was Aristotle's "sacred geography," in which Earth and the heavenly bodies were fixed and eternal. Relying on Aristotle, medieval Christianity had imagined a tidy geocentric universe in which nature served man and mankind served God. "In a certain sense, religion got burned for locking itself too deeply into a particular scientific view which was then discarded," says Owen Gingerich, a professor of astronomy and the history of science at Harvard.
First Copernicus, then Galileo (aided by one of the first telescopes) and Kepler demonstrated with ever greater precision that the earth and other planets circled the sun. Humankind, it seemed, was peripheral to God and the universe. All three scientists, however, were devout Christians who defended their new worldview as most worthy of the Creator. But Copernicus and Kepler were denounced by Martin Luther for views he thought contradicted the Bible, and Galileo was tried and condemned to house arrest by the Roman Inquisition. Although Pope John Paul II declared in 1992 that the church had erred in condemning Galileo, the incident was never a simple conflict between science and religion. Galileo overstated the proof he could provide for a heliocentric (sun-centered) cosmos and incautiously caricatured the pope in a published tract. Yet he could also quote one of the pope's own cardinals in his defense: "The intention of [the Bible] is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heavens go."
In subsequent centuries, however, scientific theories of "how the heavens go" increasingly determined the place and power of God. The "celestial mechanics" of Isaac Newton produced a god who designed a world machine and somehow sustained it in motion. Theologians readily accepted whatever proofs for God's existence the new science chose to give. The result was a diminished "god of the gaps" inhabiting whatever dark corners science had not yet brought to rational light. In this way, says Jesuit theologian Michael Buckley of Boston College, theologians themselves cooperated in the advent of modern atheism by relying on science to explain God and ignoring "the traditional sources of religious insight and experience that make belief in God intelligible." By the 18th century, astronomer Pierre Laplace could explain nature as a self-sufficient mechanism. As for God, he told Emperor Napoleon, "I have no need of that hypothesis." Nor, a century later, did Darwin in his theory of evolution.
Now, at the end of the millennium, religion and science are beginning to talk, though neither answers to the other's authority. John Paul II consults with his Pontifical Academy of Science most of whom are not Catholic. Philosophers of science examine the often-hidden assumptions on which scientific theories rest. Confronted by dimensions of the world no scripture has encoded, theologians are discovering a God who resists domestication into any single theory of how the world works. And at the center still are flawed and fragile human beings trying to understand a universe that has the uncomfortable feel of a home away from home.
Newsweek 7/20/98 Society/ 'How the Heavens Go'
© 1998 by Newsweek, Inc.