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About this time each year, I survey my theology students on the question, “Does the sun rise?” Most say, No. This year, one said it’s “super-obvious” that the sun does not rise. They fall into nervous silence when I insist that it does.
The occasion for my survey is an annual discussion of Galileo’s famous 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. During a dinner party with the Grand Duchess, Benedictine friar Benedetto Castelli defended the new heliocentric theory and refuted the Scriptural arguments that another member of the party advanced in favor of geocentricity. The Duchess was not convinced by Castelli’s arguments, so Castelli asked Galileo to explain his position to the Duchess directly. Galileo’s resulting letter is one of the best entrees into the problem of science-and-theology that I know of.
Galileo’s main argument about science and Scripture depended on the theory that Calvin used to explain the apparent “childishness” of biblical language. Call it the Few Good Men theory of divine inspiration: We can’t handle the truth, so God graciously speaks to us in ways we can grasp, lisping to us like a parent to a tiny child. He has always known that the solar system is heliocentric, but he pretends it’s geocentric because that is how it looks to us. For Galileo, this notion of “accommodation” was science’s declaration of independence, freeing scientists to explore the natural world without worrying that they might be mugged by the Bible scholars.
I admire Galileo, and Calvin even more, but I am wholly unpersuaded by this theory of revelation. Its weakness is evident in Calvin’s explanation of anthropomorphism, the biblical habit of attributing human features to God. According to Calvin, God has no actual hands or feet, yet he speaks as if he does. This is correct, but Calvin explains anthropomorphism by appeal to divine accommodation, and he adds only confusion. We are, after all, perfectly capable of conceiving a God without hands and feet and a burning nose. Calvin himself must have imagined such a God, or he could not have formulated his theory of accommodation in the first place. Formulating the theory of accommodation thus depends on denying the foundational premise of accommodation. And if Calvin could think of God without a literal body, why couldn’t ancient Israelites? Plato did; why not Moses? Either God underestimates us (we can handle the truth after all), or the theory collapses into a form of chronological snobbery.
I worry too about the uses to which accommodation can be put. If the Bible adjusts to common beliefs in cosmology, does it do so with regard to history? Are the biblical accounts of the exodus and conquest accommodations to our feeble capacities? Does the Bible narrate these events as it does because ancient primitives liked bright colors and big noises? Are miracle stories accommodated to pre-scientific superstition? Perhaps even Scripture’s theological claims are accommodated: Is the incarnation a piece of mythology that describes something that is in fact not at all incarnational? “Slippery slope fallacy!” comes the rejoinder. And I answer, Modern theology lives on the slippery slope, which many have found quite exhilarating.
Accommodation is a big deal, I think. But the cultural stakes in Galileo’s letter were far bigger. His letter stood at the crossroads of two worlds, not only on the question of Scripture and science. Most obviously, the seventeenth-century debate about astronomy was a struggle about who could be relied on to tell the truth about creation—theologians or the magisterium later known as the “scientific community”?
When my students tell me that the sun doesn’t rise, I ask how they know. Not a one of them can reproduce Galileo’s arguments or evidence. (They’re liberal arts students, so I’m not too hard on them, and besides I can’t reproduce the argument myself.) The “super-obvious” of the heliocentric system is the super-obviousness of scientific and cultural consensus. It’s the super-obvious of expert testimony.
Copernicus and Galileo worked up their theories from observation, experimentation, geometric and arithmetic calculations. Most of us accept expert testimony about heliocentricity and other scientific discoveries because we believe they have been experimentally confirmed. That too was a cultural innovation of the first order. By what right did experiment claim sufficient authority to refute tradition and the church? The triumph of experiment with specialized instrumentation was not uncontested, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaeffer showed nearly thirty years ago in their wonderful Leviathan and the Air Pump. Today, the victory is so complete that we have a difficult time conceiving any other method of verification.
Heliocentricity triumphed because scientists convinced the rest of us to distrust our senses. When my students ask why I believe the sun rises, I state the obvious: I see it. The sun peeks over the horizon early in the morning, rises to a higher position in the sky during the morning, and then reverses direction during the afternoon. Perhaps you have seen it too. On the same basis, I believe solid matter is solid. With Johnson, I kick a rock, but physicists tell me that the rock’s solid matter is, in the vernacular, “mostly empty space.” Though it often buttresses its authority by empirical appeals, science secured its hegemony by inculcating skepticism about everyday experience.
The most impressive coup of modern science, though, is the success of its imperialist claim that science provides not only a true but an exclusively true description of how the world goes. Since Copernicus and Galileo, we have a twinge of conscience about trusting the evidence of our senses. We are convinced that it is somehow “not true” that the sun rises, even though we can’t stop ourselves from saying so. We know that, in reality, in real reality, solids are not solid. Our everyday descriptions of natural phenomenon are perpetually enclosed in inverted commas.
That scientific hubris is the central issue I want to get my students thinking about, and the reason I’m willing to play the Neanderthal. Within my frame of reference as an earth-bound observer of the heavens—which is, of course, the only frame of reference most of us ever know—the statement “the sun rises” is simply and purely true. The straightforward empirical descriptions of Scripture, like the straightforward empirical descriptions of our common speech, are perfectly accurate. Accommodation makes theology too accommodating, too ready to buckle to the imperialism of science, too willing to concede to science the business of truly describing the world, too skeptical about the truth value of everyday experience.
To be sure, “the sun rises” is not the only true description of the relative movement of sun and earth. If I could watch the solar system from a God’s-eye perch somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy, I would see a celestial farris wheel with the sun at the hub, just like the one I can find on Wikipedia. By their calculations and experiments, scientists put me on that perch. I’m enthralled by the view, but it’s sheer snobbery when they tell us they’ve got the only seat in the house.
Peter J. Leithart is pastor of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Athanasius (Baker Academic).
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