God and Galileo: What a 400-Year-Old Letter Teaches Us about Faith and Science
Reviewed by Louis Markos, Humanities, Houston Baptist University
I spent the latter half of the 1980s as a graduate student at the University of Michigan and as a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We discussed and debated many books in our IVCF meetings, but the one I remember that inspired some of our most fruitful dialogues was The Galileo Connection: Resolving Conflicts Between Science and the Bible by Charles Hummel (InterVarsity Press, 1986). The book not only pressed us to re-think the so-called war between science and religion, but also freed us to take a second look at the infamous trial of Galileo, which had been presented to most of us as an all-out war between darkness and light, superstition and science, ignorance and enlightenment. In matter of fact, until the modern period, science and religion had proven better, and more necessary, allies than enemies.
Since Hummel’s book, many others have appeared—most notably Alvin Plantinga’s Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism (Oxford University Press, 2011)—that have attempted to navigate the rough waters between the Scylla of naturalism/scientism and the Charybdis of fundamentalism/biblical literalism. Excellent work has been done by such intelligent design theorists as Phillip E. Johnson, Michael Behe, William Dembski, and Stephen Meyer, who, while remaining faithful to the authority of scripture, have boldly followed the cosmological, fossil, biological, and chemical evidence wherever it (truly) leads.
Just as important have been the growing number of writers—my favorite is Rodney Stark—who have demonstrated historically that Christianity was not only not an enemy of the scientific method; it was the essential factor that made it possible. Guillermo Gonzalez and Jay Richards have even shown in their Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery (Regnery, 2004) that our earth, in addition to being finely tuned to support human life, is in the precise location it needs to be to allow us to explore the universe around us.
I have enjoyed and benefited from all these books; and yet, my memory of The Galileo Connection made me feel that the time had come to reacquaint the faithful with the trial of Galileo and what we can, and must, learn from it today. Enter David L. Block and Kenneth C. Freeman’s God and Galileo: What a 400-Year-Old Letter Teaches Us about Faith and Science, which takes us back, in an engaging and accessible way, to Galileo’s struggle: not by focusing on the details of the trial itself, but on a lengthy letter written by Galileo as a way to promote his own understanding of the proper relationship between science and religion.
Although Block, a professor in the School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Freeman, the Duffield Professor of Astronomy in the Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics and the Australian National University in Canberra, do not mention Hummel, they reference quite often a scientist who profoundly influenced Hummel and his successors, Owen Gingerich. Like Gingerich, Block and Freeman are both Christians and professional astronomers, a biographical combination that allows them to bring to their analysis of Galileo’s plight a personal, sympathetic understanding that could have been lost with a more “objective” historian.
In keeping with Galileo’s letter, Block and Freeman distinguish between the two “books” of God: nature and the Bible. And, like Galileo, and Augustine before him, they believe firmly that “[t]he book of nature can never be in conflict with the book of Scripture because both have the same author. The one book deals with the universe, the other with God and how he relates to fallen mankind, in need of grace and forgiveness” (33). Though the first book reveals to us the truth of nature, only the second can give us full insight into the nature of truth. Or, to borrow a famous phrase from Galileo’s letter that he himself borrowed from “a very eminent churchman”: “the intention of the Holy Spirit is to teach us how one goes to heaven, not how the heaven goes” (189).
Though modern secularists often act as if the immense size and profound age of our universe make us and our earth insignificant, Block and Freeman counter that assertion by making reference to both books of God. The Bible balances that immensity and profundity by proclaiming the miracle of Christmas: “The incarnation, God becoming man, is a wondrous sign of spiritual man’s focal place in our vast universe” (29). The baby in the manger is not rendered irrelevant by the billions of stars that shone over Bethlehem. Rather, God’s decision to become man has exalted man’s status above the stars.
As for the book of nature, here is what Block and Freeman have discerned after decades of intense cosmological study:
As we understand it, the universe has to be as big as it is—enough time had to pass for the expansion of our universe to have cooled itself off sufficiently after the hot big bang in order for galaxies and stars to form. … No reader should be surprised that the universe is so large, because as far as we can observe, we could not exist in one that is any smaller. (40)
That is to say, if the universe were not as big and old and spread out as it is, it could not have manufactured the raw materials necessary for human life.
In making these arguments, Block and Freeman follow the lead of Galileo, whose view of scripture was as high as was his tenacious certainty of the truth of the Copernican model that he had confirmed through his telescopic observations. For Galileo, his observations did not take away from the authority of scripture but added further praise to the glory of God (see Psalm 19). Why then did the church not follow Galileo in his harmonization of the two books?
According to Block and Freeman’s research into the matter, the problem was not with the scientific methods themselves:
The church had no problem with celestial measurements and observations, and even with using calculations based on Copernicus’s heliocentric model, as long as it could go through the fiction of regarding them as based on a theory, so that they didn’t have to face the issues raised by the apparent clash with the text of the Scriptures. This was fine, until Galileo began to promote the Copernican model as fact and forced the church’s hand. (34)
Block and Freeman argue convincingly that the real struggle was not over astronomy, but over which body or individual had the power to interpret scripture for everyone else. That is why they parallel their analysis of the trial of Galileo with the earlier attempts by Tyndale to translate the Bible into English so that the common man would have access to it, an attempt that led to the burning of his Bibles and to his own martyrdom. By carrying out this comparative study, the authors reveal the reluctance on the part of the Roman Catholic Church, increasingly so after the Council of Trent, to share that power of biblical interpretation with the wider public.
But they also reveal, to their own disappointment, that Galileo himself harbored an arrogant, dismissive view of the common people that led him to theorize that God had dumbed down the scriptures to accommodate the scientific ignorance of the vast majority of its readers. Though Block and Freeman agree that the Bible is not a textbook and that its central focus is salvation rather than science, they argue that the “allusions to natural phenomena [that] appear in the Bible … are there as strings between the book of nature and the book of Scripture. They show how God is involved in the book of nature, as Creator of the physical universe” (99).
If only the Church authorities had been willing to re-think some of their biblical interpretations in light of Galileo’s scientific findings (many refused even to look into his telescope!) rather than force new discoveries to fit what Galileo calls “some verse which they have misunderstood and taken out of the context in which the sacred writers intended it” (191), and, if only Galileo had given more credit to common readers of the Bible, the faith/science dialogue might not have been so traumatically ruptured as it was by Galileo’s trial. Furthermore, the West might have been spared the Enlightenment split that caused science and faith to be further ruptured. And that is a tragedy, write Block and Freeman, because we need the “vocabularies” of both in order “to talk about the entire system of the world in which we find ourselves, material and spiritual” (104).
And something else. By highlighting a passage of Galileo’s letter where Galileo himself highlights a passage from the writings of St. Augustine, Block and Freeman expose one of the lesser known dangers of an overly-literalist reading of the Bible that refuses to interact with scientific discoveries. When non-believers, wrote Augustine some 1500 years ago, who are well versed in a scientific field hear a Christian summarily reject the evidence of that field, not on the basis of rational argument but on an obscure verse taken out of context, then it will cause them to dismiss the entirety of the Bible as unreliable. How, exclaims Augustine, can we expect such non-believers to believe the scriptures “in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods about things which they themselves have learnt from experience and decisive argument” (207).
God and Galileo is a very readable and informative, if somewhat eclectic, book, though I wish Block and Freeman had identified their position more clearly on the continuum between young earth creationism, old earth creationism, intelligent design, and theistic evolution. Though Gingerich identifies with theistic evolution, Block and Freeman strike me as being far closer to intelligent design and the progressive creationism of Hugh Ross.
Or, then again, maybe it is a blessing that they do not identify themselves, thus forcing their readers to attend simply to the data and arguments they present in their book. In any case, they do, thankfully, make one thing clear: “We are not naturalists, and we see it as perfectly consistent that God designed the early universe the way he did to prepare for the arrival of life at some epoch of its history and that God stepped into his universe some two thousand years ago” (115).