It was a simple instrument, and small—tiny, actually, compared with our contemporary reflector telescopes of immense size: Gran Telescopio Canarias, Canary Islands (34 ft. dia. primary mirror), twinned Keck telescopes, Hawaii (33 ft. dia. each), Hobby-Eberly, Texas (30 ft. dia.), Hubble Space Telescope (8 ft. dia).
Galileo had constructed his telescopes in the years 1608-1609, piecing them together by trial and error, for there were no physical theories or mathematical formulae to help him. So he placed the two lenses closer and farther apart, until the tiny image was clear enough to depict the detail of the celestial objects to which Galileo turned his attention, one after the other, night after night.
His telescope, at its point of greatest development, was about three feet long, with a primary refractive lens just one and one-half inches (37mm) in diameter, a tad larger than an American half-dollar coin. The scope had a magnification factor of 30—about the same magnifying power as a pair of field binoculars you might buy for yourself at Walmart. But it had a much narrower field of view, about one-half of one degree. That is, the instrument required four separate views of a full moon to observe its entire face.
It was very simple. It consisted of just two lenses fixed within a brass tube, with window-glass enclosing the two ends of the tube. The scope was mounted on a stable base. And it was with this simple instrument that Galileo made his observations (which might more accurately be called “noticings,” in the sense of, “I noticed that . . . .”)—observations which provided reproducible verification for a dramatically new view of our universe, a view which not only replaced in one stroke its fourteen-hundred-year-old predecessor, but which cracked the pillars of the piously beautiful but observationally indefensible version of the universe which the Roman Catholic Church—the de facto imperial government of medieval Europe—had turned into its defense of its political hegemony.
The observations which Galileo made using his simple telescope brought him to conclusions which derailed the fourteen-hundred-year-old belief that the earth was situated in the absolute center of the universe, with sun, moon, planets, and stars revolving around it in perfectly circular orbits. It was a tidy and beautiful depiction of the universe, and a handsome presentation of the cosmic importance of human beings, who lived at the center of the perfect timepiece movement of these heavenly bodies.
This geocentric theory of the universe, when it was first articulated by the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy in the second century CE, generally explained what could be observed with the naked eye from the surface of the earth. Each day, the sun rises in the east and sets in the west. The easiest way to understand this event is to presume that the sun is constantly moving with a circular motion in a westerly direction. When its movement brings it over the eastern horizon, we have day. By the time it disappears below the western horizon, its light is dimming into night, during which the sun continues to move below the flat earth of common perceptual experience back to the eastern horizon, and then the cycle begins anew. And likewise for the other celestial bodies, which moved all in the same east-to-west direction, but at different rates of speed, as the sun.
Ptolemy’s geocentric universe was the best understanding available at his time, and it came to be generally accepted. There were two reasons for this acceptance. The first is, as above, that it generally explained the observed data. The second is that its depiction of cosmic order and perfection and of the absolute value of human existence in the universe came to blend neatly with the Judeo-Christian scriptural depiction of the Almighty God, in his perfection, creating a quite perfect universe, as he sat enthroned above the crystalline sphere of the “fixed stars,” in the Empyrion, Heaven itself, his throne-room, he the Holy One who made the heavens and the earth. From his throne high above (a mile or two, they thought) the immense and all-powerful God saw and judged everything that was done on earth. God had made human beings as his special creation. He had shared with us his “image and likeness.” And he demanded that we pay homage to him as king and that we obey his commandments.
As the thinkers contemplated Ptolemy’s description, two courses of thought arose. Christians continued to refine their elaboration of Ptolemy’s theory. They noticed, for example, that of all the bodies in the heavens, only the moon was observed to change over the course of time, that is, to cycle through its various phases. The sun (considered to be the next closest body to earth after the moon) never seemed to change. Nor was change noticeable in the planets and stars beyond the sun. So Christians came to believe that change, including suffering and death, and therefore sin and evil, were confined to that part of the universe contained within the orbit of the moon, that is, the area inhabited by the changing moon and the evil-infested earth.
To this physical model, they quite naturally added the spiritual component. For the ancients viewed spirit and matter as integrated with one another. Where there was one, there was the other. For them, the universe was filled with spiritual beings, many of whom had dominion over, or influence over, one aspect of the material world or another. When Romans saw a growing flower, for example, they at the same time recognized the presence of the goddess Flora, the goddess of vegetation.
What, then, caused the moon to change and the earth to be sinful? To them, the answer was that this area of the universe was the area to which God had condemned Satan and the demons. Once they had been cast out of heaven by God, they were bound to inhabit the regions of change and sin which extended from the depths of hell, beneath the earth, to the upper limits of the moon’s sphere of influence. Above that evil lunar sphere (hence the word “lunatic”) were the perfect spheres of God’s glory, all sunlit and unchanging.
I use the term spheres here rather than orbits because “spheres” was the answer of these thinkers to two elemental questions: What kept the celestial bodies on their perfect courses, without collision? And what prevented the earth from falling forever downward? The answer which they invented was crystalline spheres. Without any observed evidence, they proposed that the celestial bodies were not independent bodies, but that each was embedded in its own sphere of crystal, invisible to the eye, but moving inexorably at its own rate of speed from east to west. These spheres glided frictionlessly over one another (producing a continual enchanting harmony called “the music of the spheres.”) The outermost sphere was the sphere of the “fixed stars,” in which the component stars were presumed to be stationary in relation to one another. And at the center of this elegant cosmic structure was earth, beneath the dome of the sky.
As we all must do when we strive to maintain our faith in our beliefs, the ancient astronomers who lived after Ptolemy, and probably Ptolemy himself, knew that Ptolemy’s geocentric model of the universe simply overlooked contradictory evidence. The most troubling problem they faced was the “retrograde motion of the planets.” They knew that all the celestial bodies moved each day and night in a westerly direction. Like the sun and the moon, they all rose in the east and set in the west. But these astronomers also knew that every celestial body also had another, longer-term motion from west to east. They had observed that every celestial body rises later and later after sunset each night. That is, relative to the sun’s setting in the west, each celestial body appears over the course of weeks and months to “fall back” away from the sun. For example, on Monday at sunset, a certain planet might be just barely visible in the sun’s glare, but by the following Sunday, that same planet might be clearly visible, glistening in the browning light of late dusk. It was said that that planet had “fallen back” from the sun. And over the months, it would continue to fall back farther and farther until the sun, in the first light of dawn, began to overtake it from behind and again hide it in the solar glare.
The same was true of all the other celestial bodies. If two planets were observed to rise in the east beside each other on one night, on the next night one of them would be ahead of the other. That is, one planet “fell back” away from the other. This “falling back” was attributed, reasonably, to the varying rates of forward speed of each body. Each sphere, with its embedded planetary body, revolved around the earth at its own rate of speed.
This explanation factually describes the long-term west-to-east motion of the sun and the moon. Each of these bodies “falls back” directly, as the model predicts. But the falling-back motions of the other known bodies (Venus, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, and Saturn), the “planets” (a word derived from the Greek word for “wandering”), were not direct. Rather, each of the planets was observed to “fall back” as expected for a period of time, and then unexpectedly to move forward again, and then to resume falling back again. The track of a planet over the months in the night sky, then, looked at times like an S-movement, where the sides of the S are compressed. And so, each planet would be observed to fall back for a while and then stop its backward motion and become still in the sky and then begin to move forward for a time, and then pause again, and then begin to fall back again. [The video by Dorian Pascoe, “retrograde motion of planets – animation,” Sep 15, 2013, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lltkAduGVSg clearly depicts the motion of the planets, as observed from earth.]
Ptolemy’s theory could not adequately explain this peculiar motion of the planets. But the geocentric view of the universe was firmly established, and most astronomers worked within it without question, as they struggled to develop more and more complex theories to explain it. By the end of the sixteenth century, the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe had fabricated a very complex model of the geocentric universe, in which the sun and moon orbited to earth, but all the other celestial bodies orbited the sun, beyond the realms inhabited by earth, moon and sun.
Tycho’s was a clever and difficult explanation. But it did attempt to explain the retrograde motion of the planets, which is indeed due (according to our contemporary models) to their orbiting the sun, as this is viewed from earth, orbiting the same sun. Moreover and more importantly, to the satisfaction of the Catholic Church, Tycho's model remained a geocentric system, in conformity with the first chapter of the Book of Genesis, although one which sidetracked humanity to a centralized earth around which only some of the celestial bodies revolved.
In 1610, Galileo published his first small book, in which he presented the conclusions arising from his telescopic observations. His little book was not received as kindly as Tycho’s work. Galileo had observed, for example, that Saturn was not perfectly spherical, but that it had “bumps” in its central section (which better instruments later showed to be the rings of Saturn.) He also noticed that associated with Jupiter was a set of three “stars” whose movement led only to the conclusion that they were satellite moons of Jupiter. He observed dark spots moving across the face of the sun—an astounding imperfection in the brightest of the heavenly bodies, previously assumed to be entirely without blemish. And he concluded, as Tycho had, that comets were certainly celestial phenomena with strange, disordered paths, and not atmospheric events, as previously believed. All this suggested to Galileo that the universe beyond the moon was not uniform or perfect.
But his most crushing discovery was that Venus, like the moon, had phases. Ptolemy’s geocentric system, in its Christian adaptation, had asserted that the realms above the sphere of the moon were perfect and changeless. The odd orbits of the comets, the dark spots on the sun, and the orbiting of the moons of Jupiter around that planet challenged the notion of the changelessness of the super-lunar regions.
Galileo concluded then that the heavenly realms were in no way perfect, but that they were characterized by the same imperfections as the sub-lunar realms of evil. These observations and conclusions led him to assert that the geocentric system of Ptolemy was entirely inadequate and that the revolutionary theory of the Polish mathematician Copernicus—that the sun, not the earth, lay at the center of the universe—best and most simply explained what had been observed about the movement of celestial bodies, and in particular, it explained clearly and convincingly the retrograde motion of the planets, which in the geocentric system had been explained as the toying with the planet’s motion by the spiritual beings who had dominion over each of the spheres.
“The Queen,” as they say with reference to the many dour portraits of Queen Victoria of England, “was not amused.” Galileo’s claim that Venus, which had been believed to orbit the earth in the realms of perfection above the sphere of the sun, also had phases, which were interpreted as indicators of imperfection and evil, was taken as an attack on the Sacred Scripture of Almighty God. Galileo, although he was a loyal Catholic and, indeed, had an ally in the then-reigning Pope, was a premier scientist but a tactless writer. The Pope took Galileo’s work as a personal attack and called him before the Inquisition, the thought-police of the imperial Catholic Church, known for centuries for its ability to extract confessions and recantings from “notorious heretics” by the usual crude but effective methods, including torture. Galileo, in spite of his widespread reputation as an exacting observer and engineer, underwent repeated interrogation by the Grand Inquisitor, and his books were subsequently labelled “suspect of grievous heresy” and placed on the Index of Forbidden Books.
Faced with either severe punishment or disavowal of his published findings, Galileo recanted his opinions (some say, with his fingers crossed.) He was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life. And he was commanded never to teach or even speak in support of the theory of a sun-centered (heliocentric) universe.
In spite of the dangers which assailed him, Galileo had dared to speak the truth of what he had observed and of how he honestly interpreted his observations. And his truth led to the collapse of the piously beautiful but factually incorrect world-view of medieval Christianity. Galileo stood as a single man with observational and rational truth on his lips, abandoned by even the most courageous of his fellow seekers after truth. He found himself alone, facing an immensely powerful Roman Catholic political establishment. The Church had reacted so virulently to the truth he uttered for the reason that that truth dismissed the geocentric cosmology depicted in the scriptural Book of Genesis, on the basis of which the Catholic power-elite had justified the Church’s extensive military power and political dominance in Europe and the Middle East.
The Catholic Church’s justification for suppressing Galileo was this: Having created a beautiful, good, and flawlessly orderly universe, God reigned supreme in his heaven. To mute the impact of the evil in the sub-lunar area, and of the demons which caused it, God sent Jesus, his Divine Son, to atone for human sin and to offer humans the saving love of God. Through Jesus, as depicted in Matthew’s gospel, God passed to the Pope his authority to speak and act on behalf of the God who demands that all obey his laws and commands. From the Pope and his fellow bishops flowed the authoritative religious truth which sanctified believers and offered them, after death, a world beyond the stars in which there is bliss.
Galileo’s conclusions, based on his observations, contradicted this narrative and made his demonstrable model of the universe manifest. In Galileo’s theory, there is no straight line of authoritative truth descending from God through the intervening spheres to the Pope and from him to the priest absolving sins in the confessional and counting the offertory collection after mass.
In the cause of pure observation and measurement, and of simple and elegant explanation, Galileo’s truth shattered the pillars which were seen as upholding the Church’s claim to authority and ushered in the Secular Age, the Age of Enlightenment. Already wounded by the democratizing Protestant Reformation, and now further damaged by the impact of Galileo’s findings on its self-justification, the political power of the institutional Catholic Church began to weaken, in steady decline from that time, into insignificance.
We must also acknowledge the impact of Galileo's revelations on the whole of European culture. The worldview--the belief-set--on which the whole citizenry of "Christendom" had lived for more than a millennium, with its certitudes, with its place for everything, with its grand structure and clear, noble connections between the Divine and the ordinary--all this under-girding of shared belief--in the world they knew, in the Church which ruled them, in the beliefs in which they had founded their lives and their knowledge of everything they saw and heard and touched--all this was shaken and questioned and ultimately swept away by Galileo's little book, leaving the people dazed, disoriented, and suddenly lonely in a cold universe of frozen space, in which no one knew where God on his throne was.
This isolating disorientation, which introduced existential fear into Western culture, was perhaps the single worst shock which the Christian people have suffered. It certainly ranks among the four most powerful shocks: the 10th century Great Schism, which separated the Eastern Christian ("Orthodox") churches from the Roman Catholic Church, the 16th century Protestant Reformation with its catastrophic Thirty-Years' War, Galileo's crushing discoveries in the 17th century, and the current worldwide priest sex-abuse scandal, which threw Catholics into the chaos of mistrust and righteous anger. Unfortunately, the Catholic Church has never taken public responsibility for its errors in judgment, for its vicious vengefulness against its opponents, or for its pursuit of un-Christian self-interest in any of these disruptions to Catholic peace and faithfulness. Rather, it has always brought the full force of its power against the "instigators" of what later turned out clearly to be The Truth.
Thus is the tale of Galileo’s truth and of the Church leadership’s retribution on him for his undermining the prevailing myth which established their power. The orderly segmenting of the heavenly model, with God in his place, the celestial bodies in theirs, evil in its place, and infusing it all, the hope of human salvation, all this Galileo’s work displaced. He rendered the Pope’s—and the Church’s— necessity to human salvation cosmologically groundless. His work implied that the Sacred Scriptures, proclaimed to be divinely inspired and thus inerrant by the Church hierarchy, taught an erroneous cosmology. And the price which Galileo compelled his neighbors and fellow citizens of Europe to pay for his truth was the evaporation of the hope and self-worth which people felt in knowing that God had created them—even though they were sinners—to live at the center of all that is, and thus, always to be the subjects of God’s watchful shepherding and fatherly guidance.
In place of this comforting hope, Galileo offered a world-view which developed over time into our contemporary scientifically “correct” cosmic system, in which we human beings are no longer at the center of anything. Our pride of place has been shattered. We are isolated on some small, island planet in the backwaters of some minor galaxy somewhere in a cold and distant spaciousness, revolving at the speed of 17,000 miles an hour around the dark center of that galaxy, which is itself heading at indeterminate speed away from every other stellar object into a depth which is making itself deeper to accommodate the outward motion of our galaxy, and of all the others.
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I have told you the story of Galileo’s telescope at some length because it is a clear parallel, reverberating into our present day, to the story of Jesus of Nazareth. As we will discover, Jesus too came to an understanding of a truth so profound and so simple that it undermined not only the prevailing myths of his religious context, but ultimately, the prevailing myths of the Greco-Roman pantheon, and the power structure built on emperor worship. In the process of establishing this truth, however, Jesus himself was crushed—to death, by the tortuous weight of his own body.
So deeply similar are the stories of Jesus and Galileo, that each of them leads us to find in it an example of the fundamental historical principle which I described above, regarding the relationship of Truth and Power. The principle is two-pronged:
1. Truth undermines the foundation of Power.
2. Truth is co-opted by a new Power which replaces the undermined Power.
We have seen in Galileo’s story that the Truth which he uttered contributed fundamentally to the downfall of the mythology on which the medieval Roman Catholic empire was founded. This is a clear case of Truth destroying Power.
We have seen, as well, that Galileo’s truth opened for humankind a new era—a remarkably long three-century period of free scientific investigation, which was then (inevitably) followed by the development of a power structure (Eisenhower called it in 1960 the “military-industrial complex”) which spoke the language of science but was dedicated to profiting from the fruits which it harvested from scientific inquiry. The profiteers cloaked in scientific terms the heinous crimes and offenses which brought to market all the devices, pharmaceuticals, fuels, and foods which collectively are called the Age of Technology.
The Age of Technology, begun in embryo by Galileo’s telescope, has in this century cast us into a technologically sophisticated—even technologically overwhelmed—but philosophically and religiously empty Dark Age.
We will discover in further essays that the truth which Jesus brought—so simple and so embraceable—undermined the old Roman Empire, in the longer term, and in the short term, cut deep into the foundation on which rested the prevalent Judaism of Jesus’ time. He did this by offering a new way of life to the ordinary people—a life of freedom and justice and hope—which was consistent with the spirit of Judaism but unshackled by adherence to its every ritual necessity.
Jesus was executed by the forces he opposed. As a person, he died by the violence he stood against and offered a remedy to. But the community he established to live out the way of life that its original members had experienced with Jesus endured for almost a century. It called itself “The Way.” Its members sought to live passionately their commitments to one another and their respect for Jesus and for all.
However, almost from the beginning of the Jesus community, an effort to take the reins of power began. Over time, a power-elite came to guide the community and to legislate for it. Within three centuries, the loosely structured Jesus community had been transformed into a socially stratified church, which spoke the language of Jesus but displayed none of his ethical virtue or embraceability.
By the end of the fourth century, the Truth of Jesus had been entirely co-opted by the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. The age of the Imperial Church had begun.
It was the power of that same Imperial Church, twelve hundred years later, which Galileo’s truth was effective in eroding, as the cycle of Power-Truth-Power played itself out once again.
It is not this principle, however, that draws our attention in this essay and the essays to follow. Nor does the Imperial Church, as such, hold our attention for long. What we will do in the following essays is detect as well as we can the Truth which Jesus actually preached and on which he founded his community. For actually, that community, built on its original principles, continues to survive in the shadowed outbuildings, as it were, of the Catholic Church, as well as in other Christian denominations and, indeed, in other religions which are unacquainted with Jesus.
This community is, and has always been, the gathering of all people of good will, who are committed to achieving union with Divinity by living lives of loving, self-sacrificing service to others in need. The early Christian writer, Paul of Tarsus, called this community “the Body of Christ,” and the Catholic Church calls it “the communion of saints.” But even as it pays homage to the “People of God” in its documents, in daily life the Church (as Catholics call the Catholic leadership in the Vatican) prefers to call attention to itself and its proclaimed mission, rather than to the remnants of the ancient community of Jesus which are hidden in the shadows of its immense Gothic spaces, and also in ten-thousand other locales in the world of human experience.
We will conclude then with an invitation to the leaders of the Catholic Church to cast away all the pan-demonic theological chatter and philosophical self-justifications they have allowed the Church to accrete over the centuries; to divest themselves of their grandeur and return to the simplicity of the founder of the Jesus community, in imitation of their current titular leader, Pope Francis; to let float into the past all the pious imaginings which they have promoted—with the purpose of subjugating the peoples and clothing themselves in power and glory—and to let go off the exalted moral standard which they preach while living their own lives according to a very human one. Let them admit to, and accept, the moral reality which actually transpires in all of our lives; let them open their eyes with even greater humility to the dignity of the people who, in all their worthlessness, comprise the Jesus community. And let them join with those people, not as legislating leaders but as pastors, as listeners and learners—in short, as simple members of the Jesus community.
If the leaders of the Catholic Church were to form themselves into just and peace-loving members of the Jesus community, nothing extraordinary would change in the world. It would surely be the same arrogant, cruel, selfish world which men of power have always had it be. But the leaders of the Catholic Church themselves would be changed. In transforming themselves, they would transform the Church into what Jesus originally intended it to be: a simple way of living with recognition of God and with respect and service to one another.
No one knows, of course, what would happen if those leaders of the Roman Catholic Church who are not already, were to become humble, functional Christians, living according to the Way of Jesus, and bringing the whole Church with them into the “Jesus-life.” Perhaps nothing at all. Perhaps the Way of Jesus would remain sidelined as it is now in the Secular Age. (And this is just where it should be in an age that believes Jesus to be irrelevant: coaching from the sidelines any player willing to listen.)
But there is also the possibility—indeed the hope—that such a gargantuan swing toward honesty and simplicity by such an immense organization might call attention to the value of the Way of Jesus, so that the Truth of Jesus might bubble to the surface of the dark and turbulent sea on which we float individually and culturally, and this Truth might cast a beam of hopeful light into the darkness around us.
Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Skulicz