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God in the New World by Lloyd Geering

Lloyd Geering is a Presbyterian minister and former Professor of Old Testament Studies at theological colleges in Brisbane and Dunedia, and Professor of Religious Studies at Victorian University in Wellington, New Zealand. He is author of Tomorrow's God (1994), The World to Come (1999) and Christianity Without God (2002). Published by Hodder and Stoughton Limited, St. Paul’s House, Warwick Lane, London. Copyright, 1968 by Lloyd Geering. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

Chapter 3: The New View of the World

We must now turn to that which, as much as anything else, has helped to turn the modern world into a new world. All of us have some mental picture into which we fit the particular bit of the earth’s surface on which we live, and the starry sky we see at night. Although these mental pictures vary in emphasis, and in detail, and with some people they are much more hazy than they are with others, yet there are some fundamental things that they all have in common. This mental picture is the framework for what we may call our ‘world view’. In the world view we share we have all been made aware of the rather insignificant role played by the planet on which we live; we know something of the solar system, and we have had impressed upon us the unbelievably immense distances which separate us from most of the stars we see in the sky with our naked eyes.

But this world view which we people of today share, regardless of our religious beliefs, is in some respects very different from that shared by the ancient world, and even from that which obtained at the Reformation. Whether we like it or not, we are separated from our fellow-Christians of the sixteenth century and earlier by virtue of a world view which causes us to think quite differently about some aspects of life on this planet. To appreciate this it is necessary to go back to the two men, who more than any others may be said to have triggered off this change in world view which has had such far-reaching implications. They are Copernicus and Galileo.

The popular view of the universe that mainly prevailed throughout the Christian era until their time, regarded the earth on which men lived as being a comparatively flat surface which stood at the very center of the universe. Above it, in the sky, the sun, moon and stars were seen to pass over on various regular paths. Only a limited area of the flat earth and some of the sea was really known by man at firsthand, and this meant that the distant areas, either visible to his eye in the case of the sky, or surmised by him in the case of what lay under the earth, were open to a good deal of speculation, and found expression in a variety of myths.

From time immemorial the sky had been associated with the gods, and in Christian thought this meant that the chief dwelling-place of God was the sky or heaven (in Hebrew and Greek there is only one word for both). From pre-Christian times too, man had inherited the view that the dead dwell in an underworld, that is, some supposed area below the surface of the earth, and it is fairly obvious that this notion developed from the practice of the burial of the dead. Once the doctrine of future rewards and punishments took shape, the underworld became not so much the realm of the dead as the realm of the wicked, who there suffered their deserved torment, while those destined for the blessed life with God were naturally imagined as living in the heaven or sky above.

From our own experience we can appreciate how easy it is to be content with some rather vague mental picture from which we do not attempt to draw all its logical implications. This general view varied of course in detail from age to age and from person to person. Dante and Milton bequeathed to us their epic expressions of this three-decker universe as it is commonly called today, even though Milton was living at a time when this world view was receiving the first impact of the challenge destined to destroy it.

There had been other theories of the universe put forward. About a hundred years after Christ, Ptolemy postulated that the earth was a sphere, though immovable, at the center of the universe, round which the heavenly bodies moved. Some four hundred years earlier a Greek named Aristarchos of Samos conjectured that the sun was the center of the universe and that the earth revolved round it. But such theories were never widely known nor did they meet with popular acceptance. Consequently, it was inevitable that the Christian faith should come to express itself within the framework of the three-decker universe just described.

The Middle Ages, particularly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, had witnessed the revival of intellectual activity in Europe and the founding of the first universities. The philosophy and science of Aristotle (384-22 BC.) was revived through the medium of the Arabs and the Jews, and the theology of St. Thomas Aquinas is the most famous attempt to harmonize Christian doctrine with the teaching of Aristotle. Aquinas thus established a new norm for Christian orthodoxy, and by the Reformation the world view derived largely from Aristotle had become firmly entrenched as Christian dogma and the Bible was interpreted in the light of it. They saw the universe as a series of concentric spheres surrounding the earth at their center and in these spheres moved the planets and stars and other heavenly bodies. It was a view which seemed eminently reasonable to everyday experience.

This view of the universe was successfully challenged and overthrown in the sixteenth century by two Christian scholars, who may be rightly regarded as laying the foundations of the modern science of astronomy. Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543), after graduating in arts and medicine at Krakow, was professor of mathematics at Rome before he was thirty. Through the influence of his uncle, a bishop, he was invited to an ecclesiastical post at Frauenberg in his own country. It was only after he had diligently attended to his main responsibilities, such as devotional exercises and the tending of the sick, that he had spare time to devote to study and meditation. He was led to examine the earlier theories of Pythagoras (c. 582-500 BC.) and Aristarchos (310-330 BC.) which concluded that the sun and not the earth was the center of the universe. Copernicus now revived this theory, and was able to produce some convincing arguments which seriously challenged the views of Aristotle, namely, that the earth was "fixed, immovable, and the center of the universe".

It is now known that Copernicus reached his conclusions by about 1530, but they were not published until 1543 the year of his death, in a book entitled, The Revolutions of the Celestial Orbs. Copernicus knew that his conclusions were likely to meet with violent opposition from ecclesiastical authorities. Yet it was not fear which caused him to delay publication, but rather his modest and gentle nature. He was a man of deep religious faith, who did not wish to offend his fellows. He dedicated his book to Pope Paul III.

The views of Copernicus did not depart completely from the Aristotelian picture of the universe in that he still regarded the planets as moving in circular orbits round the sun. But he may be said to have put the earth in its proper place. This conclusion was soon accepted by a small and selected group of scholars in the sixteenth century and led Kepler to arrive at his exceptionally important three laws of planetary motion. But the views of Copernicus were regarded as heretical by the church authorities, and an eminent philosopher, Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), was convicted of heresy in 1594 for professing them and after six years of imprisonment in which he refused to recant, he died at the stake. He is reported to have said as he faced death, "You who sentence me are in greater fear than I who am condemned . . . this at least future ages will not deny me, be the victor who he may -- that I did not fear to die. I yielded to none of my fellows in constancy and preferred a spirited death to a cowardly life."

Bruno’s death was a shock to all thinking people and caused the brilliant young Italian mathematician Galileo (1564-1642) to walk with more caution. For after making some basic and shattering new discoveries about the nature of gravity, Galileo had become quite outspoken in his exposure of the falsehood embedded in Aristotelian physics and for this he quickly earned many enemies. In a letter to Kepler in 1597 Galileo confessed himself an adherent of the Copernican system but indicated that he had said nothing in public for fear that it would jeopardize his post as Professor of Mathematics at Padua.

In 1604 there blazed into the sky a brilliant new star (known to astronomers today as a nova) and Galileo, using it as an object lesson, lectured on astronomy to entranced audiences in a way which revealed his Copernican leanings. His enemies forced him into the open, and Padua became a storm-center of controversy. Galileo was now openly committed to the new world view and the forces of the church were allied against him.

Just about this time the invention of the telescope enabled Galileo to go forward with remarkable confidence. He found mountains and craters on the moon, and this contradicted the Aristotelian belief that the face of the moon was uniformly bright. He found moving spots on the sun, which showed that the sun was rotating on its axis. He discovered four moons revolving round Jupiter, and this served as an observable model of the solar system. But not even this visible proof convinced the Aristotelians, who regarded the telescope as an instrument of deception, some refusing even to look through it at all. This latter fact has unfortunately too often characterized that conservative attitude which resolutely shuts its eyes to the new truth which disturbs the security of the status quo.

For some years Galileo proclaimed the new truths with great success, so much so that he was encouraged to accept a post in his native Tuscany, where his enemies were somewhat stronger. In 1615 he was summoned to Rome to explain his views to the College of Cardinals, who thereupon decided to ban the writings of Copernicus and Kepler. On the 26th February 1616, Galileo, under threat of torture, agreed ‘to abandon and cease to teach his false, impious, and heretical opinions’. It has been said that no single act has done more harm to the church than Galileo’s trial.

Galileo returned to his work, treading a circumspect path. He set out to write his magnum opus, keeping in mind the promise he had made. For this reason his book took the form of a dialogue between Salviati, a Copernican, and Simplicio, an Aristotelian. It was a brilliant piece of argument in which Salviati easily won his case. For this reason it was strange that official permission was given for its publication in 1632. The eager public reception of the book was quickly followed by ecclesiastical action, in which Galileo, now an old man, was summoned to Rome on a charge of heresy. Remembering the fate of Bruno, and now broken in spirit, Galileo appeared before the Cardinals in penitent’s garb to make a solemn act of recantation in words which were directed to be read publicly from every pulpit and within every university.

Everyone today recognizes that Copernicus and Galileo were pioneers of a view of the universe which has become universally accepted. While the church’s treatment of these men is inexcusable, it is equally unfair of us from our vantage point in the twentieth century to declare how things should have been done. Men like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo were producing theories which were not only not obvious, but which, in addition, seemed to be flatly contradicted by common-sense. On the other hand, the church authorities were right in being anxious to preserve the truth from being undermined by new-fangled error. The Aristotelian views by which they stood, were in their eyes not only eminently reasonable, but were thought to be inextricably bound up with the whole of Christian truth. The problem they faced was one which the church has been challenged to solve afresh at the advent of each fundamental new truth since that time. The church of Galileo’s time had perhaps more grounds for feeling confidence that it was right than has been the case in subsequent dilemmas, and yet it was wrong.

The College of Cardinals believed that the Christian faith was in danger if the Copernican world view was allowed to flourish. Perhaps they sensed how far-reaching this revolution in world view could eventually be. Over the next three centuries Christians gradually became adjusted to the new ideas about space. Yet even in this twentieth century we are still feeling the repercussions of the Copernican revolution, and some of our contemporary theological debates arise from the failure to recognize what a tremendous upheaval began at that point. The Christian has withstood the full impact of the Copernican revolution for so long only by keeping his thoughts to some degree in separate compartments, namely Christian and secular. In his religious thinking he has preserved a vague mental picture of an Aristotelian kind, while in his secular thinking about space exploration he never dreams of countering the Copernican revolution.

For while from childhood we have grown up to think of the earth as a planet revolving round the sun, and are ready to try to imagine the vast stretches of space which lie beyond the solar system in all directions, when we turn our attention to most other matters of human importance, the earth’s surface is for us the center of things. Thus intellectually we see ourselves in a space-world the pattern of which was initiated for modern man by Copernicus and Galileo. But emotionally the Biblical and pre-Coperican world views still satisfy us. This can only lead to an unhealthy, unstable, spiritual schizophrenia. This is part of the spiritual disease of the church of our day, where it fails to reconcile the new with the old.

We must briefly take note of two common methods of avoiding this schizophrenia. The first is the drastic step of abandoning the Christian faith completely as something which the modern world has shown to be quite outmoded. Some have taken this step explicitly; a much greater number have taken it implicitly, quite conscious that their remaining links with the historic roots of our culture and civilization are those of a nominal lip-service only. In some respects it is more healthy to be an honest non-Christian than a Christian schizophrenic, for the former has at least preserved some element of that integrity or wholeness of the human being for which the Christian faith expresses such concern in its Gospel of salvation.

The method of solving the problem of spiritual schizophrenia, most frequently used by professing Christians is to regard the language of the pre-Coperican world view as symbolic. All earlier affirmations about God, man and the world still stand, provided they are metaphorically interpreted. This approach is quite appealing, and contains a good measure of truth in it. But it does not go far enough, and so often in its more popular application, it does not make clear where symbol stops and reality begins. This may become clearer as we turn now to see some of the points to which the Coperican revolution leads.

We must first accept the displacement of the world from its supposed position as the immovable center of the universe. At first sight this may appear to have little significance for the Christian Gospel. But there are far-reaching implications. It means that the earth on which we live is not the center of the physical universe, but a comparatively small planet revolving round a very average-sized star, which in turn is but one of a hundred thousand million others forming the galaxy we call the Milky Way, and that part of the universe that our existing telescopes have so far penetrated contains about a hundred million star systems or nebulae, similar to our galaxy. Actually it is impossible for the minds of most of us really to grasp the significance of these figures, but they ought to impress upon us the almost unbelievable size of the observable universe, and the infinitesimal place in it occupied by our earth. Whether there is any organic life elsewhere in the universe, no one is able positively to affirm or deny. But the apparent lack of uniqueness of our planet makes it extremely likely that there is some kind of life elsewhere. Yet, as life has evolved on this planet to suit the complicated set of conditions that here pertain, it is unlikely that such life as may exist elsewhere will be identical with what we know or even bear close resemblance to it.

These aspects of the world in which we find ourselves today, require us to readjust our thinking about the place of man in the universe, the nature of the God who could be thought of as the Creator of this vast expanse, and the relationship, if any, which obtains between earth, man and God. The Copernican revolution has thus led us by steps to the point where God (presuming for the moment that we can still use this word in a meaningful way) must be much greater than the pre-Copernicans ever imagined, while on the other hand man, in spite of the recent rapid expanse of his knowledge and technology, appears to have been reduced to an infinitesimal role in space.

This leads us to the second and even more drastic implication. In the ancient world view the sky or heaven was regarded as the dwelling-place of God. While we cannot be sure of the extent to which the ancients interpreted this symbolically rather than literally, it can be said that some at least, if not all, thought of the divine abode in fairly materialistic terms and certainly in space terms. Heaven was a definite place in space, for it was up in the sky. Pre-Copernican man most likely accepted as fact that if by some miracle one were enabled to climb high enough in the sky, one would eventually reach the divine heaven itself. The fact that we could all laugh so knowingly when the Russian astronaut announced on his return to earth that he saw no sign of God, only shows how far we have moved since the days of Copernicus.

But it serves to accentuate the great gap that exists between our world view and that of ancient man. Our earlier Christian forebears could think of God dwelling in the upper regions, which were themselves part of the created universe. The Bible itself describes heaven as part of the universe for it affirms that God made both heaven and earth. For pre-Copernican man, heaven was itself part of the space-time continuum, that is, it was part of the created physical universe even though it was inaccessible to man. But the Copernican revolution changed man’s attitude to the space which stretches out indefinitely in all directions from the earth. It has become accessible to him through the telescope and astrophysics. Man’s world, which was once restricted to the inhabited surface of the earth, has now incorporated the at present immeasurable third dimension of space. Heaven, as a divine dwelling-place has disappeared from this space-time continuum. If the word heaven is still to convey some meaningful content, then it must be interpreted in terms different from those of space.

But in turn the disappearance of the divine abode from the space universe has far-reaching implications for those foundation affirmations of the Christian Gospel known as the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. From the end of the first century onwards the proclamation of the Christ risen and ascended came to be understood in something like the following terms: on Easter Day the crucified body of Jesus was restored to life by God, and came forth from the tomb, and appeared to men. The body of the risen Lord may not have been wholly identical with the pre-crucifixion body, for it could appear and disappear, and pass through closed doors. But it was so related to the previous body, that none of the latter remained in the tomb, for it was empty, and, according to certain reports, the risen Christ ate and drank with his disciples just as he had before his death. After appearing to them for a period of forty days, this risen Jesus ascended to the dwelling-place of God in the heavens above, there to sit at the right hand of God. Christians hopefully looked to the day when from that same heaven this Jesus would descend in all his glory and establish his permanent Kingdom on earth.

Now this version of the Resurrection and Ascension excited awe and wonder in the minds and hearts of those who heard it, but at least it was meaningful and even to a certain degree reasonable within the ancient world view. The idea of a physical body from this earth being raised to the heavenly sphere above did not appear impossible, even if it rarely happened. The Old Testament told stories of how Enoch and Elijah had made similar ascensions. But the disappearance of this kind of heaven from our space universe according to our contemporary world view removes this version of the Resurrection and the Ascension from the miraculous to the meaningless. It is interesting to note that the need for reinterpretation of these foundation affirmations first showed itself to be necessary in the account of the Ascension, for it was at this point that the implications of our world view first became obvious. Only later was it recognized that one cannot consistently offer some kind of spiritual interpretation to the Ascension and at the same time think of the Resurrection in physical terms.

Of course many attempts have been made to reconcile the traditional account of the Resurrection and Ascension to our world view, but no amount of manipulation of detail will really achieve this. The three-decker world view of ancient man, and the contemporary space universe which stems from Copernicus and Galileo are so different from each other, that every aspect of the Christian faith on which cosmology impinges must be radically reinterpreted.

There is no indication that these particular implications of the Copernican revolution were foreseen in the seventeenth century, or the opposition of ecclesiastical authority may have been even more violent. Even today, some three hundred years later, devout Christians find some of them hard to adjust to. The College of Cardinals refuted the views of Copernicus on what appeared then to be very sound reasoning. They were the guardians of the body of Christian teaching, and this incorporated knowledge which, as they thought, had been communicated to man by God Himself, and consequently all future discoveries by man were bound to conform to the truth already received. We have seen that this view of divine revelation has had to be surrendered; it was the new world view among other things, which made this necessary and perhaps, as yet, we are only at the beginning of all the implications of the new space world to which Copernicus and Galileo introduced us.

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