ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space

This entry was posted by on Sunday, 11 March, 2007 at

One of the stories repeated most often by clever people in our culture goes something like this: Once upon a time, people foolishly and naively believed that the earth was the centre of the universe, and that everything else (sun, moon, stars, planets) revolved around this centre. This false view of the physical universe supported the even more foolish and naive belief that humanity was the pinnacle of God’s creation and the centre of God’s affections. This was a lovely, cosy, comforting view of life and the universe.

BUT in the 16th and 17th centuries, brave men like Copernicus and Galileo and Kepler demolished this cosy view by dethroning the earth from its privileged place at the centre, and therefore striking a lethal blow to the claim that humanity is special. As Carl Sagan puts it, the Copernican revolution was the first in a series of “Great Demotions… delivered to human pride.” We can never again believe the comforting myth that we are the special objects of the Creator’s love. Copernicus and his followers stand as heroes of free-thinking secular humanism in the face of unthinking religious tradition and superstition.

It’s a dramatic and compelling story. The only problem is that it isn’t true. Obviously people before Copernicus believed that the earth was the physical centre of the universe. What they didn’t believe was that the centre was a place of privilege and cosiness and specialness. Have a look at this quotation from the 12th century philosopher Maimonides:

In the universe, the nearer the parts are to the centre, the greater is their turbidness, their solidity, their inertness, their dimness and darkness, because they are further away from the loftiest element, from the source of light and brightness…

People in the middle ages were deeply religious, but they had also drunk deeply from the cup of Greek (Aristotelian and Platonic) philosophy. As a result, they assumed that upward was the direction of improvement and enlightenment, while downward was the direction of depravity and darkness. To say that the earth was at the centre of the universe was to say that the earth was at the bottom of the heap, the cesspit at the end of the universe. What did this mean for humanity? It meant that we were the all-singing, all-dancing scum of the universe, trapped in our ugly little bodies on our ugly little planet far from the spheres of light. Our only hope was that God would save us from this shithole and take us to a place of spiritual perfection far, far away.

Copernicus and his followers did not believe for a second that they were demoting the earth and humanity from a place of privilege. Rather, they believed that their new vision of the universe elevated the earth to a place of much greater dignity and glory. Look at these comments from Galileo:

As for the earth, we seek… to ennoble and perfect it when we strive to make it like the celestial bodies, and, as it were, place it in heaven, from whence your philosophers have banished it.

As he says elsewhere, “the earth is not the sump where the universe’s filth and ephemera collect.” The Copernican revolution restores the earth to its proper place in “the dance of the stars”!

Kepler suggested that because humanity was created for contemplation, “and adorned and equipped with eyes, he could not remain at rest in the centre. On the contrary, he must make an annual journey on this boat, which is our earth, to perform his observations… There is no globe nobler or more suitable for man than the earth.”

So Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler can be reclaimed as heroes of thinking faith – they rescued the earth from the place assigned to it by the philosophers as the rubbish-dump of the cosmos, and restored it to a more biblical and more magical place in the dance of the stars.

(This entire post is stolen with no sense of shame from this article. And for those of you who are wondering, Baby Crow has not yet made his appearance in this wonderful world.)

3 Responses to “ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space”

  1. I hear what you’re saying, but I wonder if there is still something in what Carl Sagan and co. suggest about Christians today believing they are God’s gift to the rest of humanity? OK, I know in a very profound and humbling way we are; vessels for His work etc. I suppose I’m appealing against the sort of Christianity we’re told about in right-wing fundamentalist American churches. Or the extremely dogmatic “turn-or-burn” churches of N. Ireland. In both of these there can be a smugness and arrogance about the gift we’ve been given. This is hard to nail down to a particular activity or sentiment, but the feeling is one of division and exclusion based on internal superiority in spite of external acknowledgement of the “sinful state”.

    I understand that when you’re saying we’re floating in God’s love and not at the centre of the cesspit you’re coming from a place of humility, and I’m not arguing against that metaphor at all I think it’s very real, and very useful to aid in understanding our relationship with God. I also see where Sagan and co. come from, IF (and it’s a presumptious if) their view of the church has been the one that I describe above. And when I say the church, I mean the people and their lifestyles, and what that all says to those around them.

    At the same time, faulty research on their behalf leading to state the lie that we (humanity) thought we were the centre of the universe when we didn’t, is hardly commendable. And should bring a lot of their work under hard scrutiny.

  2. jaybercrow

    Hi Steve
    I wholeheartedly agree that we as Christians are often guilty of colossal arrogance and a “Great Demotion” might be just what the doctor ordered. The “specialness” that I was affirming (and that Carl Sagan was denying) is a specialness belonging to the whole of humanity, and not just Christians. In what ways Christians as a sub-group are or are not special is a big topic for another day. Maybe I’ll let you tackle that one on your blog…

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