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Article No. 13

The Galileo Syndrome

I have chosen this title because I think the Galileo story has much significance for today.

Prior to Galileo, Copernicus (1473 – 1543) believed that the sun, not the earth, was at rest in the centre of the universe. He wrote: ‘Finally we shall place the sun at the centre of the universe. All this is suggested by the systematic progression of events and the harmony of the whole universe if only we will face the facts, as they say, ‘with both eyes open’.

Galileo (1564 – 1642) constructed his own telescope (more powerful than any already existing) and opened up a new understanding of the heavens. He taught his students that the sun, not the earth, was the centre of the universe, and he said:

‘I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason and intellect has intended us to forgo their use’

Galileo was warned by the Pope to desist from heretical teaching but eventually the Inquisition tried him for heresy. After recanting (under threat of torture) he was, in effect, given house arrest.

What we see here is the Church, in the form of the Inquisition, refusing to allow the possibility that its views were wrong or misguided. They believed that the bible showed that the earth was the centre of the universe and so anyone who said otherwise was a heretic. One might also guess that they saw such views as were held by Galileo as being subversive. You can imagine them saying: ‘If we allow this who knows where it will finish. Before you know it the church will be sidelined and our views ignored by everyone.’

One can have some sympathy for those in Church leadership at that time. Whatever they thought about the rights and wrongs of Galileo’s views themselves, they knew that the vast majority of their congregations had been taught that the bible said that the earth was the centre of the universe. They knew that to change that view meant a major shift – not only would their people be unsettled and feel insecure because the old certainties were changing, but also they knew that all sorts of consequences flowed from accepting that the earth was not the centre of the universe.

To start with they would have to reassure their church members that everything was all right, that all was secure, that the world was not falling apart. Somehow they would have to put some sort of reassurance into currency otherwise people would be very fearful.

But, more importantly, they knew that they would then have to go on and address the deeper problem. Their members would say – well, if you are going to say that the bible was wrong about this and that the earth is not the centre of the universe, how must we now regard the bible? What else, that we thought was clear and unambiguous in the bible, will turn out to be metaphoric and not literally true in the way you (and, therefore, we) thought it was? Where does that stop? Are the stories of the miracles of Jesus Christ true? What about the resurrection?

You can see how the church leaders in the seventeenth century would recoil from opening this Pandora’s box. It could start to destabilise both the church and society.

And so they took the easy road. To them it seemed the safe road. Some of them no doubt really believed that Galileo’s teachings were heretical and wrong. Some of them still believed themselves that the earth really was the centre of the universe. To them it would be a profound shift in their thinking to adjust to an earth which was merely a planet circling the sun. And what did that put at the centre of the universe? Perhaps fears of worship of the sun would surface in their minds.

So they tried to shut the heretic up. To muzzle him. To stop this new-fangled idea of the earth going round the sun. What a nonsense it was! How could anyone believe it anyway?

Do you see parallels with today? I certainly do! In this day and age some of the church leaders are in exactly the same position as regards homosexuality. The preponderance of scientific opinion has shifted to think that this is an inbuilt characteristic of some people. The scientists have the view that nobody chooses their sexual orientation – it comes as part of the package, with your body and mind. But no, these church leaders prefer to shut their eyes to this and hold to the old views that it is disordered, a sickness or perverted. After all, their views have been good enough for centuries, so why not continue them?

And then there are the consequences. If the church leaders once admit that homosexuality is inbuilt (whether by nature or nurture or both), then what is to become of our present understanding of morality? Is not morality fixed and absolute? Well, actually, no – it isn’t! And church leaders who at all costs try to preserve the status quo and not disturb old standards are in peril of their intellectual, moral and spiritual integrity if they try, like King Canute, to stop the tide coming up the beach.

But then, these church leaders say, it is not only morality that would have to be re-thought. What about the bible itself? If we once say that maybe – just maybe - homosexuality is part of Gods plan for human beings, does that not throw the bible itself into question? Does it not mean that we have to start to weigh up and discriminate between this and that in the bible? And what about marriage as being ‘God’s plan’? That this is true, but that is not true? If we cancel such an established moral law, where will it finish? Is not that a very difficult road to have to travel?

Well, yes, it is a difficult road to have to travel. But the good news is that God’s Holy Spirit is here to guide and lead us. We do not travel it alone or unaided. We are not left to the limit of our poor human minds. We have God’s power and inspiration to draw on.

And the fact that the road ahead now looks decidedly uncertain and somewhat rocky is no reason to try to dawdle in some minor cul-de-sac to avoid the problem. The Galileo approach is bankrupt and counter-productive. All it does is make you look ridiculous to future generations.

And the present position of the Church of England will look ridiculous at some point in the future in the same way that the sixteenth century divines look ridiculous to us today. People will pass over our period, when church leaders are in such a sweat about this ‘problem’, as if it never happened. There was a temporary blip, they will say, while church people came alongside the new understanding of sexuality and adjusted their thinking. That’s all it will be – a footnote in the histroy books fifty or a hundred years from now.

The seventeenth century theologians of the Roman Catholic church thought that to permit Galileo to teach his new ideas was to undermine the teaching of the church and their interpretation of the bible. They opposed him and his teaching implacably. The conservative and fundamentalist church leaders of the twenty-first century think that to allow any form of credibility to homosexuality is to undermine the teaching of their churches and their interpretation of the bible. They oppose all aspects of homosexuality – even when the gay person is a committed Christian.

Whether in 1650 or 2002, both are trying to preserve a status quo and both have been afraid of the consequences if they once give way. Their picture of God is too small. They cannot conceive of a God who goes on creating, revealing, changing, moving forward. They are only sure of the past. They want to solidify, preserve, replicate, and it will turn out, if they are successful, embalm.

Fortunately the Christian God is not like that. He is always ahead of us. Always bringing new things, new attitudes, new horizons to us. Behold I make all things new! We are called to walk alongside in a co-creative mode. We have to hurry as fast as we can to keep up with him. He is often just ahead of us. We have to carry a hammer. We need it to keep on breaking the old moulds of our thinking. He is pouring this years wine into new wineskins, sewing new garments of understanding onto new clothing. How absurd that we cling to the past in the fashion we do! But it’s a very human failing, and we have all done it.

So, however long it takes, there will come a new sexual ethic in Christendom. There will be Christians – indeed they exist already – who will take up the challenge and start to think new thoughts on this subject, led by the Holy Spirit. There will be change and new challenges. Some will get left behind. Not left behind by God, of course, for he is patient and generous with us all however backward we are. But left behind and out of the mainstream of new understanding and thinking. Each person in each new generation has to be prepared to step out of the old thinking and into the unknown – trusting God to guide and correct and show the way. Where do you stand?

Tony Cross


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