Friday, June 25, 2010
Astronomy has always had a role to play in theological discourse. From the time of the earliest records of the ancients, it was supposed that the lights in the night sky represented mystical forces. And, once it was understood that there were distinct forms of objects beyond our horizon, elaborate systems were imagined to explain their significance, and their supposed influence on human affairs.
Ptolemy of Alexandria devised a model of the sun and planets which placed the Earth at the center of our Universe, orbited by the Moon, then Mercury and Venus, then the sun and the rest of the known planets: Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. All of this, in the Ptolomeic model, was surrounded by a moving sphere of fixed stars. We now know that Ptolomy's model was wrong, but not for any lack of intellect on Ptolomy's part. Instead, it was a well-thought out model that largely accounted for what could be observed in that age, and with the prevailing theological supposition, of our Earth sitting at the center of our Universe.
Nicolaus Copernicus pioneered the next great leap in astronomical knowledge. Copernicus published his heliocentric theory, placing the Sun at the center of our Universe, shortly before his death. This was necessary due to the prevailing religious sentiments of the time. Although we now know the heliocentric model to be true, the monolithic Christianity of the era required the Earth to be at the center of the Universe, and so, truth was suppressed in the name of religion.
Following the work of Copernicus, Galileo Galilei determined, as well, that the Sun, and not the Earth, was the central point for the planets. His work was based on the most practical level of research, improving the design of telescopes and then observing the sun, moon, and planets through them, and reporting his observations. For his discoveries, he was condemned by the Church, which famously declared the theory that the Earth orbits the sun to be "false and contrary to Scripture." But, it is not so widely remembered that he was equally condemned for discovering spots on the sun, craters on the moon, other moons circling other planets, and that the planets themselves were not perfect orbs, as the church required. Under threat of of torture by religious officials, Galileo recanted -- but, naturally, recanting what is a true has never worked to make it untrue.
Johannes Kepler, lived in the same era as Galileo, but in a place less dominated by religious oppression. Working in the observatory of another great astronomer, Tycho Brahe, Kepler sought to solve the riddle of the apparent retrograde motion of Mars -- that is, the tendency of Mars to sometimes appear to move backwards in its orbit. In doing so, Kepler hit upon another great discovery, that the planets did not orbit the Sun at a uniform speed, or in perfect circles, or with the Sun at the exact center, as the religious leaders required. The planets instead orbited in a-centric ellipses, with orbital speed changing in conjunction with the distance from the Sun, which was simply a focal point, and not at the exact center of their orbit.
Sir Isaac Newton's theory of gravity was initially set forth in great measure to explain the means by which bodies in orbit were maintained in that way. It paved the way for the theological theory of deism by demonstrating that the constant hand of the Creator was not at all needed to explain the motions of the planets, but that celestial bodies could instead be maintained in their angular momentum entirely by the clockwork operation of celestial mechanics.
It was astronomers who, centuries later, insured the upending of Newtonian physics when they confirmed Einstein's theory of relativity by observing the predicted gravitational lensing of light passing distant stars. It was astronomers who gave us the key to the age of our Universe. Edwin Hubble discovered that ours was not the only galaxy, and by examining the redshift of other galaxies moving in relation to our own, that the Universe was expanding. It is somewhat remarkable in itself that up until 1925, it was not known that a single other galaxy existed, and after that date, that countless numbers of them did.
Hubble's discovery of universal expansion was disturbing to those who, for both scientific and theological reasons, believed the Universe to have existed forever, in much the same state. Astronomer Fred Hoyle was among those who developed the steady state theory, which proposed that the expansion of our Universe was fueled by a constant infusion of new material from some central point, so that it had always appeared, and would always appear, much as it does today. But this theory was disproved with the discovery of very old quasars and similar very old and very distant structures, which are not found in the neighborhood of younger galaxies which are farther along from the point of the initial expansion. It is somewhat ironic today that the Big Bang proponents were largely religious, championing the theory in part for its assignment of a point of origin to the Universe which accorded with Creation mythology, while the steady state proponents tended to be atheistic.
Once the Big Bang theory was confirmed, this knowledge, refined over time, allowed man to at last pinpoint the age of our Universe to approximately thirteen billion seven hundred and thirty million years. Later astronomers like Carl Sagan, Paul Davies, and Timothy Ferris would continue to do more and more to not only advance our understanding of our Universe, and the continuum of physics governing objects within it, but to profoundly effect the validity of theological models as well, making it impossible to rationally believe in a Creator for whom human beings were at the center of our Universe.
As astronomical discoveries have taken us farther and farther away from our initial imagined posture in the center of our Universe, theological systems have reacted in different ways. Some have simply shifted the vanity and self-centeredness that led us to believe ourselves to be the center of a perfectly ordered Universe away from the astronomical realm, insisting that even as we are seen to occupy an insignificant position in space, we remain the object of adoration for the Creator of that vast space, so richly occupied in places beyond our very imagination. Other theological models have strengthened in their grasp of a theology in line with astronomical reality. Pandeism is one such theory, demanding that any theological explanation must accord with the nature of our observed Universe. And so, the astronomers, in their generations of work advancing our understanding of our place within our Universe, have provided an inspiration to pandeism, and to all theological theories recognizing the grandness of a Universe in which we are so privileged to play even the most minute role.