Starry Night

Starry Night

What do you see when you look up at the night sky? I am assuming, of course, that you are somewhere that the night sky is not obscured by the artificial lights of civilization.
I was prompted to think about that question the other evening while doing some background reading on the Scientific Revolution. It was during the Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries that our understanding of the universe we inhabit and who we are fundamentally changed. It was, to borrow a term coined by Thomas S. Kuhn, a “paradigm shift” in our fundamental assumptions–a revolution!
During the 13th century, the High Middle Ages in Europe, the scholastic theologians managed to reconcile classical humanism and its emphasis on reason with the Bible and its emphasis on revelation. To put it another way, the appearance of conflict between reason and faith or between Athens and Jerusalem was removed. That was the great achievement of Thomas Aquinas to whom the pope gave the task of reconciling Aristotle and the Bible. The result was the so-called Medieval Synthesis.
Everything made sense. God created a universe that was not only orderly, but also meaningful and purposeful. Everything, including and especially human beings, has a reason for being. Everything has its place in the great chain of being (scala naurae) decreed by God. Human beings knew where they fit in the great chain of being. Did the Bible not teach that they were below God but above the angels? Each person in society knew his place, whether peasant, merchant, nobleman or priest. God created peasants to work the fields, merchants to engage in trade, noblemen to govern and the clergy to pray. There was one set of laws that ruled the terrestrial realm and another that ordered the heavens.
When the believer looked up at the night sky before the Scientific Revolution, he beheld something that was at once both awe inspiring and mysterious. “The heavens declare the glory of God” wrote the psalmist, “and the firmament showeth his handiwork.” Viewing the stars on a clear night, he might feel as if he was seeing the lights of God’s Heavenly City. Here below the individual believer was but a pilgrim wondering through the City of Man corrupted by sin, but he need only look up and see in the perfect order of the heavenly realm a glimpse of the pilgrim’s destiny.
The change began with the Polish astronomer and mathematician Nicholaus Copernicus. He felt that the accepted geocentric model of the universe would make more sense mathematically if the sun and earth switched places, that is, if one assumed a heliocentric model. He presented his theory in On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Orbs, first published in 1543, as he lay dying. To us moderns, it may seem like a minor change, a mere tweaking of the model of the universe. But, it was shocking at the time and proved to be revolutionary.
Copernicus was followed by Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, and finally Sir Isaac Newton. Each one, and many others, used inductive reasoning and mathematics to uncover the hitherto unknown natural laws that governed all of God’s creation. With each step, these early scientists, or natural philosophers as they were then known, were developing a new methodology for discovering truth and a new model of the universe. Slowly at first, and then finalized with Newton’s universal law of gravitation in 1687, the universe took on the appearance of a clock, a universe of cause and effect natural law. The Scientific Revolution was a revolution in physics. Newton’s model of the universe remained unchallenged until the birth of nuclear physics at the turn of the 20th century.
The early scientists were Christians, or at least thinking from within a worldview shaped by Judeo-Christianity. They believed that by discovering the natural laws of the universe, laws by which God ordered his creation, they were merely thinking God’s thoughts after him. At least that is how the Englishman, Francis Bacon, defended the new “scientific” view. A defense was necessary. Since the Medieval Synthesis harmonized Aristotle and the Bible, to challenge Aristotle was to contradict the Bible. And that was a serious matter. Recant or suffer torture and martyrdom was the choice given to Galileo.
The intellectuals of the 18th century Enlightenment were more daring. They were fascinated with the new methodology and the new model of the universe. They were more propagandists than philosophers. They wanted to communicate the new way of thinking and the new model of a cause and effect, natural law universe to the literate population. By what they called “the application of reason,” they wanted to liberate the mind from the shackles of lingering religious mysticism.
The so-called philosophes saw Christianity (and religious thought in general) as an obstacle to clear thinking. Hence they launched a direct assault on what the French philosophe, Voltaire, called “that infamous thing.” They were not atheists. It was reasonable to assume that if there was a universe machine, there must be a machine maker. Hence they became what we call Deists. They accepted God as creator, architect, clock maker, designer, or whatever term one used to describe God, but they did not accept the God of Christianity, the God-Redeemer who entered into his creation as the God-man, Jesus Christ. For them, reality was a cause and effect, natural law universe that did not allow for supernatural causes.
Of course we are all grateful for the great thinkers of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment. In one of the earliest science fiction stories, New Atlantis, first published in 1627, Francis Bacon foresaw how the discovery of the natural laws of the universe would lead to a new world where applied science would produce marvelous machines. Many since have seen in Bacon’s mythical “Bensalem” a prophetic vision of the Industrial Revolution. Much was gained with the acceptance of Newton’s clockwork universe, but something rich was also lost.
I remember looking through a homemade telescope at the Moon, when I was about eight or nine years old. I was amazed at what I saw. Could there be life on the Moon? What was it really like? Many low budget science fiction movies were made during the 1950’s. The real possibility of space travel was one of the things, along with the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that came out of World War II. Hollywood capitalized on the speculation about what we might find, when we actually visited the Moon, and perhaps even Mars. The silver screen was filled with fascinating movies about earthlings visiting the Moon and Mars, as well as the earth being visited by creatures from outer space.
Until the first lunar landing, scientists did not know what the surface of the Moon was like. They knew it was not made of cheese, but would a spacecraft attempting to land on its surface disappear in a cloud of lunar dust? What mysteries were left vanished with the Apollo XI mission. On when July 20, 1969, the lunar module Eagle landed on the Moon in an area referred to as the Sea of Tranquility. Neil Armstrong and “Buzz” Aldrin descended from the lunar module to become the first earthlings to walk on the Moon. Ever since, we look at the Moon and see only a rest area on an interplanetary highway to Mars and beyond.
In his popular book, A History of Knowledge: Past, Present, and Future, Charles Van Doren speaks of the impact of the Scientific Revolution on our understanding of the universe and who we are as residents: “Now, when we look up at the stars on a clear, dark night, we see a splendid vision, but it is not the vision that mankind once saw there. . . . [instead] we inhabit a world that is resolutely material, and therefore in many respects a desert of the spirits.”

6 responses to “Starry Night

  1. Interesting; thanks for writing something that gives me a lot to chew on. I really appreciate the clear overview of history and how the worldviews have changed. And I agee with you that many people now have a very material – “matter is it’ – view. I also was glad you pointed out that the Medieval Synthesis was weak in that it tried to combine Christianity and Aristotle, putting them on equal authority. Sometimes I wonder if people now aren’t doing the same thing by combining the Bible and right- or left-wing politics and making them equal. Or traditional styles of worship, or any number of things. Thanks again.


    • Great article, Paul. The orderliness and beauty of the medieval synthesis seems to somehow place the Reformation in a second tier.


  2. Thanks for letting me know of your writing… I just read “Garrison Keillor…” and “Starry Night”. I very good way to start my Monday morning. Look forward to reading more. Good stuff!


  3. I’ve always liked hearing about the early scientists and Christian philosophers who studied the natural world and what the Greeks had written in order to understand more about God. I feel like sometimes people have the idea that “faith” must somehow be unreasonable to be strong, but if we believe that God is at work in the world we shouldn’t be afraid to study how he works, whether through unexplainable phenomena, natural causes, or things that have yet to be explained. Faith and science aren’t in conflict if we believe God created science (though, I suppose it does make for more interesting headlines).


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