GALILEO AND GOD:
A CHRONOLOGICAL ANALYSIS OF HIS BELIEFS ON GOD, AND THE BIBLE
“…Galileo was one of the most original and creative geniuses of all time. The consequences of his work for man’s understanding of the world, and hence for human thought processes, is beyond all calculation.”[i] This assessment of Galileo, captures the greatness and worth of this brilliant Italian scientist called by many the Father of Modern Science. Yet this towering figure did not always enjoy this kind of glowing assessment by the powers of his day. In fact, toward the end of his life, Galileo incurred at first the displeasure and finally the wrath of the Catholic hierarchy, who in those days had control over people’s lives.
Copernicus was the source of Galileo’s difficulties. His revolutionary idea that the earth rotated around the sun convinced Galileo that the then accepted view that the earth was the centre of the universe was incorrect. His scientific observations of the moon and the planets further convinced Galileo that Copernicus was indeed correct.
In his excitement for the newfound scientific truths, Galileo travelled to Rome to attempt to convince the church authorities of his conclusions. In Rome he was confronted by none other than Cardinal Bellarmine, the defender of Catholic Dogma, who was not convinced by Galileo’s arguments. In fact Bellarmine instead became concerned that the Galilean views were potentially dangerous to Catholicism. Consequently, Galileo was warned to treat his ideas as hypothesis and not as fact. Galileo went back to Florence discouraged but not defeated.
Years later, Galileo was buoyed by the death of the Pope, and the fact that his replacement was one of his long-time supporters, who came to be known as Pope Urban VIII.
Convinced that this Pope would be much more willing to accept his views, Galileo asked and received an audience with him with whom he had a transparent exchange about his theory. The Pope also presented his views against the heliocentric views and did so clearly and cogently. Galileo listened and stored the Pope’s arguments in his mental bank. Later on, when he wrote his master work, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, Galileo inserted them “…into the mouth of a thick-headed character…And the pope’s arguments would be ridiculed.” Unfortunately for Galileo, “Urban, too, would remember the arguments he made. Their rough handling later did not amuse him. In some ways this is the key to the fate of Galileo.[ii]
Pope Urban thus decreed that the book and Galileo’s ideas were to be declared “anathema,” and that Galileo was to be severely consequenced for not heeding Bellarmine’s warnings. Though some feared for Galileo’s life, or a possible life-long imprisonment in the dark dungeons of Castel Sant’Angelo, mercy prevailed, and he was given house arrest for the rest of his life. Before the sentencing, though, Galileo had to abjure his views openly by signing a document composed and approved by the inquisitory body, which read as follows:
“I desire to remove from the minds of Your eminences and of all faithful Christians this strong suspicion of heresy. With sincere heart and unfeigned faith, I abjure, curse and detest my errors. I swear that in the future, I will never again say or assert, verbally or in writing , anything to encourage this suspicion….Should I know any heretic or person suspected of heresy, I shall denounce him in the Sacred canons.”[iii]
Later on Galileo, being the stubborn man that he was, found a way to send his work to the Protestant North and to have it published for the benefit of more willing and objective ears. The rest is history. His views were validated by countless others, and they finally prevailed.
Galileo’s trial and condemnation became “…one of the defining narratives of modern western civilization,”[iv] for it “…presents in a microcosm the issues that define the most portentous turning point of the second millennium, the transition from the Age of Faith to the Age of Reason—from an era of religion and spirituality to an epoch of science and materialism.”[v]
Galileo ended his life feeling abandoned by men. He felt misunderstood by the leadership of a church he loved until his death. No doubt resentment at times filled his mind toward some humans in high places. Nonetheless, his moments of bitterness toward men never clouded his faith in the Scriptures and in God.
The Scriptures, to Galileo were divinely inspired and inerrant, though humans can misinterpret their true meaning: “…the Holy Scriptures cannot err and the decrees therein contained are absolutely true and inviolable. I should have added that, though scripture cannot err its expounders and interpreters are liable to err in many ways …when they base themselves always on literal meaning of the words.”[vi]
At times the Bible uses figures of speech to simplify concepts which “…had been inserted into the Bible for the sake of the masses, Galileo insisted, to aid their understanding of matters pertaining to their salvation. In the same way, biblical language had also simplified certain physical effects in Nature, to conform to common experience.”[vii]
Galileo saw both the truths of Scriptures and the truths of nature as having been derived from the same source: God; therefore, one could not contradict the other. “Holy Scripture and nature, are both emanations from the divine word: the former dictated by the Holy Spirit, the latter the observant executrix of God’s commands.” Therefore “…no truth discovered in Nature could contradict the deep truth of the Holy Writ.” [viii] Furthermore, Galileo held that the primary aim of Scriptures was not to reveal scientific truths but “…to worship God and save souls.[ix]
The proper understanding of Scriptures required proper illumination from God, thus Galileo turned to God in prayer for the ability to understand the spiritual truths of the Bible: “I trust the infinite goodness of God may direct toward the purity of my mind a small amount of His grace that I may understand the meaning of His words.”[x]
The human mind was according to Galileo one the greatest of God’s achievements: “ When I consider what marvellous things men have understood, what he has inquired into and contrived, I know only too clearly that the human mind is a work of God, and one of the most excellent.” Yet the potential of the human mind “. . . is separated from the Divine knowledge by an infinite interval.” [xi]
In His mercy, God, on occasion, chooses to reveal a new insight to someone He chooses, thus augmenting the knowledge revealed to humanity: “One must not doubt the possibility that the Divine Goodness at times may choose to inspire a ray of His immense knowledge in low and high intellects, when they are adorned with sincere and holy zeal.”[xii] Galileo saw himself as the recipient of some such great truths and expressed gratitude to God for being the first to have the revelation: “I render infinite thanks to God, for being so kind as to make me alone the first observer of marvels kept hidden in obscurity for all previous centuries.”[xiii]
He often mused on what he saw as the stunning manifestations of God’s creative wisdom as with birds and their ideal design for flight and fish and their perfect design for swimming in water:
“God could have made birds with bones of massive gold, with veins full of molten silver, with flesh heavier than lead and with tiny wings . . . He could have made fish heavier than lead, and thus twelve times heavier than water, but He has wished to make the former of bone, flesh, and feathers that are light enough, and the latter as heavier than water, to teach us that He rejoices in simplicity and facility.”[xiv]
His observations and meditations on God’s wonders led him to the following conclusion: “To me the works of nature and of God are miraculous.”[xv]
In his later years Galileo had to confront the deterioration of his vigor and vitality and the loss of health and his eyesight. But his worst and most painful loss was the loss of his beloved daughter, Maria Celeste, who had been this greatest comfort and solace throughout his most difficult and trying years. In spite of all his tribulations, his faith in God remained firm and unshakeable. Galileo believed strongly that all human suffering had meaning and had to be welcomed with courage and resignation, knowing that God allows all for the benefit of believers:
“Whatever the course of our lives, we should receive them as the highest gift from the hand of God, in which equally reposed the power to do nothing whatever for us. Indeed, we should accept misfortune not only in thanks, but in infinite gratitude to Providence, which by such means detaches us from an excessive love of Earthly things and elevates our minds to the celestial and divine.”[xvi]
To the end God remained Galileo’s source of strength and “…the source of all good.”[xvii] No persecution; no loss; no illness took Galileo’s faith away from him until the end. His unshakeable faith is eloquently summarized in the following statement written at the end of his life journey:
“To the Lord; whom I worship and thank;
That governs the heavens with His eyelid
To Him I return tired, but full of living.”[xviii]
[i] Magee Bryan, The Story of Philosophy. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 2001, P. 67.
[ii] Reston, James, Galileo: A life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, P. 195.
[iii] Ibid, P. 261
[iv] Rowland, Wade, Galileo’s Mistake: The Archeology of a Myth. Toronto: Thomas Allen Publishers, 2001, P. 1.
[v] Ibid, P.5.
[vi] Sobel, Dava, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Toronto: Viking Press, 1999, P. 63.
[vii] Ibid, P.63-64
[viii] Ibid, P. 64
[ix] Reston, James, Galileo: A life. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, P. 195, P. 137.
[x] Chiari, A. Galileo Galilei, Scritti Letterari. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1970, P. 550.
[xi] Poupard, Cardinal Paul. Galileo Galilei. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1983, P. 101.
[xii] Chiari, A. Galileo Galilei, Scritti Letterari. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1970, P. 545.
[xiii] Sobel, Dava, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Toronto: Viking Press, 1999, P. 6.
[xiv] Ibid, P. 99.
[xv] Brunetti, F. Opere di Galileo Galilei. Torino: Unione Tipografico-Editrice Torinese, 1964, P. 506.
[xvi] Sobel, Dava, Galileo’s Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love. Toronto: Viking Press, 1999, P. 12.
[xvii] Ibid, P. 34
[xviii] Chiari, A. Galileo Galilei, Scritti Letterari. Florence: Felice Le Monnier, 1970, P. 321.