About this time each year, I survey my theology students on the question, “Does the sun rise?” Most say, No. This year, one said it’s “super-obvious” that the sun does not rise. They fall into nervous silence when I insist that it does.
The occasion for my survey is an annual discussion of Galileo’s famous 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina. During a dinner party with the Grand Duchess, Benedictine friar Benedetto Castelli defended the new heliocentric theory and refuted the Scriptural arguments that another member of the party advanced in favor of geocentricity. The Duchess was not convinced by Castelli’s arguments, so Castelli asked Galileo to explain his position to the Duchess directly. Galileo’s resulting letter is one of the best entrees into the problem of science-and-theology that I know of.
Galileo’s main argument about science and Scripture depended on the theory that Calvin used to explain the apparent “childishness” of biblical language. Call it the Few Good Men theory of divine inspiration: We can’t handle the truth, so God graciously speaks to us in ways we can grasp, lisping to us like a parent to a tiny child. He has always known that the solar system is heliocentric, but he pretends it’s geocentric because that is how it looks to us. For Galileo, this notion of “accommodation” was science’s declaration of independence, freeing scientists to explore the natural world without worrying that they might be mugged by the Bible scholars.