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Literature as an Invitation to Spiritual Growth
An Online Book Group
Discussion Guide by The Rev. Margaret Gunness

Galileo’s Daughter
by Dava Sobel
Walker & Company, 1999

Let's begin by noting some dates to help us place the life and work of Galileo in the context of history:

  • Claudius Ptolemy: AD 127-151
    Greek mathematician, astronomer geographer
  • Ptolemaic system: The theory that places a fixed earth at the center of the universe with other heavenly bodies in rotation around it.
  • The Inquisition: Established by the Roman Church in the 13th century and active until “modern times,” the Inquisition engaged chiefly in combatting and punishing heresy. It was reorganized in 1542 and assumed supervision of printing in Italy. In 1559 it published an index of forbidden books.
  • The Renaissance: 14th – 17th centuries
    A time that marks the transition from the medieval era to the modern world.
  • Copernicus: 1473 – 1543
    He wrote De revolutionibus, just prior to his death, to put forth the theory of a sun-
    centered universe. The Edict of 1616 called the theory “false & contrary to Scripture.” It was thus suspended to prevent further spread of prejudice against “Catholic truth.”
  • Michelangelo: 1475 – 1564
  • Shakespeare: 1564 – 1616
  • Galileo: 1564 – 1642
  • Urban VIII: Roman Pope elected August 6, 1623 – July 29,1644
  • The Reformation: 16th century
    Begun in Germany, Reformation leaders set out to reform the Roman Catholic Church. However, the movement culmainted in the birth of Protestant churches, putting the Roman church on the defensive.
  • In the 1990s, the Pope recognized the validity of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and of Galileo’s sun-centered universe.

From Galileo’s Daughter:

There was only one trial of Galileo, and yet it seems there were a thousand – the suppression of science by religion, the defense of individualism against authority, the clash between revolutionary and establishment, the challenge of radical new discoveries to ancient beliefs, the struggle against intolerance for freedom of thought and freedom of speech. No other process in the annals of canon or common law has ricocheted through history with more meanings, more consequences, more conjecture, more regrets.
—Galileo’s Daughter, pp. 231-232

Published during Galileo’s lifetime and prior to the pontificate of Urban VIII, the Index—also known as the Index Librorum Prohibitorum—was a list of books which Roman Catholics were forbidden by Church authority to read unless they were expurgated or changed. The first Index was promulgated in 1559. In 1616 it prohibited Copernicus’ book, De Revolutionibus, and maintained that Copernican astronomy was false and contrary to Holy Scripture. In 1664 it prohibited The Dialogue of Galileo, which put forth for consideration the same possibility—that the sun, rather than the earth, could be considered to be at the center of the universe. The Dialogue remained on the Index list of prohibited books for 200 years.

(Sobel observed that as a result of such prohibitions, Italy lost face among scientists abroad, whose work and discoveries were burgeoning, and because of the Church’s position many people apparently were led to decide not to convert to Catholicism.)

Think about that for a minute. Isn’t there still a desire for such steadiness, for a definitive understanding, which persists in our own time? For example, we desire steadiness in the world’s social order, yet we have to acknowledge that there is much in the social order which is unjust. Also there are many issues pressing in on society about which people strongly disagree: cloning, racial equality, homosexuality, religion, to name a few. Can’t the controversy and differences of opinion on these issues best be settled by facing into them, studying and discussing them openly?

I can understand that the Church in Galileo’s time was trying to protect human minds from understandings that were thought to be heretical, probably even dangerous or threatening to the soul. But can anyone rightly stop another person from thinking or from seeking knowledge or insight? Isn’t such a prohibition a position of fear? Would it not be better to enter into the pursuit of truth together, even if fearfully, but with the Church and science consistently in open dialogue with one another? These are the thoughts and questions this book provokes.

To quote Dava Sobel again:

Whereas Galileo believed that Nature followed a divine order, which revealed its hidden pattern to the persistent investigator, Urban refused to limit his omnipotent God to logical consistence. Every effect in Nature, as the handiwork of God, could claim its own fantastic foundation, and each of these would necessarily exceed the limits of human imagining – even of a mind as gifted as Galileo’s. —p. 263

As an Episcopalian, I am reminded here of the Anglican “three-legged stool,” which gives guidance to our thinking about new insights or understandings that may challenge beliefs long accepted. The three “stool legs” or perspectives to bring to the process of our thinking are scripture, tradition and reason—three perspectives which I believe to be very wise and helpful indeed.

Galileo’s great written work, The Dialogue, had as its purpose to expound and publicize his theory of the earth’s movement around the sun in a sun-centered universe. The way he wrote the book, however, offered what I think was a brilliant approach to the subject, which was sure to be controversial. He put the fiercely opposing perceptions into the minds and mouths of three different characters: Salviati spoke Galileo’s mind; Sagredo, who was a very intelligent and respected man, took Salviati’s side; and Simplicio was “a pompous Aristotelian philosopher” who in his support of an earth-centered universe was most often very foolish . It’s interesting to note, however, that Galileo firmly and consistently believed that “Such truths [as in the Dialogue] could only glorify the Word and deeds of God.” pp. 144 & 147

(Note: The three names make me think of salvation (Salviati), wisdom (Sagredo) and simplistic or simple (Simplicio.)

On this subject, Dava Sobel noted:

Who better than Galileo to propound the most stunning reversal in perception ever to have jarred intelligent thought: We are not the center of the universe. The immobility of our world is an illusion. We spin. We speed through space. We circle the sun…(Yet) the mind would rather cede revolution to the universe than relinquish the solace of solid ground. —pp. 153-154

As clear as Galileo’s beliefs on this subject might be to us now, it is important to realize the depth of the interior battle they produced within Galileo himself, for he was surely torn between his passion for truth and his passion for his own life. One can’t help but wonder to what extent people will consider or accept new truths in today’s world, and the personal cost to those who would support or champion them.

Finally, it’s important to look at the role played by Galileo’s daughter. She lived as a nun in the Catholic Convent of San Matteo in Arcetri, where her life was one of seclusion and extreme poverty. She carried on a faithful correspondence with her father, however, and each of them was clearly a source of great solace and support to the other. It’s interesting to observe that she refers to “this wretched world,” while it was Galileo, the scientist, who saw it is a rich and wondrous place. Yet she was totally devoted to him, as he was to her, and each of her many letters to him are signed, “Your most affectionate daughter, Soeur Marie Celeste.”

In this regard—and to conclude this study—I couldn’t help but recall some of the Psalms, as well as two statements written by the 20th century scientist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his book titled The Divine Milieu.

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars
you have set in their courses,
What is man that you should be mindful of him?
the son of man that you should seek him out?

You have made him but little
lower than the angels,
you adorn him with glory and honor;
You give him mastery over
the works of your hands;
you put all things under his feet.

O Lord our Governor,
how exalted is your name in all the world!
—Psalm 8:3-7, 9

In the beginning, O Lord, you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens
are the work of your hands;
They shall perish, but you will endure;
they shall all wear out like a garment;
as clothing you will change them,
and they shall be changed;
But you are always the same,
and your years will never end.
Psalm 102:25-27

from The Divine Milieu:

The world with all its riches, life with its astounding achievements, man with the constant prodigy of his inventive powers, all are organically integrated in one single growth and one historical process, and all share the same upward progress towards an era of fulfillment.

The soul can only rejoin God after having traversed a specific path through matterwhich path can be seen as the distance which separates, but it can also be seen
as the road which links.
—p. 108

Dava Sobel, Galileo’s Daughter (New York: Walker & Co., 1999).

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, The Divine Milieu (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1968).

Copyright ©2001Margaret Gunness


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