Copernicanism Meets Religion's

Readiness and Resistance

For the course:

Science and Society from Aristotle to Newton
Washington University
U98 LArts 507D
Spring, 1990
Professors Friedlander and Riesenberg

By Gregory Warnusz

In popular culture, Copernicus1 is credited with revolutionary accomplishments in Western science, which had revolutionary consequences in philosophy and religion as well. Within 120 years of his death, the adjective derived from his name means "important and radically different; thoroughgoing."2 We call him Founder of the Modern Age, and attribute to him the eventual abandonment of anthropocentrism. The Enlightenment lionized him no end, especially Voltaire. Goethe's assessment is nearly proverbial:

The Enlightenment overstated the revolutionary aspects of Copernicus' achievement proper. The Eighteenth Century seems to have needed an anti-authoritarian hero; I think Copernicus would blush. But the scientific movement named for him unfolded richly for 150 years after his death, even longer the shocks it generated in Western consciousness.

This paper first examines the old religious roots of resistance to cosmological novelty. Then it inquires how contemporary theology might have helped Copernicus go as far as he did; we study the evidence marshalled by Hans Blumenberg that extra-scientific factors, previously overlooked by scholars, contributed to the conditions of the possibility of a Copernicus.
4 Along the way, we note some delightful ironies. A breezy summary of Christianity's own dynamics--Reformation Biblicism and Counter-Reformation intransigence--and their responses to Copernicanism leads to a concluding speculation about the consequences of these movements, and further ironies.

Josua Jussit Solem Stare5

In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the creation story itself is first told in the form of a salvation story. Genesis 1 depicts a divine wind blowing over a primeval chaos, bringing order out of it, bringing land out of water. God creates a vault to hold back the threatening celestial waters that were later to break through in the Deluge, etc. This text was codified after the Exile, around 500 B.C., in the Priestly source (whose cachet is concern for the Sabbath, which even God observed after six days of work) of the Pentateuch. This is admittedly late, but still three centuries older than the Old Testament's first reference to creatio ex nihilo, 2 Maccabees 7:28. For the Jews the point seems to have been that God was acting in the same way in saving them from Exile, in saving their ancestors from bondage in Egypt, and saving our earthly home from chaos in the act of creation.

The anthropocentrism of Genesis 1-2 is obvious: God sees each day's work as "good" until the sixth day's creature, humankind, which He sees is "very good," and after which He can rest. God's maintenance of what He created is linked with His maintenance of Israel's chosen status in Jeremiah 31:35-37, at the time of the Exile:

Similarly Psalm 136 links God's creative acts with the saving acts that constituted Israel a nation:

Christianity conceived itself the New Israel and Jesus the new Paschal Lamb. Christians commemorated Jesus' death and resurrection daily at mass but with special solemnity annually at the same time their Jewish neighbors were celebrating Passover. They thought of these events as granting them a new Exodus from sin and death. They sang and read liturgically the psalm cited here. So while the Old Testament heritage of Christianity is cosmologically non-specific, it's not surprising that Christians, like Jews, should hold their cosmology, whatever its shape, with religious fervor.

Now early Christians were apocalyptic, and Blumenberg says that with the non-appearance of the eschaton, they became accused of wanting the world to end or fall into chaos. So they allied themselves with Aristotle's metaphysics, which ensured the reliability of the world. By the time Copernicus came along, he was seen as re-occupying the old eschatological position.

Kuhn explains well how Aristotelianism and medieval theology became partners. By the time Europe established new commercial and cultural ties with the Moslem preservers of ancient Greek cosmology, Christianity was established and secure enough to have abandoned most of its xenophobia. So Europe could re-acquire ancient Greek learning. But its integration with Bible-based thought was not smooth, and opinions from both sources were mutated in the process. Some official church rejections of Aristotle had little effect. Contrary to Aristotle, medieval Christians thought God could make a void, and that the created universe had to have had a beginning. But some Biblical teaching about the structure of the universe was interpreted metaphorically and harmonized with Aristotle. In the end, "theology had become an important bulwark for the ancient concept of a central stationary earth."

Dante's Divine Comedy (c. 1325) persuasively depicted an Aristotelian universe and man's place therein, under the watchful eye of God. Dante's humanity finds itself firmly in a hierarchy of physical and spiritual realities that stretches from hell to heaven. "Both man's double nature [spiritual and material] and his intermediate position enforce the choice from which the drama of Christianity is compounded."
9 Dante's integration of cosmology and the theology of salvation was convincing. So any change in cosmology was bound to muddle one's perception of his chances for salvation. Thus the tenacious popular religious imagination--which this writer, [formerly] a Catholic priest, knows well--acquires a cosmology for which, if it won't suffer persecution, will inflict it.

The Middle Ages Make the World Safe for Copernicus

Blumenberg asks a chicken-or-egg question about Copernicanism and the principles of inertia and gravity. Copernicus needed inchoate ideas of these forces to conceive his system, but later thinkers needed Copernicanism to stimulate their discoveries of inertia and gravity. The Aristotelian idea of accompanying causality made the Middle Ages hopelessly distant from both principles. Whence could Copernicus have begun to derive them? Blumenberg brilliantly reaches far back (much further than Kuhn reaches) into medieval theology for an answer. Christianity had already long been developing an alternative to accompanying causality.

The religion's need for this goes back to its paradoxical roots. Because of the impossibilty of action at a distance, Christianity "makes its God become Man and enter the world but immediately makes Him disappear from it again, without the fulfillment of the promised destruction and transformation of what exists."
10 To maintain the credibility and efficacy of its absent God, theology needs to express how God can act through the institution and its instruments. "In that sense the question of the mode of operation of the Church's sacraments was not a marginal problem, but the core of all the difficulties that resulted from Christianity's specific historical character. In the obligatory commentaries on the sentences of Peter the Lombard, it had its fixed place at the beginning of the fourth book."11 The Lombard had left open the question of the immediacy of God's gracious action in the sacraments, i.e., whether the power operating in the instrument came directly from God or was a capacity for operation deposited in it (virtus inhaerens).

In his 1320 Commentary on the Sentences, Franciscus de Marchia begins his approach to the question with a critique of Aristotle's tortured explanation of projectile motion, which had consecutive vortices jerking the object along. By eliminating all other possible explanations, he shows that the force in a moving object was left behind in it by the original mover. The force that put the projectile in motion is distinct from the one that keeps it in motion. (This is really Aristotelian economy: causes are reduced from many, the vortices, to two. Ironically, Aristotle is used to undo Aristotle.) Here we are on the way, but only on the way, toward something that will be important for Copernicus. The second force, now in the projectile, is thereby natural to it and not violent, for Copernicus will want Earth's motion to be not violent, so free of destructive consequences.

In theology, the thirteenth century had made much of "accompanying causality" in cosmological proofs of God's existence. Fourteenth century theology welcomed this new "communicated causality" and applied it to questions of the administration of grace. But "it also de facto offered a model of transcendence transferred into immanence, and thus preformed, with the idea of the deposited treasure of salvation and the delegated disposition over it, the possibility of a world that is substantially lasting in and of itself."
12 Here is the beginning of another ironic undoing: an implication of the Church's sacramental theology leads to the modern age's liberation of the world from the need for God altogether.

Now earthly projectile motion undeniably dies away, so the impetus must be mutable. What about the impetus of the heavens? Franciscus de Marchia retains the Intelligences to help move the spheres, but lest he attribute infinite motion to these creatures, he takes the less evil course and says the motions of the heavens are mutable. This he makes palatable with what Blumenberg calls the "loveliest medieval naiveté."
13 There is something mutable in the heavens already, the songs of the angels and the conversations of the saints, which would only be audible if their sounds were able to die away. Thin though the argument is, it helps the distressingly mutable Earth seem less out of place in the excellent heavens when Copernicus puts it there.

Aristotelian physics of projectile motion had depended on consequences of a more basic program for explaining the acceleration of falling bodies. With impetus theory to handle projectiles, the prior physics of falling suddenly looks less compelling. And with it, at the hands of the Paris Nominalists like Buridan, the teleology of a body seeking its natural place comes into question. So too does the whole distinction of violent versus natural motion.

Others criticized Aristotle. Nicole Oresme, for example, took apart the De Caelo line by line, and suggested alternatives which, while not adopted by other scholars, helped create the milieu where one could think about a moving Earth. He asserted that one could not decide whether it is Earth or sky that is rotating. Oresme also pointed out the Philosopher's unproven assumption that all earth falls toward the center of Earth. Could it not, he asks, seek (anachronistically, one wants to say "gravitate toward") other nearby earth, raising the possibility of other Earth-like planets.

Oresme's refutation of Aristotle on the question of the arrow shot straight up assumed that Earth imparts a kind of impetus to the arrow. Kuhn attributes impetus theory to Jean Buridan, Oresme's teacher. For Buridan, Aristotle's aforementioned vortices predicted that conical spears with blunt rears would enjoy greater propulsion than spears tapered at the back, and this contradicted observation. So Buridan stated that "[The projector] impresses a certain impetus or motive force into the moving body."
14 This teaching was current in Padua by the time Copernicus arrived there.

In firing another Biblical volley at Aristotelian cosmology, Christianity uncovered another warrant for planetary impetus, and inadvertently shot itself in its theological absolutist foot. Page one of the Bible, at Genesis 2:2, says God rested on the seventh day of creation, while the works of the previous days apparently kept on going. Buridan suggests to the theologians that God abdicated his causality, "entrusting acting and being acted upon to others instead [the spheres and planets with impetus]."
15 Blumenberg makes much of this:

Keeping Man in the Center but in the Dark

Blumenberg says some wonder if Copernicus was dissembling when, in the preface of De Revolutionibus, he wrote that the universe was "constructed on our behalf by the best and most orderly Maker of everything." But Copernicus did not go as far as his contemporary Calcagnini, who proposed diurnal motion of a still central Earth, so that its motions could stimulate the other elements to fertility and thus preserve the living creatures that God created to contemplate the divine objects. Could the destroyer of our anthropocentric illusions have been motivated by any such teleological, anthropocentric view? Doesn't anthropocentrism require geocentrism, the very thing Copernicus rejected?

Close examination of Copernicus' heritage shows he had multiple options, not just an either/or between anthropocentrism and heliocentrism. Aristotle's anthropocentrism pertained to Earth, where things were felicitous for man, but not to the heavens, which were oriented to the unmoved mover. Augustine, Aquinas and medieval theology are theocentric, not anthropocentric. When the Renaissance rediscovered the Stoics, it was their anthropocentrism, not their geocentrism, that appealed; they restored the notion of Providence to its early Christian-era prominence. For Copernicus, God was provident, not by putting man in the geometric center of the world, but by making it intelligible to man. Emboldened by this conviction, Copernicus went further than previous astronomers. They had merely tried to "save the phenomena" and simplify calculations. Copernicus, Osiander's unauthorized preface notwithstanding, claimed to have discovered the way things really are. This claim, not just the description of the orbits, is what Blumenberg says gave Copernicanism its "epoch-making" energy.

Alfonso the Wise, king of Castille, said the world might have turned out better (he meant more understandable) had God consulted Alfonso at the creation. He had grasped indignantly "the whole offensiveness of the fact that the God of the Middle Ages was supposed to have created the heavens in such a way that man is only able to perceive confusion in them."
17 Copernicus was to show that the problem lay not with the object but with cognition, and he solved the problem. Ironically the modern age starts with an acquittal of God.

But some of God's spokesmen reacted most ungratefully; their objections were not to the Copernican world system, but to his claim to truth. Said spokesmen, in the person of Pope Urban VII, later imposed a disclaimer on Galileo, like Osiander's preface to De Revolutionibus, and reminiscent of the 1277 Condemnation of Paris. Galileo was ordered to conclude the 1632 Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems with the statement that God "can also produce a phenomenon in nature in a different way than is made to appear plausible by a particular explanation. Consequently it would be inadmissable daring to want to narrow down and commit divine power and wisdom to a particular idea by asserting that explanation to be true."
18 Galileo got even by putting this piety in the mouth of Simplicio, eventual loser of the debate in the Dialogo.

To this writer, these antics seem like the height of Nominalism. It was just this attribution of inscrutability to God and His will that, as Blumenberg says in The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, made moderns decide to try to go it without God. Augustine, with original sin, had made humanity responsible for the corruption of the world. Calvin, with arbitrary predestination, made God responsible for human corruption.

Who needs a God like that? Those who overstate the case for divine sovereignty bring about religion's (at least institutional religion's) undoing. Copernicus demonstrated the triumph of rationality over intuition (Wallace's translation of Blumenberg's Anschauung, "seeing" or even "common sense"). Protestants with their atavistic Biblicism considered this subtlety Jesuitical. Reactionary Catholics lumped Copernicus with the Protestant pot-boilers. The only greater irony, perhaps, is that modern philosophy, so proud of having liberated itself from revelation and religious dogmatism, should have become so skeptical and more modest in its claims to truth than the pope wanted Galileo to be.

1. Nicolaus Copernicus, born 1473 in Torun, Poland, educated in the University of Krakow, then in the liberal arts, medicine and law in Italy from 1496 to 1503. Resettled permanently in Poland (East Prussia), by 1514 he circulated privately an outline of his heliocentric theory of the heavens. His De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium appeared in 1543, the year of his death. Click here to return to text.

2. U.S. News and World Report, vol. 108, no. 12, pp. 52-61, (March 26, 1990), "Journey to the Beginning of Time," says Copernicus' De Revolutionibus "so shakes scientific thought that its title gives rise to the use of the word revolution as connoting a radical change." (sidebar, p. 57). The Oxford English Dictionary, 1933 edition, thinly supports this claim, citing two pre-Copernican, and ambiguous, such usages, and several after 1600. The adjective Copernican is curiously absent from the O.E.D. and its Supplement; the reference here is to the Random House Dictionary, 2nd edition. The title of this paper comes, tongue in cheek, from a gloss this writer found pencilled in the margin of a library book; an earlier borrower badly translated De Revolutionibus as "Concerning Things Revolutionary." Click here to return to text.

3. Goethe, Johann, Materialen zur Geschichte de Farbenlehre [1810], Werke, ed. E. Beutler [Munich: Artemis, 1948-], vol. 16, p. 395. Translation of Robert M. Wallace in H. Blumenberg, The Genesis of the Copernican World, cited below, p. 700. Click here to return to text.

4. Blumenberg, Hans. The Genesis of the Copernican World. [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987], translation by Robert Wallace of Die Genesis der kopernikanischen Welt [Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1975] Click here to return to text.

5. "Joshua ordered the Sun [not the Earth] to stand still," part of Martin Luther's dismissal of heliocentrism, by a citation of Joshua 10:12-13, from Table Talk of 4 June 1539, found in Luther's Werke, Tischreden, [Weimar, Bohlau, 1912-1921], v. 4, no. 4638. The citation antedates the publication of De Revolutionibus by a few years. Return to text.

6. The New Jerusalem Bible [Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1985, p1349. Return to text.

7. Ibid., p 952. The Bible supplies the refrain, "for his faithful love endures forever," after each verse. Return to text.

8. Kuhn, Thomas, The Copernican Revolution. [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1957], p. 108. Return to text.

9. Kuhn, op. cit., p. 112. Return to text.

10. Blumenberg, op. cit., p. 146. Blumenberg consistently makes much of Christianity's eschatology. In his The Legitimacy of the Modern Age he works to refute the now popular notion that the modern myth of progress is a secularization or reoccupation of the position once held by the hope that Christ will come again. Return to text.

11. Ibid. Return to text.

12. Blumenberg, op. cit., p. 149 Return to text.

13. Blumenberg, op. cit., p. 150 Return to text.

14. Jean Buridan, Quaestiones super octos libros physicorum (Paris, 1509), Book VIII, Question 12, from the translation of Marshall Clagett, Mechanics in the Middle Ages, cited in Kuhn, op.cit, p. 119. Return to text.

15. Blumenberg, op. cit., p. 157, and footnote 20, p. 721. Return to text.

16. Ibid, pp. 157-158. Return to text.

17. Ibid., p. 262 Return to text.

18. Paraphrase in Blumenberg, Hans. The Legitimacy of the Modern Age [Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1983], translation by Robert Wallace of Die Legitimitat der Neuzeit (erweiterte und uberarbeitete neuasgabe) [Frankfurt, Suhrkamp, 1966-76], p. 394. Return to text.

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Last modified: Mon May 19 19:32:59 CDT 2003