Monday, February 22, 2010

Is The World Really Flat?

On this date in 1632, Galileo published a paper that would shake the foundations of the Western World: The Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.

The paper asserted that the earth moves around the sun. The earth was not, after all, the center of the universe.

It would be difficult for us to imagine how terrifying this discovery was for Christendom. Of course, most people, burdened by everyday life, didn’t even hear about the discovery. It would take centuries for the news to seriously affect the faith of most believers.

We have long since adjusted to Galileo and routinely read passages that speak of the sun moving or not moving metaphorically. Even conservative fundamentalists do not argue with Galileo now.

In the early twentieth century, two other discoveries slowly became challenges to our traditional view of the universe. Again, most believers still give these discoveries little thought. However, as their implications move from the intellectual community into our everyday awareness, Christians must make adjustments. They must decide: what stories and phrases in scripture are absolute and literal; what are metaphorical ways of expressing spiritual truths?

The theories of relativity and the discoveries of Quantum Mechanics are even more disturbing than Galileo. They call into doubt our ability to accurately grasp the nature of reality.

The early Christians faced similar difficulties as they took their Hebrew views into the Greco-Roman world.

In my last blog, I wrote about how the Apostle John explained both the Hebrew view of creation and the incarnation of Christ to his Greek-speaking audience. He used one very important Greek word: Logos.

The word “logos” was familiar to educated people in the first century.

Though we usually translate “logos” as “word,” we could also translate it as “reason,” “blueprint,” or, depending on the context, a number of other words and phrases.

By the time of Christ, the Greek philosophers had so refined and expanded the meaning of the word that it had come to mean something like “the organizing principle of the cosmos.”

In our earlier discussion about Plato’s view of form and substance, I mentioned how John used Plato’s idea of logos as the form of forms, the blueprint of all blueprints.

By the 1st century, Greek intellectuals were describing the logos as the link between matter and spirit.

After all, the Greeks wondered, “how could – indeed, how would – God, a spiritual being without flesh or material substance of any kind, create a material world? Then, once He had created it, how or why would he interact with it?

We might rephrase their ancient question using a modern metaphor: what sort of interface connects matter and spirit? What allows them to interact?

Plato and others taught that the “logos” was the connection between matter and spirit. Logos allowed form and substance to interact.

In other words, the Greeks believed that the organizing principle that gave the universe its meaning and form was itself divine. Logos was the womb of all material substance.

That is important because John is not the only writer in the New Testament to make use of this concept.

The Writer of the Hebrews, for one, uses this same vocabulary. Whenever we encounter in the New Testament words like “true,” “shadow,” “real”, “form” or “substance,” we are viewing the universe through the lenses of platonic thought (the teachings of Plato’s followers).

We should not over emphasize the platonic elements in the New Testament however. The New Testament writers made use of Greek philosophical language but they rarely gave the terms they borrowed, the same meanings as pagan philosophers. John was only using a Greek word that he thought would communicate the gospel. He knew that his Greek audience would not understand Hebrew concepts as he had learned them from his ancestors.

We don’t question the Apostle John’s faithfulness to the Word of God. However, he was taking a big risk and one that opened up centuries of conflict within the church.

Galileo was a believer and it troubled him to upset the faith of his friends.

He was also a scientist. He had seen what he had seen. He could only determine that the accustomed way of reading scripture was inadequate for the present.

It’s something to think about today, over one hundred years after Einstein and Max Planck.

Last year, my daughter wrote a blog about Galileo that you might find interesting. In it, she talks about the gift and fear of knowledge such as Galileo wielded.

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