- Written by Richard Avery
The Birth of Modern Astrononmy
'The heavens declare the glory of God", writes the Psalmist (psalm 19:1). People throughout history have found the night sky an awesome sight. The myriad of tiny lights circling slowly above us draws us out of our daily labour to something mysterious, out of reach and beautiful. Many people ascribed divine attributes to these celestial bodies, but the Hebrew nation saw them as a witness to a marvellous and powerful Creator who had made himself known to them in a very personal way. The night sky was an inspiration to worship the one Creator God.
In recent times some have claimed that the advance in scientific knowledge has undermined religious beliefs, enabling us to explain everything through science and rendering God redundant. Although many in the scientific community are more humble than this and do not claim that science gives answers to everything, nevertheless there is an Impression that the more we know the less we need God.
However, when it comes to our knowledge of the night sky, the planets and stars, black holes and galaxies, greater knowledge has not squeezed God out. In fact the study of the universe (or 'cosmos') has raised as many questions as it has answered and the expanding knowledge has enhanced the case for an Intelligent and rational Creator.
The beginnings of modern astronomy go back 500 or so years to the work of Nicolas Copernicus. At that time almost everyone belteved in a cosmos centred on our world, earth. But the puzzle of the strange, 'retrograde' movement of planets was hard to explain Copernicus proposed a simpler explanation of the movements of the planets: a sun-centred cosmos instead. He did not see this heliocentric theory as a threat to his Christian faith. In fact he became a Canon in the Catholic Church and enjoyed the support of the Pope. But Copernicus' views did not gain wide support. The next century Galileo's observation of the phases of Venus and the moons of Jupiter gave confirmation to a heliocentric universe. Galileo came into conflict with the whole establishment, scientific as well as church: because of his lack of tact and as well as their attachment to a geocentric explanation!
Some have portrayed Galileo's disputes as science versus Christianity. Galileo did not. He offended secular philosophers as much as church leaders He expressly said that the Bible cannot err, and saw his system as an alternate interpretation of the biblical texts. In the same generation as Galileo lived the great mathematician and astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Kepler refined the work of Copernicus with a more accurate description of the orbits of the planets in his laws of planetary motion. He was a devout Christian in the Lutheran Church and his works on astronomy contain writings about how space and the heavenly bodies represent the Trinity.
Indeed, Kepler's faith was foundational to his scientific investigations. He was motivated by the conviction that God had created the world according to an intelligible plan that is accessible through the natural light of reason. As one of his contemporaries wrote:
"We have available to us not just one book of God, but two: the book God's word in Scripture, which concerns the ultimate nature and destiny of humanity, and the book of God's works in nature, which deals with the conditions of the created order."
The order these scientists found in the cosmos was a reflection of the rational God of order and purpose that they knew from the pages of Scripture. Their expanding scientific knowledge reinforced their faith. And in the disciplines of cosmology and astrophysics today that continues to be true for many scientists. Two major insights from the 20th century provide more clues to an intelligent Creator. In the next instalment we'll take a look at the first of these: The Big Bang.