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A faithful devotion to scientific inquiry

20 May 2016

Ray Cavanaugh finds Copernicus and Kepler seeking the truth of God in science

A seeker after truth: Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), in a painting by an anonymous artist from the town hall in Torun, Poland

A seeker after truth: Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), in a painting by an anonymous artist from the town hall in Torun, Poland

THE astronomers Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler changed the way we view our planet — literally (for once, the word is appropriate here). Although they were both as intensely Christian as they were scientific, their ideas were seen as threatening to the religious Establishment. They were born a century apart, but are brought together in a commemoration date of 23 May in the calendar of the Episcopal Church in the United States. Kepler’s Trinitarian reflections also make him particularly appropriate for consideration this week.

Despite being a radical thinker, Copernicus, born in Poland in 1473, had a quiet, subdued personality. He worked as a physician and a tax-collector, but his real passion was amateur astronomy. He described how it gave him an “unbelievable pleasure of mind” as he probed “things established in the finest order and directed by divine ruling”.

Copernicus was a canon of the Roman Catholic Church — although never a priest — from 1497 until the end of his life. In 1514, he began circulating his Commentariolus (“Little Commentary”), a 40-page work that presented the revolutionary concept of a heliocentric universe, in which the Earth orbits the sun.

This was a radical idea that not only went against, but completely inverted, the longstanding view of a geocentric universe, in which the sun, stars, and everything else orbits the Earth, which is held to be the centre of all things.

In his conduct, Copernicus was cautious, and feared what the Church might think of his theory. It did not, however, act strongly against his ideas — at least, not for some time. In this, the astronomer probably helped his cause by presenting heliocentrism as hypothetical, as distinct from a scientific conviction that overturned conventional teaching.

It seems that, while Copernicus was alive, his most virulent critic was Martin Luther, who remarked: “People give ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves [around the sun]. . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy.”

In 1542, Copernicus expounded on heliocentrism with his magnum opus, On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres. A year later, he died at the age of 70 — still in good standing with his beloved Church.

The real backlash came decades later, as the notion of a sun-centred universe gained traction, and eminent heliocentrists, such as Giordano Bruno, were burnt at the stake, or forced, like Galileo Galilei, to eke out their days under house arrest.

A heliocentric universe had threatening implications: planet Earth and its inhabitants were not the main focus of God’s attention. To a large extent, humankind had been “pushed to the periphery of creation”, as the historian Heiko Oberman put it (in Luther: Man between God and the Devil, Yale University Press, 1989).

In 1616, a panel of theologians deemed heliocentrism to be heretical — besides “foolish and absurd” — and put Copernicus’s published works on the notorious Index of Prohibited Books.

Had he lived to witness it, the formal condemnation of his ideas would have “devastated” Copernicus, the historian Dava Sobel believes (A More Perfect Heaven, Bloomsbury, 2012).


NOT long after Copernicus’s work was blacklisted, another title found its way on to the Index The Epitome of Copernican Astronomy, by Johannes Kepler.

Kepler, who was born into a German family in 1571, had been smitten by astronomy from childhood, when he watched the Great Comet of 1577. His early life, however, was unpleasant: his father, a mercenary, left the family, and presumably died in battle not long after. His mother was a strange and moody woman, who was later nearly executed on suspicion of sorcery. Kepler was a sickly boy, and was raised largely by his grandparents, who seemed uninterested in looking after him.

“His only comfort was in his own mind and in his thoughts of the Lutheran religion,” James A. Connor, the author of Kepler’s Witch (Harper One, 2004), writes. It describes a pious youth who spent hours “searching his soul for forgotten sins” and assigning himself penances.

When he was at university, he had intended to be a theologian, but instead he became a maths and astronomy teacher. Dismissed by some at first as a stargazer, he would establish the laws of planetary motion, and discover that the planets travel around the sun in an elliptical orbit.

Of his scientific calling, he wrote: “I wanted to become a theologian; for a long time I was restless. Now, however, behold how, through my effort, God is being celebrated in astronomy.”

Kepler’s first significant astronomical work was Mysterium Cosmographicum (“The Cosmographic Mystery”), in which he defends and expands on Copernican heliocentrism. He also tells how God had created the cosmos according to a divine geometry — one which he, Kepler, had discovered, and the intricacies of which he sought to understand.

In Kepler’s view, God (the Grand Architect) had used archetypal shapes to design the universe — which itself was a reflection of the Trinity, the sun representing the Father, the planets and stars representing the Son, and the space in between representing the Holy Spirit.

In the earthly realm, Kepler was operating during a volatile time between Roman Catholics and Protestants. To the disapproval of many, he strove for reconciliation between them, as he felt that all followers of Christ were ultimately part of the same spiritual fraternity.

In July 1619, soon after the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, Kepler was excommunicated from the Lutheran Church. But, in spirit, he was still the devout Lutheran — one who continued to seek the revelation of God’s geometry.

For Kepler, as for Copernicus, science was a path to the ultimate truth of God. Each new facet that they learned about nature was another revelation of God’s grandeur and wisdom. The secrets of God’s creation lurked in a particle of dust, as well as in whole planets, which are now known to revolve around the sun.


Ray Cavanaugh is a freelance writer.

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