Saturday, March 10, 2012


By Mitch Stokes, 224 pages, Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Stokes counters the biggest misunderstanding of all in the Galileo affair, that it was a battle royale between science and religion, between the progressive forces of truth and the dark, "medieval" forces of the Church.

Rather than an adversarial relationship with the Church, the deeply-believing Galileo had an undying belief in the goodness and sound reasoning of the Catholic Church. As a scientist he saw no reason to doubt God and ecclesiastical teachings.

For Galileo, scripture, God's book of revelation, revealed how to get into heaven, whereas God's second book, the book of nature, could be understood quite apart from biblical teachings. When new scientific findings or observations, such as the sun-centered view of the cosmos, contradicted biblical teaching, this could be explained easily, according to Galileo.

First, he followed the tradition's assertion that scripture was sometimes allegorical, not literal. Second, he argued that the Bible's cosmology was the Holy Spirit's way of accommodating the ancient mind, which did not have the same scientific perspective as seventeenth-century Europe.

The author depicts Galileo's mindset admirably, and avoids the Catholic Church- or pope-bashing so common to those writing on the this issue. He also conveys to readers the inner workings of the Church at the time, extremely important to the Galileo case.

Stokes shows readers how the heart of the struggle was not science versus religion, but theological in nature. The basic theology of the time, scholasticism, depended on Aristotle's philosophy. Churchmen feared that if Aristotelian cosmology fell through, so too would scholasticism.

Stokes takes readers step-by-step through the whole story. Long simmering, things came to a head after Galileo published a study on tidal waves, called the Dialogue, that utilized Copernican cosmology even though the Church had increasingly opposed this new, heliocentric theory. Whereas Galileo had been on excellent, friendly terms with Pope Urban VIII, Urban quickly became a ferocious opponent of the scientist, believing that in this study Galileo had disrespected and disobeyed him.

Many deceitful people were involved in the case, and Stokes portrays these events well. Galileo had many enemies because he was not-so-gently destroying their Aristotelian cosmological system which so neatly fit into their theology. Yet readers may wonder if Stokes has told us everything. Did the Italian genius displease so many people because he was stubborn and arrogant? Because he misused scripture? Because he was, in fact, rude to the pope?

Concerning the supposed science-religion divide, the author shows that the Jesuits, Dominicans, and Catholic universities were hotbeds of science. The Vatican itself promoted inquiry. The Church saw science as an ally, not an enemy.

The Galileo affair, Stokes succeeds in showing, was not Church versus science, but an inner Catholic dispute. First and foremost, it was an argument among scientists over the quickly-changing worldview and scientific methodology. Secondly, it was a dispute between Galileo and the theologians that involved many clashing personalities.

While Galileo reveled in the dispute with fellow scientists, he never wished for a battle with theologians and the Vatican. He suffered greatly throughout the trial and imprisonment, even though he mostly lived under house arrest in his own villa.

Stokes succeeds in refuting many anti-Catholic biases to the Galileo legend without, however, fully introducing the man, Galileo, to readers.