Revisiting the center of cosmos

Posted Dec. 05, 2008, at 5:06 p.m.

The Bangor Daily News reported on Nov. 21 that researchers in Poland have identified by DNA the long-lost remains of Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus, you may recall, was the 16th century mathematician who theorized that the Earth was not the center of the universe, but merely one of several planets orbiting what he thought was the real center, the sun.

This contradicted the prevailing Western dogma that Earth was the stationary center of everything — a theory proposed by Ptolemy in 150 A.D. (even though Vedic Sanskrit writings prove India’s thinkers understood the structure of the solar system a thousand years before Ptolemy’s mistake).

Nevertheless, Ptolemy’s views were held sacred by the Catholic Church, and while Copernicus wasn’t punished for announcing the Earth revolves around the sun, later followers were. In 1600, one of his followers, Giordano Bruno, was burned at the stake, and in 1633, the heretic astronomer Galileo Galilei was placed under house arrest for the rest of his life for verifying Copernicus’ theory using telescopic observation.

Why was Earth’s location so important to the church? Because, they reasoned, if the Earth was not the center of the universe, then perhaps mankind was not as special in God’s eyes as we thought. And though this fear may seem silly to today’s faithful, back then it proved to be very intimidating. In fact, this change in the universal order of things heralded a scientific revolution that has kept faith on the defensive for many centuries since. And as Earth’s location in God’s creation has become more marginalized — from the Center of Everything to its role as one small planet circling a middle-class star in just one galaxy among billions — our conviction that we’re the apple of God’s eye has diminished, as well.

Now here’s where the coincidence comes in: The same month the location of Copernicus’ bones was proven by science, the British publication New Scientist announced that Earth’s location may hold a central position, after all.

The subject arose in response to a nagging question science has debated for years — namely, why does it seem the outer edges of the universe are gaining speed, rather than slowing down? After all, the logic of the Big Bang should indicate a progressive slowing down, as gravity tries to pull things back together. The prevailing answer to date has been speculation about something called “dark energy,” a troubling theory, since no one really knows what dark energy is. The New Scientist article, titled “Is Earth at the heart of a giant cosmic void?” describes the prevailing view that the universe, taken as a whole, is homogenous and isotropic — that is, on average, it’s the same everywhere you look, from wherever you look.

Enter the centrality of Earth in a special, giant cosmic void as, perhaps, a better explanation of what’s really going on. Without delving more deeply here into the science exploring this possibility, let me just say that if the theory proves true, our solar system would regain its status as a special place in the universe.

Now why should this matter to the faithful? It shouldn’t — except to say, in the long, slow erosion of faith during the onion-peeling of scientific exploration, we have, of late, seen some amazing spiritual and scientific comebacks. The Big Bang notion, that there was a moment of creation to parallel the Genesis story, came after centuries of scientists’ insisting that the universe had always existed. Einstein’s discoveries in regards to time make conceivable yet another link between Genesis and evolution (a topic I’ve covered before in this column). And quantum theory holds enormous potential for theological as well as scientific exploration.

Do we need such studies to reinforce faith? I don’t believe so. But I do believe truth is truth, and ultimately there will be a convergence of religious and scientific understanding, because both studies must be based on truth in order to survive.

And the urge to want to be the apple of God’s eye is as natural as a child’s need for his or her parents’ approval. In a world full of children, in a universe perhaps full of children of limitless species, we may all be the apple of God’s eye. Making every one central is something only God can do.

Lee Witting is pastor of the Union Street Brick Church in Bangor. He may be reached at leewitting@midmaine.com. Voices is a weekly commentary by Maine people who explore issues affecting spirituality and religious life.

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