Cosmos and the Wonder of Creation

I was not familiar with Giordano Bruno until I watched the first episode of the remake (re-imagining?) of Cosmos last night.  Bruno was a late 16th Century Dominican who experienced a vision of the universe as an infinite collection of infinite suns, each with worlds like our own orbiting those suns.  He also seems to have been interested in more esoteric ideas that we would now consider to be part of New Age or occult thinking (for which he was certainly not alone among his contemporaries).  I found this unsourced article suggesting that his famous scientific contemporaries, such as Galileo and Kepler, thought he was a bit of an embarrassment.  Eventually he was burned at the stake for his ideas--probably his belief in an infinite, heliocentric world, though it is not entirely clear.

Cosmos spent a good portion of the episode last night holding him up as an example of an expansive vision of the universe, one that has been proven to be true in due course.  It made pains to point out that Bruno was not a scientist in any sense, but still lauded him for daring to "think big"--the key phrase they put in his mouth was that his critics' "God was too small."  Basically, the show suggested that Bruno was an inspiration for others and that his heart was in the right place, even if his methods left something to be desired.

I had no problem with the Bruno segment, or any part of Cosmos, but I knew that people would freak out.  And, true to form, they did.  Rossi has two criticisms.  First, he claims that the show got the facts wrong on Bruno.  Rossi is simply wrong about what the show does and doesn't say, and Rossi admits he didn't see the show before he wrote the review.

The second argument is that Cosmos is yet another example of the tired trope that religious people in general, and the Catholic Church in particular, are always beating down free thinking science types.  I didn't get that from the show, but I am sure some people came away from the show with that message.  To the extent Cosmos is attempting to argue (again, I don't think it is, but for sake of argument) that the Catholic Church has always and everywhere opposed scientific investigation, that's dumb.  As Rossi points out, many great scientists or proto-scientists were Catholic clergy.  The foundation of the discipline of genetics is the work of Gregor Mendel, an Austrian Benedictine monk.  Nicolaus Copernicus was a priest; Johannes Kepler had been a seminarian and a good portion of his career was spent teaching theological students (Protestant ones, but the point still stands).  It is simply wrong to say that the Catholic Church has been anti-science, full stop.

On the flip side, however, it is equally silly to pretend that there have not been segments of the Catholic Church, and Christian society in general, that have beaten down free thinking science types.
It happened and it must be reckoned with.   The examples of successful scientific Catholics do not somehow wipe away the examples of intolerance and persecution.  The bottom line is that Bruno was put to death by the Roman Inquisition for his beliefs, many of them of a scientific nature.  That was not OK then, and we should not be defending it now.

The take away, I think, is that it is foolish to paint a massive and diverse entity like the Catholic Church, or Christianity as a whole, with any singular brush.  The Catholic Church is 2,000 years old and has included billions of members throughout its history.  It is not pro-science or anti-science or any of the infinite gradations in between--it is, and has been, all of these things.  It is Nicolaus Copernicus and Gregor Mendel, but it is also the "thought police" (as Cosmos described it) that put Bruno to death.  Asking whether the Catholic Church is anti- or pro-science is like asking if people are anti- or pro-science.  Ultimately, it is a meaningless question, as the answer is inevitably going to be "both."

Rossi also misses the mark because he loses the point Cosmos is trying to make with the Bruno story, which is that Bruno was ultimately right.  The universe is infinitely vast, and does contain wonders.  Moreover, believing in God is not in any way an impediment to rejoicing in the wonder of the natural world and what science can tell us about that world.  In fact, it could be argued that the natural world is even more wondrous if you are a believer, in that by looking out at this world you are seeing the beauty and wisdom of your creator.  Bruno understood this, and his contemporaries did not--their God was too small to encompass this broader vision of creation.

I firmly believe that there is no inherent conflict between science and faith.  Science is the process for understanding what is.  Faith is a way of understanding what the is ultimately means.  Much religious thought, especially Catholic religious thought, is concerned with a trying to reach that meaning through a reflection on the is of creation, a process that can only be helped by science's attempt to fully flesh out what that is is.  Shows like Cosmos (so far excellent after one episode) can be aids in that reflection, if we allow them to be.  Allowing it to be an aid means putting down our guard and casting aside a hyper-vigilance over every possible slight.  Particularly where, as here, there is no slight to be found.


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