The epochal work of Galileo Galilei still reverberates in the modern mind. It required an iconoclastic temperament to continue asserting his revolutionary ideas in the face of traditional understandings and ecclesial opposition.
The Earth held pre-eminence in the cosmological model of the time. Geocentrism appeared self-evident; the Earth was the great Firmament fashioned directly by God; Man, clearly the apex of all living beings, was formed in the Creator’s image; and History was encompassed entirely in the ancient Scriptures. Galileo’s profound shift relegated Earth and humanity to a peripheral role orbiting the Sun. Galileo’s heliocentrism placed the Sun at the centre of the Universe.
But it got worse than that. Later work (Kepler, Newton) showed that the Sun itself was not the cosmic centre; all bodies in the cosmos are in relative motion. An unknown “Luminiferous Aether” permeating the universe was postulated to represent absolute ‘rest’. The Sun was displaced and Ether was now the ground of all being.
Ether held its place until fairly recently (1887) when Michelson and Morley attempted to measure its effect and came back with null results in every direction. There is no such thing as absolute rest.
Searching farther into the sky than ever before, astronomers showed that Earth pales into utter obscurity beside the Galaxy in which we reside. The Hubble telescope has reduced us by yet more orders of magnitude; our Milky Way is but one grain of sand in a vast glittering skyscape of galaxies, illuminating the cosmic emptiness with their pitiful, short glimmers of life.
The Cosmic Background Radiation, and Big Bang theory, proposed a great Singularity that would serve as a philosophical ‘centre’ of this immeasurable realm. But no, cosmologists deny us even this! There is no centre of the universe — space itself is expanding equally in all directions, as far as we can tell.
Carl Sagan grasped the essence of our very humble place in the universe, when he saw the “Pale Blue Dot” and wrote his famous soliloquy;
On [that pale blue dot], everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings,[ …] every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.”
The mind-blowing scale of the universe, and our vanishingly small role in the immensity of spacetime, is a very significant challenge to the theistic notion that humanity has a special place and a meaningful destiny. The strongest possible theological response is needed, to reaffirm our role and reassure our hearts — It can’t be a knee-jerk defensive reaction (such as Galileo experienced) or a carelessly quoted cliché.
(I’ll be thinking about this in the next few days).