One of the things I like to do, when reading the news online, is to make sure I read a good news story interspersed with the ones which make for much tougher reading. I am very interested in the dialogue between science and religion, so I was really interested to read that historians and scientists in Poland believe they have found the actual grave of the astronomer Copernicus. Through his observations, Copernicus was able to deduce that it was the Earth and the planets that moved around the sun. The fascinating thing is that he worked all this out just using his normal eyesight; telescopes would not be invented for another 50 years or so.
The scholars are confident they have found his grave in Frombork Cathedral, Poland, where he was buried in 1543. The records detailing which grave was his were lost over the centuries. There are approximately 100 people buried in the medieval cathedral in Frombork, so finding his was not as straightforward as you might imagine. In what read somewhat like a murder-mystery, the article I was reading explained how a historian suggested that, because Copernicus was a Canon of Frombork Cathedral, responsible for helping with the life of the Cathedral, he would have been buried near the cathedral altar, for which he was responsible during his tenure. DNA matches helped them confirm that it was indeed Copernicus’ grave.
Copernicus was much better at handling the politics of his day than Galileo, who subsequently built on Copernicus’ work. Some scholars believe that it was Galileo’s politics, as much as his actual ideas, which eventually saw him put under house arrest. It is an interesting theory.
What I like about both of them is that they caused a new way of thinking to emerge. Their ideas challenged the established norms. They opened minds to a deeper reality, a deep truth. Some of my inspiration for studying theology at university level came from pondering how the work of scientists like Copernicus and Galileo could exist in dialogue with the best theological minds. How is it possible to say that God takes a particular interest in each us, when we live in an extraordinarily vast universe, far larger than even Copernicus or Galileo could have imagined? In our Christian tradition, the vastness of the universe still allows for particular expressions of love and beauty, which we say are blessed by God.
When Jesus of Nazareth burst on to the scene in Galilee and had an immediate impact, his message began the same way as his cousin’s, John the Baptist’s: “Repent!” Repentance simply means change. My favourite Franciscan, Richard Rohr, writes:
‘The Greek word for “repent” (metanoia) means to change your mind. I’d like to emphasize change, because that’s not something we humans as a species are attracted to. We’re much like animals in this regard. Animals are creatures of habit. Those of us with a dog or a cat know their behaviour is predictable. If we change some daily routine, they’ll get upset.’
Father Richard continues:
‘I’m afraid to say that we’re much the same. We like things the way we like things. And yet the first words out of Jesus’ mouth tell us that he’s come to give us a philosophy of change: “Repent,”—change your mind—“for the kingdom of heaven has come near” (Matthew 3:2).’ ‘[…] Jesus tells us to change our minds and accept the kingdom of God, which is what’s good for the whole.’
The radical teaching of Jesus, which his disciples then took to a much wider audience than Jesus himself had commanded in ancient Israel, is that God loves us, no matter who we are. Our response to that love is to love ourselves, and then to love other people.
Copernicus is a reminder to us, that openness to new ideas is the key to adapting to the future. This openness to new ideas is what allowed Christianity to change the world. It’s what drives education. Of course, there is a balance to be found. Too much change, all at once, can be extraordinarily de-stabilising. Our task here is to provide that safe place, that stable place, where new ideas can be formed and flourish. When we do that, when we and our students have those moments of awakening, it is truly a beautiful thing.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall