Let’s return to the Christian whose dedication to absolute biblical literalism necessitates an anti-science position.
“If it can be shown or believed, as many have argued, that the basic condition for the rise of modern science was the medieval creed of the churches, then churchly henotheism values science if not as the church’s child at least as its first cousin,” he continues, “If science is out of harmony with the creed it may still be regarded as an errant child that will eventually mend its ways. When its theories can be used for the support of the creed it may be valued not as sinner but as saint.”
To be fair Niebuhr is speaking here of scientific theories and not hard facts, but the question is this: Should we rely on scientific knowledge to enlighten our understanding of things taught in scripture? The case of Galileo
would suggest we should; the verse that says the sun stood still would suggest the same. This is where extreme biblical literalism runs aground.
Niebuhr describes such literalists as “closed-society Biblicists” who do not look beyond the Bible in any matter and will “value science by its relation to that book [the Bible].” These are waters often navigated, and with significant difficulty. An exclusive and extreme literal reading of scripture would lead one to believe that the sun does in fact revolve around the earth. At the same time, the common colloquialisms “sunrise” and “sunset” remain centuries after the discovery that we should rightly state our admiration for a beautiful case of either as “A lovely earth rotation.”
Of course too much can be made of such scriptures that would seem to disprove a simple understanding of the inerrancy of scripture, but too little can be made of it as well. But we’ll have to deal with inerrancy another time. The point is that the church in Galileo’s time was willing to use, or at least threaten to use, capital punishment for those implying a non-literal understanding of an isolated scripture. In the words of Emily Saliers
, one of my favorite songwriters: “Galileo’s head was on the block. His crime was looking up the truth.”
In this case at least, science disproved orthodoxy. The earth was not in fact the center of the universe, as strict literalism had led the medieval church to believe. Galileo was commanded to recant the truth by the very organization that claimed to have exclusive rights to ultimate and complete truth.
And it only took the church a mere half millenium to issue an apology.