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Pastor Glenn McDonald: The Center of it All

It’s one of those stories that inevitably comes up in the ongoing harangue between Science and Christianity. 


It’s called the Copernican Revolution.  The story is usually told like this: 


Simple-minded Bible readers declared that the Earth sits at the center of the universe, proving the cosmic significance of the human race.  Polish astronomer Nicholaus Copernicus (1473-1543) flipped the script, demonstrating that the earth goes around the Sun, not the other way around.  Science now knows that our planet, far from being at the center of things, spins in the middle of nowhere, and humanity’s existence has virtually no significance when viewed against the backdrop of the vastness of the universe.


The Copernican tale is presented as a coming-of-age story – a reminder that until religious superstition is discredited, the human race will never be able to grow up and grasp its true identity.    


Before materialist storytellers take a victory lap, however, it’s worth taking a closer look at a few details.


The first is that the Bible nowhere teaches that Earth occupies a fixed position at the center of the universe. 


Yes, there are a few verses that imply our planet is stationary: “The world is established, and it cannot be moved” (Psalm 93:1), and “The Lord laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever” (Psalm 104:5).  And we can’t forget the account where the “sun stood still” during the Israelites’ fight against the Amorites (Joshua 10:13), implying that Copernicus was badly mistaken concerning which heavenly body actually moves. 


But such verses are easily explained as either Hebrew poetic license (akin to the mountains singing and the trees clapping their hands in Isaiah 55:12), or the kind of “phenomenological” language that your local meteorologist uses every day to report the times of both sunrise and sunset.  Everyone knows that the sun does nothing of the kind, yet we still talk that way in the 21st century. 


It’s true that the Catholic Church (and most of the Protestant churches that followed) favored a geocentric (Earth-centered) perspective instead of one that was heliocentric (that is, sun-centered).  But that was because of traditional biblical interpretation, not because Scripture itself endorses such a view.   


A second point, often overlooked, is that church leaders were hardly the only ones saddled with a faulty cosmology.  Five hundred years ago, Europe’s brightest minds almost universally taught that Earth lies at the center of reality.  That view had gone unchallenged by scientists and astronomers for the better part of two millennia – all the way back to the time of Aristotle. 


Copernicus himself was a deeply loyal Catholic.  While knowing that his assertion concerning the earth revolving around the sun would rankle many of the folks in Rome, he was even more aware that the real opposition would come from scientists.  He was right. 


Scientists of the 16th century fought tooth and nail to protect the traditional Aristotelian view – right up until overwhelming astronomical evidence forced them to concede that the Polish genius was right.


Thus the well-worn story that “religious people were inevitably proved wrong, while heroic, rational scientists were inevitably proved right” is seriously off the mark. 


But most of us could care less about esoteric academic debates in the late Middle Ages. 


What we care about are the implications.  Most modern scientists unhesitatingly declare that humanity’s so-called privileged place at the center of God’s creation – which had been the universal medieval perspective – is just a fairy tale.  We are not special.  We are not significant.  In view of the assumption that the cosmos is heading for inevitable entropic death, we have no future.  In the words of physicist Stephen Hawking, “We are just an advanced breed of monkeys on a minor planet of a very average star.” 


Try putting that on a Hallmark card. 


This is why the Copernican Revolution is generally associated with the demotion of humanity.  In a few short centuries our identity went from the central characters of a loving God’s creation to carbon-based nothings. 


But that depressing assessment all springs from a strange and faulty assumption:  Who ever said that human beings are important only if we are at the center of the universe?   


God certainly never said that.  Scripture never makes such a statement.


As philosopher Jay Wesley Richards points out, “Who really cares whether we’re in the physical center of the galaxy?  It’s irrelevant!  What really matters is being in the place that’s most conducive to life.  And that’s exactly where Earth finds itself.”


Earth is indeed in a very special place.  If we were at the center of the Milky Way, we’d be devoured by the enormous black hole that resides there.  If we were near any of the star clusters that are strewn throughout our galaxy’s spiral arms, we would be bombarded by dangerous emissions from newborn stars. 


Instead, Earth is located in a safe spot.  Our solar system rests in a relatively unpopulated neighborhood between the Sagittarius and Perseus spiral arms of our galaxy.  This is what astronomers call a “habitable zone” – a place where conditions are ideal for life to grow and thrive for eons.   


Not long ago, astronomers were enthusiastically predicting that life-supporting stars and planetary systems would be found virtually everywhere we looked.


Now we know better.  Oh, we've discovered thousands of new planets.  But habitable zones – “Goldilocks” places that are just right for the availability of appropriate elements, liquid water, and moderate temperatures – turn out to be exceedingly rare.


Yet God prepared just such a special home for all of us. 


It’s true that we’re not at the center of the cosmos.  As it turns out, that’s a very good thing. 


What matters most is that we’re at the center of a loving God’s never-ending intention to bless us with the grace of his own presence and love.    



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