Science & Fear – How Could We Have Gotten It All Wrong? (Part 4) – Riley O’Brien Powell

Rethinking can be scary.

At Presence we’re committed to re-imagining what it’s like to be found in a here-and-now relationship with God, each other, our world and our very selves. In this re-imagining process, we’ve deconstructed limiting beliefs that others hold as sacred – particularly in the area of eschatology. As we’ve been exploring in this series, one common objection in daring to rethink long-held beliefs, and re-imagine alternative futures is How could we have gotten it all wrong? Are you really saying my _____ (church, country, family, Other Venerable Institution) could have missed the mark for decades? Centuries? Millennia?

By way of encouragement via some discouraging beliefs, we’ve looked at how people of faith have generally outgrown beliefs around:

…and now we’re going to look at science!

Do you believe that the Bible teaches, scientifically, that the earth is the center of the universe, and that the sun revolves around the earth?

You don’t? You heretic! Don’t you know that Ecclesiastes 1:5 states

The sun rises and sets and returns to its place.


This poetic passage was used to “prove” geo-centrism (an earth-centered universe) and call helio-centrism (a sun-centered universe) heretical for thousands of years.

Geocentrism was the orthodox teaching of the Christian Church for most of the past two thousand years. Early Church Fathers such as Origen argued against the truth of helio-centrism, or a sun-centered universe, put forth by the Greeks as early as the 3rd century. This debate raged long before Copernicus’ predictive mathematical model proving helio-centrism in the 16th century. Copernicus’ heliocentric idea was very controversial; nevertheless, it was the start of a change in the way the world was viewed. Copernicus initiated the Scientific Revolution, which was continued by Galileo. Galileo’s heliocentric theory of circular orbits was further refined by Kepler and his theory of elliptical orbits. This is the view that the modern scientific community holds today based on proof ascertained by measuring the parallaxes of stars and based on Einstein’s theory of relativity.

For most of church history, official dogma taught that certain verses in Scripture meant that the earth is the center of the universe, and the sun revolves around it. Eventually people of faith came to accept that scriptures which say that the “sun rises in the east and sets in the west” were poetic ways of speaking from one’s point of view, descriptively. And the author was not trying to assert a scientific truth, prescriptively.

Would it surprise you to know that people were persecuted, put under house arrest and excommunicated for questioning the church’s belief of geocentrism? Helio-centrism was seen as contradicting the Bible until the Scientific Revolution changed religion and the way it viewed the world. Similar questions now confront people of faith, and our communities at large, around evolution and climate change. Emotions still run high, and jobs are still lost, over different responses to these questions. Can we continue to grow in a way that isn’t threatened by new discoveries?

Today most – but not all! – people agree that the earth revolves around the sun. Because of the independent thinking and sacrifice of a few, developmental history has progressed. But it was a process, and the change was built on the cumulative work of many thinkers building off of each other’s work over time. It seems that this is one way God likes to teach us; giving many people different pieces of the puzzle over time and forcing us to work together to come to the best conclusions.

RileyRiley O’Brien Powell earned her BA in Art History from Wheaton College, M.Div from Princeton Seminary, and M.A. in Education from Harvard University. She is a mother of four, raising them with her husband, Skip Powell, MD. She is a covenant participant and theologian-in-residence at Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and a board member of Presence. You can find more of Riley’s writing on her blogs, at Living the Question and Mostly Raw Mom.

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One thought on “Science & Fear – How Could We Have Gotten It All Wrong? (Part 4) – Riley O’Brien Powell

  1. Enjoying your insightful articles, Riley. The apostles themselves got much wrong despite being under the tutelage of Jesus, so maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised when people and institutions further separated from the context of their time, place and religion miss the mark as well, eh? Best to you.

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