If we are looking for a classic example of the conflict between modernism and pre-modernism, we need look no further than the Galileo affair. The conflict between Galileo and the church authority dramatically illustrates the tension between two different ways of assessing ‘truth’.
It’s a fascinating story with all the elements of a gripping novel. Colorful personalities, political intrigue, the misunderstood genius facing down powerful forces arrayed against him, and culminating in a thrilling courtroom drama.
In 1616 Galileo was ordered to stand trial for heresy by the Inquisition. He was accused of ‘having held the opinion that the Sun lies motionless at the centre of the universe, that the the Earth is not at its centre and moves, and that one may hold an opinion as probable after it has been declared contrary to Holy Scripture.’
Galileo held his position because of the observations he had made through his telescope. His accusers did not need to look through a telescope themselves to prove him wrong; because their conception of Truth was different. They needed instead to appeal to authority. Their scriptures indicated that the Earth was stationary, and the Pope had banned Galileo’s book. Therefore the matter was clear. Galileo was guilty.
This trial was not really about Galileo, or about telescopes or astronomy, but about worldviews. Was Truth something to be acquired by observation, or by declaration? Were people to trust their senses or trust their leaders? And when the two came into conflict, which side would dominate?
Galileo lost his trial, and was sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. But this was the beginning, not the end, of the modern era. Other challenges to Revealed Truth would soon arise. The idea that authoritative truth claims could be questioned, tested, and even rejected if they failed to match up to observed facts would rapidly spread.