On Sunday night my husband and I had a date night! It’s spring break for our kids, so we shipped them off to grandma & grandpa’s house for a couple of days and ended up with some adult time.
Thursday I was listening to Colorado Public Radio on the way to supervise my youngest kid’s field trip and heard an interview with Dava Sobel about her newest work – her very first play, And the Sun Stood Still about Copernicus and not only his “discovery” that the Earth moves around the Sun – but also about his decision to finally publish his research and conclusions. How that decision was made – and the consequences it had.
All of my many, many little geek tendrils flared up listening to the interview. History – check. Science – check. The “battle” and balance between knowledge and faith – check.
I was excited, but also sad because I assumed that the play was opening in New York or somewhere… big.
But I kept listening because I was fascinated by the story behind the story. The story of how the play came to be.
And then, I was rewarded. It turns out the world premiere of the play was being put on by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company at the Dairy Center for the Arts – an affordable venue right next door to my town!
I quick emailed the hubby and asked if I could take him. He said, “Make it so.”
And I did.
We caught the 4pm show on Sunday evening. It was my first trip to the Dairy Center for the Arts. The theater is small, maybe 80 seats. So it’s intimate and cozy. There are no bad seats in the house, which is good since all shows are general admission (so do arrive a little early if you’re picky about seating!)
The stage was also… compact. But the set design for this particular play was wonderful. Simple, yet… telling.
It consisted of three small round towers. The church. Copernicus’ home. Copernicus’ lab.
Each tower rotated, which held great symbolic significance and was used to good effect throughout the play.
The play had a small cast – just five players. Copernicus, of course. His house keeper/harlot/assistant/lover (depending on which other character was describing her and in what context! The historical sociologist and feminist in me was riveted!) Two bishops. (Did you know that Copernicus was a canon lawyer – that is to say a Catholic lawyer!! He was also the head physician to the clergy and the personal physician of the bishops!) And last, a Lutheran mathematician, Georg Joachim Rheticus.
The politics at play on the stage were phenomenal. We were reminded of the threat of Protestantism in general and Lutheranism in particular. The head bishop was convinced that the Lutherans were trying to kill him and that his predecessor had been smited by God for not smiting the Lutherans.
Thus, when a Lutheran lands at Copernicus’ doorstep, letters of recommendation in hand, begging for a chance to help Copernicus finish his research and publish it, Copernicus rightly sees the danger and risk for both of them.
As luck would have it though, the other Bishop of a neighboring diocese sees the value in Copernicus’ work to put Poland on the map as a modern force for progress.
Until, that is, the Lutheran – Rheticus – realizes that Copernicus is serious. He isn’t floating a mathematical theory to help make astrological predictions more accurate, and increase the accuracy of putting Easter on the calendar. He really, truly believes that Earth is moving. In space. Both spinning at 1,000 miles per hour AND rotating around the sun at even greater speeds than they could imagine at the time!
“But, that’s impossible. We’re standing on the earth right now. We’re not moving!”
We hear all of the rational arguments (as opposed to the Biblical ones, which are dismissed earlier and with great, weary sighs from Copernicus) – the wind, we would feel the wind! Copernicus explains that it’s, “all of a piece” moving together. He has even built a contraption that can give people the feeling of the skies moving, when it is in fact they who are in motion.
Still, it is too much for the mathematician to take in. He collapses under the weight of this new knowledge. It changes everything.
And yet – despite the terror he feels at suddenly standing atop a rapidly moving world… he does not fly off. And we see, suddenly that knowledge at once changes everything – and at the same time, changes nothing.
Knowing that the world is moving does not change how our bodies respond to it. Knowing we are spinning does not create winds to tear us from the surface and send us hurling into space. BUT – the knowledge of how the earth moves in space does change how we perceive the universe and how we calculate our place in it, how we calculate the calendar (the point which ultimately convinced the bishop that Copernicus MUST publish his findings, as it allowed for a more accurate way to place Easter on the calendar!)
Scientific truth allows us greater agency without diminishing our lived truths.
While I understand all of this on an intellectual level – watching this play, so soon after watching Bill Nye debate Ken Ham, made me wish that I could purchase tickets for every religious fundamentalist of every faith who denies basic science like evolution in the name of Biblical/Koranical/Torrahnical literalism. Watching the internal debate of Copernicus – seeing him try to balance his knowledge with the repercussions of sharing that knowledge is fascinating. As is seeing that for him, assimilating this new knowledge did not shake his faith in the slightest. Did it mean that the Bible was not a scientific text – surely, but he already knew that.
To Copernicus, and to his Lutheran student, mathematics was a religious calling – a way of delving deeper into understanding the workings of God and his greatness. Seeing that God could move the very earth did not impugn God – it made him vastly greater! Imagine, a God who could not only create the Earth and all life on it, but also a universe of stars and planets – all of them, every one, in motion!
THAT is a great and powerful God indeed!
Watching certain religious fundamentalists in our own country working to enact laws that would allow the teaching of Biblical creationism in SCIENCE class, or scrambling to enact Biblical law on women’s reproductive medicine, or deny climate change based on biblical passages that claim the world was created perfect and immutable by God in seven days and therefore we cannot be responsible for climate change…
Makes me wonder what the benefit of putting our heads in the sand is, versus the benefits of reconciling science with God.
When evangelicals come to my door and want to discuss my relationship with their God they almost inevitably come around to, “But what if you’re wrong?” Which to me is the hallmark of defeat. If I’m wrong, I’ll still have lived a good and moral life because I don’t need your God for that.
But when it comes to things like climate change… There really are actual consequences for all of us, and our children, if the climate change denialists are wrong and they stop us from enacting changes that could mitigate the damage we’ve inflicted. Because science is true – whether we believe it or not. And there are consequences to ignoring science – whether it is as minor as mis-dating Easter, or as major as rising sea levels, massive drought and resulting food and water scarcity.
We’re seeing some of those changes now, and yet instead of studying them and seeing what those pieces mean, certain members of our society are instead working to enact “head in the sand” laws that would prevent us from even studying the effects of climate change, the causes, and the possible cures.
When the bishops saw that Copernicus’ theory had real, genuine benefits to society – and to the church – they helped him publish it. They even put aside their hatred and distrust of Lutherans just long enough to see the book printed. They understood that the benefits of his calculations outweighed the benefits of Biblical literalism.
Ultimately, the Catholics of Copernicus’ age were wise enough to see that if God really was as great as they claimed, a little truth wasn’t going to knock Him off His game.
And the Sun Stood Still is playing in Boulder at the Dairy Center for the Arts through April 20th. Whether you’re a science geek, history geek, religious scholar, or just like a good play – it’s more than worth the ticket price for a night on the town, some deep thoughts and good conversation.