Reconceiving God


In his efforts to account for the movement of the planets across the night sky, the Greek astronomer Ptolemy put Earth at the center of the universe and the Sun, Moon, and five known planets around it in eternal rotation. His model agreed well with what was observed celestially at the time, but it soon became apparent as more precise observations became available that it had problems accounting for some of the finer details of the planets’ orbits. While other astronomers worked hard to solve these problems over the centuries from within the Ptolemaic framework, this could only be done by making unlikely and complicated changes, and this left it in an increasingly ugly state.

In the sixteenth-century, the Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus proposed to resolve these problems by doing away with geocentrism entirely. Imagining the Sun at the center and having Earth move around it instead, Copernicus’s heliocentric model was a very challenging idea for people at the time. However, it had the benefit of being true. 

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God.  Jan Matejko, 1873

Astronomer Copernicus, or Conversations with God. Jan Matejko, 1873

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Humanity is overdue for yet another revolution in our thinking today. From a religious vantage point, all of the following questions have the greatest importance: What has god said and done? What does he want from us? What are the consequences of living in accordance or discordance with his expectations? How best can someone live in a way that god approves of? Who or what can we trust to tell us what God wants and does not want? 

When god is seen through a philosophical rather than religious lens, however, none of these questions are sensible to ask in the way they are imagined. After all, what interest or desire could god possibly have in being worshiped and obeyed? If truly divine, the answer must surely be: none at all. 

In the vacuum of these formerly important questions, new ones can arise. For example, what do we want for ourselves, given the fact that we exist? What shape should our lives take if they are for us rather than god? While questions like these sit at odds with religious understandings of life in the universe, one can take heart in the knowledge that, though difficult, profound shifts in how we think can happen—the Copernican astronomers showed us as much.