We’re Sorry, Galileo!

As I mentioned in my last blog, I believe it is important to examine as faithfully as possible what the Bible does and does not say about homosexuality. This subject continues to be the elephant in the room of the United Methodist Church. Many who oppose the ordination of gay and lesbian pastors do so based on their understanding of Scripture. I believe that those of us who are working for a more inclusive community of faith must not be afraid to take a hard look at the Scriptures that have been used to classify homosexuality as sin.

Occasionally, I need to be reminded that we don’t have any original biblical manuscripts. We have copies of copies and translations of translations. I would go so far as to say that discerning the exact meanings of these ancient texts is impossible. However, the wisdom we glean from them is so deep that it transcends time and culture. In other words, we may never obtain the exact meaning of every passage, but with some work, we can draw very near to the heart of the message.

Before I plunge into the biblical teachings on sexuality, I want to acknowledge that battles over interpretation of Scripture are not new. In 1633 Galileo was brought before the Inquisition and sentenced to prison for teaching that the earth revolved around the sun. Every Christian leader at the time believed and taught the earth was the center of the universe. I was surprised to learn that they based this belief on their interpretation of Scripture. Psalm 93:1(NIV) states “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved.” They also cited Ecclesiastes 1:5 (NIV) “The sun rises and sets, and hurries back to where it rises.”

Galileo, as a faithful church member, knew that his findings would be controversial, so, he wrote a letter to a church official in 1613. He explained that he did not believe his findings contradicted Scripture, because the Bible was not written to explain astronomy, but to convey spiritual concepts. The letter was given to the Roman Inquisition. Galileo was warned in 1616 to refrain from teaching this heretical theory. He continued to argue his case, but to no avail. From 1633 until his death in 1642, Galileo was under house arrest. Three hundred years later, he received an official apology from John Paul II.

None of us argue today whether the earth is round or flat. None of deny that the earth rotates around the sun.  Like Galileo, I believe that the Scriptures referring to the earth and sun are not meant to explain astronomy.  I suspect that the church officials who convicted Galileo were sincere, faithful men.  They read the Bible the same way it had been taught for generations. It seemed obvious to everyone that the sun circled around the earth.  How else could you interpret “The world is firmly established; it cannot be moved”? If we throw out this piece of Scripture, what else do we not believe?

I chose the Galileo incident because it is an easy example of a time when the church got it wrong. It’s an easy example, because, thanks to our modern technology, we can easily prove that the earth does, indeed, rotate around the sun. I would like to think that I would have said to Galileo, “Show me what you are seeing. Help me understand your point of view.” But, I doubt that the younger version of me would have been so understanding. When I read examples like this, I always wonder, “Where are my blind spots? What am I missing?” The Bible has great power to heal when it is used with love; it has great power to harm when used as a weapon.

Next week: Sodom and Gamorrah