Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Nicolas Copernicus and understanding truth

I was reading The Story of the World vol. 2 a couple of weeks ago when I came across a most intriguing story. It was about a man named Nicolas Copernicus, who was born in 1473.

Copernicus was a Polish scientist who went to study at the University of Bologna. At the time, people believed that the sun and stars rotated around the earth, and the Catholic church believed that this meant that man was at the center of God's plan. This theory mainly came from the writings of a man named Claudius Ptolemny, who was born about 90 A.D.

But Copernicus found errors in Ptolemny's writings, and from his observations, he hypothesized that the earth rotated around the sun. He even wrote a book about it and published it just before he died.

The Catholic church denounced this theory and claimed that it proved that man was not the center of God's plan, and therefore couldn't be true. They put the book he wrote on a list of literature good Catholics should never read.

This story intrigues me. It shows me how narrow humankind can be, and just how little we know. The Catholic church was right that man is at the center of God's plan. From modern revelation, we know that God's work and glory "is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man." (Moses 1:39) And because they didn't understand everything, they rejected a very important truth ... that the earth went around the sun, not the other way around.

We also now know from modern revelation that God has created worlds without number, and that His works and glory have no end. His plan for man is far bigger and grander than anything the people in the 16th century could have understood without divine revelation.

This teaches me something, and it reminds me of a quote I once read:

"I regularly encounter students (Latter-day Saints, Baptists, Muslims, atheists--students of all sorts) who are so determined to shield their faith and their perspectives that they seem closed to fundamental discovery. They believe it their job to hold onto their secular or religious faith as if holding their breath, no matter what they experience. Some avoid, fight, or tip-toe through certain courses, not really engaging in them, afraid or angry that they may confront a topic or a fact that threatens their understanding. ...

"Faith is a precious thing, the first principle of the gospel. I sympathize with this impulse to protect it at any cost. However, spiritual and mental tragedy can come not only through loss of faith, but also through inauthenticity, ignorance, and fear.

"Faith does not exist in a vacuum, and not all faith is healthy or righteous. After all, terrorists, on the basis of faith, fly airplanes into tall buildings filled with innocent people. What is wanted is not the rigid, uninformed, closed, and cocksure faith assertions of the fanatic, but a thoughtful and open trust, an organic and living faith, born of love and welcoming of growth, inquiry, new perspectives, and adjustment.

"In this light, it helps to remember that our Father in Heaven is the Lord of Truth. ... For if our God were not a God of truth, He would, as the Book of Mormon puts it in another context, 'cease to be God.' Even if powerful, such a god would be worthy of neither our trust nor our worship. 'But God ceaseth not to be God' (Alma 42.23). Among other things, this means that God is unafraid of truth, including any human truths we might encounter in our study.

"Of course, alleged facts can be dangerous for inexperienced minds lacking sufficient context and means of testing and explaining them. It is essential to realize that what we take to be facts are properly contested in the academy. One purpose of an education, indeed, is to deepen the ability for informed and critical thought that is increasingly able to discern the credibility of arguments, alleged facts, and their proper contexts. Moreover, to accept something as "fact" is not the same as assigning that fact a meaning. 'So what?' is an excellent question. We should be wary of our own and others' (including our teachers') perceptions, weaknesses, tendencies to leap to conclusions, or sneering or condescending attitudes that may cast a false pale over even legitimate facts. But the proper response to all this is further study, conversation, testing, experience, thought, discipline, and prayer--not avoidance. The ongoing pursuit of truth--rather than an expressed or unstated boast that we already possess and comprehend it in its fulness--can and should be at one with hungering and thirsting after righteousness. God and truth are perfectly aligned." (Barlow, Phillip, "Balancing the life of the mind and spirit on campus," A Twenty-Something's Guide to Spirituality.  2007. 138-139.)

There are absolute truths that God has given us through His prophets and His scriptures. Because we know He is all-knowing and that He is teaching us on a level that all can understand, we can use those truths as guides when we seek for truth in other areas of study. We know that knowledge is complete when it is in line with God's revealed truths. If they seem inconsistent with God's revealed word, we know that we are either only seeing part of the truth or misconstruing the truth, and there is more to discover.

Anyway, we have to be careful of closing our minds to truths that we don't understand. It can actually undermine our faith and leave us in confusion in the end.

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