October 02, 2010
Picture a suburb of Cleveland. Even if you have never been to one, you probably have in mind something very much like Brooklyn, Ohio, a nondescript village of tidy lawns and aluminum siding. Living here, it would take a leap of faith to imagine yourself at the center of anything, much less of everything. Fortunately, leaps of faith are the forte of Gerardus Dingeman Bouw, the president of the Association for Biblical Astronomy and the country’s leading proponent of geocentrism.
In the field of Bible science, young earth creationism is the liberal position. A tiny but fiercely dedicated contingent of scholars holds the more conservative belief that a literal reading of the Bible reveals a universe in revolution around a fixed, central point: the earth. Bouw, who holds a Ph.D. in astronomy from Case Western Reserve, has dedicated his adult life to proving this proposition scripturally and scientifically.
The geocentrist movement is not as well known as the creationist movement, nor as well organized or funded. Bouw earns his living as a professor of computer science at a small liberal arts college. The Association for Biblical Astronomy, which exists almost entirely as a web site and a quarterly journal, is run out of a cluttered spare room in Bouw’s Brooklyn home.
In 1992, Bouw self-published a 400-page book titled Geocentricity (the ABA prefers this term, to distinguish its discipline from classical geocentrism, which postulated a patently absurd universe of concentric, independent spheres). Geocentricity lays out not only a defense of geocentrism, but a reminder the stakes. The Bible, Bouw writes, is replete with passages that describe, in plain language, an immobile earth encircled by the sun and stars; there are 26 verses that speak of the sun “going down” or “setting,” and 30 that describe it as “rising.” These are not mere figures of speech, warns Bouw. “If God can not be taken literally when he writes of the ‘rising of the sun,’ then how can he be taken literally in writing of the ‘rising of the Son?’”
Mainstream creationists (if I may be allowed the term) argue that the seemingly geocentric passages are merely God using the “language of appearance,” or divinely-inspired men speaking from a human perspective. This is the liberal tendency that makes geocentrists apoplectic. “Phenomenological or anthropocentric,” sniffs Bouw:
either God inerrently inspired the wording or He did not; either the Bible is trustworthy or it is not. There is no middle ground. There is no room for compromise. After all, both the anthropocentric theory of inspiration and the phenomenological-language theory are forms of accommodation where God is said to accommodate his wording to the understanding of the common man. Good though that may sound on the surface, accommodation still maintains that God goes along with the accepted story even though he really does not believe it.
It does not help when, for instance, the Answers in Genesis web site caps its dismissal of geocentrism with the observation that “the question of the earth’s physical position is less important than the spiritual reality of God’s love for his people” — precisely what Christians who accept evolution say about the physical creation of man. “It’s inconsistent,” Bouw told me. “you can’t say that one part of it is more credible than another part just simply because you feel uncomfortable with what it says there.”
Bouw is 65, a shambling professor with wire-rim glasses and a pen clipped into his shirt pocket. He speaks gently, with a hint of a Dutch accent, but his face reddens easily, a trait emphasized by his crown of white-gray hair. Bouw emigrated to the States, by way of Canada, as a teenager. He had been raised in the church, but while pursuing his science degrees at American universities, he decided that he was an atheist. He changed his mind again, however, shortly after earning his Ph.D., when a presentation on neutron stars at an American Association for the Advancement of Science convention persuaded him that life was inherent in the universe, which meant there must be a creator.
“I decided that if there was a God who was involved with his creation, then there should be a manual about running earth,” said Bouw. He began studying the great religious texts of the world and was halfway through Robert Heinlein’s science fiction novel Time Enough for Love, when he decided to try the Bible instead. “I started reading it from cover to cover, basically looking for any internal contradictions that were inconsistent with an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent God, and, basically, I couldn’t find any.” Bouw now says that God must have guided him to a King James Version, since it is the only accurate, contradiction-free translation.
Bouw did not recant his belief in evolution, however. That would come two years later when he picked up a tract from the Institute for Creation Research called Have You Been… Brainwashed? To his shock, Bouw realized that he… had. Now that he understood the limits of science, he went back to the Bible. “I found that the scriptures could help coordinate my scientific knowledge,” he said. “Some of it I would have to forget or unlearn, but quite often the result of what I unlearned was much more valuable and much more comprehensive” than the original knowledge. While reading the Bible, he made his mantra, “What must I forget next?”
The scriptural evidence for geocentrism goes beyond references to the rising and setting of the sun. There are also repeated allusions to the stability of the earth — Bouw’s favorite is Psalm 93:1: “[T]he world also is stablished, that it cannot be moved” — and passages about God’s heavenly throne, which, for arcane reasons that take up six pages of Geocentricity, strongly suggest a stationary earth.
The Geocentrists’ most treasured verses are ones in which the sun fails to move as expected. Job 9:7 says, God “commandeth the sun, and it riseth not.” This clearly can not be a case of the sun appearing not to rise, because it is the sun to which God addresses his command. It’s true that this line is spoken by Job, who, as a man, may be mistaken, but Bouw believes this passage is a prophetic reference to an incident known as Joshua’s long day, which constitutes his most compelling scriptural evidence. Joshua 10 recounts a day in which, according to God’s own words, “the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day.” An obvious rejoinder is that if God had said the earth stood still, no reader until 16th century would have understood him. Bouw labels this the central heresy of the modern — that is, post-medieval — church. “Most Christian scholars over the centuries have been of the opinion that God needs them to make his truth known,” he writes, “that God is incapable of explaining certain matters to man without that help.”
Bouw also has no patience for the observation that much of the Bible is meant to be poetic. “Poetry is every wit as truthful as prose,” he insists. The real problem is not that science is overtaking the Bible, but that it has yet to catch up. “As man’s knowledge increases, the number of such ‘poetic’ passages in the Bible is steadily decreasing,” he claims. I tried probing Bouw’s philosophy for inconsistencies but found few. Most Christians since Augustine have held that God does not literally have body parts — hands, feet, a face, even wings — as described in the Bible; these are “figures of speech about God,” in the words of Answers in Genesis. Bouw disagrees. Of course God has hands, feet and wings — the Bible says so. Bouw explained that as far as he is concerned, the Bible only uses metaphors when “even Adam could have recognized them.” So trees don’t really have hands, because no one in history would ever have heard Isaiah 55:12 and taken it literally. But if Adam could have read a Bible passage describing the motion of the sun, he wouldn’t have known it was meant to be figurative, therefore it can not be.
In 1975, Bouw joined the Creation Research Society, one of the first organized institutions of contemporary creationism. While training himself to forget the teachings of “science falsely so called,” Bouw came across an article in the CRS journal about the diversity of opinion among creationists. In passing, the writer mentioned the extreme case of one Walter van der Kamp, an advocate of geocentrism. Recalled Bouw, “I fired off a letter to Walter asking, in effect, which scriptures?”
Van der Kamp, it so happened, was another Dutch-Canadian. “As a foreigner in Canada, you are not always accepted,” mused Bouw. “You can either let it defeat you, or you can decide, Why don’t you show them?, and I think that’s pretty much how Walter and I handled it.” Van der Kamp came to creationism relatively late in life and had not gotten far in his research when something began to trouble him: if Genesis 1 clearly states that God created the sun and the moon on the fourth day in order to rule an already existing day and night on an already existing earth, when did the earth begin to move, and how did we ever get the idea that it was the earth’s rotation toward and away from the sun that caused day and night, rather than the light that God so dramatically created in Genesis 1:3? Besides, would God really have created a planet, set it into orbit around nothing, then four days later placed a random minor star at the center of that orbit? Obviously, something didn’t add up.
“Having come this far in reading about the matter, I found myself in a quandary,” writes van der Kamp in his memoir, a work of irresistible Old World charm.
All books and everyone consulted warned me that it would be worse than preposterous to contradict and dismiss the results of three centuries of observations. On the other hand, it was equally difficult to swallow the view that Holy Scripture fobs us off with fictions presented as factual truths; and that it does so in a rather clear prosaic style. What is more, though sauce for the geocentric goose then ought to be no less a sauce for the creationist gander, I still refused to bend the knee to Darwin and his proselytes. Their tedious, inane prattle about something called “Nature” through endless ages evolving and adapting the stupendous variety of living creatures disgusted me. “Nature,” with a “somehow- intuitively-acquired” understanding of all physical sciences, “somehow” perfectly synchronizing the tiniest individual evolvements for stabilizing countless finely-tuned ecosystems? And this for the most divergent climatic conditions? No, never!
There was still the little matter of science, of course, but that proved less difficult to overcome than van der Kamp expected.
Whatever I read, whomever I asked, nowhere could I find a physically and logically sound refutation of the Bible’s Earth-centered picture. The textbooks took our annual revolution around the Sun to be so self-evident that no further verification was necessary. Anyone accosted about the matter assured me that, as everyone knows, Copernicus had settled the point long ago. “Proof?” The answer evoked by all my queries came down to: “Why should we have to prove something we know to be true?”
Van der Kamp wrote up his findings in a 1967 pamphlet called The Heart of the Matter, which he sold to friends for $2 and mailed free to leading creationists. For the most part, it was met with either scorn or silence, though van der Kamp did receive some encouragement from Harold Armstrong, a co-founder of the Creation Research Society, who confessed that he had secretly harbored geocentric sympathies for years. By 1971, van der Kamp had enough of a following to justify the founding of the Tychonian Society, named for Tycho Brahe, the brilliant 16th century astronomer who briefly staved off Copernicanism. (The Tychonic System — in which the sun revolves around the earth and the rest of the planets revolve around the sun — was an elegant and nearly workable model that forms the basis for modern geocentrism.) The first Bulletins of the Tychonian Society were handwritten and mimeographed, but as they became more professional, or, at any rate, typed, they found a wider audience, and van der Kamp began earning invitations to major Bible science conferences.
It was around this time that Gerard Bouw got in touch with him. Eventually Bouw would succeed van der Kamp as president of the Society, and rename it the Association for Biblical Astronomy. (Van der Kamp died in 1998.) But the two men did not click well at first. Bouw believed in the hard evidence of scripture and astronomy, while van der Kamp’s approach was more philosophical. “I just don’t trust philosophy — never have,” Bouw told me. “They don’t know anything for sure.”
Bouw began his own investigation of the geocentrism. “I had a job at that time, a part time job, selling menswear,” he said. “And we had to keep busy, you know, we couldn’t stand still in that job; you have to keep walking the floor and rearranging the shelves or whatever all the time. And so that gave me some time to think about it. And as I thought about it, I wondered, you know, There really isn’t any objection against it. There is no scriptural objection against it, and there is no scientific objection against it, so why do I have problems accepting it?”
It is one thing for the philosophy-addled Walter van der Kamp to embrace geocentrism. But what does it mean for a man with degrees in astrophysics and astronomy to say that there is no scientific objection to it? The answer is found in something called Mach’s Principle, a hypothesis that was instrumental in Einsten’s development of general relativity. As understood by geocentrists, Mach’s Principle states that the motion of any object in the universe is never absolute, but exists only in relationship to the motion of all other objects in the universe. Predictions and measurements can be made using any chosen reference frame. “It matters little,” wrote Mach,
if we think of the earth as turning about on its axis, or if we view it at rest while the fixed stars revolve around it. Geometrically these are exactly the same case of a relative rotation of the earth and the fixed stars with respect to one another.
As geocentrists are fond of noting, Einstein himself wrote that all coordinate systems (CS) are equally valid: “The two sentences, ‘the sun is at rest and the earth moves,’ or ‘the sun moves and the earth is at rest’ would simply mean two different conventions concerning two different CS.” Although geocentrists reject relativity as an actual description of the physical laws of the universe, they accept it as a mathematical tool, and they wield it to show that a geocentric solar system — or martiocentric one, for that matter — is as valid as a heliocentric one.
In 2006, a Catholic geocentrist named Robert Sungenis published the first book in a planned two-volume set called Galileo was Wrong. At 1,147 pages it stands as the most comprehensive and sophisticated explanation to date of the science of modern geocentrism (volume two will discuss the geocentric teachings of scripture and the Church). As Sungenis explained it to me, geocentrists “are using modern science” to show that neither heliocentrism nor geocentrism can be proven. “So if there is no proof, then the whole thing is wide open for discussion, intellectual discussion. And then, if there is no way to prove through science — that is, relativity science — which one is correct, then we have to go to other places to find out which is correct.” Those other places being the Bible and, for Catholics, the Church fathers.
Having spent a considerable amount of time talking with creationists, I recognized fundamental similarities between their approach and that of the geocentrists: the emphasis on casting doubt on established theories rather than developing their own testable hypotheses; the claim that all they’re asking for is an open debate. And Sungenis also echoed creationists’ assertions that they don’t deny fossil evidence but merely interpret it in a different way. “We also have to backtrack on the experiments that were done that were interpreted in the heliocentric framework and ask if they can be interpreted in the geocentric framework,” he said. “And we find that that is the case. That is exactly the case. All the experiments have been done for us already, its just a matter now of showing the world that those very experiments don’t prove for modern science what they are said to prove.”
Another similarity between creationism and geocentrism is that when a typical scientific ignoramus — such as myself — encounters an expert in the field, he will quickly find himself drowning in a swamp of what sure sounds like science. At one point, Bouw sought to dismiss a common objection to geocentrism, which is that if the entire universe is revolving around the earth, the stars would have to be traveling faster than the speed of light in order to complete the rotations observed each day. “There are a couple of ways to object to that,” Bouw explained. “First of all, relativity does not deal with rotation, so rotation can be beyond the speed of light. But even if that’s not the case — even if you just strictly take the view that all you have is gravitational rotation — because E=mc2, when you use the formula for gravity, you have to replace the m by E/c2, and so then the centrifugal energy — the energy used as the centrifugal force, the kinetic energy there — and even the potential energy — are big enough that they increase the tension so much that the speed of light changes locally. The speed of light is dependent on the strength of the gravitational field: the stronger the field, the faster it goes. And so if the universe is being held together by gravity, out beyond even twenty billion light years or so, it’s still going to hang together. The gravitational tension is going to be huge, the speed of light is going to be tremendous — much larger, actually, than the speed of rotation — but the physics does work that way.”
Does it? You tell me.
Bouw got up from a worn living room chair and padded across the beige carpet to his home office. He returned a few minutes later with a contraption that looked like an even lower-tech version of something the kiddie-TV star Bibleman would use to fight atheists. The base was a wooden box, painted black, about two feet long. On top of that sat a metal cylinder topped by an intricate series of gears, platforms and industrial-grade rubber bands. In the center of this was a model of the earth. Jutting out to one side was the sun and, emerging from that on oddly-angled metal rods, Venus and Mars. “This is a geocentric orrery,” Bouw said. It illustrates the movement of the sun and planets around the earth.
Bouw plugged the orrery into a socket and flipped a switch. Nothing happened. He tried a few times, muttered a bit, made some adjustment, then flipped the switch again. There was a low hum and the sun began to circle the earth. Then Mars fell onto the floor.
“Oops.” Bouw stuck the Mars rod back into its hole. “All right, that’s the daily motion. Now let’s add the yearly motion.” He flipped another switch and the hum got louder. The sun continued on its course around the earth, now slowly rising as it moved. “There is the first day of summer,” Bouw pointed out. “You notice that the Northern hemisphere is getting the sunlight and the Southern hemisphere is not.” He hit the third switch and sun began to spin slowly, dragging Venus and Mars into their orbits. Then Venus collided with the metal arm holding the sun and got stuck.
Bouw scratched at his neck, then pulled both planets out of their holes and switched them. Now the orrery worked properly.
“Is this a one-of-a-kind?” I asked.
“No, there’s probably three or four of these that were made. There’s one in a school in Michigan, one is in a seminary in New Jersey and I think there is one in the Midwest somewhere.”
“A school? People teach this in schools?”
“Oh, yes. Church schools.”
I wondered how in-depth these lessons were. I felt I had the basics of geocentrism down, but talking with Bouw and Sungenis about the details, and reading their publications, I easily became confused. First I had to learn the meaning of phrases such as Michelson-Morley, Lense-Thirring and the Airy function; and then I had to unlearn those meanings in favor of what geocentrists said their meanings were. Next was the matter of embracing long-discarded concepts whose very names sounded ancient. Luminiferous aether? Really? And finally, and most disconcertingly, were the alleged physics proofs that unabashedly incorporated Biblical terms such as the firmament and the third heaven.
Geocentrists are used to skepticism, of course, and impossible to shake in their confidence. As creationists have with evolution, they have offered rewards to anyone who can prove, to their satisfaction, that the earth revolves around the sun. “That may have been a risky thing on my part,” said Sungenis of his $1,000 prize, not because he feared losing his money, but “because some people look at it and say, Oh this is really turning into a circus.” He did not want to lose the respect of the scientific community.
Robert Sungenis understands why secular scientists fight so desperately against geocentrism, despite its obvious viability. “There are philosophical, theological, cultural, social, financial ramifications to all this, that go deep into the psyche of man,” he told me. “Because if it is postulated that the earth is in the center of the universe, and people can show credible evidence that this may indeed be the case — I have run across so many quotes from so many famous scientists that say, if that’s the case, they more or less throw up their hands and say, it’s all over. Because they know that this cannot occur unless someone with design put the earth in the center of the universe. It’s even more devastating than saying that there is no evolution. Because this to them — and they all admit it, everyone of them I have read admit it — if this is the case, modern science has to start from square one.”
Sungenis is a traditionalist Catholic. Unlike Mel Gibson’s father, Hutton — a fellow geocentrist with whom Sungenis has politely debated cosmology — Sungenis does not outright reject Vatican II and the modern papacy. He does his best, however, to hold the church to his highly conservative standards. Throughout the 1990s, following his conversion from evangelical Protestantism, Sungenis was a respected and admired apologist in some circles. But his embrace of geocentrism in 2002 was viewed as something of an embarrassment. Several of his associates distanced themselves from him, with a few adding that they were further troubled by his hostile attitude toward Jews. Sungenis dismissed them as “a renegade assortment of ‘Catholics’ who simply refuse to accept my ongoing warnings about the Jewish, Zionist and Neocon infiltration into the heart of the Catholic Church today.”
Like Bouw, Sungenis holds the rash abandonment of geocentrism in the 16th century responsible for “all these problems in the world today.” Atheism, Marxism, Nazism, abortion, homosexuality — all of these can be laid at the feet of Copernicus. “People decided, Well, God told us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go — and they compromised,” moaned Bouw, “The Bible got weakened and weakened. Our faith in the Bible has weakened, the authority of the Bible has weakened.”
By the 19th century, Bouw writes in Geocentricity, “the revolution of the sciences spilled over into the political realm,” with the French and American Revolutions, and Britain’s bloodless revolutions, being fought to make the world “safe for the ‘free thinking’ humanist.” He adds, “‘Free thinking,’ by the way, is a euphemism for foul-mouthed, bigoted, intolerant, narrow-minded, superstitious, name-calling railers who oppress all those who feel free to think about and conclude for the existence of God.” Bouw’s home page on his university web site — which is filled with diatribes against abortion, immigration, and Martin Luther King — leaves little doubt as to his opinion about the effects of Copernicanism in America. The United States, he writes, is a Marxist, Humanist dictatorship which has “officially declared that all Bible-believers are terrorists and enemies of the state.”
Given the capitulation to heliocentrism, said Bouw, the demise of special creation was inevitable. “By the time evolution comes around, well, you gave in on the geocentric thing: Scripture teaches how to go to heaven. Fine, evolution has nothing to do with how to go to heaven, so there’s no contradiction.” Geocentrists view their work as a necessary component of creationism. “You can’t play both sides of the fence,” said Sungenis. “Either you’re going to do it the whole way or don’t do it at all. If you believe scriptures that are against evolution, then you have to believe the scriptures that are against heliocentrism. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to figure that out. You can understand the plain meaning of scripture from the fourth grade onwards.”
It has been to the geocentrists’ great consternation, therefore, that mainstream creationists don’t see it that way. The broader movement’s initial openness to geocentrism, in the van der Kamp era, occurred at a time when both enterprises existed only on the fringes of society. But in the decades that followed, creationism, and then intelligent design, began to gain respectability — with the public if not with scientists — and the association with geocentrism became a liability.
“They are just afraid,” said Sungenis. “And they have admitted this. This is not something I am making up. They told us, We really don’t want to get into this issue, we want to downplay it as much as possible, because we don’t want to be embarrassed in front of the scientific world. If we come out saying that the earth is in the center of the universe and that man didn’t come from apes, that’s going to be enough to have them turn totally off to our arguments against evolution.” Sungenis and Bouw both claim that quite a few creationists are closet geocentrists — “including some bigwigs,” said Bouw.
It takes more than being considered too weird for young earth creationists to make geocentrists despair, however. “As long as people have some faith in Scripture, there’s a future for it,” said Bouw. “There are young people interested in it.”
I asked Bouw, “How many active geocentrists are there in the world, would you estimate?”
“Let’s see…” Bouw looked up at the ceiling, apparently doing some calculations in his head. “That I know of… about eight.”
“Eight? Eight what — hundred?”
“Eight people. Who promote geocentricity actively, who have the capability of fielding questions.”
“Oh. But as far as people who may not be experts, but who subscribe to the point of view…?”
“Thousands? I have no idea. Millions, maybe?” About 200 people, said Bouw, subscribe to his journal, The Biblical Astronomer.
I pointed out that half the country accepts special creation. Did it disturb him that more people didn’t believe in geocentrism?
“I think about half the country does accept geocentricity. Surveys keep being published indicating that. Maybe it’s down to 40 percent now, but it used to be above half believe that the sun goes around the earth once a day.”
I raised my eyebrows a bit. Who would do a survey on geocentrism?
“Well, the survey is about the state of science education. It’s usually presented as confirming the appalling ignorance of the public — that they don’t even know the earth goes around the sun.”
Now I realized that I had seen these surveys. The National Science Foundation compiles them every year. Later I looked up the most recent one. Almost a third of the population responded “incorrectly” to the question, “Does the earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the earth?” That isn’t the near-majority that Bouw had thought, but when I reframed the statistic as counting not scientific illiterates but nascent geocentrists, it did give me some pause. It was beginning to seem that what separated the geocentrists from the creationists was not credibility but cultural sophistication. Who knows how far they could get with the same variety of edutainment — the museums, books and videos. I asked Bouw if he’d given any thought to livening up his approach.
Bouw said he could see incorporating geocentric exhibits into creation museums, perhaps a larger model of the orrery or a Foucault’s Pendulum, properly explained. “One of the things we’ve thought about doing is creating a video of interviews throughout history. You’re probably too young, but in the 1950’s Walter Cronkite hosted a series called The Twentieth Century, in which he conducted interviews with historical figures. [I am too young, but I suspect Bouw meant You Are There.] Well, we can do that kind of a thing.”
“Who are some of the figures that you might profile?”
“Oh, well Einstein for example. And he was womanizer, of course, so we could make some sort of a tongue in cheek stuff there.”
“How would that…”
“Oh Kepler!” Bouw interrupted. “You can make that funny or… what should I say? Because I think the evidence now is pointing to his actually having murdered Tycho Brahe. So, sinister, I guess.”
“What about something less elaborate in the meantime? A non-technical book for laypeople, or a school curriculum or lecture series?” Other than pity, I wasn’t sure why I was signing on as geocentrism’s publicity consultant.
“That takes time and an effort to do,” Bouw sighed. “And then of course I have my teaching responsibilities, and I don’t have enough money really to retire — well, until Social Security kicks in and just about doubles my retirement income. But that’s another year before I can do that, and at this point, I don’t know who I could delegate anything to.”
“Does it ever frustrate you that there are all these resources and vehicles for creationism and yet none for what you’re doing?”
“It did at first, but not anymore. What frustrates me more now is that people become interested in geocentricity, and they have talent, and then they decide to use those talents in promoting their own ideas, which are usually ineffective and not — well, they’re off the wall, let’s put it that way. They are not based on hard science.”
Bouw told me there are geocentrists in France who believe in a rotating earth and one in Scotland who has calculated the radius of the universe at a quarter of a million miles. There is even one geocentrist who believes the earth is hollow and we live on the inside. “I learned a long time ago that any kind of different idea draws intellectuals, and it also draws kooks,” he said. “For example, in the 1970s there was a freak organization — I would call them freaks, most people call them hippies — that believed in vortices. It bordered on occult metaphysics.”
I asked about a creationist named Marshall Hall. Hall made the news in 2007 when a couple of state legislators, one in Georgia and one in Texas, asked him to draft a memo on legal strategies for challenging evolution in public schools. The memo stirred up controversy with its claim that the Big Bang was really the creation myth of “the Pharisee Religion” — that is, Judaism. What drew considerably less attention was the name the web site Hall invited lawmakers to visit, fixedearth.com, on which he peddles his self-published book, The Earth is Not Moving.
“He’s a good popularizer,” Bouw said grudgingly. “I’m not too enamored of him. The best treatment he has is the involvement of Kepler with the occult, but he views everything as a conspiracy against the truth.”
“And you don’t?”
“No. I mean, yeah, the Devil’s got his hand in it, but a lot of it is man’s own fear of being ostracized.”
Most geocentrists are evangelical protestants, which leaves Sungenis even more isolated than Bouw. I asked Sungenis if Pope John Paul II’s 1992 apology to Galileo made his task more difficult.
“You know this was interesting, because I was under the impression, after hearing the commentaries about what John Paul II said, that he did apologize to Galileo. And I never read what John Paul II actually said. And when I actually read what he said, there was no apology there! What there was was a recognition of both sides of the issue. And the telltale comment was that he said, theology needs to keep up with science. And if that’s the case, well then, that means doors cannot be closed to scientific investigation. And if that is the case, then that means geocentric investigation is wide open. Let’s get these scientists and theologians to do what John Paul II told us to do: let’s look at the science again.”
“But shouldn’t the church apologize to Galileo? Because they didn’t just dispute his theories, they arrested him, they shut him down.”
“They were correct in making that judgment. They had some scientific evidence — they had Tycho Brahe’s model of cosmology — but they had the scripture, they had the fathers, and they had the previous papal statements. And so if they were going to be Catholic, they were more or less obliged to go by the tradition and the scripture.”
“I wasn’t talking about the argument against him as much as the principle of free inquiry,” I replied. “Letting him say his peace and debating it as opposed to preventing him from—”
“That was the point though! Galileo insisted not just in disseminating his ideas, he insisted that these were facts — and that’s when Bellarmine came down on him very hard, because he said, No they’re not facts. The most we’ll let you say is that this is a hypothesis. And the church was very willing to allow Galileo to say that it was a hypothesis. The church was always open to that idea. But when someone says it’s fact, that’s quite a different story.”
I thought it might help to bring the conversation into the 21st century. “Obviously there are people today who will say that certain things are facts that you don’t agree with. Would you argue that they should not be permitted to state things as facts if you can show that they are not factual?”
“Yeah, if there is no proof that something is a fact, I would definitely say, No you can’t say that it’s a fact. That’s what the case is against evolution, for example. It’s a theory. And yet many of these scientists who know that it’s a theory, treat it as a fact, and that is where I’d put them down hard in that the same way that the church came down on Galileo.”
“Are you talking about literally preventing books from being published and so on?
“Well, I mean, I am not going to be the judge of what the extent of the criminal liabilities or civil liabilities would be. All I am saying is, I want to encourage a scientist, if he is going to be fair, not to call heliocentrism or evolution a fact. And if they did… If I was a church authority like Cardinal Bellarmine and Galileo was a parishioner of my church, and I had the right to censor him, I would have done that, yes.”
I had thought there was a limit to how far back anyone would want to turn the clock. Now I wasn’t sure. In Walter van der Kamp’s memoir there is a point when he asks himself if by clinging to geocentrism, he isn’t merely repeating the error of ancient Christians who believed the earth was flat. And then he seems to wonder if that even was an error.
One should not so quickly deride these old-time pillars of staunch orthodoxy who predicted and feared that accepting the heathenish Ptolemaic sphericity in the long run would lead to the negation of God’s message altogether. It was Jerusalem contra Athens, revelation against human reasoning. In A.D. 748, Saint Boniface, apostle to the Germans, complained that a certain abbot, Vergilius, held the heresy of the existence of antipodes; and many of us, had we been there, might well have sided with the former’s literalism against the latter’s liberalism.
Are there still flat-earthers? The Flat Earth Society, an organization whose name is synonymous with delusion, died in 2001 along with its final president Charles K. Johnson, although it has recently been revived with unclear earnestness. The society, founded in 1956, grew out of a movement that began in England in the mid-19th century. Like geocentrism, flat-earthism was as much a religious belief as a scientific one. Members of the Flat Earth Society — there were reportedly a few hundred in 1980 — believed in the plain language of scripture. Didn’t God say he had “stretched out the earth” (Psalm 136:6) and could “take hold of the ends of the earth, that the wicked might be shaken out of it” (Job 38:13)? Even photographs of the planet from space — alleged photographs — could not sway them from God’s word.
For Sungenis, this was never an issue; the church Fathers had affirmed a spherical earth centuries ago. Bouw was more open-minded. “I investigated it, yes,” he said, when I asked him if the spherical earth was something he’d once thought he might be required to forget. “I don’t see that the scriptures teach a flat earth. But I have no problem defending a flat earth if I have to.”
“If scripture doesn’t teach it, why would you defend it?”
“Because it’s a theoretical construct. I can defend a spherical earth too. Just pick your geometry, that’s all.”
What does scripture teach? Entries on cosmology and cosmogony in seven different Bible encyclopedias and dictionaries are virtually unanimous in their judgment. The truth is, the authors of the Hebrew Bible never intended to describe their world in any scientific, or even proto-scientific, sense. They wrote of windows in the heavens that would open to allow the water beyond to fall onto the earth, even though they knew full well that rain fell from clouds and that water evaporated back into the sky. The language of the Bible “is frequently the expression of poetic and religious impressions of the world order,” says The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. “It ought not to be understood rigidly, as if all biblical descriptions of heaven and earth and the lower parts of the earth could be harmonized into a single structural portrait of the universe.” Indeed, the ancient Hebrews would not have understood the concept of such a portrait; to them, the world was only a collection of parts, not a whole.
And if one still insisted on assembling a unified picture and understanding it rigidly? Then the flat-earthers are more correct than anyone else. Certainly the Bible is not heliocentric, but neither is it geocentric, in the way that Bouw and Sungenis would have it. “There is no word in biblical Hebrew corresponding to the notion of ‘universe’ or ‘cosmos,’” says The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. The Bible can not describe the earth as the center of everything, because it does not recognize that everything even exists. If hammered against its will into a single cosmology, what the Bible describes is a universe virtually unrecognizable today: a flat disc, probably round, suspended on pillars sunk into a bottomless sea; stretched high above is a hard dome, also suspended on pillars; on the interior face of the dome are the lights of the sky, which travel from one end to the other each day and night; above the dome is more water, and above that, the dwelling place of God, who is shaking his head, one imagines, at the follies of the people below.
I found a scientist willing to read Robert Sungenis’s Galileo was Wrong. George Spagna is the chair of the physics department of Randolph-Macon College in Virginia and the director of the school’s observatory. Spagna agreed to give serious consideration to Sungenis’s research, a promise he found significantly harder to keep once he’d gotten about two-thirds of the way through the first chapter, by which point, he said, “I really wanted to be wearing rubber gloves.”
Spagna found numerous specific problems with Sungenis’s work — “His whole universe would flatten into a disc along its axis,” he noted, by way of example — and objected to the geocentrist’s “cherry-picking” of data and his use of quotes from scientists speaking to laypeople in an imprecise way as if they were scientific proofs. But his larger concern was with Sungenis’s central idea that since all reference frames are equally valid, you might as well accept the Bible as a tie-breaker. Such a priori assumptions are not allowed, Spagna said. “If we assume that this is a special place, then we can’t do science.”
But geocentrists, like creationists, don’t accept the agreed-upon definition of science. And if creationists have made headway in swaying the public on that point, why couldn’t geocentrists? “Am I crazy to imagine that 50 years from now, some school district in Kansas might be putting stickers on textbooks and demanding to teach the geocentrism-heliocentrism controversy?” I asked.
“Does it seem crazy that it could happen?” said Spagna. “No. It seems scary.”
Before I left Gerard Bouw’s home, he mentioned to me that his fiercest critics are his fellow Christians. “Non-Christians certainly don’t have a problem with the idea that the Bible is geocentric,” he said. “I am kind of amazed at atheists not taking the creationists to task about geocentricity.”
I studied Bouw’s face, but the comment seemed to be a general one, not directed at me personally. I continued as if the idea of using geocentrism to expose the foolishness of creationism had never occurred to me. “Why do you think they don’t?” I asked.
“I think they’re afraid to do it,” said Bouw. “Because they might lose even worse.”