Galileo and the Invincible Sun

As leader of the world’s largest organised religious community, it is not surprising that the Pope, threatened by burgeoning New Age consciousness, should feel challenged to spell out a vision for Christianity’s survival in the third millennium of its creation. The Church is in crisis, especially in regions with an established Christian tradition.

The passage into a new millennium virtually coincides with what several traditions call the advent of a new Zodiacal Age. It is therefore, the perfect occasion for global inter-faith interaction to acknowledge and accept in appropriate form the eternal truths that have variously been termed Ancient Wisdom, philosophia perennia, sannatan dharma. Alas, as Pope John Paul II’s Encyclical letter, Faith and Reason, on the twentieth year of his Pontificate makes clear, this is not to be. So even as waves of new spiritual energy infuse the earth in this transitional period, they encounter resistance from the psychic energies of the dying age.

Thus, the challenge posed by the New Age movement as it originated in the late 1960s, viz, the failure of orthodox religion to provide spiritual sustenance to new free thinking generations, is not addressed at all. There is instead a desperate hunt for a new philosophy to proclaim past certitudes. And that perennial, irrepressible craving at the root of all Christian heresy – the desire of the individual seeker to realise God and not be vicariously redeemed by a saviour – is resolutely shunned with a dogmatic assertion of the trinity of Sacred Scripture, Tradition, and the intercession of the Church. Adam’s fall is cited as proof that man himself cannot discern between good and evil, and must appeal to a higher source.

Coming as the Encyclical does in the wake of reports that the ‘smiling Pope’ John Paul I may have been murdered, one expected Pope John Paul II to display more than his signature conservatism. Unfortunately, he has missed an ideal opportunity to clean the augean stables of dogma and practice. Yet, given its waning moral lustre, it is unlikely that the Vatican will be able to ward off issues that have refused to go away through two millennia of bloody persecution and strife.

The first concerns reverence for the feminine principle (female side of God). The issue, which is an accepted truth in religions like Hinduism, has bitterly divided Christians through the ages. While the Church is uncompromising on God’s masculine nature, the ‘heretics’ point to the ‘secret teachings of Jesus.’ Interestingly, the ‘heretics’ (‘those who choose’) had their day when Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I in the summer of 1978, spoke of God as both the father and the mother in a sermon in St Peter’s Square. Since the Vatican considers the androgynous nature of God as heresy, this, along with the Pope’s refreshingly modern sensibility on matters of artificial birth control, divorce, abortion and homosexuality, fairly scandalised the conservatives.

Hence, the present Pope John Paul II’s return to the traditional position on birth control, homosexuality, family life, and heresy, has not resolved matters. Indeed, several issues have been reopened by the fairly definitive reports that the sudden mysterious death of John Paul I in September 1978 was linked to fears of his reforming policies and proposed investigations into the seamy side of Vatican finances, particularly its relationship with the P2 Lodge and the Banco Ambrosiano, that laundered funds for the Mafia.

Comments on the Encyclical in the Indian press highlight the Pope’s advocacy of an alliance between science and religion, and cite his appreciation of Galileo in this regard. In an age in which research at the frontiers of science tends to blur established moral boundaries, the Pope has wisely cautioned scientists not to abandon their sense of discrimination and wisdom. But the only reference that I could find to Galileo was in footnote no. 29, which briefly cites a letter he wrote to the Church, stating that faith and science can never contradict each other.

The controversy over Galileo bears elucidation, as most ordinary people, both in the West and certainly in India, are unaware of its deeper meaning. In an historical period reverberating with the names of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus, it stands to reason that successful voyages could be undertaken only with proper knowledge of the location of the sun, planets, and major constellations. Yet, Galileo’s observation that the sun is the centre of the solar system brought the wrath of the Inquisition upon his head, compelling him to retract. It is time to understand why.

The cult of Sol Invictus, the Invincible Sun, was Rome’s official religion at the time of  Constantine, upheld as the first Christian king. It posited the sun god as the sum of all attributes of all other gods, and thus peacefully subsumed rival gods. Constantine himself was pagan, but tolerated Christians. This helped the Church consolidate its position and grow by appropriating the symbols and associations of Sol Invictus. In A.D. 321 when Constantine declared the ‘venerable day of the sun’ an official holiday, the Church, which observed the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday) as sacred, quickly transferred its allegiance to Sunday and distanced itself from its Judaic origins. Similarly, though Jesus’ birthday was celebrated on January 6th until the fourth century, this too was changed to December 25th, when the cult of Sol Invictus observed the festival of Natalis Invictus, the rebirth of the sun, when the days begin to grow longer (the Hindu makar sankranti). Christianity also ‘borrowed’ the concepts of the immortality of the soul, a future judgement, and the resurrection of the dead, from the parallel cult of Mithraism.

Galileo, therefore, touched a raw nerve when he identified the sun as centre of the universe, its source of light, heat and energy, and a legitimate object of veneration. To a Church that had invented itself by appropriating the ancient sun cult, this must have signalled a return to paganism, as well as an open challenge by the secret religious societies that were sponsoring what was coming to be known as the Renaissance. Since the Church is intolerant of what the Pope calls the ‘mistaken notion of cultural pluralism,’ its reaction was harsh.

Indian readers will point out that there is nothing unusual, or wrong, about a religion growing by borrowing from other faiths, myths, and traditions. The point, however, is that this truth has been expunged from history, along with vast tracts of the gospels that do not conform to the socio-political needs of the Church. The issue is between an arid uniformity of belief dictated by the Church, and plurality, the right of men and women to decide their personal beliefs and articles of faith, seek their own experience of the Divine, and reject the exclusivist claims of a monotheistic god and its self-proclaimed ‘sole spokesman.’

The adherents of free choice, the so-called ‘heretics,’ have suffered through two millennia to protect the right to knowledge and freedom of choice. This strife is the true genesis of the struggle for the separation of the secular and religious spheres. Indian secularists who are in the habit of levelling false charges against the Hindu community, would do well to remember that the sannatan dharma holds no monopoly on dogma or practice. What is more, it upholds the duty of the individual to seek self-realisation through a path of his/her choice. Indian citizens who have been disturbed over the recent unsavoury controversy over recitation of the Saraswati Vandana, would do well to ponder the fate of the Gayatri Mantra as the Church embarks upon a new phase of its engagement with India.

The Pioneer, 10 November 1998

Republished by Swatantramag on August 23, 2020

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