One of my favorite anecdotes is Galileo’s trial before the Catholic Church. Allegedly, the Inquisition took Galileo on a tour of all of the torture devices they would use on him on him if he did not recant his discovery that the Earth revolved around the Sun. That was apparently enough, and in front of the Catholic Church in 1663 he recanted his discovery, that in fact the Earth does not revolve around the Sun. However, under his breath he uttered the phrase eppur si muove–and yet it moves. The truth of this story is dubious at best, but the phrase has been used ever since to denote that just because someone does not believe something, does not make it cease to be true. Curiously, as Slavoj Zizek notes, this story could be reversed on itself. Even if this story is not true at all, nevertheless that phrase eppur si muove “moves us.”
Fast forward roughly 350 years and I am attending Southwest Baptist University, a bastion of conservatism theologically and politically. As an admittedly leftist individual theologically and politically, I found myself reciting the phrase that Galileo spoke as I left class each day. I tried not to be too confrontational in my classes, in order to not be ostracized by my peers, or to hurt my chances at receiving good grades from professors. Nevertheless, eppur si muove.
Now you may have been audacious and read my profile before reading this post and saw that I am in the Biblical Studies program, but this was not always the case. In fact, when I first came to SBU I had no intention of being involved in Biblical Studies; I was primarily focused on Philosophy. What caused my change of heart? Probably what most people would consider a less than satisfactory reason to study the Bible: spite. In each of my philosophy classes, whenever I would raise a specific objection or have a certain opinion that fell outside the traditional way of thinking, I was immediately told, more often by my classmates than my professor, that what I was saying was not “Biblical.” As I objected I was reminded, by the class, that I had no formal training in the Bible. As you could imagine, this infuriated me to some extent. My wonderful girlfriend, who was kind enough to listen to my rants, could probably relay several stories recounting my frustrations. Each of them undoubtedly had undertones which are perfectly captured by the phrase: eppur si muove.
So I was determined to become better than them at the thing which they held over my head. A regrettable entrance into studying the Bible, but one that turned out to be very edifying. This is not an admission that my previous ideas were suddenly cast aside and I came into the light of mainstream evangelical thinking. In fact, I suppose you could say that the opposite happened, I became more “liberal” or “leftist.” This of course was to the chagrin of the SBU community. In the eyes of many in the Christian community I was entrenched in, I was indeed a Christian heretic. I rejected the doctrine of hell, argued that sin is subjective not objective, that what is sin differs from person to person, that God is not omnipotent or omniscient, and that the Paul misquoted Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans, and subsequently, the whole basis of the protestant reformation based on sola fide, or the faith alone doctrine, was mistaken. Most people thought I was crazy, but I thought eppur si muove.
Most Christians would be taken aback by most of these beliefs, but what surprised me was the deeper reaction to my thinking among my Christian brothers and sisters. I wasn’t just wrong, I was an atheist, sinner, risking my salvation. Now to someone that doesn’t believe in Hell that last one didn’t have much bite, but still! I was still Christian, I still believed in God and Jesus and the resurrection. None of that seemed to matter, I was marginalized. It wasn’t so much that I was cast out per se, rather my ideas were just considered cooky. Interesting to some, horrifying to others, more of a curiosity. Simply put, no one took my ideas seriously. It even went so far as to other telling me I believed things that I told them I did not believe. Routinely, my belief in the inerrancy of scripture is questioned. Most people think that I have simply given it up. I grant that that my view of the text is eccentric, but I do actually think that the Bible is inerrant. However, when I tell people I receive protests. Alas, eppur si muove.
As a confession, I have considered atheism, but it was never because of fancy philosophy or getting too far to the left. It was because of Christians, the ones I experienced so much resentment from. Being at SBU I experience the breadth of American Evangelicalism. For all of the talk of living in a “Post-Christian Society,” it seems quite clear that it wasn’t God that led people to abandon the faith, it was Christians. I, a member of the Christian community, get treated poorly and think about leaving the faith on the account of beliefs, Christian beliefs no less, that do not jive with the commonly accepted wisdom. Christians acting un-Christian is not news; it’s a common complaint, but what my experience has shown me is that the problem is much deeper than just a basic hostility to the outside, but also in attempt at change on the inside. My former roommate at SBU was a devout Catholic who came to SBU to play baseball. He told me stories of how numerous people tried to “convert” him to Christianity. The best one was when a young woman told him with tears in her eyes that he was going to Hell if he did not quit being Catholic, since praying to Mary is idolatry. He tried to explain that Catholics do not pray to Mary, but it seems the very thought of justifying such heresy was too much for her and she ran off. She probably felt the same thing that I felt all too often: eppur si muove.
So how does one vacillate the semblances of different Christian norms? In a swirling vortex of theologies and doctrines which all claim to be universal systems and contain the “truth” of the matter, is it really possible to place all of your faith and trust into one over the other? But what is the purpose of Christianity? Is it to get the right series of propositions in order like a checklist? A classic philosophical thought experiment aimed at doctrinal creeds goes something like this. Imagine that in order to receive salvation a person needs to believe five different things about God. If they get one wrong, salvation is lost. The problem comes in when someone asks whether that would qualify Satan for salvation, presumably, even the devil knows that Jesus rose. So it could not be so simple. Some people say that it has to be correct doctrine and acceptance. The problem is still there though. Who actually would get all of the beliefs right? The search for criterions of truth is the foil for experiencing it. There are two forms of eppur si muove, the naive version, which I unfortunately used on others, and others used on me. Then there is the inverted form of eppur si muove, the recognition that what ought to be believed is the thing that moves us to experience truth.
Tacitly, every faith knows everyone is going to get some stuff wrong. Calvinists have unconditional election, most protestants that are not Calvinist have something similar. Catholics have purgatory, to atone for sin, which may include not believing the right things. Eastern Orthodox theologians discuss the doctrine of theosis. All of these things grasp at the idea that maybe it isn’t the set of facts we have that determine what a Christian life is. Instead, perhaps the continuous longing, the search, the struggle for communion is the purpose of a Christian life. Maybe there is a hell, but that is not the belief that drives me forward towards Christ, it is a stumbling block I cast aside. I vacillate between different creeds, cultural forms, and notional statements; between semblances of Christianity to emerge with a set of beliefs that move me, because regardless of their truth: eppur si muove.
Let us all pray that we do not stand in the way of what moves our brothers and sisters in Christ, lest they fall away as I nearly did.
“Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on Earth.”