Galileo and the Church

Watch at Vimeo | Download slides/script PDF

This coming Wednesday, May 3, 2023, I’m looking forward to speaking at McFarlin Methodist Church here in Norman on Galileo and the Roman Church. This post is a landing page for resources related to that talk. The video above is a draft version that will be slightly abridged for the occasion.

To grapple with the Galileo Affair and what it means for us today requires a journey of open inquiry and a readiness to question anew what we have received, especially from contemporary society, including popular culture. The journey must necessarily be personal and authentic. A semester course for graduate credit would not exhaust the inquiry.

The Galileo Myth

I recommend beginning with Bertold Brecht, The Life of Galileo. Read the English translation by Charles Laughton, or attend a production of the play if at all possible. Brecht’s play has likely shaped popular beliefs about Galileo more than any other source. By “Galileo Myth” I mean the “meaning” of the Galileo story for us today, irrespective of the details and their historical accuracy.

Brecht’s account does justice to the poignancy and tragedy of Galileo’s trial, concluding with his coerced recantation and abjuration. This presents the core question and meaning of the Galileo Affair.

We are fortunate at OU that a brilliant production of Brecht’s play was just put on by the Helmerich School of Drama with a talented group of undergraduate actors, directed by Emma Woodward, with dramaturgical support by James McCabe.

OU Galileo theater production

I think it’s the most effective production of Brecht I’ve seen, paradoxically because of the intimate setting in the studio theater. This play comes off better when it’s performed by a group of very talented undergraduate actors in a university setting, not overproduced, but with creative props, costumes, and staging. It came off personal and authentic, and was a delight to attend.

The Galileo of History

But eventually questions arise about historical truth and popular misconceptions of Galileo. To enter into that phase of the journey, remember that Brecht’s play is less about the Galileo of history than about the Galileo myth. Brecht’s intention was not that of a historian, to reconstruct a factual and true account of Galileo, that is, to seek understanding of Galileo in the context of his own times. Rather, Brecht sought to use the Galileo myth to critique his contemporary society, particularly the rise of fascism and the Nazi party, from the standpoint of his own Marxism. So after reading Brecht, continue your journey for historical truth by critiquing Brecht’s play itself with the following resources…

Historical scholarship:

  • Stillman Drake, Galileo: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 1983); Amazon. Read this excellent brief overview in Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series. I’ve prepared a Drake discussion guide (PDF) to support an 8-week reading group.
  • Ronald Numbers, ed., Galileo Goes to Jail and Other Myths About Science and Religion (Harvard University Press, 2009); Amazon. Short chapters on Galileo and other episodes of science and religion by leading historians of science.
  • Maurice Finocchiaro, ed., The Trial of Galileo: Essential Documents (Hackett Publishing Company, 2014), Amazon. Finocchiaro conveniently brings together translations of the documents of the case.
  • Annabole Fantoli, Galileo: For Copernicanism and for the Church (University of Notre Dame Press, 2003), 3rd ed.; Amazon. The most comprehensive, insightful, and judicious analysis of the Galileo Affair in my opinion. Because of the plethora of newly available documents in the wake of the Vatican’s greater transparency after John Paul II, each edition of Fantoli includes substantive revisions; thus, make sure you get the third edition.
  • Maurice Finocchiaro, Retrying Galileo: 1633–1992 (University of California Press, 2005); Amazon. An intriguing study of how the story of the Galileo Affair has been retold in every generation from 1633 through 1992, which includes a helpful chapter on Brecht.

My own resources:

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