Saturday, September 19, 2015

Kepler’s Witch by James A. Connor

The subtitle here is “An Astronomer’s Discovery of Cosmic Order Amid Religious War, Political Intrigue, and the Heresy Trial of His Mother.” The astronomer, of course, is Kepler, Johannes Kepler, who lived from 1571 to 1630 and who, according to the back cover, “confirmed the Copernican universe, calculated the true shape of the solar system, discovered the three basic laws of planetary motion, and laid the foundation for Newton’s physics.” His witch, evidently, was his mother, put on trial for heresy against the Lutheran church, but I picked up the volume primarily to learn more about Kepler and his scientific discoveries.

I got more than I bargained for.

In its own way, the Lutheran church of Wurttemburg was undergoing a recapitulation of the Catholic experience. Catholics always believed that the faith was a matter of individual conscience, because one had to stand alone before God to be judged. But for the faith to be preserved through time and not dissolve into a battle of confusion, with each individual coming up with a personal interpretation of the Scripture, the church needed to establish some uniformity of doctrine. This meant a unified interpretation made by an exclusive group of official interpreters. This also meant that the church had to have authority, which included the power to compel its members to comply with its teachings, rather than their own consciences.

Wait. Hold on. Is this the biography of an astronomer or a treatise on religious history?

Well, it’s both. Actually a bit more of the latter than the former. And this little piece of exposition, which I finally came across on page 246, would have saved me a lot of trouble if it had come on page 24.

I’ll try to explain, but let’s get through this explanatory passage first.

In keeping with this line of reasoning, only three hundred years after the founding of Christianity, Augustine of Hippo encouraged the persecution of the Donatists, because they would not conform to the church’s teaching about baptism. They insisted that all those who had fallen away from the faith during the waning years of the Roman persecutions needed to be rebaptized. Augustine disagreed. Subtly, in any organization, religious or otherwise, solidarity becomes ossification, the faith becomes orthodoxy, and compliance becomes more important than conversion of spirit. By the time of the Reformation, Christianity had gotten to the point where authority itself had become the problem.

To reform Christianity, Luther and his followers returned to the idea of individual conscience and individual faith, ideas that had been asleep in Christianity for a thousand years. Luther and his followers, and the pastors who followed them, took the title “Doctor” rather than “Father.” They wanted to be seen merely as educated men rather than men who possessed semidivine authority. Kepler was very much in line with this Reformation thinking. The Lutheran church of Wurttemberg, however, in order to survive intact in the noisy marketplace of religious ideas, had to begin to develop an orthodoxy. Without it, what Luther and his followers had taught would have disappeared, dissolving into thousands of smaller denominations, each one based upon some private interpretation of Scripture. Lutheranism would have dissolved into the religious landscape altogether.

As briefly mentioned above, Kepler was a Lutheran in these challenging times. But he was, in the opinion of the author, a very special kind of Lutheran.

The very nature of human organizations creates orthodoxy, and orthodoxies, in turn, give birth to reformers and mavericks, men such as Luther and Kepler. Kepler, as a good Lutheran, found himself at odds with the Lutheran church, but as a thinking Lutheran he almost had to. He believed that to be a good Lutheran, he had to follow his faith, which meant attending to his own conscience, which also meant that if he did not agree with the Formula of Concord in every detail, then he must not sign it. This did not mean that he stood against his church; it meant that he participated in it more fully. For the Wurttemberg consistory, however, if anyone, especially a famous man such as Kepler, were to be allowed that kind of freedom of conscience, it could eventually spell the end of the church itself.

And understanding that this is how the author views Kepler--as a Martin Luther-like figure, reforming his own church along the lines of his personal conscience--would have been much more helpful to know on page 24 instead of page 246. Because up until that point, I had pretty much been pulling my hair out trying to understand what all the fuss was about.

And I still am, to a certain extent. If Kepler didn’t like the orthodoxy of the Lutheran church, I kept wondering, why didn’t he just stop calling himself a Lutheran?

Kepler was a believing Lutheran and would never become a Catholic, even when it would have benefited his career to do so. People all around him were jumping from one church to another. Kepler’s father-in-law did it. So did many of his acquaintances and rivals, simply to better their political or social position or not to lose their earthly possessions.

This comes on page 3, and is indicative of the premise that the author seems to set. Kepler is not just a believing Lutheran, he is a principled one, and the odds of him betraying his Lutheran principles are absolutely zero. The author seems eager to praise Kepler for this conviction, evidently viewing such a position as more noble than that held by Kepler’s acquaintances and rivals, those “jumping from one church to another.” From my modern and secular perspective, it’s not clear to me why one form of hierarchical social construction is preferred over the other, but okay, I can accept it. Kepler is a man of strong Lutheran principles.

Except the author then goes on to stress again and again Kepler intellectual and principled battles with the hierarchy of the Lutheran church. Here’s a typical example. Through familial and academic connections, Kepler has just received an exemption from a royal order for all non-Catholics living in a certain region to either convert to Catholicism or leave.

Kepler’s own openness did not sit well with his fellow Lutherans any more than his stubborn Lutheranism sat well with Catholics. The other teachers at the Lutheran school resented his exemption, wondering if he had compromised his faith along the way just to please the papists. He had certainly broken ranks with the other teachers by petitioning, but there was more to it than that. His beliefs, like his thoughts, were subtler than theirs. Some later scholars accused Kepler of indifference to dogma, but this too was unfair, for he did believe that there is but one truth, and he pursued that truth, which he identified with God, with all his heart all his life. Kepler had to go his own way, for the truth he pursued was inside his own conscience and did not float outside him among the dogmas of the churches. Sometimes he accepted the teachings of his church, and sometimes he did not, for he had to find the authentic truth for himself, and no one could find it for him. This meant that he could not accept the truth of others just because they told him to, no matter how authoritative they were. Neither armies nor pulpits could sway him by themselves, but only reason and faith.

Maybe you can see why I started having trouble with this. The author, or Kepler, or both, seems to want to have things both ways. I think those later scholars were right. Kepler was indifferent to dogma, and claiming the reverse because Kepler was busy building his own personal dogma doesn’t prove them wrong. Especially when you follow that claim with the admission that your subject only follows the teachings of his church when he personally agrees with them.

And, his thoughts we subtler than theirs? Really? That was part of the problem? None of the smart people around him could see the nuance of his position? I have a hard time accepting that, knowing that there is a difference between being blind to subtlety and rejecting it as a molehill instead of a mountain.

But, evidently, I’m not the only person who views things this way.

Kepler’s doubts about the ubiquity doctrine and about the sacrament had been paddling about in his head for years, since the days he had first studies at Maulbronn. Now they came to the surface. Perhaps unwisely, he confessed his doubts to the exiled church members, who were shocked and suddenly suspicious. Those who had envied his return and suspected him of compromise suddenly had new ammunition. The others merely shook their heads, wondering. None of them really understood him, though. His theological meanderings were well within the bounds of the Lutheran faith. Or so he thought. But differences over what constitutes the heart of the faith are often the source of schism and heresy. Kepler never quite understood this for himself, but others did, and from that day on they watched him carefully.

Or so he thought, indeed. I would say that the thing Kepler never fully understood was that it wasn’t up to him to decide what a Lutheran was and wasn’t. That was up to the Lutheran church, and they pretty consistently said that what Kepler believed wasn’t Lutheranism.

Which just adds to the overall confusion. Given the pivotal role the author seems to think Kepler played in the “noisy marketplace of religious ideas,” one has to question why, in the face of all this opposition, he didn’t just start a “Kepleran” church the way Luther had started a Lutheran one.

Well, here’s one reason.

The city was now open, defenseless. The Spanish commander Gian d’Urbina led his men through the Borgo, butchering everyone, armed and unarmed alike. They broke into the Hospitale de Santo Spirito and threw the patients into the Tiber while they were still alive. Then they murdered all the orphans. Once across the Ponte Sisto, the plunder started in earnest. Palaces, monasteries, churches, convents, workshops--they attacked them all, broke down the doors, and scattered everything they could find into the streets. Money, booty, plunder was everything to them. They dragged citizens, even those who supported the emperor, even their own countrymen living in Rome, and tortured them until they handed over whatever money they had. They assumed that everyone in the city was hiding some secret treasure and pulled them, beat them, burned them until they handed it over. Those who suffered to most were those who had nothing to give.

When they found a priest, they cut him open until his guts ran out onto the street. Some they stripped and at sword point commanded to blaspheme the name of God. They held satiric masses and forced what priests they could find to participate. The Lutherans killed one priest who refused to give Communion to a donkey. The marauders then shot at holy relics, spat on them, and played football with the severed head of St. John. They tortured on, grabbing any man or woman they could find, still searching for hidden riches. Some they branded with red-hot irons. Others they tied by their genitals. Some they hung up by their arms for hours, some for days. Others they forced to eat their own severed ears, noses, or penises. They raped every woman they could find, young and old, married and single, including nuns. Especially nuns. Many they sold at auction or as prizes in games of chance. They forced mothers and fathers to watch the rape of their daughters. Some they forced to assist in it. The city had collapsed; it was violated, alone, without hope.

Cardinal Pompeo Colonna, an enemy of the pope, rode in with two thousand men to join the attack. He wept when he saw the state of affairs in the city, but his men soon joined the revelers. Most of the soldiers were half-starved peasants who robbed people as poor as they were themselves. Soon the city was empty, and the invaders weary. The noise died down; the exhausted revelers gathered in stupefied clumps, heavy with wine, hung over, bleeding in places from wounds. No one seemed to notice anything. Grandmothers wandered through the streets looking for their children. Babies cried for their mothers. Children stood in the middle of the streets, stunned. Spot fires burned here and there in the city. Over all was the buzzing of flies and the stench of the dead. Here and there dogs gnawed upon corpses.

These were extremely violent times, in which allegiance to one religious dogma or another was literally a matter of life and death. The split between Catholics and the different Protestant churches was dangerous enough. Casting oneself outside the protection and influence of these dogmas was probably more than is fair to ask of anyone of that time.

But, you know what? It was a line that Kepler’s scientific predecessors and contemporaries were able to walk. The following allusion to Copernicus…

The Reformation, like an earthquake, had cracked Western Christianity, stable since the fifth century, into Catholics and Protestants, and the Protestants into Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Anabaptists, with the many camps drifting away like tectonic plates. Even the heavens had been changing, and Kepler had been part of that change. Copernicus, and obscure Polish priest, had published his On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres, which had dethroned the earth from its place at the universe center and sent it spinning through the heavens like a top revolving around the sun. Fear ruled Europe--fear of difference, fear of change.

...can't help but remind me of that obscure Polish priest’s savvy equivocation. “Mathematics,” Copernicus said in his prelude to that famous work, “is for mathematicians,” by which he meant that although the math of his heliocentric solar system was simpler and more predictive of planetary movements than the convolutions and contortions mathematicians were forced into by placing the earth at the center, that shouldn’t be interpreted as him advocating for the view that the sun actually was at the center of the solar system. That, after all, would be blasphemy, and that could get an obscure Polish priest into a great deal of trouble.

Kepler seemed incapable of employing similar strategies, sometimes even going out of his way to rub the noses of the Lutheran magisterium in his independence of thought and action.

And I’m left wondering whether I should respect that or not. Being oppressed for your principled views is one thing. Running away from the neighbor’s dog after you threw a stick at it is another.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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