Nicolaus Copernicus never intended to turn the world upside down. He wasn’t even a professional astronomer. He was a physician who studied mathematics, politics, economics, and—only in his spare time—astronomy. But as he applied the same rigorous disciplines of observation to astronomy that he used in math and medicine, he noticed something that bothered him.
For centuries, astronomers had accepted the “Ptolemaic” understanding of the universe, in which the earth was believed to sit motionless at the center, surrounded in concentric circles by the moon, the sun, various planets, and the stars. It seemed obvious. We looked up, and everything passed by in orderly fashion above our heads. It was a system as elegant as it was predictable.
But a few of the details didn’t quite fit. Celestial bodies didn’t always show up in the night sky in the places where the model predicted. Greek and Roman astronomers had always assumed that was the result of gods warring in the heavens. But Copernicus believed there was only one God, and he had set up the heavens in an orderly fashion.
So, one day, merely as a thought experiment (a “mathematical fiction,” he called it), he imagined what the universe might look like if something besides the earth stood at the center. What if, contrary to all appearances, the sun was at the center? He sketched out some rough diagrams. He guessed at a few of the calculations. His “fiction” fit the data better than the accepted Ptolemaic one.
Copernicus sent his findings to a publisher. The publisher reluctantly accepted the proposal, but before the book could be printed, Copernicus had a stroke and slipped into a coma. He awoke from the ensuing coma just long enough to look once at the finished book. Then he died.
The book, grippingly titled De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (“On the Revolution of the Celestial Spheres”), was a cosmic flop. The publisher printed a mere four hundred copies of it and couldn’t even sell them! Copernicus’s revolution was a black hole of revenue, a supernova of red ink. He was widely panned as a fool “who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down.”
But Copernicus’s students believed their tutor had been onto something. They sifted through his notes and began writing their own books. And then, seemingly overnight, scientists changed their minds. The paradigm shift was so dramatic and so disorienting that historians labeled it the “Copernican Revolution.”
As it turns out, it’s a good thing the earth isn’t the center of our solar system because it simply does not have the gravitas to keep all the other planets in orbit. Our sun does, and so it keeps all the planets, including ours, safely and securely in orbit.
Copernicus’s revolution has an important corollary to our lives: Our lives don’t work when we make ourselves the center of our own little universe either, even if God is one of our orbiting planets. We don’t have the gravitas to keep it all together.
God didn’t design us to be our own center. We aren’t “big enough” to keep everything in orbit. Nor does it help to get religious, installing God as one of the spiritual bodies orbiting a life centered on us. That’s why so many people—even though they are religiously busy—are joyless and unfulfilled. Even though God is a part of their lives, they still have something entirely too small at their center: themselves.
We need a spiritual revolution that is no less dramatic than Copernicus’s astronomical revolution. We need a Copernican Revolution of the soul. As Gregory Koukl explains, it’s not just that God has a plan for our lives; our lives exist for God’s plan. — Greear and David Jeremiah, Not God Enough: Why Your Small God Leads to Big Problems (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2018).
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