After reading the title, you might be thinking this post will have something to do with Spock. Maybe you are expecting some interesting twist on how this famous character might be related to some aspect of theology. Neither would be correct.Besides, as any reader of this blog would know, I am a huge Star Wars fan with only a passing knowledge of the Star Trek universe.
I have recently completed reading (actually listening to) The Hunt for Vulcan. It was fascinating. The book, by Tom Levenson, covers the history, and to a lessor degree the science, that began with the publication of Newton’s Principia in 1687 and ends with Einstein delivering his lectures describing general relativity in 1915.
One of the primary characters in the book is the famous astronomer, Le Verrier, credited with discovering Neptune. He was able to accomplish this after noticing that the orbit of the planet Uranus was not following the path that Newton’s laws of gravity required. Analyzing various data and working through numerous calculations he proposed that the cause of the erratic orbit was another planet.
And he was right.
Years later, while studying the orbits of the other planets in the solar system, Le Verrier noticed that Mercury had a wobble in its orbit. A feature that also could not be explained by Newton’s laws of gravity.
Tom Levenson, in an interview with National Geographic, recounts (emphasis added):
According to Newton’s laws, Mercury’s wobble has to be caused by some source of gravitational energy. There was no other way to think about it. Facts on their own don’t mean anything unless you have a framework to put them in. And the framework was Newton’s laws.
This led to Le Verrier proposing that a planet must exist between Mercury and the Sun. Confidence was so high that this planet existed that it was given the name Vulcan. A half a century of searching, and sometimes finding the non-existent planet, ensued. It did not end until Einstein explained it away with a whole new way of understanding the universe.
People kept discovering Vulcan because the way they saw the world required Vulcan to be there.
Levenson wrote this story, not only because it was interesting, but because it helps us understand the “human capacity to both discover and self-deceive.”
Vulcan is a cautionary tale: it’s so damn easy to see what one wants or expects to find.
As I read through this book, it occurred to me that theology, particularly interpretation, could face the same problems as the 19th century astronomers. How we understand a passage of Scripture, what we see in the text, can be greatly affected by the framework we have adopted and bring with us to that text. We are just as prone to see what our framework and presuppositions require as those in other fields.
A good and challenging example of this would be the warning passages in the book of Hebrews. Are these passages addressed to believers and warning us that we can forfeit salvation if we apostate? Or do these passages admonish unbelievers, who are mixed in with true and thus eternally secure believers, to believe? Do the passages genuinely warn the readers about the possibility of losing out on eternal rewards or eternal life? Or are they only hypothetical. The answers to all of these questions are likely to be driven by prior theological commitments.
It is through alternative frameworks that we can begin to see a passage from another point of view. In Hunt for Vulcan, the astronomers, possessing only a Newtonian understanding of the world, grappled with the mystery that lay before them. It was a fact that Mercury had a wobble. It was also becoming clear that the solar system lacked a planet Vulcan.
What was one to do?
For years the paradoxes stood until Einstein made them all disappear when he offered a new way of dealing with the mystery. However, his solution required seeing gravity, space, and time in a new way.
Once we are presented with more than one framework with which to assess the facts (or passages) how do we assess which is correct? It is unlikely that we will be able to confirm our theological frameworks by measuring the bending of light around the Sun (see this article for how general relativity was confirmed). But it is interesting to think about how we might go about assessing various theological frameworks. What would you propose? How did you conclude that the system you hold is correct?
As Vulcan’s troublesome history reveals, no one gives up on a powerful, or a beautiful, or perhaps simply a familiar and useful conception of the world without utter compulsion – and a real alternative.