Gazer of Stars and Lover of Side-Quests

Today I would urge the church to remember with affection and curiosity a 16th Century astronomer and deep thinker: Johannes Kepler, Seeker of the Divine and Gazer of Stars.

Kepler was born in what is now Germany to a family of fading fortunes. He was technically nobility, but didn’t have the bank account to match the title. While he was sick as a child (having been born premature), he was intellectually curious and showed his obvious genius with numbers at an early age. As a young adult he attended University at Tubingen, studying theology under Jacob Heerbrand (who was, himself, a student of Melanchthon), but while his theological scores were so-so, his mathematical scores were off the (planetary) charts. This was back in the day when astronomy and astrology held hands, and while his numbers were solid, he would pass the time creating horoscopes for his fellow classmates based off of star charts he created himself.

A little side-show is always fun in college.

He would go on to teach mathematics in Graz, and took a fancy in a young widow, Barbara Muller. She was quite wealthy and, though he was of noble stock, was deemed unacceptable to her family. So what did Kepler do? He published a book on mathematics to woo her family into seeing him as worth something.

It worked.

Kepler than began to plot out his life’s publications, much like you might plot out planetary motion (because that would be his main subject). He drew connections between planetary motion and the nature of created order itself, and though through today’s scientific lenses we see many of his connections were nothing more than wishes and guesses, it should be noted that this is one of the ways that science moves forward: by making guesses and testing them.

It does not, however, move forward by ignoring data and replacing it with wishes…as many are wont to do today.

Kepler was using the best data that was available at his time, and he got into a number of discussions with other astronomers and mathematicians, testing one another and prodding each other to do more and do better.

Despite his genius, he wasn’t awesome at making money (probably because he was a teacher and no one was reading planetary physics for fun). He was also wrestling mightily with philosophical questions, particularly around the notion that planets might be “alive” things with souls which imbued them with purpose and reason in their courses.

He thought that the universe was created by a God who wanted to be known through reason, and all we had to do was figure out the logic to figure out the great eternal “why.”

Speaking of the Divine, Kepler refused to convert to Catholicism and, since his teaching appointment at Graz was in a Catholic territory, found his way to Prague (which, though officially Catholic did tolerate some Lutherans who they deemed intellectually valuable) and, through twists and turns and missteps and some crazy theories that didn’t hold water, eventually did find his way into his most productive years as the Imperial Mathematician to the Emperor.

Fortunately this gave him some stability and a place to do his greatest scientific studies. Unfortunately he was basically hired to tell the emperor’s astrological fortune. Regardless, it was a means to a scientific end for him. Through this appointment he came into contact with other great minds, and in 1604 Kepler observed a bright new star (SN 1604) in the sky, a Super Nova. His calculations of the star challenged the assumption that the night sky was essentially “fixed,” noting that new things could happen there all the time. He shrugged off any astrological importance, and leaned into the science encouraging the world to see space not as a tapestry, but as a dynamic system. This emboldened his groundbreaking idea that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical orbits, not straight circular patterns.

He was right about this, and the first to posit it in a way that had mathematical weight.

As a little side-quest, though, he also became obsessed with plotting chronology using the stars as a guide, and attempted to find meaning in the movement of the heavens and the events on Earth (like, oh, how a star just appeared above Bethlehem and was said to appear at the birth of Alexander the Great).

But his ideas weren’t exactly en vogue with a very traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism running around in that day (they thought he might be a secret Calvinist!), and he was eventually excommunicated from the Lutheran church and his mother was brought up on charges of witchcraft, a tactic used back then (and still today!) that tried to mar the reputation of those who disagreed with theological teachings.

Eventually the charges were dropped, though the excommunication stood. He moved to Linz and remarried after the death of Barbara Muller, and fell ill during travel on October 8th in 1630, eventually dying on this day of that year. He was buried in a Protestant churchyard, having been officially rejected by both Lutheranism and Catholicism and, as if to hammer home the reality that the time was politically and religiously fraught, his gravesite was completely destroyed in the 30 Years War.

Kepler was a person on the edge of two worlds. He straddled both imaginative fantasy and mathematical reality. In fact, these two worlds came together in a now lost book Somnium (The Dream) where he wrote about the planets from the perspective of other planets, perhaps the first sci-fi novel of modern history! I hold him with both curiosity and sympathy, with appreciation for his brilliance and a bit of disdain for his tangential side-quests to find the “mind of God” in his work.

In this way, I guess, he’s like most of us: a mix of steps forward, steps side-ways, and blowbacks.

One cool thing about him, though, is that when it came to religion he said very clearly that denominations of every stripe should be able to take communion together. “After all,” he said, “Christ was not a Lutheran, a Calvinist, or a Papist.”

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

Johannes Kepler is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that science moves forward with intelligent guesses that are tested, not ignorant beliefs that are untested. We need to raise up leaders willing to think great thoughts and then test them, not just think untested thoughts and hold them as great.

-historical bits from common source materials

-icon written by Kapil Bhagat