Episode 21
Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon
Media Player Error
Update your browser or Flash plugin

Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon

 Episode 21  Comments  Stop Play

Our once-common perspectives may change, but the Volume's majesty stays the same.

LDS Podcasts, Mormon Podcasts, Book of Mormon Studies

Podcast 21: Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon

Greetings! Welcome to Podcast 21 on ForeverLDS. I know, it's been a while. I was feeling a bit overwhelmed last year. Gratefully, I've had plenty of time now to ruminate on different topics that I hope will enlighten, inspire and inform. Yes, I'm still hard at work on the next Tennis Shoes novel, Book 13: Thorns of Glory. I worked on it all day. Then I felt compelled to do a new podcast. I hope to do a lot of new podcasts this year, but let's worry about one thing at a time. I don't have a staff to edit and post and add Michael Bahnmiller's music. I do all that myself. I feel like I'm finally getting back into the groove. If possible, if permitted, I'm determined once more to stretch listeners' minds on various Gospel topics. I realized I really haven't talked much about my favorite book! No, not a Tennis Shoes novel.

The Book of Mormon! I titled this podcast Changing Paradigms and the Book of Mormon. Kind of a $10 dollar word—paradigms. It basically means a pattern, a way of thinking, a methodology commonly used by those in a particular culture or community. When we use this word today we most often associate it with the phrase "paradigm shift." A paradigm shift is a way of describing an entirely new way of doing something, or a different way of thinking about a subject. Usually this shift clashes—finds itself in total conflict—with whatever way we previously thought about or pursued that subject or perspective.

These days "paradigm shift" is mostly associated with science and technology. These fields are sometimes advancing so fast that just as we think we have a clear picture of how everything works, or is, or was, some new hotshot scientist comes along and presents a brand new perspective that blows the scientific community away. Those who are stuck in the "old" paradigm will resist the impending change, often with considerable vigor and emotion. People might be forced to abandon generations of thinking about or studying an idea in a certain way. It can be tough. A new paradigm might diminish a scientists' entire life work. It can trump the theories and research of whole repositories of common thought overnight. Whammo. For a scholar this can be painful stuff.

The way a scientist reacts often reveals that individual's all-too human foibles and flaws. I don't care how many PhDs a scientist might have, if slapped in the face with a new paradigm that undermines his or her research, maybe even their prestige, we should expect some degree of resistance, sometimes to the point of standing and yelling and stomping out of the lecture hall. Social or political paradigm shifts can lead to terrible violence and upheaval.

In the scientific world a new paradigm might not become widely received until all the scientists of the "older" generation die off, allowing new blood to popularize what was previously dismissed as nonsense.

To give credit where it's due, the term "paradigm shift" was first coined and discussed by 20th philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who explained that such a shift was not just a small change or modification, but a revolution that completely altars the way a question or perspective is viewed or approached. Take Ptolemy for example—a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who lived in the 1st Century A.D.  Ptolemy totally believed that the earth was at the center of the universe, and that the sun and the other planets revolved around it. This was the dominant paradigm for centuries. Not until the Renaissance—almost a millennium and a half later, did a scientist named Copernicus come along and convincingly demonstrate that the earth was NOT the center of the universe and, in fact, revolved around the sun in a completely different orbit from other planets. Major paradigm shift. Catholic and Protestant leaders were not happy at all, believing if the Earth is just another planet among many, this somehow makes it less special. They believed it undermined religious faith when, in reality, the two concepts don't conflict at all. Although, as I've said before, it's the Restored Gospel of Jesus Christ that truly resolves any possible conflict. We remain, still, the only Christian denomination on earth whose doctrine specifically teaches that its inhabitants are not alone in the universe. That the same process of eternal progression is taking place on other worlds.

Darwin's theory of Evolution was another paradigm shift—one that raises the blood temperatures of many individuals even today. Einstein and special relativity—another paradigm shift. How would you feel to have your whole way of thinking—perhaps decades of research—were suddenly declared null and void, like having your legs swept out from under you. Resistance is inevitable. People can feel threatened, institutions can feel threatened, even when, in the end, the paradigm shift ultimately advances and strengthens the underlying reality. Watching it happen can be exciting, and accepting a new paradigm can be Gestaltic. Another 10 dollar word. Honestly, I don't even know if Gestalt can be used as an adjective. But it ought to be an adjective. It means that the sum of all the parts when put together become far more satisfying and make much more sense.

No one can deny that the Book of Mormon itself has experienced paradigms shifts amidst the general membership of the Church. No, the words in the volume haven't changed. The message hasn't changed. (And please, I don't wanna waste time here discussing minor clarifications, grammar and punctuation changes over the years. Insignificant to me.) I'm talking about paradigm shifts in how Church members view the Book of Mormon.

As I mentioned, some of these shifts, some younger members might go, "Really? Latter-day Saints used to look at the Book of Mormon like that? That's weird."

What that means is that resistance to a paradigm shift has pretty much folded. The controversy is all but forgotten. The new way of thinking is now commonplace. However, future paradigm shifts in our understanding of the Book of Mormon are inevitable. And because the Church survived the others just fine, I'm sure it'll survive anything else that appears on the horizon. Bring it on. Instead of undermining someone's testimony of the Book of Mormon, such information should enhance it and inspire deeper clarity and devotion. The reality that peoples known as Nephites and Lamanites and Mulekites and Jaredites once existed will become more and more indisputable.

As I said, it's an exciting process to watch. I love paradigm shifts. Okay, sometimes they jar me as much as anyone else. It's a love/hate thing. I might resist at first because it's just not the way I've ever looked at the Book of Mormon before. My resistance might last a year, a day, an hour, or five minutes. And then, if I remain open, if I don't block out the Spirit with unrepented sins, light and logic will eventually settle into place. Obviously all of us desperately want a process like this to be guided by the Holy Ghost. It's tricky because you have to fill your oil lamp with drop after drop, day after day, so that when a new paradigm comes at you, you can feel—simply feel—that the idea represents something unique and special. Or you can feel impressed that it's a total load of hooey. Those who present false paradigms can be very convincing. Without the Holy Ghost any of us can be deceived. So say your daily prayers, read your scriptures, attend the Temple, go out of your way to serve your fellow man—do anything you can to ensure that the Holy Ghost is your constant companion. Eh, it doesn't seem to matter how succinctly you teach this principal. Pride and intellectual reliance upon the arm of flesh will invariably muddy the waters. Even with the guidance of the Holy Ghost, we're still human. We consistently rely too heavily on reason and intelligence, and sometimes reason and intelligence isn't enough. You need revelation, which, if it truly adds information that isn't currently part of Church doctrine, must be introduced and qualified as mere opinion, not as fact. Personally, I love to speculate on theological matters and present new ideas, but if those who consume that information think I'm being dogmatic or believe I'm expressing anything other than opinion or proffering unique possibilities, I've gone about it the wrong way. New information—even on something seemingly small like the route taken by Lehi and his family through the desert—is forever an educated guess until the Lord confirms such speculation through His authorized servants at the head of the Church. You'd think that would be a given. An obvious point.

That I wouldn't even need to say it. But over my lifetime I've listened to, and read the words of, so many people who express an intractable opinion on some religious matter or another with the assurance that it has been confirmed to them by the Spirit—and yet is not something ever approved as Church doctrine—that I've conceded that this point can't be expressed often enough.

Okay, so, having made that point, let's get down to business. I realize unless I give specific examples of changing paradigms and the Book of Mormon, it's hard to get your head around it.

Ponder this example: After the Book of Mormon was published in 1830 and at least until the end of the 19th Century—and for some, even beyond that to the present day—Latter-day Saints generally believed that the Book of Mormon took place across the entire breadth of North and South America, with the Isthmus of Panama constituting the "narrow neck of land" as described in verses like Alma 63:5 and Ether 10:20. The distance from the northernmost point of North America, the Boothia Peninsula in Canada, to the southernmost point of South America, Cape Froward in Patagonia, is roughly 14,000 km or 8,700 miles. That quite some distance, but that was the commonly-accepted paradigm, the general understanding of the membership of the Church.

Obviously that paradigm has undergone a dramatic shift in the 20th Century as closer examination of the text has presented a convincing case for a more limited geography. Also, the dense, swampy terrain of Panama just didn't seem to fit at all with the Book of Mormon's description of the narrow neck.

Before I go any further, let me make it clear, I'm not going to debate Book of Mormon geography in this podcast. I'm well aware of the faction-alization of this topic in recent years with proponents of a particular limited geography in conflict with another limited geography. Today I'll stick with the paradigm shift itself from a view that encompassed all of North and South America to the more limited geography generally accepted today. The concept of a limited geography was a different way of thinking at the beginning of the 20th century. It didn't make the Book of Mormon any less true. It merely represented a paradigm shift. And such a shift is okay. It's rational and easy to support by examining geographical descriptions in the Book of Mormon.

Some folks say the geography of the Book of Mormon doesn't matter. I think one of the strongest dissenters of that argument would be Mormon himself. The Book of Mormon is rife with geographical descriptions. If you doubt it read Alma Chapter 50. The volume is constantly talking about going up to this city or down to that land or traveling this many days or following that river. I don't think Mormon was trying to help modern readers identify Book of Mormon locations. It might not have occurred to him that this was a subject anyone would ever wonder about. But it's evident he felt strongly that his readers needed to understand the relationship of different locations to each other so that he could clearly communicate the circumstances of his people and covey his spiritual message.  

It can be at challenge at times for Church members to reliably separate tradition from doctrine. I believe it's important to distinguish what it actually says in the Book of Mormon from traditions that may have shaped our viewpoints over the course of our lives. Certain faulty ideas might have originated because early Church members, imbued with the pioneer spirit, the pioneer lifestyle, and a pioneer's limited knowledge of continental geography, did not have the benefit of comparing those ideas with their peers or of benefiting from today's growing compendium of knowledge. As a result, some verses of the Book of Mormon may have been interpreted too hastily. Unwarranted assumptions when publicized and popularized quickly become tradition. Not a big deal. Revised interpretation are a natural evolution of the Church's growth and maturation. Those who want to judge such a trivial thing too harshly, whatever. Let 'em judge. None of this should be the foundation of someone's testimony anyway. For many such subjects are simply fascinating to study and ponder.

Another paradigm shift is the idea that every inhabitant of ancient America—every native in every tribe from Alaska to Argentina—was a direct descendant of Father Lehi who crossed the ocean in the 6th century B.C. I guess you could widen this paradigm to include the descendants of the Mulekites, or people of Zarahemla, who became major players in the Book of Mormon around the time of King Mosiah. Basically, this is the notion that Mayans, Aztecs, Incans, and American Indians were all Israelites by origin. The early assumption was that when Lehi's ship set anchor, the land was unpopulated. Deserted. The newcomers were completely alone.

Furthermore, this paradigm suggested that after Lehi's death, when Nephi and his family and followers separated from Laman and his family and followers and established their own tribes, and then, within a single generation, began to have wars with each other, that these events occurred in a kind of population vacuum. All those who occupied ancient America were direct blood descendants of those who'd disembarked from Lehi's ship. Some Latter-day Saints may still hold to this paradigm, despite many clues in the Book of Mormon itself revealing that when Lehi landed, the territory was already occupied. People were living there.

This seems apparent by reading Nephi's account in 2 Nephi Chapter 5. When Nephi separated from his brothers, Laman and Lemuel, for his own preservation, he wrote that "(I) did take my family, and also Zoram and his family, and Sam, mine elder brother and his family, and Jacob and Joseph, my younger brethren, and also my sisters, and all those who would go with me (2 Nephi 5:6)".

Now, this verse accounts for all the major players aboard the ship. Laman and Lemuel and their families. Nephi's own family. Zoram and his family. His older brother Sam, his younger brothers Jacob, Joseph, and his sisters. Who's left? Lehi, and we presume his mother, Sariah, have already passed away. So who is Nephi referring to when he says that he was also accompanied by "all those who would go with (him)"?

Nephi tells us who these people were in the next verse: " And all those who would go with me were those who believed in the warnings and the revelations of God; wherefore, they did hearken unto my words."

So is it possible that many of those who went with Nephi were not blood relatives of Nephi or Zoram? I think it is. This idea seems further emphasized simply because Nephi felt inclined to distinguish his relatives and Zoram's relatives from "all those who would go with" him. So if they weren't Nephi or Zoram's kin, who were they?

A reasonable proposal is that they were inhabitants of the region where Lehi landed. People whom Nephi, in his capacity as a prophet of God, converted to the gospel. Really? If that's true then why doesn't the Book of Mormon just say that? Why doesn't it mention this great proselytizing event among the natives?

I think Latter-day Saints who read and love the Book of Mormon may, at times, expect too much from this 500 page book that covers more than a thousand years of Nephite history. Nephi, Mormon, and another prophet named Nephi who lived at the time of Christ's coming, commonly called 3rd Nephi, all proclaim that the record they were making didn't cover even a hundredth part of the proceedings of the people. That wasn't its purpose. It wasn't meant to provide a careful chronological history. Nephi specifically commanded his brother Jacob to not touch, save it were lightly, upon the history of the Nephites (Jacob 1:2). The volume was intended to be, as the subtitle proclaims, "Another Testament of Jesus Christ." Its purpose was to save souls, to call the world to repentance, proclaim the gospel, and prophecy of things to come. To me it's the absence of details, the randomness, the humanness of the choices of the Book of Mormon's abridgers and authors that secondarily testify of its truthfulness. This is a complex book, generated by a complex culture, representing those events and writings and statements by New World prophets that Mormon and his son, Moroni (and Ether and Jacob and other firsthand authors) judged to be of greatest spiritual worth to future readers.

My advice? Don't get hung up on the things the Book of Mormon doesn't say. Focus on what it does say, and you're destined to find spiritual nourishment. Still, every time I read the Book of Mormon, it seems I never fail to notice some nugget, some phrase, some gem of information, that offers marvelous insight into the history and culture of the people who created and preserved this sacred record.

In the last verse of 2nd Nephi Chapter 5, Nephi writes, "It sufficeth me to say that forty years had passed away, and we had already had wars and contentions with our brethren."

So less than forty years after they left Jerusalem and they were already warring with the Lamanites. Less than one generation. If the only warriors in this conflict are Lehi's sons and their children and grandchildren, maybe it would be more accurate to call it a family feud. Common sense suggests that, like Nephi, Laman and Lemuel were also able to impress the locals and bring them into their kingdom. In fact, they were more successful than the Nephites. The Lamanite population seemed to multiply like rabbits, quickly outnumbering the Nephites. How did that happen? Unfortunately, the record doesn't give us many details, but it seems reasonable that Lehi and his family brought to the area where they landed a culture and religion that greatly influenced those they might have met, much the same way that Mosiah's arrival in Zarahemla impressed the Mulekites. For example, if Nephi and Laman introduced the art of writing and record-keeping, earning the natives' respect might have been accomplished with relative ease. Researcher Dr. Joseph Allen proposed that the people who greeted Lehi and his family may have been "prepared by the Lord" for Lehi's arrival, hungry for the gospel, with many enthusiastically embracing it. Speculation? Absolutely! That's why it's called a proposal. But it's utterly plausible. It's one of those "hundredth part(s)" of the Nephite records that we don't have in our possession.

Sadly, it's a part that we may have actually had at one time, but alas, no longer. What am I talking about? Obviously the lost 116 pages.

What exactly was contained in those pages lost by Martin Harris? We may not think about it much, but 116 handwritten pages on 8 X 13-inch foolscap paper could represent an extraordinary amount of material. After examining the original manuscripts and printer's copies, LDS researcher Royal Skousen concluded that the lost material comprised Mormon's original abridgement from the time Lehi departed Jerusalem until the 3rd Chapter of The Book of Mosiah, or nearly 500 years of Nephite history. The books we know as First Nephi, Second Nephi, Jacob, Enos, etc., were all written in first person, engraved onto what we call the small plates of Nephi. The part that Mormon abridged are called the large plates of Nephi, which I don't think refers to size as much as length or number of sheaves. In our present version we only have Mormon's abridgment starting at the Book of Mosiah. Yet Mormon makes it clear that he abridged the entire history of the Nephites from the time Lehi left Jerusalem. That's what's missing.

Dr. Skousen and others have estimated that if these lost pages had been included in the Book of Mormon, its length would have ballooned by 150 pages. In other words, one-third or one-fourth longer than its present girth. That's a lot of scripture. Perhaps if we still possessed those lost pages, some of the former misunderstandings and paradigm shifts I've discussed would have never occurred. The lost pages would have made Nephite history much more plain and clear. Again, speculation.

But that's okay. Intelligent speculation can be eminently helpful and profound. There are those who say, "Nope. Nope. Nope. Doesn't matter. Such questions shouldn't be asked."

As I've often said, human beings are curious creatures. I believe we inherited our curiosity from our Father in Heaven. I believe we're commanded to ask questions. We just need to be very careful about drawing firm, entrenched, inflexible conclusions. When the Lord is ready, He'll confirm or confound all inferior speculations. Until then, asking Latter-day Saints to not have questions—to suppress their curiosity—is, I believe, diametrically opposed to their nature.  

Are there other paradigm shifts related to the Book of Mormon? Sure. Some may be shifting right now. As the world increases in knowledge, our understanding of the Book of Mormon is also destined to expand. Sometimes it's just a matter of opening ourselves up to faithful common sense. Faithful logic. I'm sure that sounds like an oxymoron. How can you be logical about a subject in which you have faith? Maybe this idea seems perfectly natural because, to me, the Book of Mormon is already real. I don't sit around mulling about its authenticity. That question was resolved before I ever pondered where Lehi's ship might have landed. Honestly, for some it's not important to ponder where Lehi dropped anchor. It's enough just to know the Book of Mormon is true. And that the Lord, through his prophet, Moroni, outlined all that's required to receive that spiritual witness in Moroni 10:3-5.

I like to tell people—especially the new generation—don't put the cart before the horse. Don't think you have to become a scholar or expert on ancient scripture in order to receive a testimony. What a waste of time! Besides, it's so much more fun to explore all these questions after you already have a testimony. After that, you should feel welcome and privileged to ponder, explore, speculate, discuss, and propose plausible conclusions. Just keep an open mind. Leave the final conclusions to God and to His authorized representatives on earth.

There is one more paradigm shift I wanted to discuss, but I think I'll wait for the next podcast. You see, this particular new way of viewing the Book of Mormon is my own proposal. Which simply means that you can feel completely justified dismissing it out of hand. But I did propose the idea to other Book of Mormon scholars, and they seemed impressed. They'd never thought of it before and felt it was quite plausible. Which made me feel pretty good. Although I've come to realize that feelings like that are always fleeting.

So let's save it. We'll get into that particular paradigm shift on the next podcast. Hey, since I've already written the first draft you can feel pretty confident that it'll post it soon. Until then, stay close to the Lord. In case I didn't already say it, and as the titles of my novels should surely affirm, I love the Book of Mormon. I could talk about it for days, for years. Which is exactly what I plan to do. I'm so grateful that I found it. And I'm sad for those who haven't. Sadder still for those who've dismissed it. We're commanded to read it again and again, not because the book will change, but because we change, our lives change, and in every new phase its message will strike us a little differently. Its message will burgeon and grow and become ever more profound.

So until next time, thanks for listening. It's good to be back. I'm Chris Heimerdinger. And this is foreverLDS.



  • Terri Wagner

    Jan 24, 2017 12:31 pm

    I had to laugh at some of the older thoughts about the BOM. When I joined the church a long time ago, yes people did believe those things. I’m glad I joined while in college. Institute helped me to separate out fact from speculation. Adore the latter, believe in the first. Well done. I look forward to listening to some others.

    Reply from Chris: Thanks Terri. There are so many others: Our shifting understanding of the narrow neck of land, the Hill Cumorah, the idea that the Jaredite nation wiped itself out down to the very last man, and even our racial understanding of terms like Nephite and Lamanite (4 Nephi: 36-38). Odd the way Mormon says in 4 Ne:36 that in about 210 A.D. "...there arose a people who were called the Nephites"--as if the concept was completely new and unfamiliar! In the next verses he explains that this distinction was strictly based on faith--not race or skin color. However, I have my doubts that even this was so cut and dried. I'll talk about it more in future podcasts. And this one isn't even the paradigm I'm focusing on next. Stay tuned...

  • Pati Howard

    May 24, 2017 8:35 pm

    I often am surprised that people keep looking for Nephite evidence. The lamanite king swore to eradicate any record of them. It’s like the Jewish rebellion in 2AD where the Roman response was swift and all records of Judea were stricken. Yes the Jews still had their own records, but few else did.
    It would be like people trying to find out everything about America by studying the USSR cold war era sites. There might be a mention of it, but not in the form we know or recognize.

    Response from Chris: I think you may underestimate what was not destroyed. No such effort by another nation has been entirely successful. The Romans tried very hard to "eradicate" the Cartheginian culture--burning it, salting the ground so nothing would grow, etc., but evidence still remains. Nevertheless, you are right that many important documents were, unfortunately, "eradicated." Some, however, are very telling. There's stone carvings at Izapa which are often overshadowed by the controversial "Tree of Life" stone in the same vacinity. Other stones (or stela) present striking representations of other Old World/Hebrew images and evidences. I'll give you the link to an interesting page on his site. http://www.vgarthnorman.com/

  • Mar 13, 2019 1:27 pm

    Chris, l’m loving your podcast! Very well put together. I’ve been listening to it all day for the past week—after my wife recommended it to me. I’m currently in episode 21 and at around 11mins from the end—where you mentioned the idea that the land where Lehi landed might have been populated by folks there already and then used a verse that seemed to support this idea. I do find the idea very intriguing, and do not doubt the potentiality of such, however I do wish to mention one other possiblity. The ‘others’ that Nephi took with him may simply have been a select group of his in-laws (brothers and sisters) nephews, nieces, etc. from the family of Ishmael—a group that I don’t think got included in the list you mentioned being present on the ship or in America. Anyway, totally not saying my idea must be the only right one and all others must therefore be wrong, just wanted to share my comment. Thanks again for such a great podcast!

    COMMENT FROM CHRIS: It's a possibility, but to me stretches a bit of common sense. We'd have to assume the passage of many years for that interpretation to fit. If it was just a couple nieces or nephews, etc., why not mention them since Nephi went to the trouble to mention everyone else? Besides, if any relatives of Laman and Lemuel had "gone to the other side" this would have retained incredible political clout for future generations, and I think Nephi and his successors would have mentioned it. Think how this would affect the political climate: "And some of Laman's relatives came with us, so if you hate us, you are also hating your own ancestors."
  • May 23, 2020 1:20 am

    Great episode. This is a perfect example for introducing your children to the concept that “not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine. … A statement made by one leader on a single occasion often represents a personal, though well-considered, opinion.” That is, when James E. Talmage puts forward the hemispheric model in “Jesus the Christ,” members should understand that that is not the end-all be-all of the matter.

    Being open to new paradigms also raises the old philosophical question of the ship of Theseus (Google it; this comment form doesn’t allow me to use HTML tags or embed links). How much can a belief system change before it ceases being that same belief system at all. I’m glad you mentioned to watch at for silly, crackpot paradigms. We should not be so open-minded that our brains roll out our ears. A good example of this is the idea some people try to advance that the Book of Mormon is “inspired” but is not a real historical account of an actual ancient civilization; rather, it’s “divinely inspired fiction” that Joseph Smith invented to teach moral truths. This idea is silly, but it doesn’t stop some people from claiming it’s a higher form of spirituality to believe it. It’s the same nonsense behind the idea that Christ’s resurrection needn’t be a real historical event for Christianity to be “true.”

    One minor correction I’d like to mention: at 04:50, you said that the Copernican heliocentric model was resisted in part because removing the earth from the center of the universe made people seem less “special.” This is a common misunderstanding that has been perpetuated mostly as part of Enlightenment attempts to cast religion as a negative influence in society. But it’s simply wrong. From a 2007 article in “Physics Today”:

    “In the early 16th century, the center of the universe was not considered a desirable place to be. ‘In most medieval interpretations of Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmology, Earth’s position at the center of the universe was taken as evidence not of its importance but … its grossness.’ In fact, ancient and medieval Arabic, Jewish, and Christian scholars believed that the center was the worst part of the universe, a kind of squalid basement where all the muck collected. One medieval writer described Earth’s location as ‘the excrementary and filthy parts of the lower world.’ We humans, another asserted, are ‘lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and rivetted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, and most remote from the heavenly arch.’ In 1615 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, a prominent persecutor of Galileo, said that ‘the Earth is very far from heaven and sits motionless at the center of the world.’

    “In Dante Alighieri’s ‘The Divine Comedy,’ hell itself is placed in Earth’s inner most core. Dante also speaks of hell in ways consistent with Aristotelian dynamics—not full of flames, which would be displaced skyward by the heavier Earth, but as frozen and immobile. By contrast, heaven was up, and the further up you went, away from the center, the better it was. So Copernicus, by putting the Sun at the center and Earth in orbit around it, was really giving its inhabitants a promotion by taking them closer to the heavens.”


    If you’ve read the Divine Comedy, you’ll remember that Satan is frozen in ice, motionless like death, whereas the outer spheres of heaven are full of motion, energy, and life. The center was the least privileged place in the universe, the inescapable bottom. That was Ptolemaic cosmology.

    This is not to say that, e.g., Galileo wasn’t mistreated, or that there wasn’t some pride involved in the Pope’s interactions with him, or that there wasn’t resistance for other religious reasons, or that no Christians mistakenly held the geocentric model to be synonymous with scripture. Those are all separate debates. But the idea that a culture saturated in Ptolemaic philosophy would see being at the center of the universe as a good thing, a point of pride and privilege, is simply to completely misunderstand and mischaracterize that philosophy. It is a myth that resistance to heliocentricity was based in part on the idea that it would remove humankind from a special place of privilege in the cosmos.

Leave a comment