The Venus Transit, Rational Christianity, and Fornicating Gods5 June 2012
The solar transit of Venus – when the planet gets between the earth and the sun, doing so only twice a century – isn’t eliciting much attention in the news today. That wasn’t the case in 1769, however, when inspired Europeans invested enormous sums of money and energy sending scientists to the edges of the earth. Those scientists were to write down the exact times Venus entered and left the sun’s field. By taking one measurement and comparing it to a measurement taken in, say, Tahiti, a mathematician could use parallax to determine the distance of the earth to the sun. As it turns out, explorers Captain James Cook and Joseph Banks were there in Tahiti at the time to take those planetary measurements.
Knowing the distance between the earth and the sun was a big deal in 1769. Having that kind of knowledge meant humankind could peer into the heart of God’s created order. Scientists and philosophers became something like gods in the process. Discoveries like the distance from the sun to the earth (93 million miles, if you must know) did much to spur on the Enlightenment – an explosion of rational thought that, when taken as a religion, mutated Christian orthodoxy into deism and pantheism. Anglicans like Cook and Banks would venture far from their doctrinal roots.
Not that everyone was busy rationalizing Christianity. For Joseph Banks, basking in the Tahitian sun, there were things more interesting than planetary transits and metaphysics. His journal says remarkably little about the astronomical observations but plenty about island culture. He writes that after the transit he partied with a a local chieftain, and shortly thereafter came across some particularly easy women who were effortlessly coaxed into his tent.
So much for godhood.