Humility, Please

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In September 1519, Ferdinand Magellan left Spain on a quest to find an oceanic trade route to Asia.
Magellan didn’t sail east.  Others had already pioneered that route around the southern tip of Africa and through the Indian Ocean.  Instead, he sailed west across the Atlantic.  Would it be possible to connect Europe with China, Japan, and the East Indies by traveling toward the setting sun? 
The Spanish captain had no intention of circumnavigating the globe.  As far as we know, no one had ever seriously considered such an audacious feat.  But Magellan’s crew did in fact sail around the world, returning to Spain almost exactly three years later. 
At least, what was left of them. 
The voyage had been brutal.  Magellan departed with 270 men on five ships.  Only the Victoria, the smallest vessel, was able to limp home.  Just 18 sailors were aboard.  The expedition had endured starvation, mutinies, storms, and scurvy.  Magellan himself had been killed during a skirmish with indigenous warriors in the Philippines.  Despite those hardships, the survivors managed to deliver a valuable cargo of spices and reams of geographical data that would be studied for years.
They also came home with a mystery.
Two months before returning to Spain, the Victoria stopped for provisions at Cape Verde off the coast of Africa.  It wasn’t long before a quarrel broke out between the haggard sailors and the Portuguese officials overseeing the port.  The latter made it clear that it was Thursday, July 10, 1522.  But Magellan’s crew were certain they had arrived on Wednesday, July 9.  Francisco Albo had scrupulously tended the ship’s log.  Likewise, Don Antonio Pigafetta had kept a personal diary, and his records perfectly matched Albo’s. 
Since record-keeping was a matter of life and death on the high seas, the Spanish sailors were quite sure they had not somehow overlooked an entire day.  And the Portuguese officials were just as certain their records were spot on.  Who was right?
As it turned out, they both were. 
It took a few years to unravel the mystery, but it gradually dawned on several observers that the Magellan expedition had sailed through what we now identify as 24 times zones.
The ramifications of this insight were enormous.  The sailors had unwittingly provided firsthand evidence that the Earth moves.  It rotates to the east.  By sailing west – going against the grain of our planet’s motion – they had “lost” 24 hours, or exactly one day.  This was confirmation of the new theory of astronomer Nicholas Copernicus, who had discerned that the sun, and not the Earth, is at the center of our planetary system. 
Couriers carried this information to the Vatican.  The pope was unimpressed. 
Wasn’t it common sense that the sun moves, and not the Earth?  And didn’t the Old Testament book of Joshua affirm that the “sun stood still” so Israel could defeat its enemies, implying that it typically races across the heavens? 
The next 28 popes agreed.  For that matter, so did a lot of Protestants.  It took three centuries for the Catholic Church to embrace Copernicus, and 359 years went by before Rome officially apologized in 1992 to the Italian astronomer Galileo for putting him under house arrest for teaching that the Earth moves.  
How could the church have been so blind?
Two reasons stand out. 
The first is a fundamental Bible study error – treating metaphors, figures of speech, and phenomenological language as if they are literal pronouncements.
When Jesus says, “I am the door” in John 10:9, that doesn’t mean he’s equipped with hinges.  When the prophet declares that “the mountains and the hills will burst into songs before you, and the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12), no one seriously thinks that sycamores will start applauding in the coming Messianic kingdom.  We routinely use similar figures of speech.  If we say that a businessman is a real tiger, we don’t mean he has claws.  If someone complains that your behavior is driving them up the wall, they’re not actually looking for an exit ramp before reaching the ceiling.
Phenomenological language was common in Bible times.  People spoke of the rising and the setting of the sun, implying that the Earth is a fixed object.  But such language is still common today.  Every local meteorologist reminded us last weekend that “sunset” would start happening an hour later because of Daylight Saving Time. 
When the church’s teachers treat figures of speech and phenomenological language as literal truth – and then dare to claim “God says so” – it’s only a matter of time before scientists make Christians look like fools.
But the second reason for the church’s blindness is worse.
All too often, those who represent the things of God lack humility.  They never seriously consider they might be wrong.
The church of the 16th century felt it could ignore the discoveries of scientists and the real-world experiences of globetrotting sailors.  Pastors and priests assumed there was nothing they needed to learn from “outsiders.”
Five hundred years later, it’s a different world.  Scientists and experimenters routinely assume there is nothing they need to learn from Christians. 
How do we go forward? 
Faithfully yet humbly.  God has entrusted us with the message that Jesus the Messiah rules the cosmos.  But because all of us understand so very little about the cosmos, we will listen eagerly and respectfully to those who are unraveling its mysteries. 
Our willingness to be humble will help ensure that the sun won’t be setting any time soon on the global Jesus movement.