Our Place in the Cosmos

This Time for All Ages is greatly enhanced by visual elements. If you're able to create a slide show, it may be helpful to show the accompanying images, as well as diagrams of the geocentric and heliocentric models of the solar system.

We humans have always looked up at the stars, wondered about them, and even told stories about them. During the many thousands of years that human beings have been looking up at the stars, we've changed our understanding of what the Universe looks likes, and how it works.

More than five hundred years ago, a man named Nicolaus Copernicus was born in Poland. He watched the stars and planets, and used his observations to come up with a pretty unique—and upsetting—idea.

In his day, most people thought that the Earth was at the center of the Universe. They also thought that the stars were little holes in a glass ball around the Earth.

Copernicus thought, “What if the universe doesn't move around the Earth? What if the Earth is actually a planet circling the Sun?” He wrote a book about this idea, which wasn't popular. (If he hadn't died soon after, it's possible he would have been put in jail.)

Today, we know that Copernicus was right: our planet Earth circles the Sun, which is a star. It took a long, long time—hundreds of years—for people to finally believe this, and to stop saying that the Earth was at the center of the universe.

But for hundreds of years, the belief that the universe revolved around Earth was so stuck in people’s minds that it became part of religion, too. It was kind of a religious belief, so when Copernicus said, “I don’t think the heavens revolve around the Earth,” he was speaking as a scientist, but the Church heard it as challenging their religion. There’s a word for that: heresy. That meant that not just scientists, but anyone could get in BIG trouble for promoting the idea that the sun was at the center of our Solar System.

Believe it or not, this upsetting theory of Copernicus intersects with the story of our Unitarian ancestors.

Not very far away from where Copernicus watched the planets and stars, there was a land called Transylvania, a land of rolling green hills and mountains. Transylvania is where some of the first Unitarians built their churches, and formed their faith, right about the same time that Copernicus wrote his book about the Earth revolving around the sun.

Our Unitarian ancestors already knew what it was like to say and believe things that could get them in trouble. One of those things was “Egy az Isten,” or “God is one.” When they—and we—say “God is one,” we’re saying that we don’t agree with the Christian doctrine that Jesus was God incarnate; we’re saying he was fully human. A lot of Unitarians in Transylvania—and elsewhere—died because they wouldn’t stop believing or saying that.

One of the villages in Transylvania—today, a part of Romania that’s ethnically Hungarian—is Oklánd.* Its Unitarian church is over 400 years old.

Like a lot of Transylvanian Unitarian churches, the church has a wooden ceiling that's divided into deep, square panels. Most of them have flowers or plants painted on them. But there's one very special ceiling panel: a sun surrounded by circling planets. It is a diagram of the Copernican solar system.

In Blessing the World,* Rebecca Parker writes, “Holy regard for knowledge is at the heart of our religious faith… At a time when religion was opposing science, our ancestors in the remote mountains and valleys of Transylvania built sanctuaries that affirmed the discoveries of science. They did so even when the dominant religious culture advocated ideologies that allowed no new revelation.”

Let us celebrate these gifts, which have been woven into our religious DNA: we belong to a tradition in which religion and science have never been forced apart, or asked each other to be silent.

We, as a people, encourage one another to explore and discover; to ask questions and declare that revelation is not sealed and will never be sealed; and to freely follow the call—whatever its source—that connects us most deeply to the world inside of us, and to the universe around us.

*The emphasis in "Oklánd" is on the first syllable; in Hungarian, as with many languages, the accent mark indicates the pronunciation of the vowel and not emphasis.

**In her essay "Love First," p. 147.

The Unitarian church in Olkánd, Transylvania
The sanctuary of the Unitarian church in Oklánd, Transylvania.
A wooden panel with a faded design, in red and blue paint, of planetary orbits around a sun
A night sky with a band of stars
A view of the Nicolaus Copernicus Monument in Warsaw (Poland), showing that scientist holding a model of the heliocentric solar system