There is something godly about gravity expressing the continuity and constancy of creation, inexplicable and necessary. Without it, the universe would deconstruct itself in an instant. Always right in front of our noses and under our feet, mysterious gravity is so taken for granted that while ancient peoples worshipped sun and moon and stars, and the Greeks and Romans a pantheon of gods, nothing and no one represented gravity. Nevertheless, while many may doubt the existence of this god or that, no one can doubt the existence of gravity. It requires no defense from an Aristotle, an Anselm, or an Aquinas.
This brings to mind a most unlikely threesome: the Renaissance scientist Galileo; Madalyn Murray O’Hair, a ‘notorious American atheist’ and church-state separationist of another era; and the Catholic philosopher Elizabeth Anscombe who trounced C.S. Lewis in a debate on the subject of miracles.
Galileo Galilei, as legend says–and the world believes–climbed the iconic Leaning Tower of Pisa to drop two objects of obviously different mass before a gathering crowd of curious onlookers. This scientific experiment ought to have proven to the crowd something hitherto doubted: that objects of same substance and different mass will come to earth at the same speed.
Here we see mysterious gravity at work so mysteriously that even Aristotle had taught the contrary almost two thousand years before. No one, so the story goes, ever doubted Aristotle, and prior to Galileo, no one had ever thought to test the matter. Still, the crowd was unconvinced: seeing was not believing, and both experimental science and science-denying were born that day in 1589.
Gravity and God remained mysterious, and Galileo was regarded as a magician, a necromancer, or a deranged heretic. His experiment makes for a great story. Even if factually stretched, it is believed by many folk who nonetheless doubt the story of another man called by a similar name, Jesus Christ, the Galilean. Mysterious three-person God and mysterious gravity remain intertwined.
Three hundred and thirty years later, ten Christ lifetimes later, in 1919, Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe and Madalyn Murray O’Hair were born less than three weeks apart. World War One had ended mere months before on the eleventh day of the eleventh month at the eleventh hour. God seems to enjoy numbers.
Anscombe’s was a mid-Lenten birth in Catholic Limerick, Ireland. She would one day become what many regard as the foremost female philosopher of the past century, protégé of Ludwig Wittgenstein and translator of his works, shattering the formidable reputations of both A. J. Ayer and Bertrand Russell for good measure. After her legendary 1947 encounter with C. S. Lewis, Lewis turned from formal theology to children’s books and inspirational writings. It is a matter of conjecture whether Anscombe drove him to this mid-course correction, but his many Narnia readers can be grateful. Anscombe was also an ardent defender of human life, a Catholic intellectual to upend any theory that abortion opponents are ignoramuses. Readers more interested in a fuller account of her life and its accomplishments are referred to an appreciative essay and memoir by her friend and collaborator John M. Dolan, late of the University of Minnesota, published in the May 2011 edition of First Things.
Murray-O’Hair, the firebrand atheist, was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania less than a month after Anscombe on April 13, 1919. The date, proving once again that God has a sense of humor, happened to be the moveable feast of Easter Sunday. She would become what a recently-released Netflix film describes at the ‘Most-Hated Woman in America’. In her heyday, she made newspaper headlines and enemies across the nation and around the world by bringing before the United States Supreme Court a series of successful suits banning prayer in public schools. The first of these was ruled in her favor in 1963, the year Pope John XXIII died, and Pope Paul VI took over the Second Vatican Council, all this proving that God also enjoys a good story with a layered plot line.
It also mirrors in some fashion what Galileo asserted about revolution and rotation in the Solar System: mysterious gravity, gravitas, and grave matters were all in orbit. Manned space flights were in the news along with talk of weightlessness; the possible banishments of religious Christmas programs along with the ‘Prayers at the Foot of the Altar’; flying saucer sightings; and the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic President; and Catholics free to eat cheeseburgers on Friday, etc. Latin soon disappeared from both the Catholic Mass and public school curricula.
To put myself into this briefly, the same year, as an admirer and enthralled reader of the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, I met my first-ever Trappist at a medical school reception in St. Louis. He left all of us speechless while extolling the virtues of chocolate insects—especially ants—as he handed them out and talked what we used to call a ‘blue streak’. To use another old expression, no one could get a word in edgewise with this man who had adopted a life of silence. God also enjoys irony.
Leaving aside Galileo, experimenting with what became one of Newton’s Laws, we spin from dropping apples to dropping names, and turn our thoughts once more to two weighty women whose reputations at one time or another riled a great many people.
As an ‘avowed’ atheist, O’Hair, was variously regarded in her time as an instrument of the devil, a maniacal crackpot, a closet communist, and living proof that woman’s proper place is in the kitchen. By her account, the ‘hate mail’ she received from critics the world over would have filled a railroad boxcar. She claimed to have enjoyed the avalanche, especially from Christians spewing un-Christian vitriol. Hatred, like love, can become addictive.
Little more than a decade earlier, Anscombe tended Wittgenstein in the last days of his life, and was instrumental in his controversial Catholic burial in 1951. Later, she moved forward with the first English translation of his Philosophical Investigations, published in 1963. She has been ‘accused’ of Wittgenstein’s possible deathbed conversion to Catholicism. She too was sometimes considered a crackpot, for her pacifist views and her opposition to birth control and abortion, both stridently supported by feminist O’Hair. Some think Anscombe further proof that a woman’s place is in the kitchen.
These days, atheists have ‘increased and multiplied’ to an extent that journalists no longer routinely describe them as avowed. The obscure ‘village atheist’ of old has been replaced by a ‘town crier’ atheist with bullhorn, a book tour, and a television show. Inexplicably, Catholics are still routinely described as devout when many are not, and Catholic populations in Europe and America are shrinking as a result of birth control. Meantime God must be consulting Mark Twain, who said of his erroneously published obituary, “Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”
Galileo,once condemned as a heretic, turned out to be right about mysterious gravity, the solar system, and the swinging of the clock pendulum. Three hundred and fifty years after Galileo’s death, Pope John Paul II formally apologized for Galileo’s persecution by the Renaissance-era Catholic Church. Cosmology and Faith seem to be converging at the outer limits of the universe and the inner workings of the atom. Despite this newfound comradeship between early adversaries, gravity and the Shroud of Turin remain elusive and mysterious.
Gertrude Elizabeth Margaret Anscombe died in 2001 with her children and her husband, philosopher Peter Geach, gathered at her beside reciting the rosary’s Sorrowful Mysteries.
Madalyn Murray O’Hair was murdered in 1995 under mysterious circumstances. Her dismembered body and that of her son were discovered buried in a barn near Austin, Texas.
As the Japanese novelist Shusako Endo noted, people often ponder where they were born, a circumstance over which they had no control, while giving little thought to where and how they will die.
This again brings to mind Thomas Merton. His Seven Storey Mountain, published in 1948, became an unanticipated, overnight bestseller, making him an instant celebrity and putting his Trappist Gethsemane Abbey on a map where for a time it rivaled the Kentucky Derby’s Churchill Downs as a worldwide destination. Few could have predicted at the peak of the public’s interest in the contemplative life that Merton would apparently fall in love with a young nurse tending him at a Louisville hospital, and two years later, in 1968, die by electrocution in a Bangkok, Thailand hotel room.
Galileo’s tomb in the Cathedral San Croce draws legions of visitors each year. Other legions will visit the Leaning Tower of Pisa and imagine this pioneer scientist and mathematician bravely standing before a skeptical crowd. Visitors still stop by the Abbey of Gethsemane to pause at the grave of Thomas Merton. Elizabeth Anscombe, her husband Peter Geach, and Ludwig Wittgenstein are buried in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground, Cambridge, England. Madalyn Murray O’Hair’s cremated remains were buried at an undisclosed site near San Antonio.
It is just too tempting to draw a moral from all this. No wonder we say so often, only God knows. Even atheists say it.