Russell Kleckley on Religion, Science, and Johannes Kepler
Date: September 14th, 2014

We all know Johannes Kepler as one of history’s great mathematicians and astronomers, but did he have anything to say about theology?  Of course he did, and Russell Kleckley, an associate professor of religion at Augsburg College, details the life and times of this fascinating individual who both reflected and challenged the thinking of his age.  Before diving into the topic of Kepler, though, we talk about scuba diving as it was on a dive trip in the Florida Keys where the two of us met.  We share a brief story about the famous “Scuba Jesus” that is located about 30 feet underwater in the Atlantic Ocean.

Following this bit of fun banter, we turn to the serious historical topic of Johannes Kepler.  Prof. Kleckley provides a quick “textbook” summary of Kepler’s life for those of us who may have missed that day in high school.  We learn about his mercenary father, his mother who was accused of witchcraft, some important moments in Kepler’s life such as the observation of the Great Comet of 1577, and his major scientific contributions.  It is then I probe how Russell became interested in studying this “natural philosopher” as a topic of his doctoral dissertation.  He explains how Kepler, whose theological musings often go unnoticed, was representative of the intellectual ferment that was occurring in the century following the Protestant Reformation.  This historical context is also reviewed for listeners and we chat about why scientists — as we would call them today — were considered to be “natural philosophers” back then.  The desire to explain the workings of the natural world were intimately tied to finding theological meaning in the world, including a greater understanding of God’s design of the universe.  We learn that Kepler considered himself a “priest of the book of nature,” indicating that he saw no conflict whatsoever with his spiritual beliefs and his empirical quest to explain the world around him.

The conversation then moves into an examination of Kepler’s theology, specifically his differences with Lutherans, Calvinists, and Catholics.  The fact that Kepler lived at the geographic intersection of these faiths, was raised a Lutheran, and had to move around to different town due to theological conflict plays an important role of how Kepler developed his own understanding of faith and orthodoxy.  We discuss the meaning of two revealing statements written by Kepler himself that reflected his thought and historical context — “I am neither a Lutheran nor a Calvinist” and “One should be pious, but not at all too pious.”  Both statements indicate his frustrations with the growing orthodoxy of the day.  Russell details a number of theological differences Kepler had with the two dominant Protestant faiths at the time, particularly centering around ideas about free will/predestination and his understanding of Article VIII of the Formula of Concord.  This latter controversy revolved around the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.  We see Kepler’s discomfort with orthodoxies that had developed after the Reformation and how he preferred a hierarchy of authority that started with Scripture and then deferred to the Early Church Fathers.  Later doctrine needed to be approached with more skepticism and flexibility.  Russell also points out how Kepler’s concern over more recent orthodoxies (for his era) led him to advocate for more ecumenical relations among Christians, seeking to build bridges across Protestant theologies as well as with Catholics.

We finish the discussion with Russell’s personal reflections on his study of this topic.  While noting that Kepler probably did not have much of an impact on the theological debates of his era, his thought and life history is an indication for us today that science and religion need not be antithetical to one another but can really work well hand-in-hand.  Recorded: September 8, 2014.


 Russell Kleckley bio at Augsburg College.

“Johannes Kepler’s Case against Confessional Discord in a Harmonious Cosmos.”  Lutheran Forum 45 (Winter 2011): 40-44.

“Stealing Golden Vessels: Johannes Kepler on Worldly Knowledge and Christian Truth” In Glaube und Denken. Jahrbuch der Karl-Heim-Gesellschaft 17 (2004): 133-144.

“Astronomy Is God’s Affair: Johannes Kepler and the Dialogue between Theology and Science,” in Anna M. Madsen, ed., Glaube und Denken: Die Bedeutung der Theologie für die GesellschaftSpecial edition, Festschrift for Hans Schwarz on the occasion of his 65th Birthday (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2004), pp. 363-373.


Steven Pfaff on the Protestant Reformation.

Rod Stark on the Triumph of Christianity, Part III.

Stephen Barr on Quantum Physics, Religion, and the God Particle.

Jim Papandrea on the Church Fathers and Patristic Exegesis.

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