I first encountered the phenomenon of the transit of Venus, when doing a locum half way round the world; for my vicarage was the base used by an astronomer from England, who had come to observe this event. Clouds covered the sky and he saw nothing. By midday on Tuesday, 8th June, we shall have witnessed the sixth transit of Venus seen by man; not, I suspect, directly but from pictures relayed by television or the press. How wonderfully dull a mere picture will look.
How awestruck and excited was the brilliant parish clerk, Jeremiah Horrocks, the first person ever to see the planet Venus cross in front of the sun. He was taking the service in St Michael’s Church (December 4th 1639 being a Sunday) and so missed the moment when the tiny circle first touched the larger disc of the sun, and half an hour later the sun had set.
The phenomenon occurred twice in the late nineteenth century and the astronomical work was thorough and useful; but it was the two in the eighteenth century (June 6th1761 and June 3rd 1769) that are the most interesting. With expeditions co-ordinated between all the nations of Europe, to the four corners of the globe, at considerable expense, many years in the preparation, many months in the execution, more months in the compilation of the results, they were the biggest international scientific projects ever yet undertaken.
The Enlightenment gets a bad press from theologians and teachers of the Faith, and rightly so. But we are wrong when we view its scientific ambitions through the prejudiced eyes of late Victorian religion. Castigate the moral philosophers if you will, but not the natural philosophers. There was nothing in their work, nor in the manner in which they carried it out, that is inimitable to Faith, certainly not to the Christian Faith.
And remember Horrocks, who missed the most exciting moment of his life (he died at 23) because he was in church. He wrote, ‘Thy return posterity shall witness; years must roll away, but then at length the splendid sight again shall greet our distant children’s eyes.’ Lift up your eyes to the heavens and consider who created it all.