Newton Remakes the World


In A History of God, Karen Armstrong does a great job of narrating pivotal shifts in theologies. She doesn’t do quite as good a job at describing the gradual shifts that naturally occur over long periods of time (somewhat analogous in ecology to genetic drift in isolated populations), but that’s understandable as the eras of big change tend to have the famous characters and striking moments that dominate the study of history. That said, some of Armstrong’s finer moments come while describing how Isaac Newton’s science and theology led to the preeminence of creation in Western theology.

Unlike Pascal and Descartes, when Newton contemplated the universe he was convinced that he had proof of God’s existence. Why had the internal gravity of the celestial bodies not pulled them all together into one huge spherical mass? Because they had been carefully disposed throughout infinite space with sufficient distance between them to prevent this. [All of God’s attributes were deduced from the necessary power and intelligence to set the universe in motion]….

But Newton didn’t mention the Bible much; he focused more on nature than revelation. While Armstrong says that the idea of a creation (especially one from nothing, as opposed to organizing the shapeless waters which was already there) entered Judaism relatively late, and had been seen as a spiritual truth, Newton made the whole process more mechanical. I think a Newtonian understanding of the universe, with strict laws and understandable causality, made a mechanistic reading of Genesis more natural to Newton and his contemporaries (though not necessarily true to the original, Hebrew spirit).

When people deny the existence of God today they are often rejecting the God of Newton, the origin and sustainer of the universe whom scientists can no longer accommodate.

True, I guess I don’t see evidence for that God. But I have problems with some of the others too. But how did Newton squeeze God in?

Newton himself had to resort to some startling solutions to find room for God in his system, which had of its very nature to be comprehensive. If space was unchangeable and infinite—two cardinal features of the system—where did God fit in? Was not space itself somehow divine, possessing as it did the attributes of eternity and infinity?… Since God is infinite, he must exist everywhere. Space is an effect of God’s existence emanating eternally from the divine omnipresence. It was not created by him in an act of will but existed as a necessary consequence or extension of his ubiquitous being. In the same way, because God himself is eternal, he emanates time. We can, therefore, say that God constitutes that space and time in which we live and move and have our being….

This conception became quite mainstream. Of course, when Einstein showed that time and space aren’t really independent constant, unchangeable features, that sort of theology didn’t fit quite as well.

Newton had no time for mystery, which he equated with ignorance and superstition. He was anxious to purge Christinaity of the miraculous, even if that brought him into conflict with such crucial doctrines as the divinity of Christ.

So if I had a chance to send a message to Mr. Newton, what would I say?

Dear Newton: Thank you for gravity, and for the laws of motion (and explaining why things like my rockets work, and helping people getting to the moon). Thanks too for being skeptical about “mystery” and “miracles” and whatnot. It’s ok that you didn’t get everything right, but I think we should judge you in relation to your contemporaries, not peopel today. Compared to basically everyone living in your day, you were brilliant and enlightened. I would say I’m sorry you didn’t live to see all the advances we’ve made based on your discoveries, but at the same time I recognize that what you did was so amazing because you were ahead of your time. And just so you know, Einstein was really cool, but people like me still have to learn Newtonian mechanics in their Physics classes as the basis for everything else. You came up with a beautiful, parsimonious system, and I like it. I even got an A. Sleep tight!


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