“Nature and Nature’s Laws lay hid in Night: God said, Let Newton be! and all was light.”
So wrote Alexander Pope, but even this couplet was nowhere near as drenched in religious awe as the ode to Newton penned by Edmund Halley: “Newton tore open the heavens like the curtain before the Holy of Holies and revealed the secrets prudently hidden from mortals by Jove.”
Today, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a spokesman for scientific popularization (a self-appointed heir to Carl Sagan), exhibits that same sort of mystified reverence for Sir Isaac. All this is unsurprising: from a strictly scientific perspective, Newton’s discoveries are worthy of awe.
But Pope’s praise is different in tone from Tyson’s. What makes Tyson unique is that he is one of those crusaders for the physical sciences against religion, which is a peculiarly modern phenomenon that would have appalled Newton. I’m not sure Tyson even knows this, but Newton wrote more in his lifetime about the Bible than he ever did about physics. Newton also never separated his faith from his scientific inquiry. Just read his correspondence with Richard Bentley, who popularized the contents of Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and presented it as a proof of an intelligent Creator. “When I wrote my treatise about our system,” Newton explained, “I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men, for the belief of a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.”
This was already present in the Principia but was made explicit in the extended appendix he wrote for it, the General Scholium, an essay that not only responded to critics but also frankly affirmed that the world, as far as he could tell, could only have been constructed and maintained by an intelligent “Universal Ruler,” separate from the creation itself.
But that does not mean that orthodox religious believers should assume a smug triumphalism, as though the anti-theists were unwittingly really venerating “one of our own.” Newton may have had a deep conviction in the existence of God and His revelation in Scripture, but his views on what the Scriptures revealed were, to say the least, eccentric.
In fact, a thoughtful observer might wonder if the reason Newton refused to become a clergyman, normally a requirement for fellows of Trinity College, had anything to do with his inability to subscribe to the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Belief. This observer would have been right. Newton actually wrote his own 12 Articles of Religion that expressed the creed of his heart in the secret of his prayer closet: “God is the Father alone; worship is to be directed to Him alone, not to Jesus.”
It is tempting to try to identify the source of his heresy in his non-theological thought (Did his post-Scholastic metaphysics affirm the existence of “essence” so essential to understanding the conciliar definition of the Trinity?) or perhaps even in his psychology (the kind of mind liberated enough to effect a scientific revolution was perhaps also free from other dogmatic constraints). But John Maynard Keynes, a social rather than a physical scientist, probably put his finger on it when he called Newton, who was born on Christmas Day, the last of the Magi.
Like the old magicians, Keynes observed, Newton “looked on the whole universe and all that is in it as a riddle, as a secret which could be read by applying pure thought to certain evidence, certain mystic clues which God had laid about the world,” clues found in the cosmos, yes, “but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down by the brethren in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia.” Indeed, this was why Newton pored over the Scriptures, seeking its coded contents and comparing it to the other ancient texts containing secret wisdom. Unbeknownst to most, I’d imagine, is that one of his longest manuscripts was a commentary on the Book of Revelation.
His occult studies (which included alchemy) were not the only place he thought he found God. Newton is often accused of fashioning for posterity the image of a “clockwork universe” running smoothly, dispassionately and autonomously. This is not completely just. The parable of the mechanic cosmos was a heritage of the Middle Ages; John of Sacrobosco used this image in his 13th century writings on astronomy, and Newton himself saw the universe as much busier and more organic than a well-oiled machine would be. Gravity and “other attractive and repelling powers” constantly threatened to pull objects apart into their constituent particles and the objects themselves resisted their destruction by way of inertia.
Yet it must be admitted that his system did prepare the way for the sort of airtight cosmic structure continually squeezing anything supernatural out of it. His own argument for God’s existence was that gravity would hardly be able to sustain the solar system in its course “without the divine arm” – a perfect example of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would later call the “God of the gaps.” Once that fissure in our scientific knowledge was plugged by further discoveries, the God who had crept in through the crack was banished to an ever diminishing corner of the universe. This was hardly the only respect in which Newton’s theology was lacking.
Nevertheless, more orthodox believers can appreciate the fact that he did all his scientific inquiry “to the greater glory of God,” as the Jesuits say. We can charitably, or perhaps patronizingly, ascribe some of his erratic theology to a somewhat unstable psychology, such as afflicts many minds also blessed with brilliance. But, in the final analysis, though we should take account of his theology, Christians should not see him as a blessing to humanity because of it. The secular world praises him for the right reasons. And, if we believe that creation tells us something about its Creator, if only by way of analogy, we can safely say we learn far more about God from Isaac Newton’s scientific research than we ever would from his religious scribblings.
From a Catholic perspective, evaluating a worldview involves a lot more than simply assessing the specific beliefs of a particular individual and stacking them up against the catechism in search of congruity. Actually, the ethos of Catholicism can sometimes be more palpable further outside the visible boundaries of the Church than right outside her walls.