Isaac Newton

Isaac Newton

sir-isaac-newton-lived-from-1642-to-1727by Daniel Harrell

Summertime means “Church Fathers,” so to speak, a sermon series now in its seventeenth season. I started lo these many years ago to focus annually on those notable believers whose lives shaped the faith we now embrace. As there have been so many noteworthy Church Fathers (and Mothers), it seemed sensible to tackle them a letter at a time, with the plan to reach Z by retirement. Serendipitously, my sermons attracted the attention of a publisher with a church history bent who proposed to make it into an ebook—which has taken about as long to do as the whole sermon series itself. Originated slated to be a three-volume set (as much as one can do that as an ebook), plans and publishers changed and changed again, so that I am glad to announce to the entire alphabet is now available, soup to nuts, in one complete volume entitled Wisdom of the Saints (and Near Saints): Christian Inspiration from A-Z, all on Amazon for the discount price of 3.99. But wait. Order now and you can guiltlessly skip summer sermons for the next ten years.

As this is year seventeen, I should be preaching from letter Q, but I got off to a slow start due to so many Church Fathers starting with A. Last summer, you may remember, since I still had S & U to write, I skipped ahead and double-dipped to meet the deadline. Thus we took on Letter U  with a look at Pope Urban II and Eusebius—cheating a bit on that last one since Eusebius only sounds like his name starts with a U. This season I’m pedaling backwards to letters N and O so I can make that retirement, and also because there are so few noteworthy church personalities at this part of the alphabet. I’m really reaching with Isaac Newton and Reinhold Niebuhr at N, though will make up for that with a bona fide early church personality, Origen under letter O.

Dawn and Violet and I spent much of July in the UK, taking advantage of a theology and science project I’m working on that had me in Oxford. During free time in Oxford, we toured the Museum of Natural History where this statue of Isaac Newton resides. That Oxford would honor Newton is no small thing given that Newton was fully a Cambridge man.

As people subject to gravitational pull, we recall being taught how Isaac Newton“discovered” why it is we inhabit a spinning earth without being flung from it. But Newton’s interests stretched far beyond universal gravitation—he’d done the math in his head as to how planets orbited the sun. He also figured out the make-up of white light and came up with integral and differential calculus. But more than any of these extraordinary pursuits, Newton theologized. Among the most brilliant thinkers in human history, Newton observed creation as connected to its Creator, which led to a reconsideration of the nature of nature, of God and all reality.

Newton affirmed the Lord to be a God of order, simplicity and economy, and these convictions directed Newton’s approach to natural philosophy and how best to acquire knowledge about the world. In the second edition of his magnum opus, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, Newton posited four rules that he believed should guide all thinking, still hotly debated by philosophers. The first rule reads “We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances.” Newton goes on to explain what he meant, “Nature does nothing in vain,” he wrote, “and more is in vain when less will serve; for nature [and therefore God, the Author of Nature] is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”

To this day, theoretical science gravitates toward the simplest hypothesis, assuming still that the elementary, straightforward explanation is likely true. To abandon the principle of simplicity would be to abandon all reasoning about the external world. Philosophers. most famously Richard Swinburne of Oxford, in true Newtonian fashion, appeal to simplicity to argue for God’s existence.

Swinburne argues that, “Descriptions of reality can be arranged in order of their simplicity. On a priori grounds, a simple universe is more likely than a complicated one. And the simplest universe of all is the one that contains nothing—no objects, no properties, no relations. So, prior to the evidence, that is the hypothesis with the greatest probability: the hypothesis that says there is Nothing rather than Something.” Yet because there is something: this morning, this Meetinghouse and you and me and coffee after church, how did this happen? What is the simplest explanation for this universe that contains all we observe? Swinburne asserts the simplest hypothesis to be one that posits God—a conclusion that drives Swinburne’s Oxford colleague, the famous atheist Richard Dawkins, straight up a wall.

Swinburne asserts that “Someone like Dawkins might claim that science never posits the kind of ‘omni’ properties— omni-knowledge, omni-power—that we ascribe to God. But let’s look at Newton’s theory of gravitation. This powerful theory postulates that every particle in the universe has one power and one liability. The power is to exert gravitational force, and the liability is to be subject to gravitational force. And this power is infinite: each particle influences every other particle in the universe, no matter how far away. Therefore, serious physicists readily attribute infinite power to very tiny particles.”

Christians, as well as Jews and Muslims, ascribe to the doctrine of divine simplicity; meaning God is identical to his attributes, that characteristics such as omnipresence, perfect goodness, absolute truth, eternity, etc. are God’s essential being, not qualities that make up God’s being. It’s considered quite proper in science to attribute omni-properties to very simple kinds of objects, Swinburne asserts, how much more then can we attribute universe-making power to the infinite God?

Isaac Newton was born in England, on Christmas Day in the same year Galileo died. A sickly child, he wasn’t expected to survive, but did and grew up tapped by his family to take over the family farm. But Newton was a lousy farmer, so his uncle, a clergyman, suggested young Isaac give the university a try. Newton paid his way through school until the plague hit his university and forced him home. Back on the farm, under that apple tree, Newton discovered gravity, realized white light to be comprised of a rainbow of color, and came up with calculus. He had a lot to report when it came time to tell about his summer vacation.

Newton returned to school and eventually published his ideas, garnering such acclaim that he was awarded the endowed Lucasian Professorship at Cambridge, one of the most prestigious academic posts in the world, a professorship recently held by another famous atheist, Steven Hawkings. Cambridge University is currently recruiting its 19th Lucasian Professor, if anybody is interested.

Isaac Newton, a fervent believer, regarded all his work as an aspect of worship. Though less known, his theological writing far exceeded his mathematical writing. Though devoted to the doctrine of divine simplicity, he didn’t find theology so simple. It was his devotion to simplicity that caused him to have such trouble with the Trinity. The Trinity is not simple. Newton was fine with Jesus as Son and Messiah, he just wasn’t convinced that the Father and Son could one and the same substance. He argued that consubstantiality (as it’s called) stood on shaky Scriptural ground; it was a doctrine misconstrued by the early church fathers. “All the old Heresies lay in deductions,” Newton wrote, “the true faith was in the text.” Fortunately for Newton, the Church of England proved more lenient toward him than the Roman Catholic Church had been toward Galileo. King Charles II royally excused Newton from becoming a priest (a requirement for the Lucasian Professorship), setting the precedent for Professors like Steven Hawkings to occupy the Chair in later centuries.

I’ve given some thought as to how Newton might have tried to integrate faith and science— much to the horror of friends of mine who actually are physicists. One of the long-standing conundrums in physics concerns irreversibility. Why is it that complex entities behave in a one-way direction from past to future, despite the fact that their constituent particles demonstrate no singular directionality? A broken glass will not reassemble even though its particles, known as quarks, move forward and backward in time.

According to Newton’s calculations, time itself is symmetrical. Theoretically, time can move both forward and backward. The apparent clockwise movement is only an “epiphenomenon,” masking the underlying physical reality. What happens is that once quarks get together, they start heading toward what physicists call “the maximum number of states,” just as the second law of thermodynamics predicts. This second law holds that in any closed system (such as our universe), where neither energy nor matter can enter or leave, disorder increases over time. A broken glass will not mend itself. Iron turns to rust but rust will not return to iron. A can of air freshener will send its scent into the air but the scent will never go back into the can. You have to straighten the messy papers on your desk; they never straighten themselves.

What prevents these things from reversing is called entropy. Entropy is the degree of disorder in a system. In a closed system, entropy is always on the increase; everything moves inevitably toward disorder.

Why do timeless, reversible, single particles, once together behave as if they’re now on the clock? Christianity offers a simple hypothesis. God is eternal. Time is of no consequence to him. Theoretically, the Lord runs on Newtonian time, forward and backward, in simplicity and beauty, just like quarks. However, as Maker of Heaven and Earth, the Lord is the Maker of time. Since the beginning, the universe has moved in a single direction, in accord with the second law of thermodynamics toward ultimate disorder. The world will come to an end.

What of the God of order amidst all this disorder? If the universe has an end, it must have had a beginning. If the past were infinite, we’d already have reached the end of time because entropy can’t go on forever; all energy eventually becomes unusable. Now we know the universe began with a bang some 13.7 billion years ago. Telescopes enable us to see almost all the way back to that beginning, to that first flash of light. The problem is that when you look through a telescope deep into space and back into time, what you see is mostly darkness. Despite the mammoth number of massively bright galaxies and stars, the voids between them are even more massive, rendering the universe essentially empty. In fact, there’s so much darkness in space that were you to remove everything that you can see, the cosmos would hardly be any different. It’s as if the heavens and the earth are totally trivial.

And that would have been the conclusion if not for the discovery, a few years back, that the universe is actually expanding instead of gravitationally contracting like everybody assumed. Astronomers realized that all that darkness was not emptiness, but a power stronger than gravity itself. At the first millisecond of creation, enormous light released but then dispersed, rapidly spreading out to permeate the entire cosmos, and even accelerating, carrying with it the bulk of the universe’s luminous energy. It is this energy that pushes space apart. And what’s weird is that light looks like darkness. But it’s not. The pure light that burst forth in the beginning, due to billions of years of cosmic expansion, has just been stretched out, its wavelength having expanded to that microwave frequency invisible to our eyes. It’s called Cosmic Background Radiation, residue from the Big Bang itself that continually bathes all creation in light from every direction. Though you cannot see it, it is everywhere. Just like the Lord himself. John’s gospel described it in our passage this morning better than he could have realized: “The light shines in darkness, and darkness can not overcome it.”

Time began with a bang and will ultimately end as thermodynamics predicts. But God is light and has entered the system, cloaked in power, infusing new energy and new life that one day becomes a new heaven and earth. Revelation declares there “There will be no need of sun or moon to shine,” Revelation declares, “for the glory of God is the light…” “Faith shall be sight” is how we sing it in church. Theology provides this take on how reality works; the conundrum of irreversibility is simply the mysterious way of the Lord.

Newton lived to the age of eighty-five, a wealthy and generous man hailed by many to be an intellect on par with Aristotle and Galileo. Albert Einstein would eventually demonstrate Newton “laws” to be more relative than Newton would have imagined, but here’s guessing he would not have been surprised.

“I do not know what I may appear to the world,” Newton wrote just before he died, “but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”