Science and the Spirit: Isaac Newton and the Truth


Garrison Keillor, of A Prairie Home Companion fame, has a thing for Unitarian Universalists. Sometimes he’s laughing WITH us, and sometimes he’s laughing AT us. It once led a fellow Unitarian Universalist to ask him directly if he harbored animosity towards us, and Keillor wrote back saying that his “ill-feeling toward UUs is due to their relentless evangelizing among the dead—UUs are ransacking the past for people who might have been thinking along UU lines and claiming them as members in good standing. Next thing you know they’ll be claiming Elvis.”

Hmmm…. Elvis…. Now that’s a GREAT idea! Isn’t there something that sounds like a call to spiritual freedom in, for example, “Blue Suede Shoes”? As in:

But don’t you step on my blue suede shoes.

You can do anything but lay off of my blue suede shoes.

Just kidding.

On the other hand, I’m serious about claiming Isaac Newton as one of ours. Isaac Newton: one of the greatest minds the world has ever seen. Inventor of calculus (and therefore ever since, scourge to all the non-mathematicians out there, like me). Discoverer of universal laws of nature like the three laws of motion and the law of gravitation (which you saw in brilliant action during the film clip today, with all the crashing and crunching of things been tossed off a three-story building). “Nearer the gods no mortal may approach” said one of his contemporaries. “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night: God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” That’s from 18th century poet Alexander Pope.

The guy has it going on. And we are claiming him as one of our Unitarian Universalist ancestors, knowingly risking Garrison Keillor’s wrath, but by the end of our time today, I hope you’ll see how it’s justified. Not just because of his specific beliefs, but also his style of believing and his manner of struggling to discover the truth… Isaac Newton is part of our spiritual family.

One main reason for saying this is his paramount stress on finding out the truth for himself. Not settling for someone else’s conviction—being responsible for generating his own. This is very Unitarian Universalist. Remember Doubting Thomas in the Bible? The resurrected Jesus appears before the Disciples, and all but one are like, Jesus! Yay! Except Thomas, who’s skeptical. He hangs back. This Jesus could be an imposter. This Jesus could be an illusion induced from too much imbibing the night before. He’s got to actually put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds before he believes. He’s got to be able to put his own hands on the truth, and test things for himself.

How many of you Doubting Thomases are out there?

Newton was the same way. He had to see for himself. He did things with ideas: applied them, tested them, evaluated them, of course mathematized them if he could (and it’s this latter aspect of his work that truly distinguished him. For example, it’s not that his predecessors didn’t know about gravity. Copernicus and Kepler before him had already speculated about this force. But Newton’s brilliance lay in his ability to articulate it mathematically and prove that it was a universal force). But back to my main point: Newton had to put his own hands on the truth, and we get that, as UUs….

Newton’s biographer, Peter Ackroyd, says that this tendency is evident early in Newton’s life. Not that he was a standout at school. In his first year he was marked 78th out of a total of eighty students. But when this same student got passionate and curious about something, watch out. “As a child he made a wooden clock, and a wooden mill based upon his observations of a new mill being built [near his home].” “From the beginning he was preoccupied with time and mechanism [and this was] nowhere more evident than in his creation of a sundial by calculating the sun’s progress and by fixing pegs to the walls and roof of the apothecary’s house. It was so exact that ‘anybody knew what o’clock it was by Isaac’s dial, as they ordinarily called it.” These are just some examples of Newton’s practical and empirical streak. The truth, for Newton, was something he had to explore viscerally.

I should qualify things by saying the “truth of nature.” Because as for the “truth of his chores,” he couldn’t have cared less. His job was to take care of the pigs and the sheep and the cattle and to attend to the corn. Whatever. Newton was once actually fined “for suffering his swine to trespass in the corn fields…” That’s how they said it back in the 1600s when he lived. In response, Newton’s horrified mother actually asked a servant to keep an eye out for him, but you know what he did? Delegated all his duties to that servant so he could read. His mind was on fire for natural knowledge but absent for everything else. “On one occasion,” the story goes, “he was leading his horse home when it slipped its bridle; he did not notice the animal’s absence and walked home with the bridle in his hand.” I know what Bill Cosby would say about Newton the boy. BRAIN-DAMAGED. And none of us, of course, have ever been so caught up in what were passionate about that we neglected our duties….  Never! No way, no how!

Two more of Newton’s experiments deserve comment, and then we step back to consider his larger social context. Newton’s passion for the truth was so absolute that he was willing to put his body on the line. Pain? Pah! Whatever! Once, when he was in college at Cambridge, he wanted to test a theory about light being a “pressure” on the eye. So he took a “bodkin” which is a long needle of the sort used for sewing leather and inserted it into his eye socket and rubbed it around “between [he says] my eye and the bone as near to the [backside] of my eye as I could” just to see what would happen. This is painful just to imagine, forget about doing…

Then there was the time he wanted to see what would happen if he stared at the sun for as long as possible. I mean, you gotta keep this guy away from hot stoves, because he’s gonna put his hand on the burner. I don’t care what your warnings might be. He’s got to find out for himself.

And it’s a remarkable ethic for any age. Our Fourth Unitarian Universalist Principle, “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning,” is still incomprehensible (in this day and time!) in so many churches across this land. But in Newton’s day, the “I’m gonna see for myself” ethic was truly mindblowingly radical. Edward Dolnick, in his awesome book The Clockwork History: Isaac Newton, The Royal Society, and the Birth of the Modern World, describes this clearly: “Today we take for granted that originality is a word of praise. New strikes us as nearly synonymous with improved. But for nearly all of human history, a new idea was a dangerous idea. […] Most people would have agreed with the Spanish ruler Alphonse the Wise, who once decreed that the only desirable things in this world were ‘old wood to burn, old wine to drink, old friends to converse with, and old books to read.’ The best way to learn the truth, it was often observed, was to see what the authorities of the past had decreed. This was the plainest common sense. To ignore such wisdom in favor of exploring on one’s own was to seek disaster, akin to a foolish traveler’s taking it in his head to fling the captain overboard and grab the ship’s wheel himself.” Because of this, Edward Dolnick goes on to say, the experimental approach to finding things out was BAAAD. “[L]ooking for oneself meant second-guessing the value of eyewitness testimony. And for longer than anyone could remember, eyewitness testimony—whether it had to do with blood raining from the sky or the birth of half-human/half-animal monsters—had trumped all other forms of evidence. To accept such testimonials marked a person not as gullible or unsophisticated but as pious and thoughtful. To question such testimonials, on the other hand, […] was the ‘hallmark of the narrow-minded and suspicious peasant, trapped in the bubble of his limited experience.’” That’s Edward Dolnick. And I have to admit, there IS something troubling about an automatic, reactive dismissal to other people’s eyewitness reports. To hold everything guilty until proven innocent is a hard way to live. It IS like being that traveler who flings the captain overboard and tries to set sail all by himself. That’s the sort of skepticism you want to become skeptical towards…. But what Newton stood for, and what we stand for today, is to be first-hand in your living in a way that works. Don’t JUST take things second-hand, but go on to think about them for yourself. What resonates with your reason, your intuition, your experience? Expand the borders of your knowledge through personal reading, research, experiment. Do it, or the ages of your life will be just as stifling and uncreative as the Dark Ages. “Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night,” goes that famous couplet from Alexander Pope. But “God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” We wanna be light like Newton. WWND. What would Newton do?

Let’s in fact turn to that. What Newton did in the area of religion. We already know what he did in the natural science. He was a smartie-pants. But what about religion?

One thing he did might appeal to us as much as sticking a bodkin into our eyesockets. I’m talking the study of biblical prophesy. Fact is, Newton was and was not a creature of his time. Yes, he resisted the surrounding culture’s disdain towards the new and seeing for yourself. But, like the surrounding culture, God’s existence was an absolute given. And this is the God of the Bible, whom everyone believed was about to press play on the End Times. So Newton, like most every other scientist of the time, spent countless hours trying to decode Biblical prophesy to determine when the Battle of Armageddon would take place. As much time—maybe even more—than he spent on the secrets of gravity or light. No joke. The Christian religion he knew was wrapped up in the Bible, so the closest he could come to an experimental approach was through rigorous study of the scriptures. And rigorous it was, worthy of a Newton. He owned some thirty Bibles in various translations, so that his study of the scriptures could be comprehensive and complete. He taught himself Greek, Hebrew, and Chaldean so he could get as close to the original meanings as possible. This is Isaac Newton. This is how he rolled.

What he discovered was that the Battle of Armageddon—when the world ends—will happen in the year [gimme a drumroll] 2060.

(so if it turns out the Mayans are wrong about 2012, at least we have something to look forward to…)

But here’s something else he discovered in the course of his Biblical studies—and this discovery might be more meaningful for us today. Imagine Newton scrutinizing his some thirty odd different Bible translations, and eventually he has a eureka insight that he no doubt experienced as comparable to staring at the sun: that the Trinity is a lie. God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit: a lie. It’s not scriptural. The parts in scripture that seem to suggest it reflect creative editing by people who wanted to foist their belief upon an unsuspecting world. Imagine how troubling a discovery this was. Something you have believed all your life you discover is not only false, but falsely placed in a book that, for you, is the pristine Word of God. Staring at the sun….

In this way, Newton, like another of our famous UU progenitors, Michael Servetus, became, doctrinally, a Unitarian. But Newton, unlike Servetus, did not proclaim his Unitarianism to the world. It was against the law. Newton would lose his teaching post at Cambridge. He would go to prison. So he kept his faith secret. It’s understandable. Only after his death would the larger world know about his Unitarian convictions, as well as his equally radical beliefs about religious tolerance and the separation of church and state: two other beliefs that are distinguishing marks of religious liberalism in the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond.

Take that, Garrison Keiller. Isaac Newton truly IS one of ours…

There’s one more thing I was to say about Newton’s religion. Namely, that he saw himself doing EVERYTHING for its sake. He just wasn’t religious one day of the week and then, every other day, scientific. He didn’t live in pieces like this. His life was a unity. “When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme” he says [referring to his masterwork entitled Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy] I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it usefull for that purpose.” He knew his destiny in life: to glorify God in al that he did. To bring people into the presence of God. That’s what religion meant to him.

And this is decidedly both like and unlike the Unitarian Universalism of today. Decidedly “unlike” with respect to Newton’s narrow meaning of religion (of course!) since we know that you can be religious and not believe in God at all, or you can believe in the sort of God that is very different from the character we read about in the Bible.

But what if we give religion a more inclusive sense? That’s it’s not so much about a specific God doctrine as about a Spirit of Life way of being. That it’s not so much about bringing people into the presence of a specific version of a specific religion’s God as it is about bringing people into the presence of something holy, something beautiful and good, something that can transform you in ways you cannot transform yourself. If we do this, could we remove science from its hermetically sealed-off compartment here and spirituality from its hermetically-sealed-off compartment over there and bring them together, make them serve the same purpose which is Life In Abundance?

Just listen to one of our amazing responsive readings from the back of the hymnal, written by Vincent Silliman. Number 466. Read it with me.

Let religion be to us life and joy.

Let it be a voice of renewing challenge?to the best we have and may be;

let it be a call to generous action.

Let religion be to us a dissatisfaction with things that are, which bids us serve more eagerly the true and the right.

Let it be the sorrow that opens for us the way of sympathy, understanding, and service to suffering humanity.

Let religion be to us the wonder and lure of that?which is only partly known and understood:?An eye that glories in nature’s majesty and beauty,?and a heart that rejoices in deeds of kindness and of courage.

Let religion be to us security and serenity because of its truth and beauty,?and because of the enduring worth and power of the loyalties which it engenders;

Let it be to us hope and purpose,?and a discovering of opportunities?to express our best through daily tasks:

Religion, uniting us with all that is?admirable in human beings everywhere;

Holding before our eyes a prospect of the better life for humankind,?which each may help to make actual.

What Isaac Newton does for us is not only give us a profound example of one who refused to live a second-hand life, one who insisted on putting his own hands on the truth and seeing for himself. Not just this—but he also reminds us that all we do can be done to the glory of a single unifying purpose. We don’t have to live in pieces that are hermetically sealed-off from each other. We don’t have to live in fragments. In our science and our spirituality, we can be whole. That’s his gift to us today.