Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night;
God said “Let Newton be” and all was light.
— Alexander Pope
Today we mark the births of two men separated by more than 1,600 years, neither of whom was actually born on this date.
The obvious one, of course, was Jesus of Nazareth. Regardless of whether you believe he was the son of God and the Messiah, there is no questioning he has had the largest impact on human history than any other person who has ever trod this rock.
The other is Sir Isaac Newton, who arguably had the greatest effect on the history of science and our understanding of the universe.
Both fundamentally changed the world for the better.
Aside from the obvious religious importance, Jesus’ story, from birth to death, is a cautionary tale about the dangers of government.
In the Gospel of Luke, a census was ordered that required families to travel to their ancestral homes, So Joseph dutifully took his pregnant wife on a perilous 90-mile journey from Nazareth the Bethlehem.
Only a cold, heartless government would force a pregnant woman to make such a journey for a simple census, which was probably being conducted to facilitate tax collection. Still, who can’t see government doing equally horrendous things today?
Then, after Jesus’ birth, we have, according to the Gospel of Matthew, Herod the Great ordering the execution of all young male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem, the so-called Massacre of the Innocents. While the historicity of this event is questionable, like the census mentioned above, it shows a brutality of government we see over and over throughout history.
Then, after Jesus began his ministry, he was hounded by government officials and eventually was brutally executed by the government because of his speech, a fairly typical reaction by large governments even today.
His life, and death, prompted a religious movement that today is the largest in the world with a third of the people on the planet claiming to be Christian. Even Islam teaches Jesus was the Messiah and will return to Earth near the Day of Judgment.
However, ignoring the theological aspects of Jesus, it was his life and the religion he founded that led to the greatness of Western Civilization and its science, of which Newton played a large part.
The revisionists today like to paint the Age of Enlightenment as a period when mankind began to toss off the shackles of religion and embrace science. This is simply not true.
Newton said it best, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
Newton simply expanded on what already was discovered by earlier scientists, usually working at church-run universities and often members of the clergy themselves.
All the great schools of science of the day were founded and funded by the church. From the Early Middle Ages through the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery, it was the church that pushed for scientific advancement. That is because like Newton, Christianity in general — and the Catholic Church in particular — has always been devoted to reason.
Christianity teaches that the universe is a rational place and that God speaks to us, as Johannes Kepler said, “in the language of mathematics.”
St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest Christian theologians, in the fifth century advocated an allegorical interpretation of Genesis and warned that we should not take the Bible literally when it contradicts what we know from science and our God-given ability to reason. Indeed, Christianity generally did not take a literal view of the Bible before the Reformation.
Science is not the only aspect of Western civilization to have its roots in the church founded by Jesus.
Capitalism grew in the ninth century in the great Catholic monastic estates, where a meritocracy developed along with banking and the issuance of credit. Men such as St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, who lived in the 13th century, taught that profit was not a dirty word.
The church also taught free will, which led to a distrust of social structures that limited liberty (and why the church was opposed to slavery centuries before anyone else). This belief led to the growth of political freedom in the Western world, which led to increased development in all areas because it takes political freedom and stable property rights for a culture to flourish.
As you celebrate Christmas today, pause to consider the impact Jesus — born a simple artisan — had on the development of Western science and our modern way of life through the church he founded. Reason and religion are truly partners in the advancement of mankind.
Thomas J. Lucente Jr. is an attorney with the Hearn Law Office in Wapakoneta (419-738-8171) and night editor of The Lima News. Reach him by telephone at 567-242-0398, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @ThomasLucente.