Born on Christmas, 1642

“Isaac Newton said he had seen farther by standing on the shoulders of giants, but he did not believe it. He was born into a world of darkness, obscurity, and magic; led a strangely pure and obsessive life, lacking parents, lovers, and friends; quarreled bitterly with great men who crossed his path; veered at least once to the brink of madness; cloaked his work in secrecy; and yet discovered more of the essential core of human knowledge than anyone before or after. He was chief architect of the modern world. He answered the ancient philosophical riddles of light and motion, and he effectively discovered gravity.  He showed how to predict the courses of heavenly bodies and so established our place in the cosmos.  He made knowledge a thing of substance: quantitative and exact.  He established principles, and they are called his laws.”

These are the opening lines of James Gleick’s Isaac Newton and they are words I wish I had written, for they convey, at least to me, a real sense of the human Isaac, the man and also genius who stood not merely above the world, he also struggled within it.

But here is another version of Isaac, from the Twitter feed of Neil deGrasse Tyson Christmas 2014:

On this day long ago, a child was born who, by age 30, would transform the world. Happy Birthday Isaac Newton b. Dec 25, 1642

It has, of course, been re-Tweeted over the past years. In fact, in this Facebook note deGrasse Tyson himself remarks on the magnitude of this phenomenon.  And yet, if Tyson’s intention was to truly honor Sir Isaac, who was indeed born on Christmas (according to Julian the calendar kept by England at the time) and whose anuus mirabilis or years of wonder, did occur prior to his 30th birthday, then why does it ring so differently in tone to Glieck’s opening lines?  I grant that this is a Tweet, an easily and often intentionally misconstrued bit of writing, not something more full or complete such as not a tome, manifesto or credo.  Gleick’s contains more words and is not constructed in Tweet-ese, but to compress it would look something like this:

Inventor of calculus, Newtonian laws, born into darkness and obscurity on Christmas 1642: Happy Birthday Sir Isaac!

Or something similar. Tyson’s, on the other hand, initially conjures or implies–certainly by design?–the birth of Christ, only to effectively mock that birth in the final line.

But Tyson makes no secret of his disbelief in God and because of this disbelief, has no one else to recommend on Christmas but Isaac Newton.  Scientific giant that he was, Newton is not, nor ever will be, able to offer salvation, forgiveness of sins, or eternal life.  Newton did, however, and to a great extent still does, grant us scope for the imagination, confidence in experimentation and discovery, and not least the persistent struggle or effort that a life of worthwhile work cannot hope to disregard.

Newton himself never divorced his discoveries or ideas from his understanding of and reverence for God, and even though he dabbled in the darker arts of alchemy and failed to fully comprehend or accept the Trinity (ironic he attended Trinity College Cambridge), at no point did Newton disavow God and hand over Creation to something impersonal, entirely scientific, or cold.  Despite all of Tyson’s love for Newton (and he has some good love), the comparison Tyson draws in his Tweet cannot be made beyond those he mentions, for it remains true that Newton is dead, buried at Westminster Abbey (interesting link here), a feature he may share with scores of poets and statesmen, but not with Christ.


Into the snowy bank: The first day of Christmas

To invoke the Twelve Days of Christmas is to begin the season on the thirteenth of December, which was yesterday.  Yesterday we woke up in Manitowoc to snow–the first of the season and light, powdery, blanketing snow it was, too.  And so began the climb, the season of shoveling into the snowy bank.

In Alaska we shoveled a bit of show but as we lived in a remote village with no paved roads it was really only porches and steps that received such consideration.  Everything else just got packed down with boot-wear or by the snowmachine track.  And in Seattle, where I grew up, snow meant a duality of emotions and responses: glee, at least initially, at the novelty of this white stuff; then panic forever after as the realization of what snow in a supremely hilly and densely-packed city means to daily life.  Which is why everything shuts down and the rest of the country points to us and laughs.  If only they knew.

But in Wisconsin, as I was telling my sister the other day via text message, snow falls on gently rolling hills or level roads and is ploughed or swept within hours, if not sooner.  They are prepared for snowfall here, just the way Seattle is prepared for the millions of coffee-drinkers who enter the city every morning. Call it priorities, but in each case it’s a system that works.

Days 4 & 5, meandering falls the day

Ugh. So lazy today.  And yesterday.  So in tribute, here is a previously-penned bit of advice.  It isn’t even mine.  I swiped it from a manual on how to write your PhD thesis. Psht.  I’m not going to justify any of this, just going to paste it here along with a link to one of my favorite websites, The Newton Papers. 

Write on.

Advice from Dr. Jeffrey S. Brooks, University of Missouri

Every time you sit down to work, every time—whether you are reading an article or working on your methodology section—you should have something you can hold in your hand to show for that time.

If you haven’t produced something—a paragraph, three pages, a set of notes that correspond to the article you just read, a rough draft, some free writing, and so on— then you wasted your time.

(If you find you spend your time in an unproductive manner, change your routine, get new friends, write longhand instead of typing—you are in a rut! Do something to get out of it.)

You must make time to read throughout the dissertation-writing phase and approach that reading with a critical eye. This must be critical reading both of new literature and your own work. Pay attention to content and the way other authors construct their arguments, support their claims, and make their recommendations. You will learn something and be able to put it to good use!

Write! Use an outline, write a topic sentence and support it with evidence, write something in several ways, use synonyms and antonyms, vary your sentence structure, set deadlines to complete parts of the work and hit them.

In part, a scholar’s life is a writer’s life, and there’s no better way to improve as a writer than by writing.


Day the third, thoughts of Woolsthorpe, Isaac Newton

“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.”
– Sir Isaac Newton

So much of Newton I do not understand: his Principia, much of the Opticks, his thoughts on the Trinity.  But many things of him I do understand and know instinctively, such as the slant and intensity of his penmanship and the sublimity of his mind.  He continues to bewitch and enthrall me and I cannot be quit of him.  Humphrey Davy must have understood this when he wrote the passage below. It is from ‘The Sons of Genius’:

To scan the laws of Nature, to explore
The tranquil reign of mild Philosophy;
Or on Newtonian wings sublime to soar
Through the bright regions of the starry sky.

Newton attended Trinity College, Cambridge.  Coincidentally (or not so very?), so did my other intellectual crush, Ralph Vaughan Williams.  More on him in a future post.

“The 1600s had no ‘scientists’, only Natural Philosophers.  Newton studied nature and the physical universe.  When he investigated a subject like creation it was in the light of the Christian beliefs of the day.” – From an informational poster at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton’s birthplace

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night
God said ‘Let Newton be’ and all was Light.”
– Alexander Pope

Outside Woolsthorpe: Observations from 9 September, 2016:
Outside the manor house where Newton tamed his light the courtyard and the stable block are quiet; the visitors, those from near and far, are dissipating; the Flower of Kent is quit, stands indifferent to its view and its viewers: the company it keeps, however, looks on with pleasure.


Allegory, the second day

With both the ‘North’ and the ‘South’ a man has, I take it, only one concern–to avoid them and hold the Main Road. We must not ‘hearken to the over-wise or to the over-foolish giant’. We were made to be neither cerebral men nor visceral men, but Men. Not beasts nor angels but Men–things at once rational and animal.
-C.S. Lewis, Preface to the Third Edition of ‘The Pilgrim’s Regress’

It had been my habit, as I scrolled the mindlessness of the newsfeed, to also scour it for the few (and sometimes many more than few) worthwhile articles or readings that my contacts are known to post. They were, I admit, primarily of the literary or theological persuasion but there would creep in–rather too often–the odd disgruntled political post.  It is these that I am striving to avoid, for they brought no joy and rendered no new insights or truths, reinforced only the banal or the tired and led me into nothing but numbness or irritation.  The literary and theological never seem to bring me down, make me angry, or cause me to walk the tightrope of compromise, and so those remain in my pursuits, and I will rely on more esteemed sources for their access and procurement.

One of these sources is the site Church Life Journal, the literary weblog for Notre Dame University. I became acquainted with this site through FB friend, Artur Rosman, its director, and whose former blog Cosmos the in Lost provided many a perplexing and enlightening read.  While it and Church Life are both Catholic publications they provide me the high-quality, intellectually rigorous theological reads that many corresponding Protestant sites lack.  I did recently re-discover, however, that I had subscribed to a site called the JHIBlog|The blog of the Journal of the History of Ideas. It is comprised of curated blog posts, some of which are theological, others literary, but all intellectually rigorous and meaningful.  The site is fantastic, and has restored my faith in humanity (somewhat).

One of the posts for this week was called Paradoxes of Incarnation: Medieval Allegory Revisited by John Farrell. It was a review of Jason Crawford’s Allegory and Enchantment: An Early Modern Poetics and I loved it. In fact, it prompted today’s quote from C.S. Lewis’ allegory The Pilgrim’s Regress, his last work of fiction and, incidentally, the first piece of writing completed after he became a Christian.  As an aside: this book is strangely little-known, even in C.S. Lewis/Christian circles, but remains a powerful piece of both literature and Christian apology. But Farrell’s piece rekindled my interest in allegory and reminded me that I am not a tool of the state but a Woman of God.  It also substantiates Alison Milbank’s inspiring claim that ‘literature can do theological work’, work that Farrell shows done so well in his brief history of allegory (which, I presume, is a truncated version of that in Crawford).

I would love to read more and, as these pieces remind me, I can!  I need not be distracted, need not be led to the extremes of North or South but remain with God, treading the Main Road with confidence and faith.

The first day, the 1st of December

We shall see how long this run of blog posts lasts. My intention, while on hiatus from Facebook-Land, is to write an entry every day in deliberate affirmation of my time away from social media.  I have already cancelled Twitter (rarely used it anyway, and when I did it was to troll Radical Orthodox John Milbank and I can do that without an account) and I’m not on any of the others, like Instagram or Snapchat or any of those photo-blogs/sites.  So, really, I’m doing well with just FB to counter and confront.

I hope to compile a set of interesting reflections and observations throughout the month of December, these final days and weeks of my year of ‘Make an Effort’ (2017). The idea of returning to the blog has been festering a while, or maybe germinating is a better word, as ‘fester’ has certain connotations that I am unwilling to incorporate into this cadre of posts.  Suffice it to say, I am not the most consistent blogger and I am really hoping this month of freedom jump-starts….something.  Something new or well-meaning, anyway.

I should like to begin each post with an adage, excerpt or verse, either reflective of the day already spent or, if a morning post, one that might summon inspiration or provide direction for the day ahead.  Today’s shall be the former, as it is already evening, the dark of late-fall having fallen nearly an hour ago.  Thus, this passage from Blaise Pascal’s Pensées falls into the realm of its title, that of contemplation and consideration–of thought.

It is a passage is from XI. At Port Royal and reflects the reasons I both love and abhor the concept of present-day social media and all it stands for:

Man’s greatness and wretchedness are so evident that the true religion must necessarily teach us that there is in man some great principle of greatness and some great principle of wretchedness.
It must also account for such amazing contradictions.

This, to me, accurately sums up, if not entirely too simply, my experiences within the social-cyber realm where much good and much evil is conducted on a daily, hourly, ongoing basis.  The Internet is, as a good many tools and resources are, not inherently good or evil on its own but merely conduits, vessels for the ‘greatness and wretchedness’, the ‘amazing contradictions’ that each of us encounters and is capable of. We do ourselves a disservice to pretend we are only one or the other, or that we are good, others are evil and never the twain shall meet.  It is not so.  Much that is inspirational or encouraging is gleaned from the Web in the forms of communication, connection, learning, creativity and discovery.  But simultaneously, as the proverbial ‘other side of the same coin’ there exists the evil, the dark, the destructive which appears everywhere good resides, for it is as inescapable as humanity.

And it is this contradiction, this paradox of great and wretched that I wish to explore and plumb during my month (or so) of time away from the frenzy of online social banter.  I will miss much, to be sure–things like how my friends in faraway places are faring in their new or regular old lives will not cross my daily path for a while, and I will accustom myself to it.  But I will glean, God willing, more than simple updates in my absence from this interface.  I wish to exchange ample for much, and learn how the true religion allows us and teaches us to ‘account for such amazing contradictions.’

So for tonight, that is all. Bon nuit tout le monde!