Kingdom of Priests

In a little write-up on a panel in New York of ex-Evangelical Christians turned secular literary intellectuals, Tablet magazine quotes critic James Wood of The New Yorker on Isaac Newton:

Isaac Newton could quite happily exist today if he was Jewish. He’d be living on the Upper West Side and going to one of those big Reform temples up there.

Newton was in fact a very Jewish sort of Christian. But as an aficionado of Reform Judaism?
Today, Newton may be claimed as a saint of the mechanistic-materialist view of the universe. But he was entirely comfortable making arguments for intelligent design. In the Opticks, he examined that of the human eye. In the Principia, that of the planetary system, which he said “could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Studying him at Newton’s own university, Cambridge, my colleague Stephen Meyer recalls in his book Signature in the Cell that Steve’s atheist tutor warned him, “If you miss Newton’s theism, you’ve missed everything.”
On the other hand, he was not an orthodox Christian, not a Trinitarian.
So what was he? A scholar in Israel, José Faur, offers evidence of Newton’s heavy indebtedness to Maimonides. Newton was an incredibly accomplished Hebraist and probably learned Hebrew at Cambridge from Rabbi Isaac Abendana. His personal library was croweded with volumes of Hebraica. In private journals that have only recently been revealed and published, Newton wrote extensively about the Jerusalem Temple — its dimensions, geometry, furniture, and rituals — and the coded occult messages he believed were revealed in them. What could be more Jewish? Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch would later present the most systematic “decoding” ever attempted of the worship and architecture in the Tabernacle, the desert forerunner of the Temple described in the Torah. Newton would approve.

John Maynard Keynes purchased most of Newton’s religious papers that had been squirreled away unpublished since Newton’s death. Keynes observed:

Very early in life Newton abandoned orthodox belief in the Trinity….He was rather a Judaic monotheist of the school of Maimonides….Newton’s proverbial fear of controversy, his suspicious attitude and neurotic behavior, his obsession with secrecy, and his eventual departure from Cambridge to an administrative position in London — all this, becomes perfectly clear in light of the dreadful secret he had to hide all his life….In the main the secret died with him. But it was revealed in many writings in his big box.

Keynes again, basing himself on the religious and other writings Newton left behind: 

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 hid about the world to allow a sort of philosopher’s treasure hunt …. He believed that these clues were to be found partly in the evidence of the heavens and in the constitution of elements…, but also partly in certain papers and traditions handed down … in an unbroken chain back to the original cryptic revelation in Babylonia. He regarded the universe as a cryptogram set by the Almighty.

James Wood is wrong on one point. Today, Isaac Newton would be ridiculed as a “creationist in a cheap tuxedo,” and at any self-respecting Reform temple, quickly shown to the door marked Exit.


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