By Dr. Amanda Alexander
October is apple season! I am lucky enough to have friends who live in Oak Glen and look forward every autumn to picking apples from their century-old trees. Of course, once in a while, an apple falls from the tree and knocks me on my head. Cue the Newton jokes.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727), the story goes, was sitting under an apple tree thinking deep thoughts when he saw an apple fall to the ground. The observation that apples always fall straight down to the ground, rather than falling up or sideways, led Newton to hypothesize that the ground exerted a force which attracted the apple to it. That same force could also operate between the earth and moon, and even the sun and the planets. This speculation led Newton to develop the theory of gravity and to eventually articulate three general principles, his famous “laws of motion,” that basically explain the movement of everything in the visible universe.
Using Newton’s laws, which took the form of elegant, simple mathematical equations, it was suddenly possible to accurately predict an object’s future position (for example, how close an asteroid will come to the earth), and to know an object’s position at a given point in the past. The laws implied that the course of events was already determined and that the universe functioned like a machine. This view of reality, which prevailed in scientific circles until the early twentieth century and the discovery of quantum physics, is known as the “mechanistic world view.”
While scientists now have a much more complex understanding of how the universe works, most of us are still profoundly influenced by the deterministic, mechanistic understanding of the laws of nature we learned about in school. But because we also believe that God is the creator, designer and giver of these laws, that mechanistic world view can creep into our religious imagination too. Many people imagine that the divine law, which we strive to live by, functions like an impersonal set of operating instructions.
How can reflecting on the laws of nature help us to grow in wonder and love for the divine law, rather than causing us to shrink back in fear? There are two points I think worth pondering. The first is that, when we focus exclusively on the laws of nature and how well they help us to understand the past, present and future relationship of an object to any other object in the universe (that asteroid!), we lose sight of the object itself. We cease to think of it with wonder and awe.
Consider the humble rock: using Newton’s laws of motion, we could accurately predict what object that rock might hit if thrown and what the effect of that impact would be. But the very rock itself is already a product of the laws of motion we are calculating with. Its existence, color, shape, smoothness or roughness, its beauty and uniqueness all already bear witness to the laws of nature which have created it. In the same way, if we focus exclusively on the divine law and its repercussions, we lose sight of the fact that we ourselves, with all our lights and shadows, are products of that law and are loved into and maintained in existence by God.
The second point worth reflecting on is that, despite their success in helping us to understand the things we can see in the universe, Newton’s laws are inadequate and cannot give us a full explanation of how objects interact with other objects. When it comes to the divine law, this suggests an act of intellectual humility on our part. The Church has long taught that revelation is complete in Jesus Christ, but that our understanding of that revelation is still gradually unfolding. The divine law as we know it is not only helpful, but also essential to our day-to-day endeavor to become holy people of God. However, we can never forget that it is the law as we know it. It is our duty never to think that we have understood it perfectly. Rather, we must daily pray to God to “open my eyes, so that I may see the wonderful truths in your law” (Psalms 119:18).
It would be a mistake to abandon Newton’s laws of motion because we know there is much they cannot explain. In the same way, it would be foolish to abandon the law of God because we know that we do not yet fully comprehend it. In our day-to-day life, we must live by both. But that does not mean that we should not also reflect on what those laws enable, which is life itself, and pray that, through the contemplation of those laws, we are led deeper into the divine mystery.
Amanda Alexander is currently the Director of the Department of Ministry Formation Institute for the Diocese and a parishioner of St. Adelaide in Highland. She has a Ph.D. in systematic theology and has taught at numerous Catholic universities.