God said “Let Newton be, then there was Light”

KEEPING FAITH IN THE CREATIVE SPIRIT.

Genesis begins ” In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the waters. And God said, Let there be light.

In that very confident age when the creation appeared to have been satisfactorily explained by Newtonian science Alexander Pope expressed it in an epigram:

Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night
God said, " Let Newton be, then there was light".

The orderly , law-governed cosmos demonstrated by Newton’s science was seen as justifying natural religion. Newtonian science seemed successfully to marry science and religion: having demonstrated scientific laws mathematically, he concludes: “It is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give birth to so many regular motions” (Bk2 Principia 1687 ) thus pointing to theism. (Blackburn Dictionary of Philosophy O.U.P. 1996.). Natural religion lessened dependence on revelation. God’s workings could be studied by the empirical methods , so well advanced by eminent philosophers, like John Locke (1632 -1704) who, as well as his great philosophical work Essay Concerning Understanding 1689 also wrote The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695).

All this prepared for a rational-minded belief in a God who set off creation, whose intentions, in what had been shown to be an ordered universe, were benevolent. But God did not necessarily intervene within human affairs and any claim of mystical understanding or of visionary revelation was regarded with suspicion, the cause of the troubles of the recent past, that had led to the Civil War, and the superstition of the Middle Ages. John Toland, a radical thinker, wrote a work entitled Christianity Not Mysterious 1696( Blackburn ibid. on Deism). God became distant, religion became formalised, ethical, common-sensical and well -regulated.

Deism expressed faith in God as a watchmaker or clock-maker who set the universe into operation and left it to follow the given laws. This attitude affected the eighteenth century church, where rational minded common sense, a spirit of moderation and good -will guided followers away from extremism but not, it might be said, from complacency.

During the pre-Romantic and Romantic periods, however, reaction developed against the limitations of the rule of reason; the kind of experience it tended to distrust and deny, including emphasis on salvation and the visionary became re-emphasised. In religion there was the Methodist revival started by the Wesley brothers. The poet and artist, William Blake exemplifies the reaction against conventional thinking and practice. Brought up within one of the many non-conformist sects in London, he despised the conformist religious establishment and he loathed empirical philosophy which was sceptical of the visionary and revelatory spiritual experience which he knew to be real. Similarly, Coleridge, although continuing Church of England, rejected empiricism for idealism. Idealism was a rejection of a materialist philosophy that treated the action of the spirit as a development from the material base , rather than the organising principle from the beginning.

Blake and Coleridge in their poetry were concerned, though in a very different way from Pope, with the meaning of “creation” and the ways in which poetic creation mirrored or exemplified the divine process. The word “create” ( along with its derivatives” creation” and ” Creative”) were vital to them and the imagination was seen to be the source of creativity. Coleridge sees the imagination of the artist as reflecting the divine process of creation: “a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM”. Here Coleridge is drawing on the answer given to Moses in his encounter with the divine presence in the Book of Exodus.(see Exodus 3:13-14)

How does this fit in with Christian theological conceptions of “Creation”? I looked this up by checking the New Lion Handbook of Christian Belief (ed. Alastair McGrath2006. Lion Hudson).

But how are we to understand this idea of “creation”? What does it mean to speak of God “creating” the world? Three main ways of conceiving the creative action of God became widely established in the Christian church.

1.Emanation. This term was widely used by early Christian writers to clarify the relation between God and the world. The image that dominates this approach is that of light or heat radiating from the sun , or from a human source such as fire. This image of creation (hinted at in the Nicene Creed phrase “Light from Light”) suggests that the creation of the world can be regarded as an overflowing of the creative energy of God. Just as light derives from the sun and reflects its nature, so the created order derives from God and expresses the divine nature. There is, on the basis of this model, a natural or organic connection between God and the creation. (See Gospel of St. John 1.1,4, 8-9) “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…..In him [the Word of God] was life; and the life was the light of men” and “He[John the Baptist] was not that Light but sent to bear witness of the Light, that men through him might believe. That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world”.)

2. Construction. Many Biblical passages portray God as a master builder, deliberately constructing the world according to a definite design The image expresses the ideas of purpose, planning and a deliberate intention to create. (See Psalm 8. 3 “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained” or Job38.4 “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”)

3. Artistic expression. Many Christian writers, from various periods of the history of the church speak of creation as the “handiwork of God”, comparing it to a work of art, which is both beautiful in itself as well as expressing the the personality of the creator. (see Psalm 19.1 “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork” or Psalm 104.2 “Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain”.)

Of these, it can be said that both Blake and Coleridge see in God the action of emanation in the “overflowing of His creative energy”(see above definition) making creation possible. They see God not primarily as architect or designer as in (2), nor as in (3) presenting a finished creation but as in (1) in emanation moving within, involved in, His creation. For Blake there is continuity from the energy of the creative God for whom “eternal energy is creative delight” (from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell”) to the energy of the creative artist. To Coleridge there is continuity between God the great I AM expressing His being continuously through His creation to the secondary, more limited but also greatly creative imagination of the great poet. As I understand the Coleridge quotation, I see him meaning, that God sustains creation through every moment as a continuous presence, permanently involved. In great poetry and great art, in general, this kind of imaginative involvement, is reflected in a more limited way, in the human world but in one that is inspirational pointing us to the greater creative action of God. To me this God, so variously pointed to in Blake and Coleridge, is more inspiring than the God of Newtonian science.

However, sadly, in the meantime, the marriage between religion and science has become a divorce; and the result has been the decidedly messy consciousness of our age.

But there is more to be said on that later.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

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