Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Date of Christmas

science_religion_070703_msWell, today brings news that the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted about December 25 being the birthday of a transformative figure who changed the world — and then wished Sir Isaac Newton a happy birthday (noting that he was born on December 25, 1642).  And, predictably, people got upset, assuming that he was intending to make fun of the Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 (and, perhaps he was).

In a way, Tyson’s tweet could not have been more appropriate.  In the first place, Sir Isaac Newton was a faithful Christian himself.  More importantly, he lived in a time when to be a serious scientist and a person of faith was not seen as problematic to the degree it tends to be now.  Newton’s faith in God did not in any way conflict with his scientific career.  Indeed, a number of quotes of Newton’s on the subject of God can easily be found, including this one:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being


I would take issue with Newton and argue, as many theologians have done, that God is not a being, but that’s not my point just now, so let’s move on.

The larger point is that Newton was able to recognize that science and religion both pointed toward important and complementary truths, and he did not feel the need to pit one against the other, as so many people seem to feel the need to do in our own time.  Tyson and other scientists, as well as many religious people today, would do well to try to emulate Newton’s ability to bring science and religion together.

In the second place, Tyson’s tweet about Newton’s birthday is appropriate because the date of Newton’s birth is debated.  In fact, many list it as January 4, 1643.   And, the date of Jesus birth is also debated.  Indeed, we really have no idea at all when Jesus was born.  Christianity was over 300 years old before the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus, and December 25 was not chosen because it was the date on Jesus’ birth certificate (which, of course, never existed!).  The date was selected because it coincided with celebrations in various cultures around the Mediterranean of the winter solstice — and so it made sense to Christians to take this already popular holiday and redefine it, making it the occasion for celebrating Jesus’ birth.  For, clearly, Jesus did have a birthday, and even though it is impossible to know when that was, it is nevertheless appropriate to celebrate it.  Only Christians who are ignorant of their own history (as, sadly, many are) would insist that December 25 is the actual birthdate of Christ.

Sadly, Tyson seems to have played into the “conflict” between science and religion that people today seem to insist upon, desiring the triumph of one over the other.  This is a false conflict that does not serve the interest of the human family.  Both science and religion have important things to teach us, each has its own sphere of knowledge and experience to share.  A person who seeks to be well rounded should be open to both.   For wisdom recognizes the value of both — only the foolish believe that one needs to “win” over the other.


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