13 May 2008

Einstein and God

We read today that Albert Einstein wrote some unpublished views on God, and these are a little surprising.

"The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions," Einstein wrote in a 1954 letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, according to the Guardian newspaper.

One is a little surprised because Einstein’s best-known quotation about God indicates belief in a single, ultimate Creator. “God does not play dice” is a line widely attributed to him. He is also remembered to have said at Princeton University in 1921 that “God is subtle, but he is not malicious”.

A person’s view of life, the universe and everything will change over time. Einstein, who made no secret of the development of his thought, is obviously no exception. So what became of Einstein’s God?

We should not read too much into a single letter. But perhaps we can read a bit more into it than today’s headline writers, who have taken the letter to Gutkind as unsubtle proof that Einstein simply did not believe in God.

It may be that Einstein, an undoubted genius of subtle and non-malicious mind (apparently he even came to regret his association with the invention of the atomic bomb) “got” God but for some reason refused to accept Him. Needless to say, we cannot know.

But, strikingly, his description of “the word God” as “nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses” is extraordinarily near the Christian understanding. Christianity holds that God, the Word, expresses Himself within human weakness. What Einstein evidently regarded as an expression of doubt could be, with perhaps nothing altered but tone of voice, a declaration of faith.

Clearly Jesus' identity as the Christ is expressed through human weakness, since he is true man. From an orthodox Christian perspective, the Incarnation ("production" to use Einstein's secular language) came precisely from human weakness (the frail glory of a human mother). Yet the Incarnation also came precisely from eternal glory, since Jesus is also true God.

Einstein, from a Christian perspective, is likewise right to describe Biblical legend and faith incarnate as “primitive” and “childish”. The word “primitive” means first, elemental, original, and need not carry the cultural meaning of “outdated” attached to it in the modern age. As for “childish”, one hopes this is not an insult, for we should all hope, in matters of faith, to be more like children and less full of ourselves. (How wonderful and ironic that the recipient of Einstein’s letter was named “Gutkind”, meaning good child.)

Humanity has not yet pulled away from Einstein. Will we ever? He is the icon of modern scientific thought, and his shadow falls over modern philosophy and politics as well. He remains the first man for whom relativity preceded relativism, whose modern enquiries pointed early on toward the end of modernism and the obliteration of the systematic certainties which were his enquiries' very foundation.

For people in our own, post-modern age, relativism (which asks us to switch off the brain and dim the soul) almost always precedes relativity (which requires real study to understand yet is taken for granted). The post-modernist is largely stripped of Einstein’s ability to wonder and enquire, yet finds himself stuck at the altar of the icon’s thought. Like a "bad Jew" in a post-Hebraic desert of secularism, the post-modernist is really only a dysfunctional modernist, trying to hope his way out of the darkness.

Yet, shed just a little hopeful light on the darker ruminations of the icon, and those ruminations seem to reorient towards Truth.

Rise and shine! The storm of centuries is passing, and the compass that whirled around amid the worst of it once again points north!