Saturday, April 18, 2009

Einstein's Religion

I find the religious thoughts of Albert Einstein fascinating. Considering I'm a grad student in math and a Christian, why shouldn't I?

Einstein rejected any sort of personal God, and espoused this idea of a "cosmic religious feeling" as being the highest form of spirituality. He sensed order in the universe, and that order was awe-inspiring. In some sense his physics was his religion:
"I don't try to imagine a God; it suffices to stand in awe of the structure of the world, insofar as it allows our inadequate senses to appreciate it."
This is not to say that Einstein didn't have a sense of the sacred:
"I believe in mystery and, frankly, I sometimes face this mystery with great fear. In other words, I think that there are many things in the universe that we cannot perceive or penetrate and that also we experience some of the most beautiful things in life in only a very primitive form. Only in relation to these mysteries do I consider myself to be a religious man."
Still, he goes on to say,
"But I sense these things deeply. What I cannot understand is how there could possibly be a God who would reward or punish his subjects or who could induce us to develop our will in our daily life."
It is not an arrogant or irreverent objection to theism that Einstein makes here. As a Christian, I understand that we are meant to do good because it is good, and not just for the sake of escaping punishment. It is too bad, I think, that Einstein didn't understand God more in terms of redemptive work and new creation rather than simply punishment. I have already written elsewhere on what I think the real Christian motivation to do good might be.

There is one Einstein quote that kind of thrills me, to be honest:
"Whatever there is of God and goodness in the universe, it must work itself out and express itself through us. We cannot stand aside and let God do it."
I guess many Christian ears would hear this quote as anti-Christian, but I think that would be rather unfortunate. In fact, this quote hints at a theology that is thoroughly incarnational, something that you would think came right out of Christianity.

What I mean is this. Christianity is built on the premise that God became man; but it doesn't stop there. As St. Athanasius wrote, "God became man so that man might become God." Or you might just say it like St. Paul said it: "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you?" (1 Cor. 3:16)

In other words, God works through humanity. Christianity does not say we ought to step aside and let God do His stuff. Nor does it say we will get anywhere by our own power. It simply says that God displays His power through humans.

How much more liberating or empowering an idea can there be? The God of reason, goodness, beauty, and love expresses Himself through humans. That is our purpose, and that is what makes all of our labor as humans worthwhile.

A little while ago I was at a Bible study on the book of Matthew, and we came to the passage where Jesus curses a fig tree and makes it wither (Mt 21:18-22). There we read that Jesus said to his disciples,
"Truly I tell you, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only will you do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be lifted up and thrown into the sea,' it will be done. Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive."
Naturally this is passage gives occasion to questions about prayer and whether God will literally answer any prayer we ask in faith. But it struck me that these questions might miss one of the crucial points of Jesus' statement. Try putting the emphasis not on which prayers are being prayed, but on who is praying them. Think how extraordinary it is that Jesus the Messiah tells his disciples that their prayers are the ones that will move mountains.

This is part of the beauty of how God is, according to Christianity: he expresses Himself through us, tiny little creatures that we are. All of us humans try to separate ourselves from God in one of two ways. We either kick God upstairs and worship Him from far away, or we kick God out entirely so that we can order things after our own liking. Both have the same impact on the world: they both ensure that humans with flawed ideas are the ones actually running things.

But imagine a world run by people who are run by God. In other words, imagine if, just as Einstein said, whatever there is of God and goodness of the universe, it actually expressed itself through humans. This is actually as Christian a picture of God's world as you can get. In the beginning we were created to have dominion over the creation; and in the end, this order will be restored, and it will be good.

This view of God is at once humbling and empowering. It is not we who bring goodness, order, and beauty into the world; it is God. But God does this through us, so that we become more than ourselves. How much more empowered can you get? To be more than yourself--because God is in you.

I think Christianity would be all the better if we took Einstein's thought and said, You know what? That's kind of true. God really does work through humans; it's what you might call the incarnational principle of Christianity. Incarnation, in a sense, does not end with Christ--the Holy Spirit is divine, too, after all.

I'm not trying to strip all things supernatural away from religion, which is perhaps something Einstein did try to do (nature for him was mysterious and profound enough). And yet, I do often wonder, how many supernatural events does my faith actually hinge on? I am pretty sure there is just one, the miracle we celebrate on Easter. As for my day to day faith, the most important events in my life are God working through humans (and through the elegance of nature, which Einstein also knew profoundly well).

Christianity is a religion of the ordinary as much as the supernatural, after all. At the foundation of its worship are two very simple tasks: hearing the scriptures taught, and eating and drinking the sacrament of the Lord's supper. Maybe what makes these things so powerful is that the natural and supernatural intersect in these ordinary events. We don't need to see things that are beyond scientific explanation to know that God has truly been at work.

Indeed, my hope as a Christian is that one day we will be able to look at any ordinary event and see God's work in it. My cousin's wife just today gave birth to a daughter. For humanity in general, this is just an ordinary event, but for us who are close to her, it is miraculous; you can see God's work in it. And that is just what I think Christianity makes me hope for--to see God become all in all.

Doesn't what I've just been describing give us the best way to live? Wouldn't life for us humans be best if we treated ourselves and each other as people privileged with the responsibility to act as God's power in this world, and if we rejoiced in our hearts at even the most ordinary of good things?

Yes, I think that would be the good life. I bet even Einstein would agree.

1 comment:

  1. I don't have much to say except that your intellectualization (Firefox says this is misspelled, but I'm sure I've seen this word in an article somewhere...) of Christianity and God is inspiring. It's more beneficial, for me, to understand my purpose via logic and the mind, which is the gateway to the spirit.

    Anyway, thanks for this post :).


I love to hear feedback!