When I was a grad student in Germany, I remember visiting the city of Ulm. Two particular, commingled sights come to mind: first, pausing at the marker for Albert Einstein’s birth in 1879 (before his family moved to Munich six weeks later); and second, ascending the dizzying heights of the 530-foot cathedral tower. The combination strikes me as instructive: Most of us see in Einstein a mind that seemed to unlock the deepest mysteries of the universe. He sought a “theory of everything.” And many have sought to ascend with him into higher realms of insight, through many tiring steps.
Can Einstein bring us closer to God’s view of the world? Oxford University’s Alister McGrath takes up this question in his book, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God. McGrath—who holds advanced degrees in theology, intellectual history, and molecular biophysics—is a leading light in the dialogue of faith and science.
McGrath does a remarkable job of explaining Einstein’s rigorous and intricate theories. I was particularly struck by his elaboration of the four papers Einstein wrote as a Swiss patent clerk during the miracle year of 1905, including papers setting out the theory of special relativity and describing the “photoelectric effect,” which led both to the development of quantum theory—that light is both a wave and a particle, or, in Einstein’s words, “packets of waves” —and a 1921 Nobel Prize. McGrath, by the way, expertly explains the politics behind the Nobel committee’s decisions, shedding light on why Einstein didn’t receive a prize for his “greatest intellectual achievement—the theory of general relativity.”
Einstein’s theory puzzled many contemporary scientists, and it wasn’t until May 1919 that observations of an eclipse by the great English scientist Sir Arthur Eddington (and others) offered confirmation. As I write, the 100th anniversary of this event has received a tremendous amount of attention. Even then, as McGrath explains, many declared it “a ‘new scientific revolution’ that had ‘overthrown’ [Isaac] Newton.” Despite the media sensation, however, Einstein’s discoveries were more a “natural completion” of Newton’s theories than a decisive scientific break, as Einstein later noted and McGrath is careful to highlight.
The Path of Intuition
What are the theological implications of the theory of general relativity? As the science writer Timothy Ferris wrote of George Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest and scientist who confirmed the theory mathematically, “the universe might have begun as an infinitely small pinpoint—a ‘singularity,’ in mathematical terms—at time zero, ‘a day when space was infinitely curved and all matter and all energy was concentrated into a single quantum of energy.’” This expanding cone of the universe would have a starting point, commonly known as the Big Bang.
But how does this match up with the Christian belief that God created the world ex nihilo (or “out of nothing”)? As both Lemaître and McGrath (in other places) have advised the faithful, it doesn’t make for a precise fit. Believers need to avoid making extravagant theological claims about the Big Bang, even if there are some parallels between Einstein’s physics and the doctrine of creation.
I found myself drawn to how Einstein brought it all together in his 1934 book Mein Weltbild, translated into English as The World as I See It. Arguing that the supreme task of the physicist is to search for general elementary laws that can be woven together to give a comprehensive “picture of the world” (Weltbild), Einstein notes that “there is no logical path to those laws.” Rather, they arise through the “intuition, testing on a sympathetic understanding of experience.”
And this concept isn’t incidental to Einstein’s work. He often knew intuitively and imaginatively before he could offer proof. McGrath suggests this is most likely the situation with his theory of special relativity.
In the second part of the book, McGrath turns from describing Einstein’s theories to portraying the scientist as a “big picture” thinker who made “distinctive use of religion,” which for him entailed a sense of deep mystery in the world—but no personal God involved in human affairs. In a 1954 letter, Einstein commented that “the Bible is a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish.”
Einstein pondered the God of beautiful mathematical equations. McGrath expertly describes this way of thinking, in which “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility,” as Einstein wrote in his 1954 book Ideas and Opinions. As McGrath makes clear, when Einstein declared that “science without religion is blind, and religion without science is lame,” it certainly wasn’t a veiled admission of atheism, as Richard Dawkins has opined. Nor, however, was it an endorsement of Christian belief.
Information and Elevation
Toward the end of his book, McGrath addresses the relationship between “objects” and “subjects,” pointing out that physics, among the sciences, is focused most predominantly on describing the objective world of nature rather than our subjective experience of it. But as human beings, of course, we long for more than abstract knowledge about the workings of nature, which can’t come close to satisfying our need for meaning.
Which leads to the central question: Will today’s readers judge it worth the effort to follow along with insights into the laws of physics that Einstein presented over a century ago—and that scientists are still trying to grasp more fully? It bears mentioning that McGrath uses well over half of his 184 pages just to summarize Einstein’s scientific discoveries. In the end, the book seemed to offer more information than elevation. How much does it really matter whether I know the ins and outs of why light bends because of gravity, or that time dilates? Will that change my life as a follower of Jesus?
As C. S. Lewis once remarked (in a sentence that McGrath quotes elsewhere), “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” We see all of life more beautifully and meaningfully through our faith in Jesus and his gospel. What, then, can Einstein add?
Ultimately, McGrath believes that Christianity has a bigger picture of the world than Einstein can offer, which allows him to set Christian faith in conversation with the natural sciences more generally. McGrath draws in Sir Thomas Browne’s “two books” analogy, the Belgic Confession, and John Calvin, concluding that Christians can “set Einstein’s reading of the ‘book of Nature’ alongside [their] own reading of the ‘book of Scripture.’”
In the final paragraph of the book, he sums things up like this: “I do not suggest that Christianity alone provides a way of seeing things that allows us to hold together these objective and subjective worlds: that would be arrogant and inaccurate. Yet I cannot overlook the fact that it does hold them together and allows them to be seen as a part of a greater whole, rather than disconnected realms of thought.”
As I worked my way through A Theory of Everything (That Matters), ascending the steps of the intellectual tower erected by Einstein and his many pathbreaking discoveries, I was stunned by the breadth of knowledge on display. McGrath’s command of the facts is truly encyclopedic, and his grasp of Einstein’s theories is firm. Yet I’m doubtful that one can climb Einstein’s tower all the way to the celestial realm. Getting there requires other sources of illumination.
Greg Cootsona is a lecturer in comparative religion and humanities at Chico State University, a co-director of the Science for the Church ministry, and the author of Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future (Routledge).
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