A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 9, Chapter 7- God and a Scientific Universe: Towards a Christian Reading of Einstein
We are reviewing Alister McGrath’s new book, “A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God”. Chapter 7– God and a Scientific Universe: Towards a Christian Reading of Einstein is the last chapter in the book. McGrath notes that by any standards, Einstein was a brilliant thinker. But he wasn’t right about everything. His views on quantum mechanics are now generally regarded as wrong. McGrath also notes some problematic social views, such as his reflection during his 1922 tour of Japan, China, Singapore, Palestine, and Spain; that some races were biologically inferior to white European observers (Einstein, The Travel Diaries). I was surprised to read that but it seems that even geniuses have a hard time rising above the views commonplace within their social circles.
McGrath, as someone who writes both as a specialist in the historical and intellectual aspects of science and religion and a Christian theologian, wants to ask the question, “What can those who think seriously about their Christian faith learn from Einstein?” McGrath has no intention of forcing Einstein into a Christian mold- clearly he wasn’t a Christian, or an atheist for that matter. He was just Einstein. It is reasonable to respect his intellectual integrity while at the same time asking what Christians might learn from him, and how his ideas might feed into wider Christian reflections on a range of important themes.
Many times Christians aim to defend the reasonableness of their faith in the light of the challenges and new questions raised by the development of the natural sciences. One instinct that some Christian apologists follow is to point to the scientifically inexplicable and interpret this as evidence of the need to invoke God to give a coherent account of the universe. The phrase “God of the gaps” is widely used to describe this approach.
Einstein was in agreement with Oxford theoretical chemist, Charles A. Coulson, who gave what is generally seen the definitive rebuttal of “God of the gaps” in his 1956 work, Science and Christian Belief. McGrath says:
Coulson saw this inadequate way of thinking as contracting the area within which God might be known in the first place and impoverishing the intellectual vision of God in the second. This “is a God who leaves Nature still unexplained,” while sneaking in “through the loopholes’ of the laws of nature”. God was rather to be seen not in gaps that were unexplained but in the grander observation that human beings were able to make so much sense of reality. The capacity of science to explain itself requires explanation – and that means finding a “bigger picture” that makes sense of this observation…
… Einstein thus had little interest in explanatory anomalies or gaps in our understanding, except insofar as these might open the way to the emergence of a richer theory (in much the same way as the anomalous behavior of the planet Mercury, which was inexplicable within a Newtonian framework, could be accommodated by the notion of the gravitational warping of space-time).
This naturally leads us to ask which forms of Christianity might encourage such “big picture” thinking. Some ways of understanding Christianity do not see this as an integral aspect of the faith. Many forms of Pietism, for example, hold that the Christian’s sole responsibility is to focus on a personal devotional life rather than to become preoccupied with intellectual issues. Others would suggest that Christianity is primarily a religion of salvation and that a concern with offering an explanation of our world does not feature prominently (if it features at all) in the New Testament. I get that here in the comments occasionally – someone will object to all the scientific “mumbo-jumbo” – and assert the only important thing is to get “souls saved”, so stop wasting time with mere intellectual arguments, etc.
While I agree that Christianity does indeed encourage a “discipleship of the heart”, there is also an obligation to develop a “discipleship of the mind”. After all, Matthew 22:37 says, “Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’” That view was certainly held by writer C.S. Lewis, whose personal journey from atheism to Christianity resulted from his judgement that Christianity offered a better vision of reality. John Polkinghorne, Cambridge quantum physicist turned theologian, is another Christian thinker who believes “meta-questions” which “arise from our scientific experience and understanding but which point us beyond what science by itself can presume to speak about.” Einstein himself remarked that “the eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility.” (Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 292) McGrath says:
An intellectual bridge can be constructed between Einstein’s idea of a “superior mind” disclosed in and through the order of the universe and the more specifically Christian vision of God. Einstein is here the starting point of a journey that leads from impersonal transcendent order to the Christian idea of a personal God, disclosed both in the created order and especially in and through Christ.
Complex relationships are often best envisaged using metaphors, which can act a powerful cognitive tools to help us make sense of our world. As McGrath has noted in this book, perhaps one of the most influential metaphors used in Western culture to frame the relation of Christianity and the natural sciences is that of “conflict” or “warfare”. Yet often in these blogs we have often talked about an alternative metaphor which I believe is more productive in the science-faith conversation – that of the “two books”. McGrath also brings this metaphor to the forefront of his book. He quotes Sir Thomas Browne in his 1643 work Religio Medici (The Religion of a Physician) as one of the clearest statements of this approach:
There are two books from whence I collect my Divinity; besides that written one of God, another of His servant Nature, that universal and publick Manuscript, that lies expans’d unto the Eyes of all: those that never saw Him in the one, have discovered Him in the other.
So how does this metaphor of the “two books” help us bring Einstein into the conversation about science and faith? McGrath says that Einstein points us to the book of nature, highlighting its mystery, its elegance and order, and his deep sense of religiosity in its presence. A Christian could then set Einstein’s reading of the “book of Nature” alongside her own reading of the “book of Scripture” and find that its features were brought into sharper focus as a result. This is not to suggest that Einstein is a Christian or that he offers a Christian reading of the natural world. The point is that he offers a reading of the natural world that resonates or chimes in with the Christian faith. McGrath says, for example, think of Einstein’s many references to a “mind” behind the universe – as, for example, we see it in his expression of a “firm belief… in a superior mind that reveals itself in the world of experience”. For Einstein, this notion of a “superior mind” was the essence of his “conception of God”. McGrath says:
Einstein realized that both the objective and subjective realms are important and that they need to be affirmed and held together. Perhaps he himself never found a synthesis that entirely satisfied him, but he certainly provided a road map for those who wish to explore the matter further. A theory of everything that matters engages both or objective and subjective concerns, linking them together in a coherent whole.