Einstein’s Religion, Darwin’s Agnosticism

The culture wars are a big tent. If any insight garners broad bipartisan support today, it is the observation that the gap separating traditionally religious people from everyone else is wide, and growing wider by the day. While the perception of which group best represents the most tempting alternative to traditional religion is debatable, no one seems to dispute the fact that this dispute will be, and probably must be, increasingly strident and increasingly shrill.

Yet there is a dawning sense that this rhetoric of cultural warfare leaves a lot of spiritually inquisitive people out of the equation and that, in the words of author Elizabeth Gilbert, there are “a lot of thinking people who have felt wounded or marginalized by the God Wars.” Gilbert made that keen observation by way of expressing her appreciation for the platform provided by Krista Tippett on her weekly broadcast, “Speaking of Faith,” one that she has hosted on National Public Radio since 2000.

Indeed, Tippett’s show represents a profound and heartfelt intervention in the culture wars, intended to replace the metaphors of conflict with those of conversation. “Speaking of Faith” is intended to enable such conversation by displaying what reasoned and respectful discussion of the complex and manifold phenomena of faith might look like—through the simple back-and-forth of question and answer, by which we alternatively learn more of the substance of our fellow citizens’ spiritual beliefs, and also hold them to a level of respectful accountability through more public scrutiny and discussion.

Which Religions, Which Sciences?

One of the most seemingly charged areas in the culture wars would appear to be the intractable conflict between “religion and science,” and to be sure this is a conflict with a long history. Too long to be helpful, it often seems. But to put it this way begs all of the hard questions: Which religions do we have in mind? And which sciences?

The apparent inescapability of the conflict between orthodox Christianity and Darwinian biology was the foundation on which the 20th-century phenomenon of “fundamentalism” was built. But that seems merely the latest skirmish in a far longer war.

Indeed, one of the most striking features of much contemporary discussion of the battle between religion and science is the way both sides (rest assured, there are really more than two) sound like sandlot adolescents arguing about “who started it.” The scientists have apparently never forgiven the Church for its treatment of Galileo. And many contemporary Christians are not having what Carl Sagan once gleefully referred to as “the great demotions” accomplished by Copernicus, Darwin, and Freud.

If what we want is a politics of resentment, then this seems the best way to get it.

Getting somewhere else—somewhere different and more constructive—is the main intention of Krista Tippett’s new book, Einstein’s God: Conversations About Science and the Human Spirit. The book reproduces partial transcripts of no fewer than thirteen interviews she has conducted on various overlapping scientific topics since 2003. Tippett’s revealing personal introduction, as well as her summaries at the beginning of each chapter, offer a fascinating glimpse into one person’s vision of a way past several impasses that a great many people seem not to want, nor to believe in.

The range of “sciences” represented is impressive: from the New Physics of Einstein, Bohr and Heisenberg, to the practices of medical healing (from therapy, to surgery, to prayer) across vast cultural differences, to psychology and the mechanics of the mystifying human brain, to the long reach of Darwin’s grand nineteenth-century new scientific myth.

The religious traditions represented in the book are equally broad and generously presented: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism all have a place at the table, as do an impressive number of practical offshoots of these latter traditions, from yoga and meditation to acupressure and acupuncture.

The two scientists who must inevitably play a major role in this story are Darwin and Einstein, of course, and each gets an appreciative chapter here, each at the hands of sympathetic biographer. Tippett’s book begins with Einstein (and ends with him in a curious way as well). Darwin is buried somewhat oddly in the middle, in a fourth chapter entitled “Evolution and Wonder.”

That word, ‘wonder,’ plays a major role here. Words like ‘awe,’ ‘sublimity,’ ‘mystery,’ ‘transcendence,’ and ‘wonder’ seem to be the operative emotional and intellectual states that both science and religion, as primarily speculative enterprises, are best suited to cultivate in us. And in this mode, various sciences and religions strike notes similar to those struck by art and aesthetics. I will return to that suggestive connection—one made in each chapter—at the end of this review.

Darwin’s own faith journey was a complex one. His theories drew him ever further in the direction of biblical agnosticism. And while his God may have been a creator, the order this God created evolves in its own stop-start way, with unseemly amounts of violence. Cataclysm is the engine driving the evolutionary train. Earthquakes may make mountains, but they destroy a great deal of human and other habitation in so doing. It is thus telling that, when asked later in life about his most memorable life experiences, Darwin would recall climbing to the peak of the Andes… and then later supplemented that sublime memory with a trip to the Brazilian rain forest. What he felt there was reverent awe, wonderment, a simultaneous impression of nature’s fecundity and overarching embrace; an embrace in which we humans may well disappear.

But unlike most contemporary evolutionary theorists who emphasize the random and accidental quality of genetic mutation, Darwin had the sense that natural selection was going somewhere, that it had a purpose. That purpose was the creation of a more beautiful natural order. Here is the rousing conclusion of his 1859 classic [On] The Origin of Species:

[F]rom the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object of which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into new forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. [italics mine]

Religious Genius

Einstein’s career traces out a similar trajectory, in its way. He too inhabited his religious upbringing (Jewish) in a complicated and heterodox way; his God is not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Einstein’s God neither covenants nor is imagined in personal terms. Yet He remains a wondrous lawgiver, even if the laws in question did not come from Sinai. What is remarkable in Tippett’s and Paul Davies’ rehearsal of his brilliant career, apart from the accidents that helped constitute his greatest discoveries, is the note made of Einstein’s cultivated aesthetic sensibility. Of special note is a marvelous letter of consolation he wrote to a friend after a devastating personal loss:

And yet, as always, the springtime brings forth new life, and we may rejoice because of this new life and contribute to its unfolding. And Mozart remains as beautiful and tender as he always was and always will be. There is, after all, something eternal that lies beyond the hand of fate and of all human delusions…. For us there remains the privilege of experiencing beauty and truth in their purest forms. (38, italics mine)

So heterodox religious identities give birth to forms of modern science in which the beautiful is privileged, and wonder is cultivated. Nature is perceived to be beautiful, even when it is reddest in claw and most impenetrable to the human senses. Einstein made a similar point in his 1956 autobiography: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious… It was the experience of mystery, even if mixed with fear, that engendered religion… It is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes the truly religious attitude. In this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man” (italics mine).

Einstein often drew out this subtle connection between science and the fine arts. In a piece written for The New York Times Magazine in 1930, he was even more explicit:

The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this religious feeling. In my view, it is the most important function of art and science to awaken this feeling and keep it alive in those who are receptive to it. (italics mine)

Art and science… working together to enhance our receptivity to wonderment and mystery.

Quantum Christianity

This suggestive combination of scientific and aesthetic ideas is crystallized by two contemporary thinkers: one a Quantum physicist who later became an Anglican priest, the other an avowed atheist who is both a brilliant mathematician, and a novelist of some note. Janna Levin is a mathematician at Barnard College in New York. She has written a novel of sorts, called A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, in which she reconstructs the strange career of two of the most seminal minds of the 20th century: Kurt Gödel, author of the “incompleteness theorems,” and Alan Turing, the man who applied these theories to become the “father of modern computing.”

Gödel is famous for suggesting that mathematics, despite its pretensions to totality, is actually doomed to be an “incomplete” enterprise. Mathematics generates problems it cannot solve. In Levin’s words: “Mathematics is perfect. But it is not complete. To see some truths you must stand outside and look in.” I want to return to that evocative image—of getting out to look back in—in a moment.

For now, the theater of the absurd with which Janna Levin seems to have real intellectual sympathy bears noting; it involves the tragic end to which both of her main protagonists arrived. Gödel became delusional while in residence at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study; convinced he was being poisoned, he gradually starved himself to death. Turing, who had been instrumental in cracking Nazi codes during the Second World War, “was later imprisoned and chemically castrated for admitting to a consensual homosexual affair.” It is hard not to hear a subtle barb against religion-inspired sexual mores in such a gruesome story.

Which is what makes the work of John Polkinghorne so startling and suggestive. Tippett devotes the last chapter to him, and recalls hearing him for the first time on the radio in London when she was working there in the 1980s. Both have come a long way since then, and their paths converge precisely here, with this mutual interest in spirituality and in faith.

While we get little in the way of a formal explanation of his conversion/return to the church, Polkinghorne offers a fascinating glimpse into the nature of the thinking that brought him to that resting place. It begins with one of the great quandaries of early 20th-century physics: the question of whether light is a wave or a particle. The great solution of the Quantum age, if you will, was to say that light is both. In Polkinghorne’s marvelous phrasing, light is a wave if you ask wave-like questions about it, and it is a particular if you ask particle-like questions about it. “And you can’t ask both questions at the same time.” So, light is two incompatible things at once. And (here is the neat trick) he then extends that to the fundamental credal conception of Christian faith: the idea that Christ is human and divine, at once. It all depends on the question you pose of him.

This virtually “quantum Christianity” has implications for how Polkinghorne imagines the act of creation as well.

[20th century theologians] see that the act of creation, the act of bringing into being a world in which creatures are allowed to be themselves, to make themselves, is an act of love. It is an act of divine self-limitation. The theologians like to call it kenosis from a Greek word. God is not the puppet master of the universe, pulling every string. God has taken, if you like, a risk. Creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity.

Images of the Soul

This rousing conclusion, coupled with Levin’s arresting image of the need to climb outside to look back in, brings the eminent philosopher, who was also a theologian of sorts, to mind. I am thinking, of course, of Plato.

Plato’s Phaedrus is an uncannily and rich and complex play-with-words that begins as a meditation on love and ends as a meditation on writing. In between the two, Plato offers his most sustained and famous reflections on the human soul.

The dialogue begins casually enough. Socrates meets Phaedrus on the road leading outside of the city of Athens, and is tempted to leave the city precincts by the promise that Phaedrus will read him a new speech by the famous rhetorician, Lysias. The really clever thing about it, says Phaedrus, is that it is a plea by a lover to his beloved, insisting that he will be the best lover for the boy to take for one simple reason: he does not love him.

The best lover as one who is not in love? How can such a thing be? Simple: there will be no jealousy, no craziness, no emotional trauma or turmoil in this love.

Socrates sort of goes ho-hum, suggests that he’s heard better love-speeches, and then proceeds to offer up a rival speech that makes the same arguments but with greater flourish. His work done, the philosopher picks himself up to leave. But his inner voice stops him in his tracks, and informs him that he has sinned against the god, Eros, and that he must offer up a second speech as a sort of retraction (it’s called a Palinode in Greek). That second speech, which takes Socrates to unprecedented heights of lyricism, takes away to two premises that made the first speeches work.

Socrates now insists that eros is a madness, but that madness is a good thing because it is the highest gift the gods can bestow. Everything, from poetry, to prophecy, to love itself, comes to us this way. More to the point, Lysias’ first speech was too cute by far. It essentially promised the beloved a pain-free love. Now, Socrates reminds us that erotic pleasure cannot be detached from erotic pain.

Why, he wonders, should that be so? What is it about the human soul that it cannot separate cleanly between pain and pleasure? At that moment in the dialogue love leaves as an explicit topic, and is replaced by the topic of the human soul (the selfsame topic, by the way, with which Tippett’s own book ends).

Socrates begins by saying something important, something actually central to this book’s marvelous topic. It would take a god to say what the soul is, Socrates notes. But human beings are especially adept at saying what things are like. And that is what Socrates will offer us now: not a glimpse of the soul itself, which is impossible (that would be like saying what a “quark” is), but a suggestive set of metaphors and similes, images of the soul.

Socrates, in other words, is an artist who paints pictures with words, words designed to take us outside so that we can look back in. Later, he will suggest that the soul is like a chariot drawn by two difficult horses which, if it can be steered straight, may poke briefly and tantalizingly through the heavens to get a glimpse outside, in the realm of the gods.

Quantum Physicists are not really saying what light is; they are grasping after better images, images that help to show us what light is like. Light, after all, is just that, light.

In other words, the more theoretical scientific pursuits share this supple task with theology: they are not divine descriptions of what is; they are marvelous and subtle human descriptions of what ultimate reality is like. And precisely to the degree that they are so imaginative (264), they are also art forms.

It has been suggested by other books in this vein that “science is the new religion.”

But Tippett’s book suggests something far more suggestive, and even radical, as I read it. These scientists have happened upon a more intriguing possibility: namely, that it is not science in its old 20th-century form, but rather art, that is the new religion coming currently into focus before our wondering eyes.

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