Einstein: God is Good at Math, but the Bible is “Pretty Childish” (and what I would say to him about that)

In yesterday’s Atlantic, a story appeared about a letter Albert Einstein wrote, now up for auction, wherein he expressed himself on his religious beliefs. To summarize: God as a super mind behind the universe, thumbs up; the Bible, well… not so much.

The bidding started at $3,000,000 (or roughly what Alex Rodriguez makes hitting .133 in an average postseason, but I digress).

The author of the article, Rebecca J. Rosen, offers the following as a key passage:

The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, 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. 

Translation: The Bible was written a long time ago in a pre-scientific era and so talks about the world in a way that we today cannot accept as anything but legends. You can interpret the Bible as creatively and subtly as you want, and the problem won’t go away, mainly because your “interpretations” leave the texts far behind.

Einstein felt that all religion made a caricature of God by placing upon God “childish analogies” of human culture, such as God as father (or king, or shepherd, or anything else). Even the word “God” is a problem, as we saw above. Rosen explains:

That’s not, however, because Einstein rejected the notion of God, but because he took the idea of God very seriously, elevating it above a religious conception to a mathematical one. To Einstein, the elegance of the phsyics [sic] guiding the universe were God’s handiwork, the mark not of a humanlike being that maintains control over the world, but of a divine beauty in nature’s laws.

Another way of putting it is that the Bible can’t actually “contain” God; it simply gives us that which reflects ancient ways of thinking and knowing. Or to put it in Freudian language (as Einstein did), our God-talk is intellectual “props” and “rationalization.”

Einstein expresses what God is like as follows:

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in fact, religious.

If Einstein were alive and sitting here next to me, this is what I’d say:

“Al (if I may), thanks for sharing your thoughts with me, and may I say you speak perfect accent without the slightest hint of English (haha). No, but seriously, you put your finger on something that is unquestionably true: the Bible reflects how ancient cultures thought. And yes, God is not fully contained in a book.

But let me push back a bit with a paradox that gets at the heart of at least Christianity (and probably Judaism, but I’ll let you handle that for yourself). We believe that your über math geek God, the great mind that makes the universe run, the ‘force’ as you call it that lies behind the comprehensible world, also subjected himself to human weakness, which is the thing you have such a problem with.

Yes, God-talk and Bible are an “expression and product of human weaknesses,” as you put it, but maybe this is a paradox God likes to humble all of us–even people like you who have figured out that gravity bends light or time slows down the faster you go.

And, by the way, when you call God a ‘force’ who is really good at math, maybe for God that is also a ‘childish analogy’ God is cutting you some slack over, but we can talk about that next time.”

At this point I fantasize that Einstein would sit there agape, wondering how he could have missed such a profound yet obvious problem with his own theory (that God wouldn’t possibly be caught dead mingling with people). He would then beg me to stay and speak with him longer, hanging on my every word like Philip’s Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8).

But I digress, again. The larger point here is this: maybe it’s not an either/or.

As dumb as it sounds, maybe God can be that way out there incomprehensible force or whatever and still participate in human weakness. Maybe God likes it that way. Maybe the childish stories of the Bible show that. Maybe.

That doesn’t solve everything, but at least it’s a place to start. If anything, at least in my private world, I would have schooled Einstein.

[By the way, if anyone is looking for a good biography of Einstein, a read Walter Isaacson's Einstein: His Life and Universe a couple fo years ago and learned much about Einstein the man.]

  • Tim

    Pete,

    Good post. But I don’t know that I would be satisfied that Einstein’s views concerning God are adequately represented here. One could walk away with the impression that he was some sort of Deist from reading the above, and he certainly was no such thing. Einstein would employ the term ‘God’ in a poetic sense, to refer to the grandeur of the cosmos. What he meant by that concept was certainly nothing personal, nor even an intelligent or designing force, but rather a means of representing the universe in materially pantheistic terms. In other words, he simply identified the material universe as being God. So the idea of any imagined conversation with Einstein wherein the physical forces to which he refers as being identified with something intelligent or otherwise possessing personal qualities would be entirely inapplicable to Einstein’s notion of God.

  • http://aerycksmusic.wordpress.com Eric John Sawyer

    Of course, there’s the comparison with the Bible which leaves no room for that sort of speculation.

    I guess we need Albert to be untouched by Adonai, but the truth is that any guy who spent as much time as he did “thinking”, was bound to have connected with an Uber-mind or two? ;)

  • Jeff

    I find it amusing that you fill your opinion with “maybe” and “might” when speaking of a man that dealt with what he could determine was true in terms of scientific fact. I am glad you schooled Einstein in your own “private world” because he would have had you laughed off the stage in any real debate.

    • Stefan P

      Don’t be an idiot. Einstein would have at least appreciated the fact that Dr. Enns maps his speech to be more accurate of his estimation of the truth. Religious knowledge is not certain – therefore Einstein’s ‘certain’ beliefs about the ‘why’ of the universe was also not certain.

  • Craig

    Dr. Enns, while I appreciate the attempt, your explanation sounds to me like the YEC theory that God allowed the devil to hide fossils underground just to trick the worldly wise.

    Yes, God-talk and Bible are an “expression and product of human weaknesses,” as you put it, but maybe this is a paradox God likes to humble all of us.

    Imagine that a person of great esteem is giving an important oration. Although this person has great powers of intellect and speech; you notice that she has contradicted herself. In response to a question she hems and haws, and finally just starts babbling like a child. In a press conference the next day a reporter asks the great orator to explain what happened. She responds, “Oh that? I was just trying to humble all of you.”

    • peteenns

      No, I think the paradox of incarnation and YEC slight of hand are very different–though I appreciate the point and see what you are getting at.

  • http://fidesquaerens.livejournal.com Marta Layton

    I’ve often thought that the better I understand certain strands of science (astronomy, quantum mechanics, etc.) the more they seem to be driving to the same answer you see in more sophisticated, academic theology. At some level I just don’t see a lot of difference between a fundamental force of nature, which we cannot quite describe or properly understand, and a God who is too great to fit into our attempts to personify Him, which we cannot quite describe or properly understand.

    My first-brush response to Einstein is that he may have a legitimate criticism of the idea that God is some kind of sky-king. However, the very fact that he thinks this conception of God is inadequate proves that humanity has grown since Moses’s day. Our philosophy and science and whatever else put us in a better position to understand God’s nature, so we can at least say the common descriptions of God just aren’t up to the task. I hope that in 3,000 years people will find my own attempts to conceive of God and talk about God intelligible just as childlike – and that they’ll realize that the best gift they can give to the future isn’t to dismiss my attempts but to try to build onto them so we have something better.

  • http://Steve.Ranney.myopenid.com/ Steve Ranney

    I find it odd that people like Einstein, or in our time the Dawkins types, which are a bit different, themselves have kind of childish attitudes toward the Bible. You might think that someone who has a fairly broad education would have heard of or considered other ways of looking at it — like in Einstein’s time, there were I assume people writing about the various hermeneutical issues. Yet despite his great intelligence, he clings to the sort of Sunday School way of looking at the Bible and is shocked that it doesn’t meet his expectations. As has been said more than once there is a fundamentalism on both sides.

    • Huol

      I don’t you should find it odd at all. Physicists mainly know physics, and doctors mainly know medicine. People are parochial like that. For example, how many New Testament scholars can you find who know calculus?

  • http://www.biblical.edu Todd Mangum

    The heart of your point — that God in His greatness and sublimity could have, as part of His greatness of character, condescended to relate Himself authentically and lovingly with human beings whom He created in the first place obviously with care and isn’t that worth at least considering as a possibility? — I find brilliant myself. But then, I’m no Einstein. . . .

  • Mark Erickson

    I completely agree. Maybe.

  • pi

    the same science that controls our universe, controls our dna. I understand your frustration, how does the hand know its function of a whole body? Does it get angry at the foot for having a different function? Or how do planets know their rotation in time, space and light? Basically, this is not about who has a better understanding, but rather a piece of understanding. Einstein grasped God, but so do you. The language is in different translations. God reaches to all think patterns, he is the ‘I Am’ of all things in every direction and space. It is not ours to judge another mans conclusion, only ours to learn what we need from it. So we can subsequently teach others and not establish our superiority over them to make wither, rather establish our understanding
    to enable others to grow in their time and understanding.


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