Albert Einstein

The April issue of TIME magazine featured a book excerpt (last accessed 4/13/07) from the forthcoming Einstein by Walter Isaacson. Titled “Einstein and Faith,” the excerpt clarifies the nature of Einstein’s belief in God as well as his relation to his Jewishness. His parents Pauline and Hermann were quite unreligious, spiritual kin to not a few Jews in the 21st century. Despite this upbringing, young Einstein took a passionate turn to Judaism for several years, then quite suddenly abandoned it all at age 12.

In his own words, his renunciation of faith came “through the reading of popular scientific books,” and led to “a positively fanatic orgy of free thinking.” He felt that “youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies.”

By middle age, Einstein had come to embrace a kind of deistic faith, one in which God serves as creator but plays no active role in the world. In place of a personal God, “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.” He refused to call himself an atheist; he declined to label himself a pantheist. He did not believe in immortality nor in free will but in determinism.

As to Jesus, Einstein said in an oft-quoted sentence, “I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene.” And he accepted that Jesus was a historical figure, for having read the Gospels, he maintained that “no myth is filled with such life.”

What do we make of Einstein’s faith? It seems to have been a religion of Humility and Mystery: humility before the laws of the universe, coupled with a sense of the mysteriousness of it all: “The most beautiful emotion we can experience,” he wrote in What I Believe (1930), “is the mysterious.” But he felt atheists were arrogant; in contrast, he felt utterly humbled before the “unattainable secrets of the harmony of the cosmos.”

One wonders why Einstein could not square the idea of a personal God with the idea of laws of nature. His friend Max Born, the famous physicist, felt Einstein’s ideas pulled the rug out from under any idea of morality. Indeed, Einstein could not quite live as he believed, exemplifying a modern (and postmodern) condition that Francis Schaeffer once elaborated on. “I am compelled to act as if free will existed,” he said. And in a revealing moment, he remarked, “I know that philosophically a murderer is not responsible for his crime, but I prefer not to take tea with him.”

Einstein, it seems, felt that the amazing regularity of the cosmos counted against a God who could intervene in that universe. Yet others have found plenty of Mystery and Unfathomableness in the Bible’s narrative of a God who creates, a creation that falls, and a God who loves enough to redeem us.

Surely what Einstein said of the Gospels can be said of the entire Bible and its story: “No myth is filled with such life.”