Reading Guide

Einstein's God

Einstein’s God

INTRODUCTION

Albert Einstein did not believe in a personal God. And his famous quip that “God does not play dice with the universe” was a statement about quantum physics, not a statement of faith. But he did leave behind a fascinating, largely forgotten legacy of musings and writings-some serious, some whimsical-about the relationship between science and religion and his own inquisitive reverence for the “order deeply hidden behind everything”. Einstein’s self-described “cosmic religious sense” is intriguingly compatible with twenty-first-century sensibilities. And it is the starting point for Einstein’s God.

Drawn from American Public Media’s extraordinary program Speaking of Faith, the conversations in this profoundly illuminating book explore an emerging interface of inquiry-if not answers-between many fields of science, medicine, theology and philosophy. In her interviews with such luminaries as Freeman Dyson, Paul Davies, V. V. Raman, and Mehmet Oz, Krista Tippett draws out the connections between these realms, showing how even those most wedded to hard truths find spiritual enlightenment in the life of experiment and, in turn, raise questions that are richly theologically evocative. Whether she is speaking with celebrated surgeon and author Sherwin Nuland about the biology of the human spirit or questioning Darwin biographer James Moore about his subject’s religious beliefs, Tippett offers a rare look at the way our best minds grapple with the questions for which we all seek answers.

ABOUT KRISTA TIPPETT

A journalist and former diplomat, Krista Tippett has created, hosted, and produced the popular public radio program Speaking of Faith since it began as an occasional feature in 2000, before taking on its current form as a national weekly program in 2003. She came up with the idea for Speaking of Faith while consulting for the internationally renowned Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research at Saint John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minnesota.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

Introduction

Chapter 1: The Human Legacy of a Great Mind and a Wise Man / Dyson and Davies

Chapter 2: The Spirit as an Emergent Life Force / Nuland

Chapter 3: Discovering the Globalization of Medicine / Oz

Chapter 4: Creation as an Unfolding Reality / Moore

Chapter 5: Content with the Limits of Religion and Science / Raman

Chapter 6: The World Feels More Spacious / Levin

Chapter 7: Science That Liberates Us From Reductive Analyses / McCullough

Chapter 8: Knowing How to Heal Ourselves / Sternberg

Chapter 9: The Nature of Human Vitality / Solomon, Palmer, and Barrows

Chapter 10: On the Complementary Nature of Science and Religion / Polkinghorne

  1. Krista Tippett engages deeply with scientists about their own philosophically and spiritually evocative questions and insights, countering the notion that science and religion exist solely in opposition to one another. “Science and religion don’t reach contradictory answers to the same questions of human life,” says Tippett. “Far more often, they simply ask different kinds of questions, probing and illuminating in ways neither could alone.” Can you think of an example from your own experience of how science and religion complement rather than contradict one another? How might you ask different kinds of questions of religion than you would of science?
     
  2. Einstein describes “spiritual geniuses”—figures such as Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, St. Francis of Assisi, and the Buddha—as “more necessary to the sustenance of global human dignity, security, and joy than the discoverers of objective knowledge.” He made this statement partly in response to the eagerness to use breakthrough discoveries for destructive ends. Does it surprise you that a scientist of Einstein’s stature would give so much credit to the subjective and spiritual over the objective and rational? Why do you think he placed such value on spiritual genius even as he was forging the way toward a whole new understanding of “objective reality”?
     
  3. Einstein saw science and religion as kindred impulses rooted in a sense of wonder and the experience of the “mystery of the eternity of life, and the inkling of the marvelous structure of reality.” He says, “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science.” He even goes so far as to say that a person who no longer feels amazement is “as good as dead.” What role does mystery play in your understanding of religion and of science? Do you think a broad embrace of mystery could create greater common ground between the two? How do you respond to the fact that much of reality is effectively unknowable?
     
  4. Einstein’s equations (E=mc2, for example) were something he discovered, not something he invented. The mathematical underpinnings of nature expressed in such equations formed the basis of the physicist’s “cosmic religious sense” and spurred Einstein in his quest to describe objective reality. He said, “My religiosity consists in a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we, with our weak transitory understanding, can comprehend of reality.” For Einstein, the fact that the universe could be understood through mathematics was nothing short of a miracle. Do scientific discoveries about the nature of “objective reality” tend to inspire in you more or less belief in a higher power? How does the idea that human beings only comprehend a small fraction of reality affect your beliefs? Does the natural world inspire a “cosmic religious sense” in you?
     
  5. Einstein thought a great deal about measuring time. His theory of relativity identifies the so-called Big Bang as the origin of time—that there is no time before it. Physicist Paul Davies points out that Augustine, a fifth-century theologian, considered the same issue and arrived at a similar conclusion—that the world and time were created simultaneously. According to Davies, Augustine “placed God outside of time altogether, a timeless, eternal being.” Do you find it surprising that both a scientist and a theologian would arrive at similar conclusions about the concept of eternity? Why or why not? What is your view of the concept of eternity? What answer might you give to a child who asks, “What was God doing before he created the universe?”
     
  6. Sherwin Nuland, a medical doctor and noted author, believes that human beings’ unique awareness of their own finitude gave rise to a “capacity for spirit, for seeking lives of integrity and equanimity and moral order.” Nuland describes the human spirit as “the result of living, nature-driven forces of discovery and creativeness.” He says that the human spirit derives from the adaptive biological mechanism that protects, perpetuates and elevates our species. How does the idea that the human spirit has biological roots intersect with your own view? Does the idea that the human spirit is an adaptation meant to protect and perpetuate our species change or challenge your own view of the soul? While Nuland sees the religious impulse as rooted firmly in biology, he says that the sense of awe that motives the faithful also motivates him. What role does a sense of awe play in your own experience?
     
  7. Sherwin Nuland, a medical doctor and the author of many books including How We Die, observes that we are more likely to touch on universal truths when we delve into the personal details of our own experience than when we seek to make broad, sweeping generalizations. He gives the example of writing about his Orthodox Jewish “Bubba” in New York City and hearing from a Wisconsin farmer and many others that the portrait reminded him of his own grandmother. What particulars of your own experience have brought to light something universal, larger than yourself, for you or others?
     
  8. Other traditions and philosophies of healing often work just at the boundaries of advanced techniques in medicine, according to physician Mehmet Oz. He suggests that, ultimately, the healing process “transcends the replacement of the organ and moves into the spirit” justifying the adoption of nonscientific—and often non-Western—approaches as a corollary to established medical practice. Oz suggests that “global medicine”—combining alternative and Western approaches—offers two mutually exclusive yet equally correct answers to the same problem. Do agree with Oz that the spirit plays a central role in the healing process? Do you have experiences of integrated medicine practices such as acupuncture, massage, or music therapy? How has your experience of illness and healing shaped your spiritual sensibility?
     
  9. One of the most controversial notions in Darwin’s theory is the idea that human beings evolved from lower animals. At one point, he uses the notion of a “tree of life” (a biblical image from the Garden of Eden), to describe the interconnectedness of all life. He believed that rather than demeaning human beings, his theories instead lifted up the worth of all created things. What’s your reaction to the theory that human beings evolved from lower animals? When you consider Darwin’s theory of evolution, especially about the life-and-death struggles of species over millions of years, what theological questions does it raise for you? Do you feel a sense of liberation or a sense of abandonment in the idea that God is not minutely responsible for the injustices in life? How do you reconcile the idea of a loving creator with the kind of cruelty evident in the natural world?
     
  10. Theoretical physicist and author V. V. Raman describes the values embedded in religious traditions, such as caring and compassion, respect for others, love and reverence, as “transrational” rather than irrational—and as critical to human life as rationality. The transrational, he says, reflects “something deep in the human cultural psyche”; they are just two ways of experiencing the same reality, not unlike enjoying music on the one hand and proving a geometrical theorem on the other. Does Raman’s explanation of the transrational and rational as two ways of experiencing the same reality resonate for you? How do you see the concept of the transrational at work in your own life? Do you think that the qualities Raman describes as transrational—impulses often associated with the human spirit—can ever be understood completely through rational means?
     
  11. Physicist and novelist Janna Levin posits that even in a universe without free will, it is possible to derive a sense of meaning, purpose, and beauty from a mathematical understanding of the universe as well as the human creative impulse. Levin says: “I think that the answers that we’re going to get, the discoveries that we’re going to make, are going to be in mathematics. But they’re going to be meaningless to us unless they’re integrated into a human perspective where we understand why we ask the questions, what the significance of the answers is for us, and how the world is going to change as a result of having made those discoveries.” How do you balance the pursuit of truth with the need for meaning? Levin does not believe in free will. How does your own view of free will shape your beliefs and the way you live?
     
  12. Science is revealing that forgiveness is as hardwired as revenge, something normal and universal not just a trait of the weak and vulnerable. This knowledge liberates us from reductive analyses of human nature says psychologist and author Michael McCullough. “If we accept the normalcy of our instincts both to revenge and forgive,” says McCullough, “we have more control over both.” He suggests that humans have an aptitude for forgiveness crafted by natural selection, which makes it possible to actively foster it by encouraging compassion for, and even love of, difference. Does knowing that revenge and forgiveness have a biological basis challenge or bolster your spiritual or religious beliefs about these impulses? McCullough says that apologies go a long way toward facilitating forgiveness. Do you have an experience of apologizing or being apologized to that supports this? Religious traditions have rich, ancient, cross-generational resources for seeing, knowing, and honoring the dignity of “the other,” whether enemy or friend, neighbor, or stranger. Can you think of an example of this from your own life?
     
  13. The belief that stress can make you sick has been around for thousands of years. It’s as if people have always had the intuitive sense that emotions—both positive and negative—are linked to physical processes in the body. Immunologist Esther Sternberg describes the physical causes and symptoms of stress, citing scientific evidence, which has only just entered the medical mainstream in the past decade, that healing can be nurtured by calmness, reflection, and rest. In your experience, are stress and physical well-being closely linked? Why or why not? Why do you think it has taken so long for science to find its way back to knowledge about the connection between emotions and health that was once taken for granted? What role, if any, does spirituality (meditation, reflection, prayer, or another spiritual practice) play in maintaining a balance between stress and well-being in your life.
     
  14. The experience of depression is shared by millions of people. The voices in Krista Tippett’s interviews on this topic suggest that while depression is a serious and potentially fatal illness, there may be a spiritual aspect to the experience from which it is possible to derive meaning. Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon, says, “I think it’s made me both more loving and more receptive to love, and given me a clearer sense than I would otherwise have had of the value of love.” Have you or a loved one had such an experience? Did you learn something about your spiritual essence, your soul? Quaker educator and author Parker Palmer describes the soul in depression as a “primitive piece of animal life” that persists even where will does not. Does his description of the soul as a primal force resonate for you? Is it compatible with the idea that meaning may be derived from the experience of depression? Why or why not?
     
  15. Sir John Polkinghorne, an Anglican priest and physicist, describes the ongoing process of creation as God bringing “into being a world in which creatures make themselves, and God judges that to be a world of greater good than a ready-made world” (p. 277). He says that the future is not fixed, and that God allows creatures to be themselves, creating “competing freedoms” between humans and nature. He says that divine self-limitation is an act of love, and quite a risk on God’s part. Do you think the ongoing process of creation might be a way to understand the presence of a creator within evolution? How do you respond to the idea of divine self-limitation? What benefits or drawbacks might it entail?
     
  16. Matter behaves differently depending on the “questions it is asked.” It gives a wave-like answer if asked a wave-like question, and a particle-like answer if asked a particle-like question. Polkinghorne offers this insight, culled from quantum field theory, to suggest that science is discovering that contradictory explanations of reality can be simultaneously true. How does this observation reflect your experience of life? Does it help or hinder your understanding of religious certainty or of the reality of the physical world? These “contradictions” of physics and theology challenge common understandings of logic. Are there other religious ideas or doctrines that seem contradictory to you? Is the idea of “clinging to both insights” (holding paradoxical views) problematic for you?

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