Einstein's Snuffed-Out Candles -- Future of Faith

Transforming Theology blogging project: Episode 2 Harvey Cox, Future of Faith, (HarperOne, 2009)

Chapter 2: Einstein’s Snuffed-Out Candles:
Awe, Wonder, and Faith

When matters of religion and science are discussed, Albert Einstein is sure to be brought into the conversation. Einstein often spoke in spiritual/religious terms, but whatever the nature of his spirituality it wasn’t conventional. However, there is a spirituality present, one focused on awe and wonder at the nature of the universe. He spoke of himself as being a “devoutly religious man,” but he didn’t believe in a personal God in conventional Christian terms (p. 22).

Harvey Cox brings Einstein into the conversation because the great scientist understood the relationship between faith and awe, and in Cox’s estimation “faith starts with awe” (p. 22). Awe begins with mystery, but becomes faith only when meaning is ascribed to this mystery. Unfortunately this sense of awe and wonder, indeed faith, has been eroded by “cool, objective science and a religion too wedded to a human-centered view of the universe.” There is a need, perhaps of a bit of “re-enchantment” that some theologians have talked about. Thus, a place to look for help in our conversation may be Rudolph Otto and his concept of the holy, or as Cox puts it “the primal experience of awe or wonder, not any ideas about them” (p. 23). Einstein spoke of people who never experienced awe or wonder as “snuffed-out candles” (p. 23).

Religion and spirituality, at their best, help us give meaning to that which we experience. Thus, the mystery of death raises questions about the meaning of life. Consideration of the meaning and purpose of life is what gave rise to philosophy, religion, culture. Religion emerged within human evolution – in all of its forms – to answer the questions of why and what, not how or when. If we expect religion to answer scientific questions then we are going to get distorted answers. That doesn’t mean they don’t or can’t interact, but we should make sure we’re understanding what is expected.

Our dilemma today is rooted in the fact that religion has lost its meaning-giving power. It has become “morally and intellectually confusing,” in large part because religious leaders have cheapened our myths and stories by reducing them to doctrines and propositions.

But the result of the “literalization of the symbolic” is that something essential has been lost in translation. The ill-advised transmuting of symbols into a curious kind of “facts” has created an immense obstacle to faith for many thoughtful people. Instead of helping them confront the great mystery, it has effectively prevented them from doing so.” (p. 27).

As we read this, one wonders how the Enlightenment, which emphasizes rationalism, has influenced the approach to faith on the part of persons on both right and left. Both want facts, when maybe we must move in another direction. Indeed, Cox notes the emergence of a modernist approach that led to reductionism – the paring down of necessary items required for belief. This approach is as misguided as the more conservative attempt to determine essentials. The answer, Cox believes, is to be found in appreciating the “dazzling array of myths, rituals, and stories as an invaluable legacy of the human race” (p. 28). But, one wonders how this will work in a faith tradition that values history.

Cox goes into some detail about how faith and mystery have been understood, from Teresa of Avila to Reinhold Niebuhr. The key point he wants to make is that objective/scientific knowledge is not the only kind available to us. And faith is an expression of these other forms of knowledge and understanding.

Note: page numbers are to proofs.


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