Friday, September 03, 2010

Einstein's God -- A Review

EINSTEIN’S GOD: Conversations about Science and the Human Spirit. By Krista Tippett. Penguin Books 2010. 286 pp.

The intersection where faith and science meet can be a place of fruitful and enlightening discussion or a place of misinformed vitriol. Too often it comes down to a choice –either science or faith, but not both. And there are “evangelists” for such a choice on both sides of the issue, but there are also many who want to move past the “culture war” view that insists that if one perspective is correct then the other must be in error. Krista Tippett’s radio program Speaking of Faith, which can be found on public radio has been one of the most effective forums for this conversation to take place. Although science and faith aren’t the only issues that are featured on her show, her insightful interviews have proven to be a crucial venue in moving the discussion in more productive directions.

Einstein’s God, which contains a selection of her interviews, framed by an introduction that sets the conversation in context, is Tippett’s most recent book, following up on her 2007 book that carried the title Speaking of Faith, and which was much more autobiographical than her current book (though Tippett does use her own story and experiences to engage the guests in this book as well. Having deeply enjoyed the earlier book (having reviewed it here), I was pleased to have the opportunity to read this book.

In Einstein’s God, Einstein himself only makes an occasional appearance – though he is the focus of the opening chapter, which features an interview with physicists Freeman Dyson and Paul Davies. Each of the conversations that she undertakes in the book, engage people who, with only a few exceptions, practitioners of science, but who have some sense of the relationship between the scientific enterprise and what Tippett terms the “human spirit.” The use of this phrase allows her to expand the conversation beyond simply matters of the faith-science relationship, for not all of her conversation partners in the book would describe themselves as religious or as people of faith. They represent both the hard sciences (physics and biology) as well as the softer sciences (psychology).

Tippett, who is an intuitive interviewer, introduces the book with a very germane statement: “The science-religion ‘debate’ is unwinnable.” That is, we will be led astray as long as we insist that “science and religion speak the same language, or draw the same conclusions.” It is not a matter of competing to see which is right or more relevant, because such a debate will not move the conversation forward (p. 1). Tippett notes that her own upbringing as the grandchild of a fire and brimstone preacher, who in her words “did not know enough about science to be against it,” helps frame her own quest to try to know enough to gain an understanding of the issues. In the course of her discussions, a number of which are contained in this book, she can conclude that taken together, “they dispel the myth of the clash of civilizations between science and religion, indeed between spirit and reason, that we’ve accepted as the backdrop for so many tensions of the modern West” (p. 3). These conversations are important now more than perhaps ever, as we enter what appears to be another season of anti-intellectualism in America, where distrust of science can be a fruitful political or religious tool.

The title Einstein’s God is taken from the first of the discussions Tippett includes in her collection, a conversation with Freeman Dyson, a theoretical physicist, and Paul Davies, an astrophysicist. Einstein is well known for us use of terms such as God and creation, which has led some to claim him as a believer, but Einstein isn’t so easily pegged. Nonetheless, Einstein didn’t close the doors to God. The title, however, shouldn’t lead unsuspecting readers to conclude that this is a book about Einstein and his religious views. It is instead, as already noted, just one part of a broader discussion, that seeks to overcome the notion that there is a choice to be made between God and science. Near the end of the introduction, Tippett reflects on a concern expressed by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as he spent time in his prison cell reading physics. She writes that “he decried a stunted religious imagination that would consign God to the borders where scientific knowledge gives out” (p. 13). It is not enough to live with one foot on earth and one in heaven; we must live with both feet on the earth, so that those who are believers in God need not be afraid of what can be learned through reason.

In the course of ten chapters, readers engage with authors, scientists, medical doctors, theologians, and psychologists. Some of these chapters I can remember listening to, especially the first – the conversation with Dyson and Davies and the last with John Polkinghorne, as well as the conversation about Darwin and evolution with James Moore. It is perhaps fitting that a book with the title Einstein’s Brain would begin and end with conversations with physicists. But physicists and biographers of Darwin aren’t the only conversation partners. She talks about biology with Sherwin Nuland, medicine with Mehmet Oz, contentment with the limits of science and religion with Hindu physicist V.V. Raman, mathematics with Joanna Levin, revenge and forgiveness with psychologist Michael McCullough, stress with immunologist Esther Sternberg, and depression with Andrew Solomon, Parker Palmer, and Anita Barrows. Some of the authors, such as the Hindu physicist V.V. Raman and the physicist/theologian Polkinghorne are very open about their desire to find ways of bringing faith and science into conversation, having a stake in both. Others, including Janna Levin do not describe themselves as people of faith, but they understand the importance of the conversation. The breadth and variety of these conversations should provide the interested reader insightful introductions to the areas of interest. As a reader, certain subjects proved more interesting to me, others might catch the interest of others.

I found the discussion of Einstein provocative and helpful, found confirmation of my understandings of Darwin in Moore’s interview, and found again enjoyed Polkinghorne’s creative engagement with both science and theology, including Polkinghorne’s analogy between the fact that light can be understood as both wave or particle depending on the question posed and the divinity and humanity of Jesus – depending on the way the question regarding Jesus is formulated. Personally, I also found quite fascinating Michael McCullough’s discussion of revenge and forgiveness, in which he suggests that both responses have a biological/evolutionary basis, and that if we’re to understand the human capacity to forgive, we must also understand the human desire for revenge. This desire for revenge is rooted in the mechanism that humans used, before complex societies developed with their prisons and such to keep order and to provide protection. Thus thee “mechanism that individuals relied upon to protect themselves and to protect their loved ones and to protect their property was fear of retaliation” (p. 177). It is quite obvious that this mechanism is still deeply ingrained in human society, especially when people feel that the system no longer functions to protect them. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is a process that seems to be furthered as one gets to know the other – relationship is key. There must be a feeling of safety. We forgive those we feel safe around.

It would be appropriate to make mention of Einstein’s religious views, for his statement that “God doesn’t play dice” has led many to claim him as a believer. Tippett notes that Einstein was inclined toward a cosmic religious sense that he discerned in religious traditions and individuals such as Buddhism, some of the prophets and psalms of the Hebrew Bible, and in Francis of Assisi (p. 33). Or, as Paul Davies notes that while Einstein didn’t believe in a personal God, “he did believe in a rational world order, and he expressed what he sometimes called a ‘cosmic religious feeling,’ a sense of awe, a sense of admiration at the intellectual ingenuity of the universe” (p. 34). And he would use religious terms to describe that, but he wasn’t in any sense an orthodox practitioner of religion. To learn more, of course, you’ll want to consult the interviews.

Each reader will find their own favorites, but even if you haven’t listened to an episode of Krista Tippett’s radio program, readers should find this fruitful reading. They might also find chapters that do not intrigue them nearly as much. I must admit that discussion of mathematics isn’t my favorite topic, but even here there is something worth taking away from the discussion. The format is effective because Tippett never takes an adversarial role, but instead seeks to elicit from the conversation partner an understandable description of the issue at hand. Sometimes the topics can be rather rarefied – this is especially true of the topics under discussion here, but you need not be an expert or even all that well informed to enjoy the conversation. Again Krista Tippett has provided us with a book that is a joy to read.


Brian said...

Bob - Did you write this review? I'm definitely going to check this book out.

David Mc said...

Calculus, "It's the language God talks."

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

Yes, I just finished writing it!

And David, I sure hope that God doesn't talk calculus -- because I never got that far!

Rial Hamann said...


God did not take calculus either..
But, He did invent it and put the developed thoughts into the mind of Newton.

Anonymous said...

Keith Watkins said...

Bob, I belong to a book group that meets about eight times a year discussing books that deal with the intersection of religion and culture. This book sounds exactly like the kind of book we should put on our list for next year. My problem with math is not that I failed to take calculus. Rather, it is that I am having trouble remembering what I did learn--like the multiplication tables and simple formulas and memory devices, such as "percent of means hundredths times." I wonder how process thought fits into this discussion, since Whitehead's metaphysics, if I understand what my friends have said, is deeply mathematical

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...


Yes, I think a book club would love this book. As for process -- you see it in the discussions by the physicists, such as Polkinghorne. The person discussing math here is not a person of faith. I think one of my struggles with Process thought is that I'm not into math!

David Mc said...

"The person discussing math here is not a person of faith." ??

What?! And the reverse applies I suppose.

Pastor Bob Cornwall said...

David, I didn't mean it that way --Janna is just not as theologically inclined as Polkinghorne, who is both a physicist (and who likes Math also) and a theologian!

David Mc said...

Slightly off topic, but an interesting read-