The God-Letter…What Einstein believed about God.
WHATS IN THIS BLOG:
• Einstein is a hero to me.
• TV series called Genius.
• The God Einstein believed in.
• Richard Dawkins missed out.
• Einstein defined happiness.
• The full God-letter.
ALBERT EINSTEIN IS A HERO TO ME. Always has been. E = mc2 and all that. I was trained as a physicist after all. I even wrote a blog about Einstein’s startling prediction of gravity waves (when two neutron starts collide) and their even more startling discovery in late 2017.
It was surprising to hear about a letter that he wrote the year before he died called Einstein’s God-letter. He was 74 years old and concerned daily about his physical deterioration. But his mind was as sharp as ever. In 1954 he wrote the one-and-a-half page letter to German philosopher Eric Gutkind. The letter was recently auctioned and sold for 2.9 million dollars! For $2.9 million it ought to say something important about God, and it does!
The letter is regarded as an expression of Einstein’s spiritual belief after being born a Jew and then a lifetime of research about space and time and energy.
Here are a few quotes from the letter courtesy of BBC News (the letter is given in full as an Appendix below):
• “I would never have brought myself to engage at all closely with your book because it is written in a language which is inaccessible to me.”
• “The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses,” he writes. “The Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends.”
• The physicist also muses on his own Jewish identity, writing that it is “like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition”.
His research and quotes about the wonder of the universe, which he understood better than anyone else at the time, revealed a belief in a transcendent God — one who constructed the galaxies and stars and planets in all their glory. But not an immanent or personal God, accessible by humans.
Albert Einstein later in life. Click to source image.
The following remarks on the God letter come from Cristies, who auctioned the letter:
Einstein in the letter invokes “our wonderful” Baruch Spinoza, the 17th-century Jewish Dutch philosopher with whom he strongly identified from an early age. Spinoza believed not in an anthropomorphic God who intervened in daily lives, but in a God beyond description, one responsible for the sublime beauty and orderliness of the universe.
Prefacing his frank remarks on God and religion, he observed diplomatically that he and Gutkind both believed in the importance of a strong moral foundation that rose above self-interest and instead sought to benefit humanity (“striving for the improvement and refinement of existence”), while rejecting materialism as an end – a typically “un-American attitude” they shared.
The Gray Nomad standing on a rock arch in the desert around Albuquerque.
THOUGHTS BY THE GRAY NOMAD.
Einstein distinguishes two images of God. The first is the God who created the universe with its power and beauty (the transcendent God). Einstein believed in this God and I do too. The second is an anthropomorphic God (i.e. with human characteristics) who intervenes in daily lives (the immanent or accessible God). Einstein didn’t believe in this God, but I do. We diverge here.
As Morris West, the famous Australian author, says so neatly, “Catholicism [GN: Christianity] was a religion founded and rooted in a definition of human identity. Man was a person created by a personal God… The physical universe was an ambience provided for his growth, survival and continuity. His status was affirmed by the doctrine of the Incarnation, according to which the Creator himself took on human flesh and gave it an irrevocable dignity.”
However, Einstein seems inconsistent when he says, in 1930 (quote from the book Einstein, chapter 17):
I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene… No one can read the gospels without feeling the actual presence of Jesus. His personality pulsates in every word. No myth is filled with such life.
Therefore, it appears Einstein changed his mind over the years between 1930 and 1954. Did physical deterioration, which worried him in his last years of life, depress his opinion about Jesus and God?
Marvelous book about Einstein’s life by Walter Isaacson. The book is the basis for a wonderful TV series called Genius, from National Geographic.
Last, the following is a quote from the same Einstein book, chapter 10:
The ability of science to be used as a refuge from painful personal emotions was a theme of a talk he gave at a [birthday] celebration… “One of the strongest motives that leads men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness. Such men make this cosmos and its construction the pivot of their emotional life, in order to find the peace and security which they cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.”
I only wish somebody at that birthday party had nudged Einstein and reminded him what he had said about Jesus (“the luminous figure of the Nazarene”) in the italics above. And reminded him what Jesus himself said:
Come to Me, all who are weary and heavily burdened and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest (renewal, blessed quiet) for your souls. For My yoke is easy [to bear] and My burden is light.
A farmer called Peter that I know in Australia told me he was not particularly religious. But one time while driving in his car an overwhelming sense of love came over him. For the first time, he realized God loved him and how much God loved him. It changed his attitude and it changed his life. This is one small example of a personal God interacting with a human on his own level. And it’s not an isolated event in my experience.
The God letter was sold before — in 2008. Among the bidders who reportedly lost out in 2008 was well-known atheist and scientist Richard Dawkins – the God letter back then was sold for $404,000. Dawkins could have made an enormous profit of $2.5 million in only 10 years if he had purchased the God letter in 2008 and sold it in 2018.
In 2017, Einstein gave advice on happy living. It was a single sentence that sold for $1.56million in Jerusalem. “A calm and humble life will bring more happiness than the pursuit of success and the constant restlessness that comes with it.” At the pinnacle of success with his theories about space and time, Einstein apparently wasn’t all that happy. And he didn’t think pursuing success would lead to happiness. But in the USA most folks wish that their children would pursue success. What am I missing here?
APPENDIX: THE FULL GOD-LETTER (the bold italic emphasis is mine — GN).
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I have read a great deal in your book in the last few days: thank you very much for sending it to me. What struck me particularly was this. We are largely alike as regards our factual attitude to life and to the human community: an ideal that goes beyond self-interest, with the striving for release from ego-oriented desires, the striving for the improvement and refinement of existence, with an emphasis on the purely human element, by which inanimate things are to be perceived purely as a means, to which no dominant function is to be attributed. (It is especially this attitude that unites us as an authentically “un-American attitude”1).
Nevertheless, without Brouwer’s encouragement I would never have brought myself to engage at all closely with your book because it is written in a language which is inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of venerable but still rather primitive legends. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can (for me) change anything about this. These refined interpretations are naturally very diverse, and have virtually nothing to do with the original text. For me the unadulterated Jewish religion is, like all other religions, an incarnation of primitive superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and in whose mentality I feel profoundly anchored, still for me does not have any different kind of dignity from all other peoples. As far as my experience goes, they are in fact no better than other human groups, even if they are protected from the worst excesses by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot perceive anything “chosen” about them.
In general, it pains me that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a human being and an internal one as a Jew. As a human being you claim to a certain extent a dispensation from the causality which you otherwise accept, as a Jew a privileged status for monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as indeed our wonderful Spinoza originally recognized with absolute clarity. And the animistic conception of natural religions is in principle not cancelled out by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception; but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. Quite the opposite.
Now that I have expressed our differences in intellectual convictions completely openly, it is still clear to me that we are very close to each other in the essentials, that is, in our evaluations of human behavior. What divides us is only intellectual padding or the “rationalization” in Freudian language. So I think that we would understand each other very well if we conversed about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
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An interesting idea in your Happiness section. I would agree it is accurate, but how does one find himself to be humble or become humble? That’s a struggle I wrestle with daily. As much as I like to think I am humble, I know that there is pride in me as well. I don’t think I can grip just one or the other. It’s sanctification at work- and I argue it’s not complete until our last second in this realm.
Good stuff, Ian, I enjoyed this one greatly.
Thanks Joshua, I agree its a tricky balance. On one hand we are and should be proud of our kids if they do well in sports, or academics, or whatever. On the other hand, if we are overly proud we can act superior and the NT is very clear about this. To be humble, and not act superior, involves: (1) listening to others sincerely, (2) being willing to learn new things, (3) accepting and evaluating criticism, and (4) saying “good game” when you get beaten by an opponent at tennis or pickleball or whatever sport. I love the famous statement in OT (Micah 6:8): “What does the Lord require of you but to do justly, love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
This is another very interesting and informative blog, that provokes assessment of my own faith and understanding. Also of my own arrogance and self interest, and of vain pursuits for success and security (as the world defines success and security). What Einstein believed will not change the truth regarding God, and the records of God’s dealing with Israel and others. Like Einstein I may unwittingly believe falsehoods, yet that does not change the truth. Unlike Einstein I hope I can search out the truth of things that really matter in this life, as well as the eternal. I believe the true essence of humility, is being willing to learn and change; even if we require help in changing beliefs, and/or behaviors.
Don, I liked your words, “I believe the true essence of humility, is being willing to learn and change; even if we require help in changing beliefs, and/or behaviors.” Very applicable to this day and age, when so many people are not even willing to listen to a different viewpoint, let alone consider changing their viewpoint. And all because they are sure they are right. To me, humility is realizing that another person can have a different perspective or a different understanding from me, even after we have both been exposed to the same data or information.
Fascinating!!! Thank you for offering this, Ian! Happy Holydays!
Thanks Karen. Its strange that Einstein’s pursuits led him to discover new realms of physical space and time. Yet he rejected new realms of the spiritual which I have seen many people discover during my lifetime.