September 28, 2020

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 1

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God by Alister McGrath- Part 1

We are going to review Alister McGrath’s new book, “A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God”.  In this book, McGrath examines the life and work of Einstein, explaining his scientific significance and considering what Einstein did and did not believe about science, religion, and the meaning of life.  A review of the book by Greg Cootsona in Christianity Today can be found here.  (I reviewed Cootsona’s book, “Mere Science and the Christian Faith” for Internet Monk beginning here).  Also in Christianity Today, there is an interview with McGrath by Christopher Reese that can be found here.

Alister McGrath

Alister McGrath is the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, Senior Research Fellow at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, President of the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics, and serves as associate priest in a group of Church of England village parishes in the Cotswolds.  His website is here .  McGrath is both a scientist; in 1977 McGrath was awarded a PhD in Biochemistry from Oxford University for his work on molecular biophysics, and a Christian minister and apologist; following his conversion from atheism to Christianity, he studied divinity at St. John’s College at Cambridge (1978-80) and in September 1980, he was ordained a deacon in the Church of England.  Of his former atheism, McGrath says:

When I was growing up in Belfast, Northern Ireland, during the 1960s, I came to the view that God was an infantile illusion, suitable for the elderly, the intellectually feeble, and the fraudulently religious. I admit this was a rather arrogant view, and one that I now find somewhat embarrassing. My rather pathetic excuse for this intellectual haughtiness is that a lot of other people felt the same way back then. It was the received wisdom of the day that religion was on its way out, and that a glorious, godless dawn was just around the corner… and says about his subsequent conversion:

In the midst of this growing delight in the natural sciences, which exceeded anything I could have hoped for, I found myself rethinking my atheism… Atheism, I began to realize, rested on a less-than-satisfactory evidential basis. The arguments that had once seemed bold, decisive, and conclusive increasingly turned out to be circular, tentative, and uncertain.

In the realm of reconciling faith and science that I am most interested in, McGrath is one of my heroes. As he says in the same beliefnet article noted above:

My Christian faith brings me a deepened appreciation of the natural sciences, and although I am no longer active in primary scientific research, I keep up my reading in the fields that interest and excite me most: evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, biochemistry, and biophysics.

Why does faith bring this intellectual enthusiasm and satisfaction? In the words of another academic from Belfast who found faith at Oxford University: “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the Sun has risen-not only because I see it, but because by it, I see everything else.” C.S. Lewis wrote this in “Is Theology Poetry?” his famous essay on the explanatory potential of the Christian faith.

So I am especially glad that Alister McGrath has written this book.  Albert Einstein was, without a doubt, the most iconic scientist of the last century.  His name is virtually identical with genius; to call someone an “Einstein” is to give their intellectual ability the highest praise.  In this book, McGrath provides an accessible introduction to Einstein’s great scientific discoveries, as well as careful analysis of his views on the relationship between science and religion.  Einstein, contrary to popular opinion, was a nuanced thinker of the big questions of life, and who better than McGrath to give us a tour de force of this aspect of the great scientist’s legacy.

From the back cover of the book:

“Albert Einstein remains the world’s favorite genius.  He has appeared on the cover of Time magazine no fewer than six times and was lionized as its Person of the Century in 1999. Einstein’s equation E = mc2―along with his trademark hairstyle―has found its way onto T-shirts and billboards. Yet while Einstein is universally recognized as a genius, his ideas can still mystify us, even a century later.

This concise book sets out to explain in accessible terms Einstein’s revolutionary scientific ideas, which still shape our world today. Nobody thinks a scientific genius is infallible. Still, Einstein’s genius status means he is profoundly worth listening to, especially when thinking about how we make sense of our universe and God. This book takes seriously Einstein’s fascination with a “big picture” of our world―if you like, a theory of everything that matters.

Einstein is a dialogue partner whose reflections may help us move beyond the fragmentation of ideas and values that has become such a core feature of our own day.

Let’s begin that conversation.”

 

Comments

  1. It will be interesting to see where McGrath takes this discussion. Any book that can better explain the mind-boggling complexities of Relativity Theory is much to be desired. Unfortunately over the years many Christian apologists have attempted to draft Einstein to the cause relying on his ambiguous public pronouncements on the subject of religion. I’m going to assume McGrath is way too smart for that. Einstein was a public figure. He understood what he could say and not say but his actual views were clearly expressed in his private correspondence, most of which is now easily available. Einstein expressed a sort of rarified Spinozan deism, “God” as a metaphor for the amalgam of all the laws of nature. I appreciate the willingness here to tackle these kinds of issues and look forward to the discussion!

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    Forty odd years ago, a close friend and I attempted to whack our way through ‘ABCs of Relativity’ by Bertrand Russell, having heard that it was one of the few ways into the subtleties of Einstein’s thinking open to non-mathematicians, Unfortunately (or fortunately, I still haven’t decided which) we also decided to simultaneously partake of the dried resinous gum of a certain palmate flowering herb as we read and discussed the book. A third, abstemious, friend who was studying math at the Uni joined us after the first chapter and I believe we made it to the ninth.

    It is amazing that I retain anything from those sessions, but I still remember the distinction Russell made between “space-like” and “time-like” intervals in space-time. If this conversation can dislodge any well-cured nuggets from those reckless days, I would be deeply grateful.

  3. There are a number of different views of who and what God is. The question of God’s existence bothered me a lot in my twenties. Then a friend advised that the real question was not whether or not God exists but what are God’s attributes or characteristics. This meant I could jettison a version of God I had thought was necessary and was free to explore other conceptions. Have learned to live with a lot of uncertainty and mystery to this question. Now appreciate the apophatic approach as I feebly understand it. Until he helped wake me up, I had been in the thrall mainly of a certain American Protestant way of perceiving God. A couple of years ago, I got a big kick out of a Michael Hardin video where he was in discussion with a professed atheist, Aron-Ra. The latter had the first opportunity to talk and gave his reasons against. When it was his turn, Hardin said that he did not believe in that God either. Tom aka Volkmar has had the good fortune of meeting Michael Hardin.

    • Steve, yes, I have met Michael Hardin and agree with your statement that it was “good fortune.” I have learned much from MH. I highly recommend his book The Jesus Driven Life.

      I took a look at your blog. We share a common ancestry in the Stone-Campbell movement. It would be interesting to make contact (not sure how to do that without exposing ourselves to spammers) and swap stories.

    • BTW Steve, how did you know I met MH?