09/03/2007 06:47 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Einstein's God, or The Hopes for Secular Spirituality (Part 3)

Einstein was looked upon as the most important voice in science at a time when religion was crumbling before the advances of science. But he did not take the easy way and pronounce God dead. Instead, Einstein went back to the most basic questions about time and space, and beyond that he wanted to know how human intelligence related to the cosmos. He famously said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. A completely random universe wouldn't be fully intelligible, but Einstein meant more than that: he knew first-hand that revelations about deep cosmic mysteries could be received by one man's mind.

By middle age Einstein had rejected a personal god, putting him beyond the confines of the Judeo-Christian tradition, although that was certainly his spiritual context. When he was fifty an interviewer asked him if he had been influenced by Christianity, to which Einstein replied, "I am a Jew, but I am enthralled by the luminous figure of the Nazarene." Science hadn't made him immune to Jesus's charisma. Clearly surprised, the interviewer asked if Einstein believed that Jesus had actually existed? "Unquestionably. 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."

But personally Einstein was progressing toward a spirituality far more secular than this comment suggests. Influenced by the philosopher Spinoza, he became fascinated by the possibility that matter and mind form one reality, and that God is the supreme intelligence suffusing that reality. He praised Spinoza as "the first philosopher to deal with the soul and body as one, and not two separate things." As for whether the universe exhibited intelligence, Einstein spoke more cautiously about a universe "marvelously arranged and obeying certain laws" that as yet were only dimly understood by human beings. He declared that he didn't believe in immortality ("one life is enough for me") or free will -- the laws governing human destiny were as fixed as physical laws.

Determinists are generally pessimistic, but Einstein was not. He was constantly fascinated by a level of creation just out of reach that contained unlimited wonder. In his 1930 credo, "What I Believe," we find this sentence: "To sense that behind anything that can be experienced there is something that our minds cannot grasp, whose beauty and sublimity reaches us only indirectly, this is religiousness." Statements like these open the way for a broad, tolerant view of the spiritual quest. In that regard, Einstein outshines the rigidity of current scientific skeptics, who throw out a personal God but leave a vacuous sterility in his place.

The ambiguity of Einstein's answer irked religionists, both Christian and Jewish. The greatest mind in the world refused to fit into the category of conventional belief or unbelief. A prominent rabbi sent him an exasperated telegram: "Do you believe in God? Stop. Answer paid. Fifty words." Einstein replied, "I believe in Spinoza's God, who reveals himself in the lawful harmony of all that exists, but not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind." Without saying so, Einstein echoed the numbed realization that millions of people were having in the wake of WW I and the Great Depression: a loving God was not going to save them or even interfere in the greatest of calamities. In shifting toward a subtler view of God, an impersonal deity hiding behind the mask of matter, Einstein was coming very close to ancient tenets of Indian spirituality. Insofar as God exists in the Vedic tradition, he has the ability to remain infinitely hidden or infinitely revealing, depending entirely upon the mind of the observer. (Always keeping in mind that "he" is a convention and that God is beyond gender or personality.) Einstein's mind sought revelation through natural laws and cosmic design.

What remains for us is to see how far he ultimately took his religious quest and what possibilities he opened for the future.

Note: For extended treatment of the quotes found here, see Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe."

(to be continued)