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The Wired Word

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Einstein's 'God Letter' sells at auction for more than $3 Million
The Wired Wordfor the Week of May 5, 2018

IN THE NEWS

Last December, art business and auction house Christie's announced that it would auction a 1954 letter from Albert Einstein in which the theoretical physicist, known for his vast intellect, wrote, "The word God is for me nothing but the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of venerable but still primitive legends."

Christie's said the letter, handwritten in German a year before Einstein died, was expected to sell for $1 million to $1.5 million. In fact, it sold for over $3 million.

Einstein wrote this letter to the philosopher Eric Gutkind in response to a book Gutkind had written in which he sought to wed Jewish spirituality and intellectualism and argued that the pursuit of science could lead people to a full understanding of God. Gutkind had sent a copy of the book to Einstein.

In response, Einstein was polite and friendly, and he thanked the author for sending the book, but he did not endorse Gutkind's premise. In addition to his statement about God as the product of human weakness and the Bible as primitive legends, Einstein wrote, "For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions."

Some observers have taken Einstein's statements in this letter, written late in his life, as evidence that he was (or had become by that point) an atheist. But Einstein's religious views are not so easily categorized. In a different letter, written around a decade earlier, he wrote: "I have repeatedly said that in my opinion the idea of a personal God is a childlike one. You may call me an agnostic, but I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist.…  I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being." Long before the rise of “spiritual but not religious,” Einstein, described himself as a "religious nonbeliever." 

Raised by secular Jewish parents, Einstein attended a local Catholic public elementary school in Munich, there being no Jewish school available. He said that he had a "deep religiousness" until age 12, when, through the reading of popular scientific books, he abandoned religion.

He eventually rejected the idea of a personal God, writing in 1931, "I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes its creatures, or has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves."

Nor did Einstein believe in life after death, writing, "One life is enough for me." He did, however, affirm what he called a "cosmic religion," which wasn't religion in the traditional sense, but was, as Eugene Mallove wrote in The Washington Post in 1985, "a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection."

In a 2007 book by David Rowe and Robert Schulmann, Einstein is quoted as saying, "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms—this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men."

More on this story can be found at these links:

Press Release: Albert Einstein. The God Letter. Christie's
Einstein's Letter Belittling God, Religion Expected to Fetch at Least $1 Million. Chicago Tribune
Religious and Philosophical Views of Albert Einstein. Wikipedia

THE BIG QUESTIONS

1. Does the fact that an exceptionally intelligent person rejects belief in God make the rejection more persuasive than if a person of ordinary intelligence does so? If an exceptionally intelligent person professes belief in God, is that more persuasive than if a person of ordinary intelligence does so? Explain your reasoning.

2. Whether you first believed in Christ as a child or later in life, what role has your thinking ability and reason played in your decision to continue in the Christian faith as an adult?

3.Do reason and faith have to be in conflict? Explain your answer.

4. Does your intellect ever hinder your faith? Explain. How might intellect, faith, and science work together to bring you closer to God?


CONFRONTING THE NEWS WITH SCRIPTURE AND HOPE
Here are some Bible verses to guide your discussion:

Psalm 8:3-4
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (For context, read 8:1-9.)

As reported above, Einstein said, "The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mystical. It is the power of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms -- this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong to the rank of devoutly religious men."

Questions: To what degree does Einstein's comment align with this text? Can awe be a pathway to truth? Explain.

Psalm 111:10
The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; all those who practice it have a good understanding. His praise endures forever. (No context needed.)

This verse and many like it elsewhere in scripture link the "fear of the Lord" (the Hebrew word usually rendered in English as "fear" means "reverence" or "awe") with wisdom and understanding. It could be argued, of course, that the Psalms and Proverbs are biased in favor of God—and indeed, a smart skeptic might so argue—and so this statement is, in a way, self-authenticating.

C.S. Lewis offers a perspective on that. He said, "The intellectual life is not the only road to God, nor the safest, but we find it to be a road, and it may be the appointed road for us. Of course, it will be so only so long as we keep the impulse pure and disinterested." By keeping the "impulse pure and disinterested," Lewis meant that we should not slant our intellectual inquiries so that they predetermine that we conclude in favor of God. He explained, "That would be ... to offer to the author of truth the unclean sacrifice of a lie. I mean the pursuit of knowledge and beauty, in a sense, for their own sake, but in a sense which does not exclude their being for God's sake." (See more of Lewis' explanation of this here.)

Questions: In what ways do you agree or disagree with Lewis' statement above?

Lewis also said we need fewer books about Christianity and more books written by Christians with their Christianity latent in them. Why do you think he said that?

1 Corinthians 1:20-21 (NIV)
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. (For context, read 1:18-25.)

The apostle Paul, a sharp thinker himself, here argues that God made himself and the message of oneness known not through "the wisdom of the world," but through "the foolishness of what is preached."

It's possible that Paul intends a tone of ridicule in the rhetorical questions he asks here -- sort of like "If they're so smart, how come they don't know God?" But rather than meaning this as blanket condemnation of good thinking, Paul is probably stating his argument this way to counter some claims of intellectuals who are speaking in Corinth against the gospel he had proclaimed.

Paul doesn't reject his intellectual upbringing as a student of Gamaliel. He continues to use his encyclopedic knowledge of scripture to refute arguments. But he also prizes his experiential knowledge of Jesus, in both the Damascus Road encounter and his continuing life in the Spirit.

Questions: Is preaching that fails to acknowledge the wisdom of the world effective for the long haul of life? Why or why not?

Think about the science books or articles you've read recently. Would the insight you learned in these items change depending on whether the author professed belief or disbelief in God? Is the information in any way improved or commended based on your belief in God?

John 7:17
Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. (For context, read 7:14-18.)

Jesus made this statement to a crowd of Jews who were "astonished" at his level of knowledge despite his lack of a formal education (see v. 15). Jesus first responded by saying that his teachings were not his own, but "his who sent me" (v. 16). And then he made the statement above, which is a way of saying that doing the will of God is the key to knowing whether Jesus' claims are true or not.

Questions: What does Jesus' comment here say about the integrity of his teachings?

In your actual experience, is doing God's will really the key to spiritual truth? If it is, explain what it taught you. If it isn't, tell what, if anything, helps you in that search.

     

ABOUT THE CURRENT

We are an open-minded, all-inclusive, casual, conversational congregation. We follow the teachings of Jesus and see the loving energy of God revealed in each of our world's diverse faiths, as well as through science and reason. Here, questions are a welcome and integral part of our journey. Please join us us.

     

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