Einstein in his Princeton office, 1944
Answer: Everybody wants him on their side.
Christians themselves agree on little beyond Jesus’ centrality. Conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries, prosperity preachers, LGBT activists, fundamentalists, mystics, creationists, the rich, the poor, all see what they want to see in Jesus. And we at psnt.net are as guilty as anyone.
Plenty of non-Christians are attracted to Jesus too. Muslims regard him as a prophet. Gandhi felt that the Sermon on the Mount alone was comparable to the whole of the Bhagavad Gita.
But the Nazarene’s appeal is felt well beyond the religious world, even deep within atheist circles. A few years ago none other than Richard Dawkins, in an interview with the Guardian, expressed his admiration. “Somebody as intelligent as Jesus would have been an atheist if he had known what we know today,” he said, referring to scientific knowledge. Perhaps no higher compliment could be paid by the world’s foremost unbeliever. Even that crankiest of Old Atheists, Nietzsche, respected Jesus for his lack of resentment toward the world that killed him.
This is not news, of course. Jesus is probably the most influential human being to have ever lived. No historical figure is so widely loved and respected as Jesus of Nazareth. Therefore none has gained such a varied — and contradictory — collection of admirers.
But Albert Einstein comes close. Time magazine’s Person of the Century is universally regarded as brilliant, endearing, wise, and kind. Whether or not he was all these things is beside the point: he is everyone’s icon. Perhaps not even Jesus is misquoted more often. We all want a little piece of Einstein.
This weekend I ran across an amusing example of this. I was reading an Alan Lightman review of Why Science Does Not Disprove God by Amir Aczel. In the book Aczel claims that Einstein “truly believed in God,” claiming as evidence several of his famous statements (e.g., “I want to know God’s thoughts; the rest are details”), his references to a “spirit manifest in the universe,” and the historical fact that the great man attended synagogue during his year in Prague.
This is the first instance I’ve seen evidence of someone, in a serious book, using Einstein’s belief in God as a prop for an argument.
Aczel’s opponents also enlist Einstein for their cause: such a man must be on the right side! As Lightman points out, in The God Delusion Richard Dawkins claims Einstein was really an atheist, saying, in reference to his statements about God, “he didn’t really mean it.”
It seems to me that neither Aczel nor Dawkins get Einstein right. Both pretty much use the good professor to advance their own interests. Believers often see these quotes as expressions of an essentially religious impulse, and therefore claim him as their own (and my own sympathies are with them). But, synagogue or no synagogue, it is not clear to me that Einstein “truly believed in God” just because he used the word periodically and without derision.
Like Aczel, Dawkins recognizes something familiar in Einstein’s words. But for him it’s wonder, plain and simple. No deity need apply. Plus it’s clear that Einstein’s God — whatever it might be — has little to nothing in common with any traditional God (and Aczel agrees). So Dawkins has a point. But really: Einstein an atheist? That’s not right either (and Einstein’s most careful biographers agree).
It seems to me Einstein would be puzzled and somewhat embarrassed by the whole thing, just as he was by his fame.
One thing is clear, though: Einstein, like Aczel and Dawkins, saw something to admire in Jesus: “I am a Jew,” he said, “but 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” (from Einstein: A Life, by Denis Brian).
See what I just did there? You may safely conclude that Aczel and Dawkins aren’t the only ones who want Einstein on their side.