Book Review: ‘A Theory of Everything (That Matters): a Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God’ by Alister McGrath

A Theory of Everything (That Matters)

Review by Greg Cootsona. Cootsona is a lecturer in comparative religion and humanities at Chico State University, a co-director of the Science for the Church ministry, and the author of Negotiating Science and Religion in America: Past, Present, and Future (Routledge). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

When I was a grad student in Germany, I remember visiting the city of Ulm. Two particular, commingled sights come to mind: first, pausing at the marker for Albert Einstein’s birth in 1879 (before his family moved to Munich six weeks later); and second, ascending the dizzying heights of the 530-foot cathedral tower. The combination strikes me as instructive: Most of us see in Einstein a mind that seemed to unlock the deepest mysteries of the universe. He sought a “theory of everything.” And many have sought to ascend with him into higher realms of insight, through many tiring steps.

Can Einstein bring us closer to God’s view of the world? Oxford University’s Alister McGrath takes up this question in his book, A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Brief Guide to Einstein, Relativity, and His Surprising Thoughts on God. McGrath—who holds advanced degrees in theology, intellectual history, and molecular biophysics—is a leading light in the dialogue of faith and science.

McGrath does a remarkable job of explaining Einstein’s rigorous and intricate theories. I was particularly struck by his elaboration of the four papers Einstein wrote as a Swiss patent clerk during the miracle year of 1905, including papers setting out the theory of special relativity and describing the “photoelectric effect,” which led both to the development of quantum theory—that light is both a wave and a particle, or, in Einstein’s words, “packets of waves” —and a 1921 Nobel Prize. McGrath, by the way, expertly explains the politics behind the Nobel committee’s decisions, shedding light on why Einstein didn’t receive a prize for his “greatest intellectual achievement—the theory of general relativity.”

Einstein’s theory puzzled many contemporary scientists, and it wasn’t until May 1919 that observations of an eclipse by the great English scientist Sir Arthur Eddington (and others) offered confirmation. As I write, the 100th anniversary of this event has received a tremendous amount of attention. Even then, as McGrath explains, many declared it “a ‘new scientific revolution’ that had ‘overthrown’ [Isaac] Newton.” Despite the media sensation, however, Einstein’s discoveries were more a “natural completion” of Newton’s theories than a decisive scientific break, as Einstein later noted and McGrath is careful to highlight.

The Path of Intuition

What are the theological implications of the theory of general relativity? As the science writer Timothy Ferris wrote of George Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest and scientist who confirmed the theory mathematically, “the universe might have begun as an infinitely small pinpoint—a ‘singularity,’ in mathematical terms—at time zero, ‘a day when space was infinitely curved and all matter and all energy was concentrated into a single quantum of energy.’” This expanding cone of the universe would have a starting point, commonly known as the Big Bang.

But how does this match up with the Christian belief that God created the world ex nihilo (or “out of nothing”)? As both Lemaître and McGrath (in other places) have advised the faithful, it doesn’t make for a precise fit. Believers need to avoid making extravagant theological claims about the Big Bang, even if there are some parallels between Einstein’s physics and the doctrine of creation.

I found myself drawn to how Einstein brought it all together in his 1934 book Mein Weltbild, translated into English as The World as I See It. Arguing that the supreme task of the physicist is to search for general elementary laws that can be woven together to give a comprehensive “picture of the world” (Weltbild), Einstein notes that “there is no logical path to those laws.” Rather, they arise through the “intuition, testing on a sympathetic understanding of experience.”

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Source: Christianity Today