By Dr. Joseph Chuman
“Without ‘ethical culture’ there is no salvation for humanity.” -A. Einstein
It’s worth $2.9 million and it has created quite a buzz in intellectual circles. The center of attention is a brief missive written by Albert Einstein, nicknamed “the God Letter,” that was recently auctioned by Christie’s and purchased for that amount. Written in 1954, a year before his death, it summarizes Einstein’s thoughts about God as well as his Jewish identity.
To my mind, the astronomical price paid for this document is a bit surprising in that its contents reveal nothing that Einstein hadn’t said many times before. It is a testament, I believe, to the power of celebrity (Einstein, after all, is the paragon of genius and a scientific rock star) and to the reality that there are lots of people with lots of discretionary money to spend. (The buyer remains anonymous.)
But Einstein’s thinking about religion is interesting, in many ways germane to our moment, and for several reasons, should be especially relevant to us, members of the Ethical Culture Movement.
Einstein was never a member of Ethical Culture, but he was certainly very familiar with us, and he highly praised Ethical Culture for the values we stand for and for its accomplishments. In fact, in the first decade of the 20th Century, while working as a clerk in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland, while scratching out the theories of relativity, Einstein would frequent a local Ethical Culture fellowship. In 1951, almost 50 years later, Einstein wrote a letter to the New York Society congratulating Ethical Culture on its 75th anniversary. In that letter, I think he gets Ethical Culture exactly right. Having acknowledged the importance of scientific achievement and its role in clearing away superstition, he asserts that such is not sufficient. Among other things, he observed the following:
“… a positive aspiration and effort for an ethical-moral configuration of our common life is of overriding importance. Here no science can save us. I believe, indeed, that overemphasis on the purely intellectual attitude, often directed solely to the practical and factual, in our education, has led directly to the impairment of ethical values. I am not thinking so much of the dangers with which technical progress has directly confronted mankind, as of the stifling of mutual human considerations by a “matter-of-fact” habit of thought which has come to lie like a killing frost upon human relations.
“Fulfillment on the moral and aesthetic side is a goal which lies closer to the preoccupations of art than it does to those of science. Of course, understanding of our fellow-beings is important. But this understanding becomes fruitful only when it is sustained by sympathetic feeling in joy and in sorrow. The cultivation of this most important spring of moral action is that which is left of religion when it has been purified of the elements of superstition.”
But Einstein had much more to say about religion that places him well within the framework and life-orientation that Ethical Culture has stood for. On the one hand, Einstein was consistently critical, indeed condemning, of supernaturalism and of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs. On the other hand, he described himself as a devoutly religious person, and stated emphatically that he was not an atheist. In this sense, Einstein placed himself in a position in which Ethical Culturists (not all, of course) often find themselves to the confusion of outsiders; on the one hand, asserting that they are religious, but disavowing that they believe in God or at least in God in any conventional sense.
In this regard, I think it is profitable for us to further mine Einstein’s insights about religion. In his perceptions and thoughts on religion, I believe, we can, perhaps, gain clarification of our own, and given his genius, I would contend, validation for beliefs that may baffle outsiders, but find legitimation in the mind the of the 20th Century’s consummate genius.
I have titled my address for Jan. 6 “Einstein Religion.” I hope you can join me then.
Dr. Joseph Chuman is leader of the Ethical Culture Society of Bergen County.