This weeks Did You Know is excerpted from a new book entitled “God and Spirituality” it’s been sent to the publisher but not yet printed:  The famous scientist Albert Einstein had spoken on “Science and Religion” at The Conference on Science, Philosophy and Religion in New York City in September 1940, strongly attacking the traditional concept of God. Paul Tillich’s response to these arguments was published as one of the chapters in this book on Theology and Culture, and is especially important to look at, because it shows us one of the greatest theologians of the last century responding to one of the greatest scientists of the same period.

The title that Tillich gave to his response was, “The Idea of a Personal God,” because he saw that this question was at the true crux of the many issues separating the theologians and scientists. As Tillich sums up the great physicist’s position: Einstein attacks the idea of a personal God from four angles: [1] The idea is not essential for religion. [2] It is the creation of primitive superstition. [3] It is self-contradictory. [4] It contradicts the scientific world-view.

Tillich’s response to this was very interesting, because he in fact acknowledged that he, just like Einstein, did not believe that the ground of the universe was in fact a personal thing. But against the great scientist, he insisted that a certain amount of the personalistic language in the traditional Jewish and Christian prayers and texts was in fact necessary, even if it was only being intended as a metaphor and analogy.

Spirituality cannot be reduced to only a system of humanistic ethics. The first criticism assumes, Tillich says, that religion and spirituality can be understood in a way that leaves out everything except ethical issues, which Einstein said in that speech can still be talked about meaningfully on a completely humanistic basis, with no reference to any kind of religious belief. Tillich says that this ignores the experience of what Rudolph Otto called the numinous aspect of reality and the reality of the enormous depths that we encounter when we approach the ground of all being and meaning, and the effect that has upon our moral perspective. It also assumes that a moral perspective on our personal relationships with other human beings can be constructed upon the basis of a neutral sub-personal view of the universe, which is not possible, because our scientific beliefs (when based upon this kind of foundation) depersonalize our entire view of the world and are always undermining and negating the validity of any moral principles we then try to maintain.

Primitive superstitions can nevertheless refer to things that actually exist. The second criticism points to the abuse of the idea of God in previous eras of human history by primitive imaginations that converted it into ignorant and superstitious beliefs and tried to use it to justify grossly immoral behavior such as religious inquisitors burning people at the stake and other torture. As Tillich points out in his essay, the fact that an idea has been abused by some people does not mean that the underlying idea is totally invalid, and without foundation. If primitive people foolishly believed that volcanoes are caused by the god Vulcan, the smith who made the metal objects for the other gods, began hammering on his forge under the earth, and if these primitive folk out of fear then began offering human sacrifices to Vulcan to try to prevent volcanoes from occurring, this does not in fact mean that volcanoes do not exist or that the ground of being does not exist. It simply meant that they had an ignorant and faulty science and an ignorant and faulty theology or both. And Tillich goes further, and cites the philosopher Descartes: “The infinite in our mind presupposes the infinity itself.” Uneducated and primitive notions about the infinite ground of being do not mean that there is no infinite ground.

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Glenn Chesnut

He was Professor of History and Religious Studies at IU South Bend for 33 years, winning IU's Herman Frederic Lieber Award for excellence in teaching in 1988. He has written a number of works that primarily focus on Christianity & Alcoholics Anonymous. > Read Full Biography > More Articles Written By This Writer