The Religious Mysticism

of Einstein


Orthodoxy might be stifled and fundamentalism snuffed out; to exorcise the human heart of "religion" seems another matter altogether. Indeed, we are amazed to find "people of intelligence" all over the world demanding with a pathetic gesture of human helplessness for some kind of spiritual guidance. And along comes Albert Einstein, by universal acclaim one of the subtlest thinkers of the day, claiming that he is himself "a devoutly religious man," that "the only deeply religious people of our largely materialistic age are the earnest men of research." What holy folly is this?

In a remarkable article, "Religion and Science" (published on 9th November,1930, in the New York Times) he proclaimed his credo much to the undisguised alarm of "scientific" men and the horrified irritation of both intolerant agnostics and orthodox upholders of religious fundamentalism. It was officious for a scientist to dabble with religious creeds. A Catholic clergyman, teaching in a university at Washington D.C., stigmatized the whole thing as "the sheerest kind of stupidity and nonsense .. Einstein knows a great deal about mathematical physics" but the Reverend gentleman saw no reason for thinking that he knew anything about religion. We imagine Julian Huxley muttering under his breath, "Poor brother Albert! How he raves!"

But listen to Einstein himself. "The basis of all scientific work," he holds, "is the conviction that the world is ordered and comprehensible entity, which is a religious sentiment. My religious feeling is a humble amazement at the order revealed in the small patch of reality to which our feeble intelligence is equal." This "sacred feeling," "religious sentiment," is so much akin to the mystics' consciousness of the divine in the cosmos as well as micro-cosmos that it resembles closely the amor intellectualis of Schopenhauer, and, at any rate, is not far removed from the "divine love" of Ruysbock.

Obviously, the shy, retiring man, who curiously enough presents the appearance of a sensitive artist rather than a giant intellectual wrestling with mathematical calculations of the utmost complexity, was thinking of other things besides relativity, whiling plying his sail-boat on the lakes near Potsdam. As he puts it, "the desire to express the unknown," which fired his genius to almost superhuman efforts of concentrated thought, has made of Einstein not only the mathematician at whom the world stands in wonder and amazement but also a mystic of whom nobody knew - perhaps not even himself. 

Well might the marvellous crowd exclaim in despair, "What manner of man is this Einstein!" So much of "religious" fervour he puts in his quest for harmony even in mathematical figures, that, when he is working, Einstein is like a sick man. His temperature leaps by bounds, his cheeks are flushed crimson, his pulse beats fast, and his eyes wear an altogether unearthly aspect. His "creative fits" as described by his friends present more than one characteristic of the supernormal state, and the description given might well apply to the ecstasy of a mystic. He even thinks of the achievements of the work he accomplishes in this curious state of awesome expectancy as a mysterious sacrament. "Anyone," he writes to the Royal Society of London, "who finds a thought which brings him closer to Nature's eternal secrets partakes of a great grace."

Albert Einstein is by birth and bringing up a Jew, and he is steeped both in the uplifting spirit and the religious traditions of his race. He is blood-kin to the Psalmists and the Prophets of the Old Testament. But his religious sentiments are not circumscribed by the Law of Moses, nor is his native appreciation for the prophets blind to their narrow exclusiveness. For, like few men living, Einstein is acutely conscious of man's social responsibility to his brother man: the greater a man's usefulness to the world, the greater the man. 

He loathes war and militarism, and despises chauvinism in every form. A fatalist, like Schopenhauer, he sees naught but weakness in egotistical cravings for personal immortality. His ethical code is founded on sympathy and culture rather than on sanctions, and his admired moral guide is Francis of Assisi. For him there is intellectual peace and sane philosophy in the Buddhist spirit of 'cosmic' meditation. No less clearly he rejects the childish anthropomorphic trend of human thought.

According to this religious scientist there are three levels of religious people, or to put it contrary-wise, three kinds of religion that are of value to the three respective grades of religious feeling men are capable of. On the lowest level he places the 'religion of fear'. In what seems a hostile universe man is driven by fear to seek the protection of gods and in fear he continues to serve them to escape the dire punishment they mete out to the faithless and the ungrateful. Heaven, hell, priests, gods, miracles, revelations are essential in the credo of the "religion of fear." On a higher level Einstein would place what he calls "social religion," the fundamental characteristic of which is the belief in a benevolent God or Providence that satisfies "the (human) longing for guidance, love and succour." One is curiously reminded of Sankara's esoteric religion, apara vidya, and the modernistic "humanized" Christian of the type of say, Harry Emerson Fosdick. 

Ev en Julian Huxley's "religion without God" might be smuggled into this group. For Huxley's motive in making the idea of "the development of personality" the basis of religion is primarily social, and though objecting to the word God on account of its connotations, he would allow the worship of the "sum of forces acting in the cosmos, as perceived and grasped by the human mind" - and he is even socially-minded enough to consider the utilization of the existing churches.

But Einstein goes on and claims for those who are receptive a "third" or highest level of religion, the religion of intellectual love, the amor intellectualis that he calls "cosmic religion." And this cosmic religion on closer analysis seems so remarkably the classical religious mysticism of all times and all climes that one fails to distinguish it from mysticism and to differentiate its proponent from the long array of mystics that the human race has fathered from the days Lao-tze to that of Rabindranath Tagore.

What is this "cosmic religion" of Einstein that the choleric cleric aforementioned thinks is really more "comic" than "cosmic"? The concern about the discovery of the unknown, the blind awesome faith in its reality, the daring assumption that the unknown is entirely rational, and that it is ever revealing itself "in wisdom and beauty," constitute the kernel of Einstein's religious outlook. But there is where "cosmic religion" finds its beginning: its characteristic emphasis is yet to be explored. In the first place, with this "religious sentiment" pervading one's whole outlook there comes in a feeling of the vanity of human desire and aims. This is augmented in the second place, by a consciousness of the nobility and marvellous order which are revealed in Nature and the world of thought. Thirdly, the believer in "cosmic religion" feels that his individual destiny is an imprisonment and seeks to experience the totality of existence as a unity full of significance.

And finally, he rejects dogma and all pseudo-divine reflections of self as unworthy of attention. All these are unmistakably traits definitely associated with the life-outlook and experience of mystics, although it must be admitted that Einstein's Object of Devotion is by no means clearly defined, nor is he very explanatory as to what the implications of such cosmic religious experience are, religiously and metaphysically, as well from the standpoint of social and ethical well-being. But then is not this latter again, a very decided hall-mark of all genuine mysticism?

Prof. Harry F. Ward of Union Theological Seminary takes objection to the credo of this eminent scientist that he does not give sufficient importance, if any at all, to the fact of sin in this world. Says Dr. Ward, "There is no possibility of this modern world going anywhere except back to barbarism unless it realizes its sense of guilt." True. This would legitimately apply in the second level religion Einstein speaks of, but not in the highest level of "cosmic" religion. There one is absorbed in humble amazement in the "order" and like a true mystic has risen beyond all distinction of good and evil, of the beautiful and the hideous. God, whatever that concept might connote to the mystic, is not separate from the world order. He is not only in it and of it - but is It Itself. And all attempts adequately to convey the experience of that fact fail. What we have to bear in mind is that Einstein in taking the world into the secret of his own beliefs is certainly not advocating that everyone else should also accept it. Indeed, he has very clearly indicated that "cosmic" religion being on the highest level demands on the part of its adherents a decided development of intellect and a high pitch of sensitiveness to the values that surpass the merely mundane. Though he does imply - and at times, hastily generalizes - that men of science who are indeed gifted with more than ordinary intelligence ought to be receptive to this amor intellectualis. Einstein is certainly a mystic: but his mysticism is not classical. It is modern. Who knows but that would pave the way to others still befuddled in their religious thought, who have a decided repugnance for organized religion and yet find it well-nigh impossible to live without the inspiration of religion.

Like Moses and Jesus, Einstein is a Jew: but in his religion he shares more with Jesus than with Moses. The spirit of Moses was a practical spirit. He set up a state and an army, made laws and instituted a priesthood. He was an autocrat and a ceremonialist. Jesus, on the other hand, was very impractical. He loved peace and cared for the spirit than the law. He denounced and distrusted priests. He was cosmopolitan and anti-national. He preferred to forgive than to punish, to lead than to compel. He was humble and keenly alive to social responsibility. So Albert Einstein, the prophet of Potsdam. He finds no use for organized religion in the life and conduct of intelligent men. "The ethical behaviour of man," he is convinced, "is better based on sympathy, education and social relationships, and requires no support from religion. Man's plight would indeed be sad if he had to be kept in order through fear of punishment and hope of reward after death."

We do not intend to go into any more lengthy comparison of the cosmic religion of Einstein with the religious thought of other founders of religion and other systems of religion. It must be admitted, in passing, that there is, however, more than a facial resemblance between Einstein's cosmic religious experience and that insisted on by both the Vedanta and the Hinayana Buddhist mysticism. Just what that relationship is can be worked out in detail by those interested in relating the present with the past.

What, however, is of crucial importance to the thinking world today is the fact which Einstein underscores so heavily, that the difference between science and religion is more imagined than real; that the quest of truth in science is itself a religious search for Reality; that the possession of right knowledge of the universal order (which to human ken remain still the mysterious unknown) despite centuries of patient piecemeal acquisition is indeed the experience of man's kinship with the Divine; that true knowledge is experience, and experience is religion in the highest sense. Whatever the future of human religion might be, considering the progress that man has verily made in his capacity for conceptual thought, discursive reasoning and intuitive apprehension, there is a definite indication that the religion of the future would be a "mysticism." As such it would be a personal experience, and though not divorced from social conduct, would not be doctrinally tied down to ethical relationships. This latter would be the outcome of other demands, temporal, relative and mundane. It naturally follows then, that organized religion with its orders of priesthood and system of doctrine would not only grow decadent and die, but would positively prove injurious to religious experience if not actually prevented from proving such a sad deterrent to spiritual progress. 

In the third place, it is becoming increasingly clear that ethical behaviour would be more and more differentiated from religious experience. It is in the eye of the pious, so called, that circumspective conduct comes to hold such an unduly high place of importance, and what is not considered ethical from the standpoint of the "pious" is given the religious term "sin." Modern mysticism, however, impractical as it is, rises above this idea of good conduct as a means to an end; being utterly convinced of the Eternal Order as fundamentally intelligent and beautiful it rises above mere considerations of right and wrong which after all human experience proves to be relative, temporal and of the earth, earthy. Finally, without setting forth with any clear-cut idea of a God or any set dogma bound up with the idea of Him or His relation with the world of men it would demand that we merely go on the quest for Truth and Light and Reality with an awesome wonder, an amor intellectualis, creating in ourselves a receptivity for experiencing the object of our search, sinking all differences of race, creed and colour.

The Prophet of Potsdam has indeed stirred up the currents of our religious thought life today. But the stream will ere long be left the clearer for that. John Haynes Holmes who is a shrewd observer of modern trends of thought and a keen appraiser of the true value of their contribution to the future of the race says: "Science deals with facts, religion with uses, poetry with the symbolic expression of the two. In Einstein's transcendent mind these three are miraculously synthesized into a unity which constitutes one of the intellectual and spiritual miracles of history."

And Albert Einstein, the modern mystic, standing aloof from all cliques, associations and creeds, the lonely hearted devout dreamer that he is, at once a heretic and a saint, a philosopher and a scientist, lives in the happy contemplation of the personal graces that are vouchsafed to him in his experience of "the cosmic" religion's Unknown.

Originally published in Modern Review, September, 1931 issue. The name of the author is not given. It is of no use making wild guesses, after the lapse of three-quarters of a century we have no means to know it.


More by :  Kumud Biswas

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