God’s Ongoing Story: On John Haught’s “God After Einstein”
By Paul AllenAugust 28, 2022
God After Einstein: What’s Really Going On in the Universe? by John F. Haught
An underestimated communicator for science and religion in dialogue is John F. Haught, an emeritus lay Catholic theologian from Georgetown University. His writing is among the most accessible of all the academic figures in the movement, and he is keenly aware of the dynamism of science, in contrast to the static tone of much of popular Christianity: “A feeling for deep cosmic time is also virtually absent from academic theology and suburban homilies.”
Building on his earlier books, such as God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution, Haught focuses his sights on an even larger spatiotemporal horizon by asking in his new volume what the word “God” means after Albert Einstein: “I want to ask what the God of Jesus means to us if we think in depth about the [Einsteinian] Big Bang universe.” Not just Einstein the scientist, however. Einstein’s thoughts about religion, already the subject of several monographs, are material evidence in establishing “reasons for [spiritual] hope” in a relativistic universe. Einstein plays two roles: hero and nemesis. Yet, as with Stephen Jay Gould and other public scientists of the 20th century, he cannot quite escape the intellectual prison of “archaeconomic” perspectives that claim that the universe is pointless.
The same holds true for philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False created a maelstrom amongst the New Atheists’ best and brightest a few years back because of his advocacy for the idea that reductionism is insufficient for a scientific understanding of the universe. Nagel’s critique of scientific naturalism never got close to affirming God, but Haught takes over where Nagel leaves off. Haught’s borrowings from philosophy are not as analytically framed as Nagel’s, but his wide-angle lens treats science, history, and religion with equal respect and care.
Picking up on themes explored earlier in his career, Haught identifies religion with a sense of “indestructible rightness” that combines with a shared sense of multispecies adventure. The book’s chapters are disarming: “Mystery,” “Life,” “Eternity,” “Thought,” “Compassion,” etc. He launches an Einsteinian-inflected “soft metaphysics,” chiefly inspired by A. N. Whitehead. For Haught, God is at least understood by key aspects of Christian tradition but is the opposite of a ruling authority by virtue of being subject to time, change, and chance. God is thus either more than or less than Christian thought habitually intuits. No “heresies” are advanced, but a disorienting cluster of themes emerges.
Early in Haught’s narrative comes the universe’s slow unfolding as an “ongoing epic,” a “story still being told.” Our cosmos is a drama. Einstein’s thought undermines the small, privatized God of so much of popular tradition. Yet, he was slow to realize some of the implications of his own discovery of the arrow of time. Hence, Haught wants us to know, contrary to Einstein’s own conservatism, that “[n]ature is not a machine but an awakening.” For Haught, time is to be embraced, not feared. His thinking is unbounded: Neoplatonism, pantheism, and materialism — all need to go.
As laid out in Max Jammer’s 2002 book, Einstein and Religion: Physics and Theology, Einstein came to a deep kind of religiosity, despite refusing to become bar mitzvahed. He embraced a notion of cosmic religious feeling reminiscent of Friedrich Schleiermacher, and developed a love of eternity partly based on the pantheist philosopher Baruch Spinoza, for whom no personal God was possible. As Einstein famously stated, “God does not play dice.” From this ambiguous start, Haught shows how Einstein’s logic could entail a personal God — and even faith, though he redefines it as “anticipation.” Einstein’s discovery of a very large universe eliminates the two other options (reductionism and dualism). What matters for Haught is that Einstein could have embraced a universe created by a personal God for reasons internal to Einstein’s thinking. This is disarmingly clever, not a Christian reconnoiter of the empirical realm.
Haught’s solution to the problem of time is resolved in two ways. First, God enters time. Jesus shows us how God is emptied into the life of a single person, who is humiliated and crucified (the technical theological term is “kenosis”). Second, thanks to Einstein, the radical openness of the future is empirically manifest. The universe, then, is not merely spatial, in diametric opposition to an eternal God. It is spatiotemporal-oriented. So it is reasonable to have hope in a God who is “in some sense not-yet.” Ironically though, Einstein himself thought of time as a stationary block; contrary to common human experience, he did not understand time as an irreversible passage. Advocates of a final theory that unites relativity theory with quantum theory may yet win out, but on Haught’s understanding, this is unlikely because the necessarily decreasing amount of usable energy in the universe simply correlates with a creation of the world as a “Big Bang.” Though he recanted later, Einstein originally refused to even see the expanding universe theory as correct, despite its formulation by the acclaimed Belgian astrophysicist and Catholic priest, Georges Lemaȋtre.
Admirably, Haught has chosen a road with obstacles in his way. He has to distinguish between Einstein’s scientific cosmology and his philosophy in order to retrieve his true significance. Contrary to Einstein’s own predilections, he maintains that narrative is a plausible way to tell the story of the universe, because geometry is not enough. The reflex to see nature’s evolution in narrative terms channels the thought of the French Jesuit paleontologist and scientific poet, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who makes several appearances in Haught’s book. This is unsurprising given Teilhard’s stature as a magnet for liberal Catholics worldwide, and nowhere more than in the United States. Teilhard’s scientific credentials are considerable, yet controversial. He has been rebuked for his doctrine of progress and his unsettling speculations about eugenics. Haught has dealt with such worries elsewhere, so he forges ahead with a Teilhardian fusion of poetic metaphysics and cosmology.
In his effort to distinguish his own view from the Christian tradition writ large, Haught deploys the idea of “anticipation,” in contrast to the “analogical metaphysics” of that version of the perennial philosophy. His main target is the timelessness prized by the Greco-Roman heritage. “Archaeconomic” thought merely reduces reality to the visible parts that we can analyze. The latter is the blinkered view of Democritus, contemporary scientific atheists, and many others in between. Haught’s “anticipatory” claim is that classical philosophy is insufficient to account for the drama of time.
This seems tidy, but not all is clarity. Haught overlooks Christian theology’s scandalous disruption of the classical metaphysical tradition. The resurrection of the body stretched it to breaking point, so Haught’s Christian self-critique falls short. His effort to naturalize faith (“Faith, cosmically speaking, has its roots in the striving of life”) likewise elides the idea that faith is God’s gift to us. Playing center stage in this book is eschatology, Christian speech about the end of time. Yet Haught’s dependence on Whitehead for offering a God who is a source of novelty in the world does not deal with evil or final justice. The God who is drawn into the world too tightly does not possess authority over it. Haught wants God to be changed by the world more than he sees the world being changed by God.
The puzzling aspect of this book is the unclear status played by Einstein himself. Haught has Einstein “allow for” many advances in thought. Yet, as you finish reading the book, you wonder whether Einstein is really such a flexible cipher. The brilliance of Haught’s work over the decades is his equal-opportunity critique against both the religious distortions of science and the scientific distortions of religion. Sentences like “The world thus leans not on the past, as the materialist assumes, but on the future, as hope requires” show a mind honed by metaphysics without abstruseness.
As more and more scholars now realize, the science/religion impasse of the 20th century was largely construed on a false historiography written between 1880 and 1970. Better historiography is now available thanks to a healthy revisionism afoot in the academy. Haught is laying some of the complementary, conceptual groundwork for a 21st century science/religion rapprochement. As Einstein might have said, these two worlds may yet keep each other honest.
Dr. Paul Allen is academic dean at Corpus Christi College and professor at St. Mark’s College, Vancouver. He is the editor of Augustine and Contemporary Social Issues (Routledge, 2022), Theological Method: Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012), and Ernan McMullin and Critical Realism in the Science-Theology Dialogue (Ashgate, 2006).
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