A Sacred Exchange (Pt. 3)

(This is the third installment in a three part series highlighting the correspondence of four prominent historical figures. The first two can be found here and here)

Albert Einstein: A Mind for the Ages


A new idea comes suddenly and in a rather intuitive way . . . But, intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience.” (Isaacson 113)

In describing the effortless literary genius possessed by Charles Dickens, G.K. Chesterton had this to say:

“But about very great and rich talent there goes a certain disdainful generosity which can turn its hand to anything. Minor poets cannot write to order; but very great poets can write to order. The larger the man’s mind, the wider his scope of vision, the more likely it will be that anything suggested to him will seem significant and promising; the more he has a grasp of everything the more ready he will be to write anything. It is very hard (if that is the question) to throw a brick at a man and ask him to write an epic; but the more he is a great man the more able he will be to write about the brick. It is very unjust (if that is all) to point to a hoarding of Colman’s mustard and demand a flood of philosophical eloquence; but the greater the man is the more likely he will be to give it to you.”

Such a commentary is aptly appropriated in describing the scientific and conceptual genius wielded by Albert Einstein. I will take the liberty of doing just that. Indeed, replacing the literary terms with ones pertaining to scientific pursuits, it almost seems that Chesterton was writing about him directly. Einstein certainly had the piercing ability to size up something as mundane as a “hoard of Colman’s mustard” and derive insights from its unassuming existence – ones capable of shaking the very foundations of physics. His many famous thought experiments demonstrate this excellently. Furthermore, the notion of throwing a brick at him is a comical one; most likely he would relish the opportunity of observing its flight through space, and would have already concocted a revolutionary theory based on its trajectory alone. Or, in the words of Einstein himself:

The intuitive grasp of the essentials of a large complex of facts leads the scientist to the postulation of a hypothetical basic law or laws. From these laws, he derives his conclusions.” (Isaacson 118)

Walter Isaacson’s recent biography of the iconic physicist wonderfully displays this “disdainful generosity” at Einstein’s disposal. Naturally, accounts of his role in revolutionizing our understanding of the cosmos abound, all the while bolstered by an intriguing look at his personal dispositions and social interactions, which add color to even the primarily scientific developments in his life. Moreover, while praise for the work of his pen cannot stray into the realm reserved by Chesterton for the likes of Dickens, Isaacson justly calls attention in his book to the array of noteworthy letters Einstein produced.

There were many factors at play contributing to the unique nature of his correspondence. Most of this was due to his sharp mind and ready wit – but one cannot overlook the abundance of historical drama playing out on the world stage within reach of his pen. His ascent into public acclaim transpired amidst the two great wars of the twentieth century, with the pacifist movement and the nascent Jewish state occupying much of his thoughts as well. It would be a great mistake to suppose his letters were solely a dry assortment of scientific facts scribbled down for an elite circle of like-minded physicists; instead, his writings stray into the arena of personal and family matters, religion, and international politics to name only a few.  Even many of the letters devoted to scientific topics are infused with his gregarious and playful personality, and are greatly amusing to peruse. What ultimately was generated from this pairing of such an expansive mind with an equally robust period of history is truly a sight to behold.

This playful side of a young Einstein is on full display in this famous letter to his friend Conrad Habicht in May of 1905:

“Dear Habicht,

Such a solemn air of silence has descended between us that I almost feel as if I am committing a sacrilege when I break it now with some inconsequential babble . . .

So, what are you up to, you frozen whale, you smoked, dried, canned piece of soul . . . ? Why have you still not sent me your dissertation? Don’t you know that I am one of the 1 1/2 fellows who would read it with interest and pleasure, you wretched man? I promise you four papers in return. The first deals with radiation and the energy properties of light and is very revolutionary, as you will see if you send me your work first. The second paper is a determination of the true sizes of atoms .  . . The third proves that bodies on the order of magnitude 1/1000 mm, suspended in liquids, must already perform an observable random motion that is produced by thermal motion. Such movement of suspended bodies has actually been observed by physiologists who call it Brownian molecular motion. The fourth paper is only a rough draft at this point, and is an electrodynamics of moving bodies which employs a modification of the theory of space and time.” (Isaacson 93)

Another letter relatively soon after this one was also addressed to Habicht, containing yet another landmark stroke of brilliance wrought by Einstein. In it, he planted the seeds for one of the most iconic equations ever formulated, E = mc2 :  

One more consequence of the electrodynamics paper has also crossed my mind. Namely, the relativity principle, together with Maxwell’s equations, requires that mass be a direct measure of the energy contained in a body. Light carries mass with it. With the case of radium there should be a noticeable reduction of mass. The thought is amusing and seductive; but for all I know, the good Lord might be laughing at the whole matter and might have been leading me up the garden path.” (Isaacson 138)

Maurice Solovine – a member of the famous Olympia Academy along with Habicht and Einstein – was privileged to receive this explanation of the theory of relativity from the very man who crafted it:

The theory of relativity can be outlined in a few words. In contrast to the fact, known since ancient times, that movement is perceivable only as relative movement, physics was based on the notion of absolute movement. The study of light waves had assumed that one state of movement, that of the light-carrying ether, is distinct from all others. All movements of bodies were supposed to be relative to the light-carrying ether, which was the incarnation of absolute rest. But after efforts to discover the privileged state of movement of this hypothetical ether through experiments had failed, it seemed that the problem should be restated. That is what the theory of relativity did. It assumed that there are no privileged physical states of movement and asked what consequences could be drawn from this.” (Isaacson 131)

On a markedly less scientific note, Einstein sent a letter to Marie Curie in November 1911, shortly after the end of the first Solvay Conference in Paris. During the conference – which was attended by herself, Einstein, and Europe’s premier physicists – Curie had been mired in a scandalous affair with a fellow attendee named Paul Langevin. The affair was made public when previously written love letters between the two were published in a Paris tabloid at the beginning of the conference. Einstein was apparently very put off by the public’s reaction to the entire debacle, and hoped to assuage some of her unease over the matter:

Do not laugh at me for writing you without having anything sensible to say. But I am so enraged by the base manner in which the public is presently daring to concern itself with you that I absolutely must give vent to this feeling. I am impelled to tell you how much I have come to admire your intellect, your drive, and your honesty, and that I consider myself lucky to have made your personal acquaintance in Brussels. Anyone who does not number among these reptiles is certainly happy, now as before, that we have such personages among us as you, and Langevin too, real people with whom one feels privileged to be in contact. If the rabble continues to occupy itself with you, then simply don’t read that hogwash, but rather leave it to the reptile for whom it has been fabricated.” (Isaacson 171)

Einstein, greatly acquainted with a life in the public spotlight, penned this letter to Heinrich Zangger in 1919. It offers a compelling critique of the public’s propensity to elevate celebrities to “superhuman” levels, and to assign unfair merit to them and their work:

The cult of individual personalities is always, in my view, unjustified . . . It strikes me as unfair, and even in bad taste, to select a few for boundless admiration, attributing superhuman powers of mind and character to them. This has been my fate, and the contrast between the popular estimate of my achievements and the reality is simply grotesque. This extraordinary state of affairs would be unbearable but for one great consoling thought: it is a welcome symptom in an age, which is commonly denounced as materialistic, that it makes heroes of men whose ambitions lie wholly in the intellectual and moral sphere.” (Isaacson 273) 

As a result of this “boundless admiration” he often received, many people were especially curious to discover the religious convictions he adhered to, if any. This curiosity from his admirers prompted many a query, and – happily for us – many a response. A chapter in the book entitled “Einstein’s God” provides many fascinating excerpts from his writings. We will conclude our look at the physicist here; in religious contemplation alongside one of the greatest scientific minds in recent memory. These letters reveal his views on the possibility of God’s existence, and particularly his own posture towards the “spirit” who crafted the cosmos he loved so much:

Every one who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man, and one in the face of which we with our modest powers must feel humble. In this way the pursuit of science leads to a religious feeling of a special sort, which is indeed quite different from the religiosity of someone more naive.” (Isaacson 388)

The fanatical atheists are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle. They are creatures who – in their grudge against traditional religion as the ‘opium of the masses’ – cannot hear the music of the spheres.” (Isaacson 390)

I cannot conceive of a personal God who would directly influence the actions of individuals or would sit in judgment on creatures of his own creation . . . My religiosity consists of a humble admiration of the infinitely superior spirit that reveals itself in the little that we can comprehend about the knowable world. That deeply emotional conviction of the presence of a superior reasoning power, which is revealed in the incomprehensible universe, forms my idea of God.” (Isaacson 387-388)


Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Servant of God

bonhoeffer #2

“The restoration of the church must surely depend on a new kind of monasticism, which has nothing in common with the old but a life of uncompromising discipleship, following Christ according to the Sermon on the Mount. I believe the time has come to gather people together and do this.” (Metaxas 260)

Placing the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Albert Einstein in such close proximity unavoidably generates parallels between the two men, as well as stark contrasts. The raw intellectual capacity they each possessed elicits comparisons, along with the cultural and historical contexts they were both immersed in. Each man – to varying degrees  and in separate fields – traveled in the academic circles of early twentieth century Germany. Both gained recognition in their respective fields through notable contributions at a young age. And yet, one would be hard pressed to find more diametrically opposed stances regarding the nature of religious belief. While it is true that both men believed in God’s existence, within this arena the similarities fall off sharply. We have already seen Einstein’s unwillingness to subject himself to a specific religious tradition or affirm an orthodox conception of God.  Alternatively, in the letters and writings of the young German theologian, we discover a brilliant mind championing historically grounded belief in the Christian God. Einstein preferred to envision the vague idea of God as a “spirit” orchestrating the laws which governed the universe; Bonhoeffer, in his book Ethics, unabashedly proclaimed that “All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.” (Metaxas 469)

This resolute stance regarding the prevailing truth of Christ’s Gospel was the defining catalyst of his life. It provided the momentum which would propel him into the most exhilarating – and often dangerous – arenas of work. He became embroiled in the pivotal German church struggle against anti-semitic forces in the 1930’s, and during the war was eventually drawn into the plot to resist the Nazi government and wrest back control of Germany.  These convictions compelled him to faithfully proclaim the integrity of traditional christian teaching while facing immense opposition in some cases, pitted him against the evils of the regime, and ultimately set him on a course of covert political resistance which would lead to his execution at the hands of Nazi officials.

This religious momentum was initiated at a young age. Having decided on pursuing studies in theology at only fourteen years old, he wasted no time; by age twenty-one, he had graduated summa cum laude with a doctorate in theology from Berlin University, setting the stage for a prolific career in both academia and ministry. What followed in the years to come is truly remarkable. In Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, Eric Metaxas chronicles the fascinating story that unfolded, one involving a whirlwind of traveling, studying, preaching and writing.  Amidst it all, he generated quite an impressive collection of letters precipitated by a wide range of correspondents.

With these writings we are afforded a richly calibrated glimpse into his mind, as well as the extraordinary circumstances he found himself in at every turn. Here lies one of the strongest characteristics of Metaxas’ work: a significant percentage of the book’s content consists of Bonhoeffer’s own words.  Of all the biographies mentioned here, it provides the greatest exposure to the raw written material produced by the subject. Thus, a considerable portion of the narrative flow is carried by Bonhoeffer’s unabridged letters to correspondents. He is therefore just as involved in informing the reader of his own life as Metaxas is.

His wisdom and piercing discernment were on full display from an early age. After graduation in 1927, he took up a yearlong assistant pastoral position for a German congregation in Barcelona. Writing from Spain to his friend Helmut Rossler, he articulates a simple insight which has often eluded even the most brilliant and gifted Christian ministers and theologians:

Every day I am getting to know people, at any rate their circumstances, and sometimes one is able to see through their stories into themselves – and at the same time one thing continues to impress me: here I meet people as they are, far from the masquerade of ‘The Christian world’; people with passions, criminal types, small people with small aims, small wages and small sins – all in all they are people who feel homeless in both senses, and who begin to thaw when one speaks to them with kindness – real people; I can only say that I have gained the impression that it is just these people who are much more under grace than under wrath, and that it is the Christian world which is more under wrath than grace.” (Metaxas 79)

An excerpt from this letter sent to his brother-in-law Rudiger Schleicher addresses the demanding – and yet ultimately freeing – nature of God’s relation to those who truly seek him:

If it is I who determine where God is to be found, then I shall always find a God who corresponds to me in some way, who is obliging, who is connected with my own nature. But if God determines where he is to be found, then it will be in a place which is not immediately pleasing to my  nature and which is not at all congenial to me. This place is the Cross of Christ. And whoever would find him must go to the foot of the Cross, as the Sermon on the Mount commands. This is not according to our nature at all, it is entirely contrary to it. But this is the message of the Bible, not only in the New but also in the Old Testament . . . 

And I would like to tell you now quite personally: since I have learnt to read the Bible in this way – and this has not been for so very long – it becomes every day more wonderful to me. I read it in the morning and the evening, often during the day as well, and every day I consider a text which I have chosen for the whole week, and try to sink deeply into it, so as really to hear what it is saying. I know that without this I could not live properly any longer.” (Metaxas 137) 

Beyond his expansive theological acumen, he was certainly not lacking in political savvy as well.  Even in the early 1930s, his instinctive shrewdness enabled him to ascertain the futility of entreating Hitler for support in the church struggle. The theologian Karl Barth – a prominent figure in the Confessing Church – sought to do just that. An understanding of Hitler’s unrelenting political motivations and fanatical tendencies informs this letter to his friend Erwin Sutz:

From now on, I believe, any discussion between Hitler and Barth would be quite pointless – indeed, no longer to be sanctioned. Hitler has shown himself quite plainly for what he is, and the church ought to know with whom it has to reckon. Isaiah didn’t go to Sennacherib either. We have tried often enough – too often – to make Hitler aware of what is going on. Maybe we’ve not yet gone about it in the right way, but then Barth won’t go about it the right way either. Hitler is not in a position to listen to us; he is obdurate,  and as such he must compel us to listen – it’s that way round. The Oxford movement was naive enough to try and convert Hitler – a ridiculous failure to recognize what is going on. We are the ones to be converted, not Hitler.” (Metaxas 249)

Written to his fiance Maria von Wedemeyer from his prison cell in 1943, this letter captures the incredible faith he possessed, even in the direst of circumstances. His exhortations to her are also supremely relevant in our own age:

When I consider the state of the world, the total obscurity enshrouding our personal destiny, and my present imprisonment, our union – if it wasn’t frivolity, which it certainly wasn’t – can only be a token of God’s grace and goodness, which summon us to believe in him. We would have to be blind not to see that. When Jeremiah said, in his people’s hour of direst need, that ‘houses and fields [and vineyards] shall again be bought in this land,’ it was a token of confidence in the future. That requires faith, and may God grant it to us daily. I don’t mean the faith that flees the world, but the faith that endures in the world and loves and remains true to that world in spite of all the hardships it brings us. Our marriage must be a ‘yes’ to God’s earth. It must strengthen our resolve to do and accomplish something on earth. I fear that Christians who venture to stand on earth on only one leg will stand in heaven on only one leg too.” (Metaxas 455-456)

Finally, these two letters to his closest friend Eberhard Bethge offer a sample of the extraordinary relationship that thrived between the two men. They were as close as brothers, intellectual sparring partners, and each other’s spiritual confidants. The first letter, a reflection upon the nature of their friendship, was written on Bonhoeffer’s birthday in 1941:

That the two of us could be connected for five years by work and friendship is, I believe, a rather extraordinary joy for a human life. To have a person who understands one both objectively and personally, and whom one experiences in both respects as a faithful helper and adviser – that is truly a great deal. And you have always been both things for me. You have also patiently withstood the severe tests of such a friendship, particularly with regard to my violent temper (which I too abhor in myself and of which you have fortunately repeatedly and openly reminded me), and have not allowed yourself to be made bitter by it. For this I must be particularly grateful to you. In countless questions you have decisively helped me by your greater clarity and simplicity of thought and judgement, and I know from experience that your prayer for me is a real power.” (Metaxas 376)

The second was written from his prison cell in 1943. Because of  its particular relevance to our broader conversation here, this will be the final excerpt relayed. In it, Bonhoeffer offers a scathing indictment of the “very bad contemporary literature” that was rampant among the current generation. According to him, the youth of his day subsequently found it “more difficult to approach earlier writing than we do”:

The more we have known of the really good things, the more insipid the thin lemonade of later literature becomes, sometimes almost to the point of making us sick. Do you know a work of literature written in the last, say, fifteen years that you think has any lasting quality? I don’t. It is partly idle chatter, partly propaganda, partly self-pitying sentimentality, but there is no insight, no ideas, no clarity, no substance and almost always the language is bad and constrained. On this subject I am quite consciously a laudator temporis acti.” (Metaxas 461)

Laudator Temporis Acti

Far above my own ability to, this final excerpt has provided the key insights into our discussion regarding correspondence. Within it, Bonhoeffer’s pen has delivered the clearest diagnosis of our current cultural moment. His words, originally aimed at the literature of his day, are perhaps exponentially more appropriate in describing our digitally saturated environs.  It is, of course, even more fitting that this brilliant commentary resides in a letter.

The great irony of our age is striking: we have technology capable of peering into the furthest reaches of our solar system and beyond, but which too often cannot show us the hearts of our fellow man. We communicate amongst ourselves more than ever in the history of our race; yet we seem to truly know each other less and less. An excess of words and imagery, accompanied by a dwindling of true conversation. Alternatively, it was simply with ink, a blank page, and a lively mind that these men forged channels of shared human experience with those in their world. This, in turn, shaped the broader world they inhabited.

Beyond even the invaluable social bonds cultivated through the exchange, Bonhoeffer’s letters – alongside the ones produced by Adams, Lincoln and Einstein – have erected fortifications against the tempestuous sea of modern “idle chatter,” “propaganda” and “self-pitying sentimentality.” A close reading of them consequently offers blueprints for construction of these fortifications in our own lives. By returning to correspondence, we may stumble upon the very “insights,” “clarity,” and “ideas” of which he spoke. They are greatly needed, now more than ever.

As my concluding remark, in speaking of this sacred exchange I will simply echo the words of Bonhoeffer: that “on this subject I am quite consciously a laudator temporis acti.”

Or, translated from Latin, a “Praiser of times past.”


Works Cited

Isaacson, Walter. Einstein: His Life and Universe. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2007. Print.

Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Prophet, Martyr, Spy. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010. Print.




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