Book: A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Short Guide to Einstein, Relativity and the Future of Faith by Alister McGrath

The sheer breadth of Alister McGrath’s scholarly output is exhausting. He has written at book length on Luther’s theology of the cross; on the life of John Calvin; on Emil Brunner; on Jim Packer and on C S Lewis. There have been numerous books on science and religion; books on apologetics; a wonderful stand-alone Introduction to Christian Theology; and even a series of children’s books (The Aedyn Chronicles).  McGrath, like Marvin the Android from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, clearly has a brain the size of a small planet.

Over the last quarter of a century I’ve read about 20 books by McGrath, and have thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. He is an excellent writer with a perennial ability to present sophisticated ideas clearly, while when appropriate, providing the interested reader with lots of scholarly footnotes to follow up on. This latest book on Einstein is no exception.

A Theory of Everything divides naturally into two halves. The first half of the book gives an accessible overview of Einstein’s scientific work in its historical context. Modern physics has two main ‘pillars’. The first is quantum mechanics, the theory of matter at the molecular level and below. Quantum mechanics, which in its fully developed form places probability at the root of atomic behaviour was something that was Einstein was never reconciled to. In a letter to Max Born in 1926 he said that while quantum mechanics was ‘imposing’ he was convinced that God did not ‘play at dice’ with the universe.

Nevertheless, Einstein’s contributions to the early development of quantum theory were at the Nobel Prize level. He won the 1921 prize for his work on the photoelectric effect (how light knocks electrons out of a metal). However, this Nobel prize level contribution to physics pales into insignificance beside his other work. He did not contribute to the other pillar of modern physics: He created it. The Special and General theories of relativity are the theories of the very fast and the very large, and Einstein came up with them, as single-handedly as any break-through in science can be come up with,  in 1905 and 1915.

McGrath describes Einstein’s scientific work smoothly and in layman’s terms while also covering its reception and importance. Einstein’s wider life is woven into the narrative, with matters such as the break-up of his first marriage, the attempts of Nazism to discredit his work, and his subsequent move to America, all being covered. All in all the first 90 pages of the book give a very readable introduction to Professor Albert Einstein.

The second half of the book, where McGrath considers Einstein’s religious views, is no less readable, and no less interesting. As McGrath is at pains to point out, ‘from the outset we need to be clear that Einstein was not religious in the conventional sense of the word’ (p111, emphasis in the original). He was Jewish, but didn’t attend religious ceremonies, and certainly did not believe in a personal God who intervened in the created world. He stated that ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God’ (p112), but this in itself does not necessarily help, as Spinoza has been read by scholars as being a pantheist and an atheist. McGrath, however, states that ‘Einstein’s view of God is not to be identified with that of Spinoza, and in particular not with pantheism’ (p.117), or with atheism.

For Einstein, the wonder, order, and complexity of the universe points beyond itself to ‘Something Other’, or as he said, a ‘superior mind’. But for Einstein, that Other is beyond our grasp. Here, of course, the Christian is going to whole-heartedly agree with Einstein, and in a thoughtful final chapter McGrath engages with Einstein from an explicitly Christian perspective.  Drawing on the metaphor of God’s two books of revelation (nature and scripture) McGrath sees Einstein as a man who rightly reads God’s book of nature, both in terms of his brilliant scientific work, and his realisation that it does indeed point to a ‘superior mind’. The Christian worldview, however, claims to provide a richer, more complete, more complex, more satisfying view of reality.  For the Christian, the book of scripture shows that there is much more to be said, and that God has spoken.

Mark McCartney teaches mathematics at the University of Ulster. His research interests are in the areas of nonlinear systems and the history of mathematics and natural philosophy in the nineteenth century. He is married to a wonderful wife, and has two wonderful children.

A Theory of Everything (That Matters): A Short Guide to Einstein, Relativity and the Future of Faith by Alister McGrath (Hodder & Stoughton, 2019, h/b, 178 pages, £14.99) is available online here.