Intelligence vs. understanding

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Albert Einstein was a smart cookie.

Of all the sentences you will read in this column, this first one is beyond question. The Nobel Prize-winning Einstein, dead for more than half a century, was the creator of the seminal and groundbreaking General Theory of Relativity and Unified Field Theory. He has been called, for substantial cause, the most intelligent man of the 20th century.

A letter the great scientist reportedly penned in 1954, a year before his death, went up for auction this past Monday. Opening bid was $3 million. Interest is high in Einstein's missive because in it, he shares less-than-laudatory thoughts about God and about the Bible. "Childish" is the word used to describe the best-selling book of planet Earth.

Some of Einstein's previously known writings show him to be ambiguous about issues of faith. A favorite quote attributed to Einstein is: "He who can no longer pause to wonder or stand rapt in awe is as good as dead, for his mind is closed." Words like this excited some in the faith community, who wondered aloud if the German-born physicist was in reality a closet believer. Well, this latest letter puts that theory to rest.

To wit: "The word 'God' is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle can, for me, change this."

I am thankful that Albert Einstein uses the qualifying phrase, "for me," at least four times in the complete transcript, which is being kept in a temperature-controlled vault to prevent deterioration. Unlike the recently deceased Christopher Hitchens, the British-born writer who held people of faith of whatever stripe in laughable contempt, Einstein seems careful not to denigrate what others believe. He simply does not share in that belief. The distinction is respectful. Einstein's oft-expressed caveat, "for me," makes me regard him even more highly.

Maybe the phrase "for me" is an insight into the great man's true intelligence. Einstein knew a lot, surely, but perhaps he also knew there were things that even his impressive brainpower could not access. "I don't know" may well be the beginning of wisdom. If this is an accurate assessment of Einstein's state of mind when he penned this Eisenhower-era document, then we have a teachable moment. Pure intelligence and understanding are not mutually exclusive but they are not necessarily linked. A few of the wiser and more spiritually grounded folk I know reconcile a checkbook only with great difficulty and read at about a fifth-grade level.

Thank you, Albert Einstein, for writing "for me" in your letter. In so doing, you show that it is possible there may be knowledge that may be beyond the reach of even the best and the brightest. At the very least, you leave ajar the door of possibility.

An old hymn put it well: "There are depths of love that I cannot know till I cross the narrow sea." If Einstein could read those lyrics, I picture him nodding his head in agreement. At least that's how it seems -- for me.

Dr. Jeff Long teaches religious studies at Southeast Missouri State University and is administrator of the Foundation and assistant director of marketing at Chateau Girardeau Retirement Community.

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