On John Haught’s “God After Einstein”

WHILE THE INTENSITY of the new science-based atheism has faded somewhat since the Iraq war and its aftermath, science-based Christian responses continue to flow. The main figures in this counter-movement have been scientific theologians who populate ancient British universities and pockets of American academia. The Vatican Observatory and various evangelicals, as well as Jewish and Muslim scholars, complete what has become one of the most important intellectual denouements of modern times, ushered in by Ian Barbour’s publication of Science and religion issues in 1966.

An underrated communicator for science and religion in dialogue is John F. Haught, an emeritus lay Catholic theologian from Georgetown University. His writings are among the most accessible of any academic figure 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 sense of deep cosmic time is also virtually absent . of academic theology and suburban homilies.

Building on his previous books, such as God after Darwin: a theology of evolutionHaught focuses his gaze on an even wider spatio-temporal horizon by asking in his new volume what the word “God” means according to Albert Einstein: “I want to ask what the God of Jesus means to us if we reflect in depth at the [Einsteinian] The Big Bang universe. Not just Einstein the scientist, though. Einstein’s reflections on religion, already the subject of several monographs, are material proofs to establish the “reasons for [spiritual] hope” in a relativistic universe. Einstein plays two roles: hero and sworn enemy. Yet, like Stephen Jay Gould and other public scientists of the 20th century, he cannot quite escape the intellectual prison of “archaeconomic” perspectives that claim the universe is useless.

The same goes for the philosopher Thomas Nagel, whose Spirit and Cosmos: Why the Neo-Darwinian Materialist View of Nature Is Almost Certainly Wrong created a maelstrom among the best and brightest of new atheists a few years ago due to his advocacy of the idea that reductionism is insufficient for a scientific understanding of the universe. Nagel’s critique of scientific naturalism never came close to affirming God, but Haught picks up 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 multi-species adventure. The chapters of the book are disarming: “Mystery”, “Life”, “Eternity”, “Thought”, “Compassion”, etc. He launches a “soft metaphysics” of Einsteinian inspiration, mainly inspired by AN Whitehead. For Haught, God is at least understood by key aspects of Christian tradition, but is antithetical to a ruling authority by virtue of being subject to time, change, and chance. God is therefore more or less than what Christian thought is used to imagining. No “heresy” is advanced, but a bewildering cluster of themes emerge.

At the beginning of Haught’s narrative comes the slow unfolding of the universe as an “epic in progress”, a “story still being told”. Our cosmos is a drama. Einstein’s thinking undermines the privatized little 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. Therefore, Haught wants us to know, contrary to Einstein’s own conservatism, that “[n]Nature is not a machine but an awakening. For Haught, time should be embraced, not feared. His thinking is limitless: Neoplatonism, pantheism and materialism—all must go.

As stated in Max Jammer’s 2002 book, Einstein and religion: physics and theology, Einstein came to a deep religiosity, although he refused to do his bar mitzvah. He embraced a notion of cosmic religious feeling reminiscent of Friedrich Schleiermacher and developed a love of eternity partly based on the pantheistic philosopher Baruch Spinoza, for whom no personal God was possible. As Einstein said, “God doesn’t play dice”. From this ambiguous beginning, Haught shows how Einstein’s logic could train a personal God – and even faith, although he redefines it as “anticipation”. Einstein’s discovery of a very large universe eliminates the other two options (reductionism and dualism). What matters to Haught is that Einstein could have embraced a universe created by a personal God for reasons internal to the thought of Einstein. He is disarmingly intelligent, not a Christian empirical researcher.

Haught’s solution to the time problem is solved in two ways. First, God enters time. Jesus shows us how God empties himself into the life of one person, who is humbled and crucified (the technical theological term is “kenosis”). Second, thanks to Einstein, the radical opening of the future is empirically manifest. The universe is therefore not simply spatial, diametrically opposed to an eternal God. She is spatio-temporal-oriented. It is therefore reasonable to have hope in a God who “is not yet in some way”. Ironically though, Einstein himself viewed time as a stationary block; contrary to common human experience, he did not understand time as an irreversible passage. Proponents of a final theory that unites the theory of relativity with quantum theory could still prevail, but in Haught’s understanding this is unlikely because the necessarily decreasing amount of usable energy in the universe is simply correlated to a creation of the world as “Big Bang”. “Although he later recanted it, Einstein initially refused to see the expanding universe theory as correct, despite its formulation by the famous Belgian astrophysicist and Catholic priest, Georges Lemaȋtre.

Admirably, Haught chose a road with obstacles in his path. He must distinguish between Einstein’s scientific cosmology and his philosophy in order to find its true meaning. Contrary to Einstein’s own predilections, he argues that narrative is a plausible way to tell the story of the universe, because geometry is not enough. The reflex to see the evolution of nature 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 not surprising given Teilhard’s stature as a magnet for liberal Catholics around the world, and nowhere more so than in the United States. Teilhard’s scientific credentials are considerable, but controversial. He was chastised for his doctrine of progress and his disturbing speculations on eugenics. Haught has dealt with such worries elsewhere, so he goes ahead with a Teilhardian fusion of poetic metaphysics and cosmology.

In his effort to distinguish his own vision from the wider Christian tradition, Haught deploys the idea of ​​’anticipation’, in contrast to the ‘analog metaphysics’ of this version of the perennial philosophy. Its main objective is the timelessness prized by the Greco-Roman heritage. Archaeconomic thinking only reduces reality to the visible parts that we can analyze. The latter is the blind view of Democritus, contemporary scientific atheists, and many others in between. Haught’s “anticipatory” assertion is that classical philosophy is insufficient to account for the drama of time.

It looks tidy, but not everything is clear. Haught overlooks the scandalous disruption of the classical metaphysical tradition by Christian theology. The resurrection of the body pushed him to the breaking point, so Haught’s Christian self-criticism falls short. His effort to naturalize faith (“Faith, cosmically speaking, has its roots in the effort of life”) also eliminates the idea that faith is a gift from God to us. Eschatology, the Christian discourse on the end times, occupies a central place in this book. Yet Haught’s reliance on Whitehead to offer a God who is a source of newness in the world does not deal with evil or final justice. The God who is drawn too closely into the world has no authority over him. Haught wants God to be changed by the world more than he wants the world to be changed by God.

The confusing aspect of this book is the unclear status played by Einstein himself. Haught “allowed” Einstein many advances in thought. Yet as you finish reading the book, you wonder if Einstein is really such a flexible cipher. The brilliance of Haught’s work over the decades is his critique of equal opportunity versus religious distortions of science and scientific distortions of religion. Phrases like “The world therefore does not rest on the past, as the materialist supposes, but on the future, as hope requires” show a mind sharpened by metaphysics without abstruseness.

As more and more scholars are realizing, the science/religion impasse of the 20th century was largely interpreted on a false historiography written between 1880 and 1970. Better historiography is now available thanks to healthy revisionism in the ‘academy. Haught lays down some of the complementary conceptual bases for a science/religion rapprochement in the 21st century. As Einstein might have said, these two worlds can still remain honest.


Dr. Paul Allen is Dean of Studies at Corpus Christi College and Professor at St. Mark’s College in Vancouver. He is the editor of Augustine and contemporary social problems (Routledge, 2022), Theological Method: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2012), and Ernan McMullin and critical realism in the science-theology dialogue (Ashgate, 2006).

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