The ancients were afraid that if they went to the end of the earth, they would fall off and be consumed by dragons. But once we understand that Christianity is true to what is there, true to the ultimate environment — the infinite, personal God who is really there — then our minds are freed. We can pursue any question and can be sure that we will not fall off the end of the earth. Art and the Bible, Francis Schaeffer
The great scientific discoveries of Albert Einstein — quantum theory, general relativity, a theory of gravity that proved Isaac Newton wrong — were all made possible by his willingness to consider unorthodox answers to questions that had been studied for centuries. Today, we would say that Einstein was good at thinking outside of the box. In the best of worlds, that is exactly what science should do.
I’m continuing to read about the life of Albert Einstein in Walter Isaacson’s excellent and well-researched biography: Einstein: His life and universe.
Scientists are human, and humans like the comforts of orthodoxy, of conformance to the accepted wisdom of our day. We prefer standing on solid ground instead of shifting sands. Though we play up this romantic, heroic image of scientists pushing back against the accepted wisdom, it is often true that scientists can get too comfortable too quickly with agreeable theories of how the world works.
So, for instance, at a time when the accepted model of the universe was that it was limitless and unchanging, Einstein postulated a finite universe that curved back on itself, as if the stars were arrayed on the skin of a balloon. It was not an intuitive idea and it met with a good deal of resistance among his colleagues. But it created certain explanations that fit the evidence, and over time Einstein’s model has become the new orthodoxy.
The difficulty about the tension between orthodoxy and non-conformity is that much of what counts for accepted wisdom is probably true. The Earth appears flat but really is round, despite the tongue-in-cheek protestations of the Flat Earth Society. Parallel railroad tracks appear to meet in the distance, but we know that our eyes play tricks on us. Appearances can be deceiving.
From the perspective of Christianity, the orthodoxy of modern science and the Enlightenment often seem to argue against the Christian faith.
Is there an eternal and omnipotent God who created the universe and all that is in it, or are we alone in a universe that spontaneously generated itself and all life on our planet?
Was the historical figure known as Jesus Christ merely another great moral teacher, or was he God taking on the life of a human being?
Did Jesus rise again from the grave after the Romans executed him, or did his body return to the dust of the earth as ours will?
Is there life after death, or is this all there is?
To accept the orthodox Christian answers to these questions is to reject the comfortable orthodoxy of our post-modern age. Christian faith requires a certain Einsteinian rebelliousness against conformity, a willingness not only to think outside of the box, but actually make one’s home there.
You’ll notice, too, that the articles of faith of Christian orthodoxy cannot be tested by any modern scientific experiment. If they are true, they cannot be known in the same way that we know that the Earth is a sphere. They have to be accepted on faith, which is to say that we choose to believe them because we come to see them as more likely to be true than the alternatives.
Einstein claimed to enjoy the explosive debates that his unorthodox theories incited. On a few occasions, however, those criticisms got under his skin and he lashed out angrily. It’s difficult and lonely, pitching one’s tent on the outside of the camp. Embracing Christian orthodoxy means leaving behind the comfortable orthodoxy of the accepted wisdom of our time. It has been known to drive a wedge between friends and loved ones. Unorthodox faith in an infinite God will cost you something.
But that isn’t the same as saying that unorthodoxy is irrational. It is not. As Einstein demonstrated, thinking outside of the box is one of the highest traditions of good science. Thanks to Einstein, we now know that the universe, like our spherical planet, is different than it appears.
By all appearances, we are alone in the universe, and this material life is all there is. That is the accepted orthodoxy of our time.
If that orthodoxy is wrong, if God exists and Jesus rose from the grave, then nothing is as it appears. The question for each of us, therefore, is whether we will live in comfortable conformity to the accepted orthodoxy of our age, or will dare to think, and live, outside of the box.