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Jan.–Apr. 1984 · Vol. 13 No. 1–2 · pp. 44–48 

Einstein and Anabaptism

Mike Klassen

Everybody’s talking about Albert Einstein these days. For some reason the innocuous looking little man who revolutionized physics and our idea of reality with a single equation, e = mc², has caught the fascination of the American public. Einstein’s current popularity is evidenced by the commercial exploitation which invariably follows people, events, or ideas that come into vogue. You’ve probably seen the poster picturing a puzzled Einstein with the caption, “If time and distance are interchangeable, why is a three minute egg two inches long?” The guy who hatched that idea was probably the same person responsible for The Fonz and pet rocks.

The church has had little to say about Albert Einstein, a person who professed no religion but whose ideas about God had a Christian ring. One has to wonder why this is so. Perhaps it is the complexity of his thought that has kept us away. We just assumed that if our high school physics teacher couldn’t explain the theory of relativity then we surely had no business trying to understand it. But then again, Charles Darwin’s theories didn’t exactly make for bedtime reading and yet it would appear that we’ve taken him and his ideas to task ad nauseum.

Maybe we’ve ignored Einstein for so long because his ideas about what is real offered a conception of our world that was so different from our own notions gathered from biblical study and Christian tradition. Certainly Christian orthodoxy with its prediction for nice, neat (and, one might add, absolute) descriptions of what is, doesn’t wash very well with a notion of reality in which an idea of absolute time and space is discounted and the ideal of an objective description of nature is eliminated altogether. No doubt several sixteenth-century theologians turned over in their graves with the reformation of thought brought about by this agnostic Jew.

In the twentieth-century, Christians thinkers who have decided to acknowledge Einstein and his new way of thinking about the world seem uncertain whether to consider him a friend or opponent of the church and its unique way of thinking about the world. Since those of us who think of ourselves as Anabaptist Christians hesitate to refer to anyone as “enemy,” perhaps we could consider Einstein a friend as we look at several of his contributions and ask how they relate to our Anabaptist ideas. {45}

One significant contribution of Einstein’s is a conception of the world in which things are seen as related to each other. Notwithstanding the risk we take of being simplistic when translating complex ideas about the universe into everyday language and examples, we might better understand this idea, particularly as it relates to the area of human relationships, by using an illustration from the classroom. For example, how might Einstein’s theories about relationship inform a teacher on how to respond to one of her students who is causing problems in the classroom? On the one hand, she could analyze the situation by saying that the student is exhibiting bad behavior and deserves to be punished. In this analysis the teacher recognizes no relationship between her student’s behavior and the events and persons of his world. On the other hand, she could approach the situation with an understanding that a person’s behavior does not stand in isolation, unconnected to his or her environment. Her plan of action in this case may include a recognition of her relationship to the student which would in turn cause her to question whether she was responding to the student in a way that was provoking his misbehavior. Taking into account other areas of the student’s life, she might question further: How is the child getting along with his peers? Has there been any disruptions or major changes in the student’s family life? In this analysis, the teacher, like Einstein, recognizes that persons and events are interrelated and connected.

In considering our pre-Einstein Anabaptist forbearers, we can understand that their world was often perceived as consisting of unrelated events and things. This is seen, for example, in their theology of the two kingdoms which divided the world into the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world and assigned persons to one of the two kingdoms upon the basis of their profession of faith and the conduct of their lives. It was believed by the early Anabaptists that if a member of God’s kingdom was truly faithful, he or she would have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of the world and its members. Underlying this so-called theology of separation was the assumption that in the world, people (in this case, Christians and non-Christians) could exist together, even rub shoulders with each other on a daily basis, and have little or no relationship to each other. In the realm of social relationships the implications of this theology for political involvement prevented an Anabaptist from assuming any personal responsibility in the non-Christian’s life. Like the teacher in the first case, if there was trouble in the “world classroom,” Anabaptists ignored the relationship between their individual political lives and the lives of those personally affected. While conceding that the problems required political action in order to be rectified, early Anabaptists left that task to the “world” believing that it was their kingdom which created the problem and they, not themselves, who were responsible for it. {46}

Modern post-Einstein Anabaptists have seen the error of their sixteenth-century predecessors and have begun to correct it. Recognizing that the ethics of the kingdom have redemptive effects whether applied to those who acknowledge Jesus as the Christ or not, modern Anabaptist thought assigns much less weight to distinctions between people seeing Christ’s kinship as encompassing all persons. Rather than emphasizing kingdom differences so as to avoid worldly corruption, Anabaptists today see their role more as that of breaking down the barriers that exist between Christians and non-Christians so that more people might be introduced to the good news of the kingdom. The effects of this updated kingdom theology can be seen in the recent political involvement of Anabaptists who have come to recognize trouble in their world as something to which they are politically related and responsible. They are no longer able to look at the world’s problems and absolve themselves of personal political responsibility and at the same time affirm their connectedness with people and events.

One could argue that Anabaptists have always recognized a connectedness between themselves and other people and events. For example, in the Anabaptist missionary outreach there was a recognition of a spiritual connectedness with people around the world, a connectedness which implied personal responsibility and active involvement in kind. As stated before, this sense of relatedness broke down at the level of political action, however, as though Christ’s redemption was relevant for some parts of the Christian life and not others. In this dichotomizing of Christian responsibility, I would suggest that the early Anabaptists were no more consistent than their Lutheran contemporaries who insisted that Jesus’ commandment to love one’s enemies meant one thing for a Christian civilian and another thing for a Christian soldier. In future theologizing, Anabaptists will need to take into account that the bifurcation of the Christian life into supposed unrelated parts (sacred/secular; spiritual/worldly; God’s kingdom/the world’s kingdom) is typical of an obsolete way of thinking that makes little sense in a post-Einstein world in which the very existence of people and events is seen as rooted in their interrelationship and interaction.

Lest we be too hard on our Anabaptist ancestors, we should recognize the relationship between their way of thinking about the world and Einstein’s observation of reality as in a constant state of change. To understand this relationship we can contrast sixteenth-century Anabaptist thought with sixteenth-century Reformed thought. In comparing both groups of reformers we recognize that while both saw the world primarily through the eyes of a pre-Einstein, classical way of thinking, the Anabaptists were very concerned that their theology be rooted in the biblical word. The result was that while affirming many of the same beliefs as their Reformed brothers and sisters, the Anabaptists offered a unique interpretation of, and significant rejoinders to these beliefs. {47} This can be seen, for example, in the Reformed concept of God which emphasized his unchangeableness and constancy using philosophically-based descriptive terms like omniscience and omnipresence, as contrasted with the Anabaptist concept of God which emphasized the dynamic relationship between God and people and insisted upon biblical descriptions of God and the Christian walk: justice, love, service, peace. In this dynamic view of the world and their role in it, the Anabaptists were consistent both with the biblical word and the words of Einstein.

For a more contemporary understanding of change and its implications for Anabaptist Christian theology, we need to acknowledge the work being done by John Cobb who, while claiming no formal identification with Anabaptism, is widely read by many Christian students of the Bible and is finding an increasing readership in the Anabaptist colleges and seminaries. Cobb’s work is important to our discussion because his “process theology” represents an effort to fit what is essentially a post-Einstein metaphysic of reality (Whiteheadian process philosophy) into a Christian theological framework. While Cobb’s notion of life and God himself as ever-changing and in process may seem unfamiliar and strange to an Anabaptist understanding, even this idea may find a home in a theological tradition which has consistently refused to think of God as a static “it.” By saying “no” to the temptation to nail down the Holy through the idolization of material objects or the apotheosizing of human beings, Anabaptist Christians said “yes” to the freedom of God’s spirit to change and be changed. Thus they did not attempt to make material and specific that which was by its very nature immaterial and intangible, what Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” When this fallacy was committed by other theological traditions it served only to create confusion particularly when it was in the principalities and powers that the concretization of the Divine was sought.

In conclusion, we might agree that there is some meeting ground between an Einsteinian view of the world and Anabaptism, and while it is a little late in coming, perhaps it’s time for Einstein to gain some popularity with Anabaptists. In this regard, several questions deserve attention: Is it time for a new, post-Einstein Anabaptist theology, and if so, how much should we allow Einstein’s discoveries to weigh in our interpretation of the Bible? Asked another way, Is it possible to have an Anabaptist natural theology grounded in Einsteinian physics, ala process theology, or would this be incompatible with the Anabaptist Bible-oriented theological tradition? Finally, with regard to the church, How has the revolution of thought brought on by Einstein’s new physics contributed to the “generation gap” often seen between younger and older Anabaptist Christians (e.g. differing perspectives on political involvement), and how do we address the concerns of the next generation of 48} Anabaptists whose formal education will probably be very sophisticated and refined in its post-Einsteinian philosophical base? In response to these questions we will, no doubt, raise still more questions about the role as well as the validity of an Anabaptist expression in a post-Einstein world. Perhaps in the answers to these questions we will find that the only real problem we have is not with Einstein’s way of thinking but with the fact that we have ignored for so long its kinship with our own Anabaptist way of thinking.

Mike Klassen, until recently the pastor of the Manhattan Inter-Mennonite Church (Kansas), is currently concentrating his time and energies on a program of doctoral studies in experimental psychology.

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