After the German philosopher Eric Gutkind sent Albert Einstein a copy of his tome Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt on salvation, Einstein offered some comments in German that he mailed off to the author. (The cost of mailing a letter was 3¢.) Both Einstein and Gutkind had German-Jewish origins, had the good fortune of averting disaster in Europe by being among the limited few allowed to immigrate to American. At war’s end (and until life’s end), both remained in America. A few days ago – December 2018 – Einstein’s two-page, hand-written note known as ‘the God letter’ – the contents of which I have always felt kinship – was auctioned at Christie’s for $2,892,500. Following, the text of the letter in translation:
Princeton, 3. 1. 1954
Dear Mr Gutkind,
Inspired by Brouwer’s repeated suggestion, I read a great deal in your book, and thank you very much for lending it to me. What struck me was this: with regard to the factual attitude to life and to the human community we have a great deal in common. Your personal ideal with its striving for freedom from ego-oriented desires, for making life beautiful and noble, with an emphasis on the purely human element. This unites us as having an “un-American attitude.”
Still, without Brouwer’s suggestion I would never have gotten myself to engage intensively with your book because it is written in a language inaccessible to me. The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weakness, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still purely primitive, legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation, no matter how subtle, can change this for me. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstition. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong, and whose thinking I have a deep affinity for, have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are also no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything “chosen” about them.
In general I find it painful that you claim a privileged position and try to defend it by two walls of pride, an external one as a man and an internal one as a Jew. As a man you claim, so to speak, a dispensation from causality otherwise accepted, as a Jew the privilege of monotheism. But a limited causality is no longer a causality at all, as our wonderful Spinoza recognized with all incision, probably as the first one. And the animistic interpretations of the religions of nature are in principle not annulled by monopolization. With such walls we can only attain a certain self-deception, but our moral efforts are not furthered by them. On the contrary.
Now that I have quite openly stated our differences in intellectual convictions it is still clear to me that we are quite close to each other in essential things, i.e; in our evaluations of human behavior. What separates us are only intellectual “props” and “rationalization” in Freud’s language. Therefore I think that we would understand each other quite well if we talked about concrete things.
With friendly thanks and best wishes,
In another instance, Einstein did acknowledge confidence in what he referred to as “Spinoza’s God” characterizing such a concept as an entity who “reveals himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God who concerns himself with the fate and the doings of mankind”. (Benedictus “Baruch” or “Bento” de Spinoza, the 17th-century Dutch-Jewish philosopher, was excommunicated for his “heretical” doubts about such a transcendent God.) Additionally, Einstein noted – “fanatical atheists whose intolerance is of the same kind as the intolerance of the religious fanatics” – as many of us note (or gasp at) in one way or other just about every day.
This unending “God” debate whirs to and fro like a feathered badminton shuttlecock. As Spinoza reminds us: “No matter how thin you slice it, there will always be two sides.” This ongoing frought debate stared into bright headlights in the non-fiction Fiet’s Vase and Other Stories of Survival, Europe 1939-1945, my farewell to World War II and the Holocaust written several years ago and recently re-issued with a new Preface. Again: skepticism:
Sir: If a miracle is an event without a physical cause then miracles occur in abundance. Whenever an electron passes through a diffraction grating (which displays the nature of wave) it can then be detected as moving along one of several exit channels provided for it by the grating.
Despite intense efforts, no physical cause has ever been found for the choice of channel, or for similar choices made in many other physical processes. Modern physicists have concluded that no such cause exists. Or, in other words, that the cause is nonphysical. It is usually attributed to “chance,” but that of course is simply an evasion.
Sir: With respect to both those seeking the canonization of the late Mother Teresa and those discussing the claimed miraculous powers if a silver medallion touched by her body after her death … life itself is the miracle. Try making something as “simple” as a mosquito if you don’t believe me …
Richard N. Strange
Sir: The great difficulty with miracles is not whether God performs such things, but whether any Being capable of being regarded as God could wish to behave in such an arbitrary and callous way. If miracles actually happen, then God stands condemned.
These three comments on spirituality or God – Letters to the Editor – had been published in The Times (of London) on September 1, 2001. Repeat: 9/10/2001. Strange, no? So: Has anyone or anything been minding the store?