We live in the age of relativism. It may not have started in 1919, but it certainly received a big fillip in that year.
It’s 100 years since the first experimental evidence confirmed Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity and somehow, to the popular mind, that gave the signal that all of life is relative.
Special and General
Einstein Special Theory, published in 1905, uncovered the link between mass and energy. But his General Theory gave us a new way of seeing space and time. In particular it implied that the geometry of the universe is distorted by mass. On 29 May 1919, Arthur Eddington observed a solar eclipse from the small island of Principe, off the coast of West Africa. He took photographs which, he claimed after months of painstaking deliberation, showed that light from the distant Hyades cluster of stars, had been bent on passing the sun by 1.70 seconds of arc.
This was announced at a joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House, Piccadilly, the following November. Sir Frank Dyson, the Astronomer Royal, concluded: ‘After a careful study of the [photographic] plates I am prepared to say that there can be no doubt that they confirm Einstein’s prediction.’ The announcement changed more than science. Back in April this year the first composite photo of a black hole was unveiled by scientists, bringing further proof of Einstein’s theory.
God and Einstein
Though Einstein did not believe in God, he was sceptical of atheism. He would speak of the Creator as ‘the eternal riddle-setter’. He wrote of his own ‘rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which reveals an intelligence of such superiority that, compared with it, all the systematic thinking and acting of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection’.1One has to reflect that it seems enormously strange that we humans who have supposedly only recently evolved by chance from the primeval sludge are able to understand and appreciate such things!
And here is something else worth reflecting on. The gravitational physicist Charles Misner comments on Einstein like this: ‘I do see the design of the universe as an essentially religious question. One should have respect and awe for the whole business. It’s very magnificent… In fact, I believe that is why Einstein had so little use for organised religion although he strikes me as a basically very religious man. He must have looked at what preachers said about God and felt they were blaspheming. He had seen much more majesty [in the cosmos] than they ever imagined and they were just not talking about the real thing. My guess is that he simply felt that religions he had run across did not have a proper respect for the author of the universe.’2 There’s a challenge to our ‘seeker friendly’ churches.
Essential to Einstein’s approach was his recognition of our limitations as human beings. He adopted what might be called ‘observational democracy’. He realised that, as observers, no one could say that their vantage point in viewing some event is automatically superior to everyone else’s. Our observations are ‘relative’. But, though this may be true of observations, it is not true when it comes to scientific laws. After all, Einstein’s great quest was to uncover rules that are universally true.
Nevertheless, the idea of relativism seemed to gain credence with the experimental results of 1919. ‘At the beginning of the 1920s the belief began to circulate for the first time at the popular level, that there were no longer any absolutes: of time and space, of good and evil, of knowledge, above all of value. Mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, relativity had become confused with relativism.’3
After 100 years of relativism, in a world where everything is becoming ‘trans’ and nothing is certain, we are looking into a black hole which is sucking the light out of society. Let’s hope someone, somewhere recognises there has been a mix-up before humanity itself is pulled beyond the event horizon.
John Benton is en’s former Managing Editor and Director of Pastoral Support at The Pastor’s Academy, http://www.pastorsacademy.org
1. Einstein’s Greatest Mistake, by David Bodanis, Abacus, 2016, p29
2. American Institute of Physics, Oral History Interviews
3. A History of the Modern World, by Paul Johnson, Weidenfeld, 1983, p4