20 January 2008

Thoughts on Einstein and Relativity

Einstein's theory of special relativity has been around for over 100 years now. Somehow, I think that people of faith are still about 100 years from really getting it or applying it.

We can't avoid it--that's for certain. Special Relativity explains the unique characteristic of light: that its speed is constant, 670,000,000 miles per second, relative to all forms of motion.

It works like this: Let's say I set up an experiment. I have developed two spaceships, each of which travels at 500,000,000 miles per hour. One will be speeding away from me. The other will be flying toward me from another star system. After five seconds, I will shoot laser beams in each direction, asking them to measure the speed at which light passes them.

Of course, the guy with the light meter, standing stationary next to me when I flipped on the laser would measure a speed of 670,000,000 miles per second.

The bizarre finding that Einstein discovered is that the guy in the spaceship traveling away from me, would also find that the light of my laser zipped past at 670,000,000 miles per hour. Moreover the ship coming towards me would also measure the same speed. This theory has been proven mathematically and physically time and time again.

That's what relativity is all about. Speed and time are not always constant. Relative to the speed of light, they are malleable, changing, capricious. That's why Einstein showed that speed and time are not absolute values but relative values which exist on a continuum--ergo, the space-time continuum which governs physical science today.

Of course, it wasn't long before Einstein's theories were applied in a variety of ways. Prior to 1905, prior to relativity, the world embraced absolutes. There was man and woman, good and evil, right and wrong, slave and free. No one considered these to be relative terms but absolutes. Like the old cigarette advertisements said, "We've come a long way, Baby."

Now everything is relative. Absolute man and woman? Tell that to the person who claims to be "transgendered." Good and evil? Maybe for folks like Hitler and Mother Theresa, but the rest of us fall somewhere in between--somewhere on that infernal continuum that relativity unleashed.

Relative to your political beliefs, you may believe that abortion is an absolute evil--or that the child's right to life is relative to its mother's health or ability to care for it. Relative to politics, you believe that the torture and sexual abasement of prisoners of war is either absolutely wrong or appropriate, relative to acts perpetrated against Americans by terrorists.

Everything is relative. Let's admit it and move on, shall we?

Really, relativity has thrown churches for a loop for over 100 years. It has been every bit as much a challenge to established religion as the discovery, 400 years earlier by Galileo, that the sun did not orbit around the earth.

I was in church a few weeks ago, singing along with the praise band. For some reason, my thoughts turned to Einstein and relativity. Suddenly, it hit me: the whole relativity thing and the whole Christianity thing suddenly wrapped themselves together and provided me with the answer. I am sharing this with you, just as I shared it with my fellow believers later that week in a sermon.

I mean, honestly, what are Christians to do with relativity? When we really look at what Einstein was saying--and how this theory was subsequently proved over the following century--will we find it to be compatible?

Does relativity wipe absolute-dependent Christianity right off the map, or does it provide an opening for something more? I think it does.

In fact, I think that relativity opens up the gospel--the very Bible itself--to the meanings that God intended. No, I'm not kidding. I haven't blown a mental gasket. Christ wrote the rules of the universe, didn't He? One of those rules was that light is constant. He knew this, and he taught it--so did St. Paul. It just took us a little over 1800 years to figure it out.

First, consider the Bible's teachings about light. "Your word is a...light for my path," the Psalmist says (119.105). John compares the life of Christ to "the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it" (1.4-5). There is much imagery in the Bible comparing light to the Righteousness that God wishes to instill in us--the Righteousness that was embodied in the life of Jesus Christ.

But does this Righteousness live up to Relativity? Of course it does! One of the things that Jesus rebelled against was the insistence on absolutes by the religious leaders of his day. One could boil down his teachings in Einsteinian terms: "There is one constant in the universe--that constant is God. There is no absolute Jew and absolute Gentile." How can you explain a gospel in which a Rich Young Ruler isn't rich or a destitute widow isn't poor? RELATIVE to God, these things were so.

I mean, think about it: the greatest teaching of Christ's life is this: death and life are not absolute, they exist relative to the righteousness of God, engendered in Jesus and fed by the ongoing work of the Holy Spirit. (That last sentence is the greatest testimony to the Trinity that I have ever written.)

Should Christians, therefore, whine and moan about the loss of absolutes? Of course not! They didn't belong there in the first place--they existed only so long as people didn't completely understand Christ's teachings. Good riddance!

My second finding was this: if Righteousness, like light, is a constant, then what does that mean? It means this. Whether we are running towards God as fast as we can or running away, His righteousness meets us at a constant speed. The believing Christian who seeks God through study and prayer basks in the same glow as that which warms the back of the unbeliever who has turned away. This is the truth behind the parables of the Prodigal Son and the Vineyard Workers.

All my life I have seen people who built rocket ships to God, claiming that this truth or that practice would speed up their faith to the point that they would be ahead of other believers. Pull out the light meter and measure the righteousness. It is constant. Praise be to God!

Finally, I wondered how a Christian would act if they accepted this belief that space and time didn't matter anymore. Well, first, for the time thing: I don't see time as a normal person sees it. I live relative to eternity. This shapes my worldview and my approach to time.

And what if distance doesn't matter either? How do I treat my neighbor or my enemy when there is not distance between us? How do I treat my fellow Christian when we are one in the Spirit? It's an amazing concept--one that Christ has tried to instill in Christians since his first sermon.

The Bible is filled with this new view of light and space and time. Look it up for yourself and leave me a comment to share what you have learned. A great place to start is Ephesians 3:17-21

"I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge--that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

"Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus thrroughout all generations, for ever and ever!"

1 comment:

Michael Potts said...

Great points, JD. An interesting, and perhaps publishable, commentary on biblical images of light using the theory of relativity. If you haven't already, you should watch Rob Bell's "Everything is Spiritual" video.