Thursday, September 19, 2013

Albert Einstein, Mary Baker Eddy...metaphysics

"On Albert Einstein’s Interest In The Metaphysics Of Mary Baker Eddy"


William S. Cooper

University of California, Berkeley

        In the voluminous literature on Einstein, even his religious sentiments have not escaped scrutiny.  It is known that in his youth he received Jewish training at home and Roman Catholic teaching at school, that he respected the medieval theologian Maimonides, that he believed in an impersonal God which he compared to the God of Spinoza, that he admired the Society of Friends, and that he said he never prayed in his life.  These and other aspects of his personal theology are touched upon in many sources, perhaps most exhaustively in Max Jammer’s book Einstein and Religion.[1]

        An intriguing facet of his religious outlook--one that seems to have been generally overlooked in the scholarly literature--is his apparent interest in the metaphysical system of the New England religious leader Mary Baker Eddy, founder of the Christian Science movement.  My purpose in this note is to gather together some of the evidence that suggests this interest.


        Late in his life Einstein attended the Wednesday noonday meeting of a Christian Science church in New York City.  After the service he was greeted by George Nay, a German-speaking editor and lecturer on Christian Science.  Nay had heard of earlier visits to the church by Einstein and had been hoping to encounter him.  During their conversation Einstein said, among other things, “Do you people realize what a wonderful thing you have?”  The encounter is described by Robert Peel, author of a well known three-volume biography of Eddy, who states that he heard it directly from Nay.[2]  It is also recorded in the church archives in Boston in the form of a brief description of the encounter signed by Nay.  The conversation was witnessed by a party still living who is able to fix the date as April 28, 1954.[3]

        The church in question is Fifth Church, near Grand Central Station.  Einstein is reported to have attended the meetings of this church repeatedly, including at least some visits prior to 1952.  Church members were able to point out the seat in which he habitually sat on those occasions.[4]  He was also seen in attendance at Wednesday evening meetings of the Christian Science church in Princeton, his town of residence at the time.[5]

        He also visited Christian Science reading rooms.  Mary Spaulding, wife of the noted violinist Alfred Spaulding, was serving as attendant at the reading room on Madison Avenue near 43rd St. during one of these visits.  She recorded some complimentary remarks that he made to her about Science and Health, Eddy’s major work, including the comment  “. . . to think that a woman knew this over eighty years ago”.[6]   Spaulding’s memory could have been selective when she wrote down what he had said, but there is no reason to suppose she fabricated the entire incident.  He is reported to have visited another New York City reading room as well.[7]  In addition he made repeated use of the reading room in Princeton.  An informant relates that a librarian in the Princeton reading room told her that Dr. Einstein was one of their most frequent visitors, and that he would often spend an hour or more reading Science and Health.  In that case too, generous remarks made by him about that work were recorded by the attendant and are still available.[8]

        An artist who lived in Princeton in the late forties and early fifties recalls seeing Einstein in the Princeton reading room. She writes:[9]

On one occasion, when I was in the Reading Room and Professor Einstein was studying there, we both happened to leave at the same time.  He greeted me politely and then went over to get his overcoat.  He then walked over to the attendant, took out his pipe from the pocket and said to her, “If it wasn’t for this pipe, I would join your church.”  He smiled and walked out.

(Christian Scientists abstain from the use of tobacco.)  Caution is called for concerning this remark of Einstein’s.  It could have been intended playfully.  Also, it has to be weighed against others such as the one he made later to the Canadian astronomer A. V. Douglas: “If I were not a Jew I would be a Quaker”.[10]   But however the remark about the pipe is construed, it is a clearly recollected instance of his use of a Christian Science reading room.

        John Arthur Arnold, a reporter for the St. Louis Post Dispatch and other newspapers and later a ghost writer for Washington politicians, helped Einstein perfect the English in some of his speeches after the war.  Arnold had for personal reasons become bitter about Christian Science and had authored a pamphlet attacking organized religion in general and Christian Science in particular.  On one occasion while visiting Einstein he showed him this pamphlet.  Einstein responded that the pamphlet was most unfair and that he had a great deal of respect for Christian Science.  This surprised Arnold, who had assumed Einstein knew little or nothing about the religion.[11]

        In his biography of Eddy,  Peel characterized Einstein’s interest in Christian Science as “slight but recurrent.”[12]  Unfortunately Peel does not explain his reasons for thinking the interest to be slight.   Peel states that Einstein was introduced to Eddy’s ideas “apparently for the first time” after World War II by the famous Austrian stage and screen actress Elisabeth Bergner.  However, there are indications that Einstein’s familiarity with the  subject predated that meeting.  Paul S. Seeley related in a public lecture that “a close family friend of Mrs. Seeley and myself” (Bergner) who had known Einstein well in Europe became interested in Eddy’s ideas.  On visiting America near the end of the war she made an appointment to see Einstein at Princeton, curious to ascertain his attitude toward her new religious conviction.  She laid before him her copy of Eddy’s book Science and Health and asked in effect, “How about it?”  He immediately recognized the book and impetuously replied “Blessed art thou!”.  If accurate this account implies prior knowledge and a positive assessment.[13]    As a further clue to the timing, one report would place the beginnings of his interest as far back as the early 1930’s.[14]

        A more consequential point of early contact concerns Einstein’s son, Hans Albert, and his family.  They lived in Greenville, South Carolina, from 1938 to 1943.  According to local newspaper accounts, the senior Einstein was a frequent visitor to the town during that period.  Walter Isaacson, in his biography of Albert Einstein, writes

    . . . Hans Albert became, under the influence of his wife, a Christian Scientist.  The rejection of medical care, as sometimes entailed by that faith, had tragic results.  A few months after their arrival their 6-year old son Klaus contracted diptheria and died.  He was buried at a tiny new cemetery in Greenville. [15]

How this tragedy affected Einstein’s religious views we can only guess, except that the occasion would surely have provided both motive and opportunity for his finding out more about the faith in question from his family.  According to Isaacson, “[Einstein’s] relationship with his son became increasingly secure and even, at times, affectionate.”  Later Hans Albert became a respected professor of hydraulic engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

        Because so much time has gone by since Einstein was with us, care is needed in separating fact from legend.  In an effort to screen out the purely legendary, all evidence mentioned here has been restricted to that of eyewitnesses or parties who received their information directly from an eyewitness.  Caution is needed in dealing with recollections that are decades old.  Nevertheless it can be said that the clues that do survive, taken collectively, point to the likelihood that Einstein had more than a casual or passing curiosity about Eddy’s metaphysics.


        So far as I have been able to discover, Einstein never commented in writing on Eddy’s metaphysics, and in conversation spoke about it only in generalities.[16]   That is unfortunate, for one is left wondering just what it was about her ideas that he found worthy of contemplation.  Eddy wrote much about the illusory nature of matter.   Did he see some deep connection between her ideas and his advanced physical theories?  Here the historical traces fail us.  However, it is possible to surmise at least that her system overcame some of his more basic objections to conventional religion.

        Einstein had his criticisms of traditional religious beliefs and did not hesitate to articulate them.  So when it is suggested that he might have had a sympathetic interest in a particular system of religious thought, the question naturally arises as to how he could possibly take it seriously in the light of his general religious objections.  In the case of Christian Science however the answer is simple enough.  That particular religious system is relatively free of the particular dogmas he explicitly rejected.

        Consider for instance the question of God’s existence.  Einstein never denied the existence of a deity and always protested against being regarded as an atheist.[17]   However, he did deny vigorously the existence of a personal God.  He said “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly”.[18]   Again, he said “The idea of a personal God is quite alien to me and seems even naive.”[19]   Though castigated for it by religionists of both Jewish and Christian persuasions, he steadfastly maintained this position.  He went so far as to add “The main source of the present-day conflicts between the spheres of religion and of science lies in this concept of a personal God . . .”.[20]

        In Eddy’s metaphysics God is defined in terms of abstract synonyms including ‘Truth’, ‘Mind’, and ‘Principle’.[21]   None of the synonyms is suggestive of a personal God in the sense of a deity with the characteristics of a human personality.  Moreover there are passages in her writings which explicitly reject any notion of a personal, anthropomorphic God.  She writes,  “Mortals believe in a finite personal God; while God is infinite Love, which must be unlimited”[22] ; “A personal God is based on finite premises, where thought begins wrongly to apprehend the infinite . . .”[23]“We must learn that God is infinitely more than a person, or finite form, can contain”.[24]  Evidently Eddy was as averse as Einstein to a naive personification of the Deity.

       Einstein wrote, “I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures . . . ”.[25]   On another occasion he observed wryly, “I see only with deep regret that God punishes so many of his children for their numerous stupidities, for which he himself can be held responsible; in my opinion, only his nonexistence could excuse him.”.[26]  Eddy too, decades earlier, had found the idea of a punitive God incredible.  She wrote “In common justice, we must admit that God will not punish man for doing what He created man capable of doing, and knew from the outset that man would do.”[27]  And in similar vein, “It would be contrary to our highest ideas of God to suppose Him capable of first arranging law and causation so as to bring about certain evil results, and then punishing the helpless victims of His volition for doing what they could not avoid doing”.[28]   Einstein would surely have concurred.

        Einstein did not believe in petitionary prayer.  He rejected it as a relic of the primitive belief in a personal God.  He said of the traditional concept of God that “Its anthropomorphic character is shown, for instance, by the fact that men appeal to the Divine Being in prayers and plead for the fulfillment of their wishes”.[29]    In a letter to Leo Szilard he made the arresting comment, “So long as you pray to God and ask him for some benefit, you are not a religious man”.[30]   His position is not far from Eddy’s when she wrote “The mere habit of pleading with the divine Mind, as one pleads with a human being, perpetuates the belief in God as humanly circumscribed,--an error which impedes spiritual growth”.[31]   Though she placed great emphasis on prayer, Eddy held that its purpose is to improve one’s own thinking, not to change the divine Mind:  “God is not moved by the breath of praise to do more than He has already done.  . . .   Prayer cannot change the Science of being, but it tends to bring us into harmony with it.  . . .  He who is immutably right will do right without being reminded of His province”.[32]  


        Einstein had his favorite philosophers.    Skeptics might wonder how a mind sophisticated enough to appreciate these famous thinkers could also find merit in Eddy’s writings.  But on comparing the actual positions of the writers in question, certain parallels emerge.

        Einstein expressed respect for Moses Maimonides, a leading medieval Jewish philosopher.  He praised him as “one of those few who exerted a crucial and fruitful influence on their contemporaries and thus on later generations as well”.[33]  Maimonides’ influential work Guide for the Perplexed, which was found among Einstein’s possessions, argues strongly and at length that God is incorporeal and incapable of being described in terms of ordinary material or human attributes.  Eddy was equally emphatic.  She writes, for instance, that “Christian Science strongly emphasizes the thought that God is not corporeal, but incorporeal . . .”.[34]   On a related topic, Maimonides attached much importance to the unity or indivisibility of the Deity, as did Eddy.[35]

        As a young man Einstein found time to attend a discussion group on Baruch Spinoza.  He read Spinoza’s works repeatedly and said more than once that his own ideas were close to those of Spinoza.[36]   While Eddy’s God is no carbon copy of Spinoza’s,[37]  there are some resemblances.  Both are incorporeal and impersonal.  Both are seen as undergirding the order and harmony of a lawful universe.  Both constitute a sole universal substance, one of Eddy’s defining phrases for God being in fact “all substance”.[38]    Both conceptions reject the dualism that would regard mind and matter as two real, distinct substances.


        Lest the impression be left that Einstein and Eddy were in full agreement about everything, it should be added that at times Einstein expressed some notions that would be hard to reconcile with Eddy’s metaphysics.  For example, some interview material suggests that, at a younger age at least, he believed sensation to reside in matter, contrary to her teaching.[39]  His understanding of her writings could have been idiosyncratic, his agreement with them might have been only partial, and his generous comments about them in conversation have to be considered in the light of his natural politeness.    Nevertheless Eddy’s metaphysical system stands in general sympathy with his stated reservations about popular religious thought, concerns itself with the derivative character of matter, and shares some ground with some of his favorite philosophers.  At a minimum, we may conclude that for him it came closer than more traditional Judeo-Christian creeds to his expressed ideal of a ‘cosmic religion’.  To that extent at least his special interest in it is explainable, and future historians might well ponder its significance.


 I am indebted to Prof. Max Jammer for searching the Einstein Archives in Jerusalem for relevant correspondence, to Robert Hough of Alameda, California for collecting pertinent press reports,  to Lee Johnson and Judith Huenneke for guidance to associated documents in the church archives, to Bill Sweet of Spindrift Research and Keith Simon for directing me to living witnesses, and to the witnesses themselves for their recollections.


[1]  Max Jammer, Einstein and Religion (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999).  Prize for Outstanding Books in Theology and the Natural Sciences, Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, Berkeley, California.

[2]  Robert Peel, Spiritual Healing in a Scientific Age (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 28, 201 n. 16.

[3]  Date according to George Millar of 34 Esmond Rd, London, England (telephone interview July 2001).  Millar saw Einstein conversing with Nay and spoke with Nay immediately after their conversation.

[4] Marcyne Johnson of Tucson, Arizona, who attended the church in the period 1952-53, remembers being told at that time of frequent Wednesday visits by Einstein by at least two eyewitnesses who had vivid recollections of his attendance and where he sat (telephone interview, June 2001).  Also Rosemarie Bettinson of Bronx, N.Y., long-time clerk of the church, recalls being told by eyewitnesses of Einstein’s attendance (telephone interview, June 2001).

[5]  Virginia E. Bailey of Floral Park, N.Y., attests to having seen Einstein at Wednesday services in Princeton and in the Princeton reading room  (letter to Robert Hough, March 12, 2001).

[6]  David L. Keyston, The Healer: The Healing Work of Mary Baker Eddy, 2nd ed.  (Seattle, Wash.: Healing Unlimited, 1996), p. 189.

[7] Frederic Stoessel of Las Vegas, N. M. states that while living in New York City in about 1954 he saw Einstein chatting with the attendant of the reading room then on Central Park South, and immediately afterward confirmed with the attendant that it had indeed been Einstein (letter to Robert Hough September 1, 1999;  telephone interview August, 2001).

[8] Elizabeth Earl Jones, Reminiscences of Elizabeth Earl Jones,  c. 1986, excerpts quoted in Keyston, The Healer, p. 189.

[9] Quoted from Bailey letter (see note 5).

[10]  Ronald W. Clark, Einstein: The Life and Times (New York: The World Publishing Company, 1971), p. 622.

[11]  As related by Arnold’s daughter Genevieve Arnold of Atlanta, Georgia (telephone interview, June 2001).

[12]  Robert Peel, Mary Baker Eddy:  The Years of Authority (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1977), p. 497 n. 22.

[13] Paul Stark Seeley, “Spiritual Forces Bring Mankind’s Liberation,” public lecture printed in The Christian Science Monitor, October 20, 1965.

[14]  Harold W. Stewart of Alameda, California states that his mother was a member of the Christian Science church in Pasadena, California in the 1930’s and 40’s.  She told him of visits Einstein was reported to have made to the church.  Since Einstein’s stays in Pasadena while at Cal Tech all fell in the time period 1930-1933, the church visits presumably took place in that period (interview, August 2001; also letter to Robert Hough, November 11, 1999 ).

[15]   Isaacson, W.  Einstein:  His Life and Universe,  New York, N.Y., Simon & Schuster, 2007, p.  444.

[16]  In this connection, Prof. Max Jammer informs me that in the Albert Einstein Archives at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem there are essentially no documents indicative of Einstein’s attitude toward Eddy or his interest in Christian Science.

[17]  Jammer, Einstein and Religion,  149-151.

[18]  Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Albert Einstein: The Human Side (Princeton, N. J.: Princeton University Press, 1979), p. 43.

[19]  Einstein’s reply to Beatrice F., quoted in Jammer, Einstein, p. 121 .

[20]  Albert Einstein,  Out of my Later Years [essays] (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), p. 27.

[21] Mary Baker Eddy, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures (Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, 1913), p. 465.

[22]  Ibid., p. 312.

[23]  Eddy, The People’s Idea of God, 1909, reprinted in her Prose Works other than Science and Health (Boston: Christian Science Publishing Society, 1925), p. 3.

[24] Eddy, Miscellaneous Writings, 1897, reprinted in Prose Works, p. 16.

[25]  F. Herneck, “Albert Einstein’s gesprochenes Glaubensbekenntnis”, Naturwissenschaften , 1966, 53 : 198.   Excerpt translated in Jammer, Einstein,  p. 72.

[26]  Alice Calaprice, The Expanded Quotable Einstein (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000), p. 201.

[27]  Eddy, Science and Health, p. 357.

[28]  Ibid., p. 230.

[29]  Einstein, Later Years, p. 26

[30]   Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p. 149.

[31]   Eddy, Science and Health,  p. 2

[32]   Ibid., p. 2.

[33]  A. Einstein, “Moses Maimonides”, talk delivered in 1935, in Essays in Humanism (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950, 1985), p. 115.

[34]   Eddy, Science and Health, p. 116 (italics hers).

[35]   Ibid., pp. 132, 335, 336.

[36]  Jammer, Einstein and Religion, p. 144.

[37]  For Eddy’s statement of her differences with Spinoza see her No and Yes, 1887,  reprinted in Prose Works, p. 24.

[38]  Eddy, Science and Health, p. 587.

[39]   William Hermanns, Einstein and the Poet: In Search of the Cosmic Man.  (Brookline Village, MA: Branden Press, 1983).

No comments: