International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World

by David W. Nelson

Introductory Essay by Michael Ruse

A rabbi is a teacher, and Rabbi David W. Nelson is a very good teacher indeed.  He is Informed, interesting, modest, but insistent. I can think of no better way of spending a Saturday afternoon, the Sabbath, that sitting in a seminar run by him.

Nelson is a Reform Jew who seeks to take his ancient faith and to relate it to the present, especially to the present state of science. It is only at the end of his book, Judaism, Physics and God, that he makes his motives fully clear. It is not so much that he thinks Judaism has lost its way, but more its relevance and contact with reality. In the modern, post-Holocaust world, the relationship between God and His people must be rethought, and the way forward is through science. His goal is not to make religion into science or to measure religion against science – Nelson does not want to integrate science and religion in a manner akin (say) to the process theologians’ – but more to interpret the old verities anew in the light of science.

The author’s chosen branch of science is physics and his book takes us on a journey through modern physics, trying to show how the science provides new metaphors for interpreting and understanding the faith of his fathers. We start with the Big Bang.  Nelson does not want to challenge science (although he is aware that in some areas, like string theory, there is still much scientific debate), but rather to see how it illuminates the tenets of Judaism. The Big Bang is without cause, it defines what exists, it is all-powerful and all-embracing – features that Nelson identifies with the God of the Jews. It is not that God is the Big Bang, but rather that the nature of the Big Bang leads us to new appreciation of the deity.

Nelson works systematically through quantum theory, chaos theory, relativity, string theory and more. His thinking is provocative and bound to be controversial. A good example comes in his discussion of theodicy, that is the problem of evil. In particular, why does God seem to operate so often in a random way, letting the good suffer and the bad get away with evil? Nelson suggests that this may be because we now see (thanks to chaos theory) that things happen randomly and that it is impossible to forecast what will happen down the way. The implication seems to be that God is as stuck with this randomness as are we humans. 

Likewise, when discussing relativity theory and the claim that light has a maximum, unbreachable speed, Nelson sees a metaphor for God. Perhaps He is limited in His powers and thus can only do so much. We have, therefore, an additional way of tackling the theodicy problem. To both of these suggestions, one can imagine the response of an Augustinian, committed to the omnipotence and omniscience of God!  But note that Nelson could properly respond that he is not offering literal truths about God, but rather metaphors that help us to understand His nature. And as a teacher – the book even has a guide at the end to facilitate group discussions – Nelson can rightly claim that it is precisely the radical and controversial nature of his thinking that makes this a great opportunity for others to think and learn and move forward.