Chapter 6: The Discovery of Relativity
There is a book in the Bible not much loved by Christian preachers, even though it is called ‘The Preacher’, or by its Greek title, ‘Ecclesiastes’. It starts off: "‘Vanity of vanities," says the preacher, "Everything is vanity."’ The word translated as vanity literally means ‘thin air’, and it was used to describe whatever is ‘vapor-like’, ‘insubstantial’. ‘having no solidity or permanence’. The unknown author of this book was writing at time when his Jewish heritage was encountering challenges from Greek critical thought, and he expressed here his sense of uncertainty. In today’s fast-changing world, many might share his sense of ‘vanity’, of impermanence, of the ground shifting beneath their feet. But our equivalent word might be ‘relativity’ -- and how often do we hear the phrase ‘everything is relative’?
The phenomenon of relativity has been one of the epoch-making discoveries of this last century of the second millennium. We mostly associate the term with Albert Einstein (1879-1955) and his two famous cosmological theories of relativity. But these simply brought to a surprising climax a thread of thought which began much earlier, and which applies to much more than our understanding of the physical universe. Indeed, the word ‘relativity’ had already been used in 1890 to refer to the reciprocal interdependence of the individual and society.
Briefly, the concept of relativity means that everything exists in relation to something else and is in some way dependent on something else for its being. No thing in the universe can be fully understood in isolation; everything we previously took to be absolute and final is now relativized. To understand this, we will start with Einstein’s cosmic relativity.
Perhaps the first glimpse of cosmic relativity came when Copernicus (1473-1543) proposed that the sun and not the earth is the center of the universe. This was disturbing at the time because the suggestion that the earth was moving around in space threatened the dependable certainty of the ground beneath our feet (then called terra firma). The mental picture of the earth revolving around the sun suggested that, at any time, we might drop into free fall in outer space.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was able to bring some reassurance: his theory of gravity meant that we were firmly attached to the earth. But Newton retained the idea of absolutes. The sun, rather than the earth, became the center of the universe, and the solar system operated within the two basic absolutes of space and time. Indeed, Newton invented these terms, saying, ‘Absolute space, in its own nature, without regard to anything external, remains always similar and immovable.’ This seemed as self-evident to him as it still does to us; three-dimensional space appears to be just there; objects like planets and falling apples move within space, but space itself does not move.
Similarly, Newton believed that objects can move in space because of the existence of another absolute -- time. So Newton said, ‘Absolute, true and mathematical time, of itself and by its own nature, flows uniformly, without regard to anything external.’ Again, not only does this appear to be common sense, but our clocks also appear to prove it. It was to be another 300 years before these two absolutes were questioned by Albert Einstein.
In 1905 Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity, in which he questioned the very notion of absolute space, showing that nothing is ever absolutely at rest or absolutely in motion. The idea of rest and motion are valid concepts only when used in relation to something else. In the second century Ptolemy had accurately described the paths of the planets relative to the earth, and very curious paths they were. But when Johann Kepler and Newton measured the movements of the planets relative to the sun, their orbits were seen to be ellipses. These were beautifully simple orbits compared with Ptolemy’s complex ones. In Einstein’s view, however, Ptolemy was not wholly wrong, and neither were Galileo, Kepler and Newton wholly right: there is no fixed or central point in space to which everything else must be related. That is the first important consequence of Einstein’s theory of relativity. All motion that we observe is relative to us. All rest, too, is relative. Of course, for practical purposes we regard the position from which we make an observation as a fixed point, but this is an arbitrary choice on our part.
Now let us turn to time. To measure the orbit of a planet we must record not only the position of the planet relative to us but also the exact time we observe the planet. In other words we are recording a series of events. We can accurately measure cosmic events -- say, the ‘distance’ or ‘interval’ between any two sightings of a planet -- only by means of a combination of space and time, and not by either of these separately. This led Einstein to speak of the universe as a space-time continuum. The word ‘continuum’ means a continuous thing, all of whose elements flow into one another. The universe is a continuum, said Einstein, in which the three dimensions of space and the one dimension of time flow into one another to form an indivisible whole.
Our traditional units of time illustrate how all measurement of time is relative to something else. Our hours and days derive from the time it takes the earth to revolve on its axis; our months from the time it takes the moon to revolve around the earth; and the year from the time of the revolution of the earth around the sun. Thus, just as it is necessary to surrender the notion of absolute space because there is no fixed point in space, so we must now surrender the notion of absolute time.
Every measurement of time is also relative to the place where the observation is made. We used to assume that, when we were observing a planet or star, the time on the star was the same as ours. That is not so. There is no absolute present moment which can be experienced or observed simultaneously throughout the universe. There is no absolute point in time, any more than there is an absolute point in space. Just as the observed position of a heavenly body is relative to us, so the time when we make the observation is also relative to us. It is our time. This is not at first easy to grasp, and it comes as a certain shock when we do so. Time and space have been around us for so long that we have taken them for granted. Even around the surface of the planet we can still take them for granted -- there is only a momentary delay when we telephone someone on the other side of the earth. But when we move out into celestial space the problem is magnified and the time we measure is clearly our time, not universal time or absolute time.
Or to put it another way, when we look up at the starry sky we are not only looking out into space, we are also looking back into time. The heavenly bodies we see are not there at our present moment but were out there at some time in the past, depending on the time it has taken the light to travel from them to us. This varies tremendously all around the sky. One star we observe may be taking us back a thousand years. But in the same area of sky we may be looking at a star that is taking us back a million years. For the distant nebulae, as seen through the telescope, we are looking back through hundreds of millions of years.
In 1915 Einstein developed the General Theory of Relativity, to explain apparent conflicts between his Special Theory of Relativity and Newton’s law of gravity. Why do objects fall to the ground? Newton explained this in terms of the force he called gravity, which causes any two objects to be attracted to each other. The immense mass of the earth attracts the relatively minute mass of our bodies, and so we stay on the surface of the planet even though it is whirling us around its center at about 1,600 kilo-meters per hour. Objects feel heavy in our hands because we have to counter the force of gravity pulling them to the earth. But why, when we are going up in a fast elevator, does the parcel we are carrying suddenly feel heavier as we set off? We say that this is because of the acceleration or change of speed of the elevator. Why does acceleration give us the same feeling as gravity gives us? To Einstein, acceleration and gravity are essentially the same force. In the four-dimensional space-time continuum (of Einstein’s universe), every object is subject to acceleration along what he called its world line; this curves when it is in the vicinity of any other object with mass, such as the earth or the sun. Thus the path followed by light coming from a distant star curves in the vicinity of the sun. This led Einstein to speak of the curvature of space.
Einstein’s theories of relativity opened the way for a new and quite different understanding of the universe. It is, in the first place, billions of times bigger and more complex than people had previously thought. Our sun is one medium-sized star among the billion or more which make up our galaxy and our galaxy in turn is one of more than a billion such galaxies. The planet earth is but the tiniest speck within a vast cosmic sea of nebulae. This planet is of supreme importance to us, but to the rest of the universe it is largely irrelevant.
As a result of Einstein’s theories, the static model of the universe was abandoned, and replaced with the dynamic model of an expanding universe. Even Einstein found this difficult to accept and, to avoid this surprising conclusion, he proposed a cosmological constant. But when the astronomer Hubble produced strong evidence that the universe is indeed expanding and that the further away a nebula is, the faster it is receding from us in space, Einstein confessed that his cosmological constant was the biggest blunder of his life.
Einstein’s theories of relativity may be wonderful and puzzling, but what is their relevance in this book? J.B.S. Haldane pointed out in The Philosophy of Humanism (1922) that Einstein’s theory of relativity is a scientific and exact illustration of a much wider principle: all our knowledge is relative to the human mind that produced it. Or to put it in another way, we humans have evolved in a symbiotic relationship with the culture created by the countless generations before us; we are dependent on the culture into which we have been born, not only for what we think and believe we know, but also for our very humanity. In other words, we humans are subject to cultural relativity. The phenomenon of relativity not only denies the absoluteness of time and space; it also undermines the certainty of our knowledge and the absoluteness of the values and purposes by which we live.
Consistent with the new model of an expanding universe in constant flux is that of an ever-changing planet. In its earliest geological history the earth’s surface was bubbling with activity -- with exploding volcanoes, boiling lakes, massive earthquakes, great gulfs opening and closing, whole continents appearing and disappearing. Even now the continental plates are always moving, albeit slowly, and mountain ranges are rising and wearing away. Nothing is permanent, not even the mountains, which the ancient psalmists used to regard as symbols of enduring stability. On planet earth nothing stays the same for ever.
On the surface of the earth, on the boundary where the atmosphere meets the hydrosphere, evolved the thin film of life we call the biosphere, in which change has been particularly fast and dramatic. Life of some kind on this planet stretches back through more than three billion years. It has been manifesting itself in a variety of species, bewilderingly rich and numerous. Planetary life started with the simplest living cells and amoebae-like creatures, yet out of them, through increasing complexity, our own species eventually evolved. Humans used to think until only last century that all species including our own had been here from the beginning. Now we know that, on the time scale of the earth, we emerged on this planet very late indeed.
Just as scientists from Galileo to Einstein ‘relativized’ the planet earth from its once central position to a tiny and impermanent fragment of a much vaster space-time continuum, so Darwin and his successors have relativized the centrality of the human species to simply being one species in a continuum of planetary life in which all species past and present are genetically related. The new story of all life on this planet has undermined the permanence of any species, including humans. This is the first consequence of relativity in relation to the planet, to which we have to become adjusted.
It is not surprising that Darwin caused a stir commensurate with that raised by Galileo. People had previously held what is called an anthropocentric view of the universe. In most respects we still do. Our forebears not only saw themselves as a race quite apart from all other animal species, but thought also that the universe was especially made for their benefit. Many people, on first encountering Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, feel deeply affronted and refuse to accept it. That is understandable. Our dignity is hurt when we find ourselves described as animals. We have come to think of ourselves as rational creatures, not only intellectual but also spiritual in character, and made in the image of God.
We belong to the total stream of life on this planet, and all other creatures are our genetic relatives. Physiologically humans differ only in degree but not in kind from other earthly creatures. Our human DNA is said to be 98 percent the same as that of the gorilla. We cannot escape our animal form -- to which everything we do and think remains connected. We humans have appeared right at the tail end of earth’s history -- relative, of course, to the present moment. Many other types of creatures have been here before us, including the dinosaurs who roamed the planet for nearly 200 million years. And just as there is no immortality for any member of a species, so there is no guarantee of permanence for any species itself, even though it may last through countless generations. The time will probably come when humans are extinct on this changing planet, like so many species before them.
There is, however, a great gulf separating humans from all other living species. It is not a physiological but a cultural one. We share with all the other higher animals the same vital functions of breathing, eating and reproducing. But that is only half the truth. We are sociocultural animals. What is most distinctive about us as an animal species is that all of our vital functions have been qualified and transformed by patterns of behavior we have learned from the culture into which we were born.
Within the continuum of planetary life there have evolved many interconnected systems, each of them in symbiotic relationship with its environment. In the case of the human species, we have evolved not only in a symbiotic relationship with the physical environment of the earth but with another kind of environment, known as human culture. By this is meant everything we humans have constructed with our hands, performed by our actions and thought with our minds. The basis of all human culture is language. As Don Cupitt has said: ‘Language is the medium in which we live and move and have our being. In it we act, we structure the world and order every aspect of our social life. Only Language stands between us and the Void. It shapes everything.’1
Language enabled our human forebears to reach a heightened form of consciousness; they came to depend less and less on biological drives and animal instincts, and organized their lives with an increasing awareness of their emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs. Consciousness began to evolve into the critical self-consciousness we are capable of today. So as our species gradually became human, we ceased to live an exclusively animal existence and developed, in addition, a cultural existence. It is by means of language that we have developed human culture and it is by being immersed in culture that each new generation becomes human.
Whether there was ever a time in the past with only one human culture, however primitive, we do not know. But we do know that over time a bewildering plurality of human cultures has evolved, as the Tower of Babel myth symbolically describes. And so we can ask: if it is by being nurtured by a culture that we become human, does this mean that there are many different ways of being human? Yes, it does! There has been a Maori way of being human, a European way of being human, a Chinese way of being human. Cultural differences do turn us into different types of human beings.
Until recently each culture assumed itself to be greatly superior to others, and to constitute the norm or truest type of humanity. It was common in the ancient world, for example, to distinguish between the barbarians and those who were civilized. Even as recently as last century, Europeans tended to regard tribal peoples as savages. For Christians, being a Christian was the ideal way of being a human; for Muslims, being a Muslim was. Today such judgements are seen as cultural chauvinism: we are becoming aware of cultural relativity. Just as there is no center to the universe and no earthly species that is biologically superior to all others, so no human culture provides the norm to which all cultures should conform. All human cultures are relative to time, place and experience.
The evolution of human culture has taken place in a much shorter time than biological evolution. Human culture also changes much faster. No culture stands completely still, even though some change more slowly than others. Each culture is a living, changing phenomenon, and it changes as a result of human thought and decision-making. Each new generation inherits the cultural deposit of the past and adds something of its own. Today human culture is changing much faster than at any previous time. This is all the more reason for us to understand the shifting and relative character of every culture.
What we learn from cultural relativity is firstly this: our cultural convictions and practices are always relative, relative to the time in which we live, the position we choose to take, and the cultural inheritance which has shaped us. Nothing about them is absolute or unchangeable. This book, indeed, is simply one person’s thoughts, reflecting a standpoint in western culture and trying to take into account what appear to be dominant global trends. Just as we humans are earth-bound and time-bound, we are also culture-bound. We can no more escape from cultural relativity than we can defy gravity.
Secondly, no culture stays the same. Every attempt to preserve a culture by human effort is doomed. The very fact that people set out to try to preserve it is a sure sign that a culture is already changing fast and perhaps dying. That is true of great religious cultures like Christendom and Islam, even though their respective fundamentalists think otherwise. It is also true of indigenous ethnic cultures, in spite of the best efforts to preserve them. No culture can be made absolute or permanent.
The chief substance or identity of any culture is to be found in its morality and its religion. By morality (literally, the customs or mores) is meant the patterns of behavior which are deemed by a society to be ideal or at the least permissible. The definition of religion is much more difficult and hence debatable. ‘To be religious,’ said theologian Paul Tillich, ‘is to be grasped by an ultimate concern, a concern which qualifies all other concerns as preliminary and which itself contains the answer to the question of the meaning of life.’2 Carlo Della Casa said, ‘Religion is a total mode of the interpreting and living of life.’3 These descriptions allow for the many and diverse forms of religion.4
Indeed, it is the relativity of religion that makes its definition difficult. Just as there is no one absolute culture and no one absolute morality, so there is no one absolute religion, despite the fact that some religions, particularly the monotheistic ones such as Christianity and Islam, have claimed that they alone possess the absolute truth and that all other religions are false or inferior. There are many forms of devotion, many modes of interpreting life and living; each of them is central for the people who practice it, but that is a relative and subjective judgement.
Every human culture has evolved on the basis of a particular way of interpreting human existence. Tillich suggested that religion is that which gives culture its depth and its strength. Without the religious dimension a culture has no staying power and no clear identity. Whatever provides a culture with its goals, values, motivation and creative energy is its religion (irrespective of whether that term or its equivalent is used).
Religion and culture are so closely interwoven that, though they are not one and the same, neither can exist without the other. In a healthy homogeneous society, culture and religion are deeply blended. That is why the pre-Axial cultures were not even aware they had a religion and hence had no name for it. We still refer to their religions by the ethnic group to which they belong. We speak, for example, of the religion of the Babylonians, of the Greeks, or of pre-European Maori.
Because religion arises out of the quest for meaning, and is a mode of interpreting life, it is dependent upon language. In fact most great religions have never become completely divorced from the particular language in which they came into being. Judaism is closely tied to the Hebrew language. Hinduism goes back to Sanskrit for the study of its founding scriptures. Buddhism, though a little more universal, still sets great store on the Pali texts. Until the last two centuries Christianity was largely tied to Greek and Latin, the languages within which it first evolved. Islam so honors Arabic that it does not officially permit the Qur’an to be translated into any other language. Each of the great religions has also developed its own symbolic language as its interpretation of human existence within the world. Religions have even been defined as symbol-systems. Each symbolic language is a kind of super-language which has to be learned and understood by those who embrace that religion as their way of life. These symbolic terms all cohere and relate together, depending upon one another for their full meaning and often being defined in terms of one another. They formed what the philosopher Wittgenstein called a ‘language-game’. Just as a game consists of a set of rules that we have to learn and honor if we are to play it, so a religion consists of a system of symbols that we have to understand as a whole. Each symbol-system forms a religious language, a language of meaning for interpreting the meaning of life (or, more correctly, creating a meaning for life).
Modern scholarship has revealed not only how much our capacity to be human depends on language and culture but also the extent to which all language (and particularly religious language) is symbolic. To many it has been an unwelcome shock to hear basic religious terms such as God, Christ and resurrection referred to as symbols when these terms have previously been used as literal descriptions of unseen reality. Even worse is the idea that these symbols, along with the whole cultural tradition which uses them, have been humanly created.
Yet that is exactly what has been slowly coming to light as the advent of modernity has unfolded to us a new story of human origins. We have seen that all human cultures are human creations, each of them being the collective creation of an ongoing ethnic group. Each of these cultures has produced a human-created morality and each has created its own set of symbols for the interpreting and living of life. The word ‘God’ is a symbolic term which is no less a human creation than the class of beings called ‘gods’, which ‘God’ came to replace at the Axial Period.
Until the modern period humans remained unaware of just how creative they really were. It seemed natural to assume that every new thought or from outside. We still reflect this tendency in such simple expressions as ‘I was struck by a brilliant idea’, as if it came from somewhere else. Psychology has helped us during the twentieth century to understand the creativity of the human psyche so that we have now a quite natural explanation for, say, the voices heard by Joan of Arc and the vision of John in the Book of Revelation.
Even more important, we now have an explanation for the types of religious experience that led people to attribute their thoughts to divine revelation. What has been claimed as revelation from a divine source of knowledge is in fact the product of human creativity, stretching back over a very long time and involving countless people. For example, the Islamic world accepted from the outset that the words of the Qur’an, expressed in beautiful Arabic poetry, could not have been composed by Muhammad, but must have originated with Allah and been transmitted to Muhammad by way of divine revelation. Muhammad’s own account of this was of course perfectly sincere, for he would have been unaware that his own creative psyche was the source of that remarkable outpouring that became the Qur’an.
No traditional Muslim would accept this natural explanation, any more than an orthodox Christian would accept that the long-held revelations of the Christian tradition are the product of human psychic creativity. Each religious tradition has exempted itself from natural explanations, while applying them to all the other traditions. In today’s global world, this will no longer do. We land ourselves in this inconsistency by not acknowledging relativity. If Christians use logical or natural explanations to explain the rise of other traditions, such as the foundation of Mormonism on the visions of Joseph Smith, these explanations must be applied to the Judeo-Christian tradition as well.
The new understanding of how the human mind works in creating human culture has shown more clearly the relative nature of all religious traditions. Those who have set much store by the belief in divine revelation feel, at first, a great sense of loss, comparable to that felt when the earth ceased to be the center of the universe. The loss of divine revelation has left each religious tradition bereft of its supposedly firm foundation.
Yet it has not been all loss. Belief in divine revelation has had its negative side. People have been inspired by revelation, and had great confidence in their beliefs, but they have also been motivated to impose these on others, for the latter’s own ‘good’. When we attribute to a divine source what are really our own thoughts, visions and aspirations, the consequences are serious. People who adamantly declare they know what is the will of God for society at large, are unconsciously projecting onto an objective deity their own ideals and aspirations, including their prejudices. In this way we become enslaved to our own thinking. It is even more damaging when we treat the words of holy scripture as divine revelation, for then we are enslaved to the thinking of ancient humans, whose ideas may be long outmoded. Any religious tradition claiming to be the absolute truth in a universe so marked by relativity leads not to the salvation of humankind but to its enslavement.
In the last 200 years we have become increasingly aware of the relativity of culture, morality and now of religion. It means that all religious traditions are of human origin -- none is exempt.
It means also that all religious ideas, concepts, symbols and traditions are human in origin, however valuable they may remain. Just as there is no one culture which is the norm for all other cultures, no one morality which is the norm for all other moralities, so there is no one religion which is the norm for all others. None of them is absolute and final, and those which claim to be must surrender those claims if they are to continue to be a viable means of the interpreting and living of life.
As theologian Tom Driver put it: ‘Christianity has been compelled to see itself as a religion relative to other religions and relative to the history of the world. Christianity does this reluctantly . . . The gap between Christianity and modern theories of relativity is widening so much that the church’s teaching about Christ is in danger of losing both its intellectual and its moral credibility.’5 Driver then showed that our understanding of relativity has made necessary a radical redrafting of the whole of Christian thought:
To think of Christ as the center, model and norm of humanity made a certain sense in the Ptolemaic universe, which had the Earth as its center. It continued to make some sense, however strained, in the Copernican universe, which had the sun as its center. Today, christocentrism cannot make sense in the Einsteinian universe, which has no center and in which every structure is a dynamic relationality of moving parts. The ethical theological task of the churches today is to find a Christology which can be liberating in a world of relativity.6
Let us return to the words of Ecclesiastes, for this ancient preacher caught something of the spirit of relativity -- a word that probably translates the original Hebrew word better than ‘vanity’. Vanity implies futility but relativity does not. And Ecclesiastes remained positive in the face of impermanence. He was able to say, ‘Go ahead and enjoy life with your partner. Eat your meals and drink your wine with a merry heart. And whatever your hands find to do for your daily toil, do it with zeal’.7
Relativity tells us that there is a mysterious elasticity about time and space, that all physical reality is in a state of flux, and that the cosmos was not made for any obvious purpose. But it is just because nothing lasts for ever and there is continual change that life has been able to evolve and that humanity has developed as it has. There was nothing necessary in this. Each of us exists as the result of an almost infinite number of accidents or chance events. We find ourselves living in an otherwise meaningless universe where there are no absolutes and nothing is certain. Within the changing conditions and evolving life on this planet, and out of the various developing cultures that have shaped us, we humans can and do create meaning for ourselves. Even though our efforts remain subject to relativity, they need not be futile and vain. Since all sense of purpose and human fulfillment resulted from human creation in the past, we can continue to create a purpose for living in the future. It is with that kind of faith and hope that we can enter the new millennium as we come to the end of the Christian era.
1. Don Cupitt, Creation out of Nothing, pp. 4-5.
2. Paul Tillich, Christianity and the Encounter of World Religions, p. 3.
3. C. Jouko Bleeker and Geo. Widengreen (eds.), Historia Religionum. Vol. 2, p. 355.
4. There is a fuller discussion in the author’s Tomorrow’s God, Chapter 7.
5. Tom Driver, Christ in a Changing World pp. 69. 66.
6. Ibid., p. 56.
7. Ecclesiastes 9:7, 10 (author’s translation).