The Physicist and the Preacher

Warren R. Johnson —

Albert Einstein

In 1949 Albert Einstein asserted, “The abstract concept ‘society’ means to the individual human being the sum total of his direct and indirect relations to his contemporaries and to all the people of earlier generations.” Reasoning likewise, Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1963 Letter From Birmingham Jail, argued that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He went on to explain why, saying, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The physicist Einstein and the preacher King were not cut from the same cloth, but their social ideals were cut from the same pattern. Though the physicist ordinarily spoke of a physical system, and the preacher ordinarily alluded to a spiritual one, they were in perfect agreement when they talked about society.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Their agreement on social issues might pass for superficial similarity based on the fact that both chose hard paths. But that reason is not sufficient. There is a deeper reason. Both the physicist and the preacher hated force and abhorred violence because they each easily could imagine better worlds, worlds in which force and violence had no place whatsoever.

That Einstein departed from his passionate pacifism during World War II in order to render service to the defense projects of the United States was no easy thing for him to do. This, after all, was the physicist who saw in gravity’s meander the reason for the circular motion of planets and the explanation for the bending of light around those planets. Force, even gravitational force, was as foreign to Einstein’s sentiments as violence was to King’s character.

The year in which Albert Einstein died, Martin Luther King, Jr., achieved national recognition, recognition that began in an uncommon way. A black woman in Montgomery, Alabama coming home from a difficult day’s work refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man who demanded she relinquish it. She refused, in a lonely sort of way, to acknowledge the laws of racial discrimination. She refused to believe that anyone had the God-given right to treat someone else shamefully, even if the law encouraged it. The bus boycott that followed lasted a year and pushed Martin Luther King, Jr., to the forefront of the Civil Rights movement. Rosa Parks won, in the long run, and so did everyone else.

There are many aspects to that movement, but two stand out in a surprising way. First, the movement was called a Word of God movement. Preached from church to church, wherever ministers could get a hearing, Civil Rights became at once the Sermon on the Mount and the rebirth of Amos up from the wilderness crying out for social justice. Second, but only in appearance, was the transliterated Parable of the Good Samaritan. In its newer form, the parable allowed itself to be read in terms of the thief’s dangerous psyche (what’s yours is mine), the mean spirit of the harassed soul (what’s mine is mine), and the gentle person’s generous disposition (what’s mine is yours). In psychoanalytic terms, the id, the ego, and the superego were made crystal clear in that parable by the time the preacher King was done with his sermon.

Somewhere King gave a speech to psychologists and insisted, “Adjustment is a good thing. But if I should have to adjust to injustice, I would rather not adjust at all.” In other words, he was certain that psychology trod on one side of the road going up and on the other side coming down. The way up might lead to comprehension, but the way down ended in ideology. It was perhaps a path similarly trod that caused Heraclitus to utter his famous paradox, “The way up and the way down are one and the same.” But King’s path, unlike Heraclitus’s, would not lend itself to moral relativism.

Einstein recognized in modern physics, too, that knowledge was a wayward thing. The atom could be split for the greater good of humans everywhere and used in peaceful ways, or knowledge of it could result in devices far more destructive than any evil humans could ever have imagined in all their spans of life added together. As Alfred and Heidi Toffler put it, nuclear weapons “are the culmination of the search for efficient mass destruction that paralleled the search for efficient mass production.” And they hastened to add that such devices are the devices of Second Wave civilizations. In Third Wave civilizations “armies hurry to develop damage-limiting precision weapons and casualty-limiting non-lethal weapons” in an attempt “to de-massify, rather than massify, destruction.”

While technology creates tools to achieve our goals, and science co-ordinates our experiences, religion gives form to our emotions.

In the words of the preacher King, “science investigates, religion interprets. … Science keeps religion from sinking into the valley of crippling irrationalism and paralyzing obscurantism. Religion prevents science from falling into the marsh of obsolete materialism and moral nihilism.” The physicist Einstein was less poetic but more direct saying, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”

This article was originally published in the University of Maryland College Social Sciences Newsletter in 2002.


Albert Einstein. 1974 [1954].  The Meaning of Relativity. Princeton University Press.

—. 1994 [1954]. Ideas and Opinions. Modern Library.

—. 1995 [1954]. Ideas and Opinions. Broadway Books.

Martin Luther King, Jr. 1963. Why We Can’t Wait. Mentor Books.

—. 1987. The Words of Martin Luther King, Jr. New Market Press.

Richard Lischer. 1995. The Preacher King. Oxford University Press.

David J. Marshall. 2001. Private communication. As early as 1957 King spoke of “maladjustment” in Nashville, Tennessee, and by 1967 developed the idea more emphatically in “King’s Challenge to the Nation’s Social Scientists.”

Alvin Toffler & Heidi Toffler. 1993. War and Anti-War. Warner Books.

Phillip Wheelwright. 1951 [1935]. Aristotle. Odyssey Press.

warrenWarren R. Johnson served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1960s. He returned to the U.S. and attended Northern Illinois University under the G.I. Bill, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in sociology. He then repatriated to Germany and taught college courses through the University of Maryland-Europe, mostly to U.S. service members and their families, for 40 years. He currently lives in Bavaria.



5 thoughts on “The Physicist and the Preacher

  1. Genuine science & genuine religion are indeed complementary. Shortly before his death in 1955, Einstein said, “What I see in nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only very imperfectly, and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of ‘humility.’ This is a genuinely religious feeling . . . [that is ultimately] mysterious.” In this he implied “awe” or “cosmic religious feeling” which he termed as “the most beautiful experience we can have.” Life and experience are gifts to be cherished.


    1. DeWitt, the link does open and the article is quite interesting. I like Einstein’s idea that an intelligence is working its way through the universe. I’m no Einstein (who is?), but I have often had that thought.


  2. Thank you for this, it resonates with me and symbiotically joins 2 of my Heroes. Comforting me in my old age!👍🏿🙏🏼


Comments are encouraged.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s