Why I am a Christian

Professor Henry Margenau

Dear Roy:

In a recent telephone conversation you requested that I clarify, or perhaps amplify, my claim that I am a physicist and a Christian. I fully understand this request, for there exists a wide-spread view that regards science and religion in general as incompatible. Let me therefore point out, first of all, that this belief may have been true half a century ago but has now lost its validity as may be seen by any one who reads the philosophical writings of the most distinguished and creative physicists of the last five decades. I am referring here to men like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Dirac, Wigner and many others.

The rest of this letter will therefore be a mixture of biographical facts responsible for my current views and some specific points which show the compatibility of science and religion, in particular physics and Christianity.

My interest in this connection was rekindled in 1982 during two meetings in Dallas, where I met men like yourself and your friends whose deep concern with the Gospel and current science fascinated me, and a genius like Sir John Eccles. As a result I recalled and reflected upon some of the specific experiences in my life which brought about my present attitude. My early youth was spent in Germany, where I was baptized and confirmed in the Protestant faith. Prior to confirmation in 1915 every church member had to take a year's course covering the details of the Lutheran catechism. The pupils met once a week in a hall adjacent to the church and were taught by its pastor. They were subjected to a comprehensive examination prior to the confirmation ceremony, which was an impressive event.

The profession which I aimed to enter was teaching in a public school. This required a 3 year attendance in a preparatory school and three years of teacher training in a seminary. Bible studies were included in the curriculum of every one of these six years. Furthermore, a three year course in organ playing was given in the seminary, the common expectation being that a public school teacher would in all likelihood be expected to play the organ in a church of the town or village in which he taught.

The years of teacher training lasted from 1914, when I was 13 years old, to 1920. They brought forth several unforgettable events that led to contemplation, meditation and prayer. The First World War had started. My father was drafted into the German army and fought in the Western trenches against the French. About one month after his departure my mother gave birth to her third son, a charming youngster named Werner. I lived at home at the time and grew unusually fond of the lovely baby and cared for him in my spare time. But then things became difficult. My mother developed cancer of the vertebrae and was taken to the hospital. This forced me to transfer Werner to an aunt who lived in a neighboring village and took loving care of him. My second brother, Fred, six years my junior, and I now lived in a small apartment while attending schools, and I was responsible for whatever was necessary to keep us alive during the difficult time in which food was available only with stamps issued by the government.

My mother's illness grew worse and, because her death was expected, she was transferred to our home where an aunt of mine took care of her, and my father was given a furlough from the army. The last days of my mother I shall never forget, and my feelings are expressed in a poem I wrote two days before she died in 1918. It is in German but I offer it as a footnote to this account because of its plea for religious consolation. Other experiences of this time strengthened my Christian belief and my reliance upon religion. After my father had sadly returned to his army post and Fred and I continued to manage our frugal existence, our apartment was burglarized. We lost not only much of our clothing and all our savings, but even our current cash and our most valuable food stamps. The burglar was never identified and we faced a most puzzling and saddening future. But miraculously our prayers for help were answered. The mother of the business chief for whom my father worked, a wealthy, charming lady who had taken a personal interest in my education and lived in a beautiful mansion near our modest home, came to us and invited us to see her. She offered us a meal and instructed her maids to prepare meals for us and bring them to our house as long as our misery persisted. Several weeks after this my father was released from the army, Werner was brought home, and I felt that my prayers had been answered.

Just before the war ended our family became more normal. My father remarried. Our stepmother had been a neighbor of my father in his youth, a farmer's daughter he had known all his life. She treated baby Werner as her own son and became a mother to all of us.

When the war ended in 1918, the German army collapsed and life became most depressing. Upon graduation from the seminary in early 1920 no teaching jobs were available and my situation was hopeless. But again my customary prayers were answered in an unexpected way. Our benefactress, the wife of my father's superior, called me in and made a most flattering proposal. Her daughter, who was the widow of a German aristocrat (Baroness von Khaynach), had an eight year old son who needed a year of preparation for entrance in the Gymnasium. She wanted to travel from her castle in Eisenach and explore the Alps. Her son was to accompany her, and therefore he needed a private tutor. Would I take the job?

Another miracle! I could hardly restrain my excitement and accepted the offer immediately. The summer and fall that followed had little in the way of religious implications. In Eisenach I visited the Wartburg, where Luther translated the Bible and where a museum with various trinkets of his life were kept. Most memorable was the beauty of the places we visited: Upper Bavaria, the German and Tyrolean Alps, with their indescribable beauty.

Upon returning home I encountered an unexpected and very unusual situation. A farmer from Winside, a small town in Wayne County, Nebraska, had come to Germany. He had emigrated from the village in which my father and stepmother were born and had developed a valuable estate in Nebraska. His wife had died during the war and his trip to Germany had the purpose of meeting a girl he had known in his youth, his deceased wife's sister, hoping he might marry her. There had been no communication between him and his native Germany during the war, no way of getting in touch with the lady he wanted to see. To his enormous surprise she had become my stepmother.

The result was that he became a friend of my family and stayed with us for some time. He was kind and generous and helped us in many ways. But he took a special interest in me. Inflation had reached its peak in Germany, the dollar was worth many millions of marks and he spent them liberally. Seeing that I was unemployed and unlikely to find a job he began to persuade me to emigrate to the U.S., where he promised to support me until I found employment. This was an unexpected turn of events. I accepted his promise, and he made all necessary arrangements for my emigration, signed a required affidavit of support and lent me the travel money before departing in continued affection from my family.

A few months later my emigration took place. I arrived at my benefactor's farm and was welcomed by his family. Within a week I had a job as a farm hand on a neighbor's place, where I soon learned all the necessary chores I was expected to do. They included the feeding and harnessing of horses, milking cows, cleaning stables and cultivating the mile-long cornfields which cover the Nebraska countryside. The language spoken in the community was mostly German, as were the sermons in the churches, most of which belonged to the Lutheran synod. Religious life was intense; attendance at Sunday services was regular for the entire German-oriented community.

After one season of farming I changed my occupation and became a clerk in a general merchandise store in the nearby town of Winside. Here I rented a room in an empty building next to the church and soon became acquainted with its Lutheran pastor, who took an interest in my welfare. One Saturday morning a stranger, a gentleman wearing a clerical collar entered the store. I waited on him; he bought a cigar but before leaving he engaged me in a conversation. I was not surprised to learn that he had come to Winside to preach in our church the next morning, for in our synod sermons were often delivered by visiting ministers. Having heard from my friend, with whom he was staying, that I had received some advanced training in Germany he asked me: "Don't you want to go to college in this country?" I answered, "Yes, I would like to some day, and I am trying to save money for that purpose." The next question was: "How much have you saved?" My answer: "About $300." Then came a moment of reflection, after which he turned to me and said: "Look, I am preaching in your church tomorrow and I have heard a little about your background. I am Rev. Kruger, President of Midland College in Fremont (Nebraska), and I invite you to come and attend classes this fall. I'll manage to find some outside work for you, so that you can pay your expenses."

I went, registered for courses in American history, English literature, religion, economics and advanced study of Latin, a language which for years I had studied by myself because it was not taught in any of the German schools I had attended. My first outside job was to peddle newspapers early in the morning before classes started. It lasted only a month or two. What happened, again like a miracle, was this. The French classes, which were taught by a lady who was also of German origin and joined me occasionally at meals, had grown very popular. She felt that one of them should be divided in two, and suggested this as a useful change to President Kruger. He reacted favorably to her proposal and asked: "But who would teach the extra class?" She replied: "We have a student who recently came from Germany but also speaks French," and she mentioned my name. I got the job, stopped selling papers and taught French at a salary of $50 a month.

At the end of the college year I had to list all courses I had taken in the German teachers' seminary, which was regarded as comparable to an American college. They were evaluated and yielded, in the estimation of the college registrar, approximately 100 credit hours. As I recall it, the number needed for graduation was 120.

Hence I expected to spend another year at Midland. When my Latin professor, whose class I had attended and who knew of my background in that language, heard about this result he called me to his office and asked me to tell him what Latin books I had read before coming to Midland. I mentioned the customary classics in addition to the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible) and several pieces by Seneca, in whose philosophy I had become very interested (in fact I had prepared a major senior class thesis on Seneca's ethics). Professor Klotsche asked me to bring some of these works to his office and translate them for him. I did, and every time I finished a piece I noticed him jotting something down on a paper. At the end of the session he wrote a note, put it in an envelope and asked me to give it to the registrar the next morning. I did. The registrar opened the letter, looked at me in amazement, then handed it to me. It read: Henry Margenau has acquired by special examination 40 credit hours in Latin. Please add them to his record.-Thus I graduated after one year at Midland in the spring of 1923 with a major in Latin.

My attempt to find a teaching position in a Nebraska high school was in vain, for this required American citizenship which I could attain only after 6 years of residence in this country. But I found other jobs, the last and most lucrative one as fireman in a laundry.

But soon an unexpected change took place. I made occasional trips from Fremont to Lincoln, the capital of Nebraska and the seat of the University of Nebraska. There, at a party given by a German family, I was introduced to an elderly lady who had come from Germany recently and had married a physics professor at the University. At a later party I met her husband, who introduced himself to me and, after brief conversation, asked me if I would like to work for him as his assistant. Puzzled and embarrassed I informed him that I had but little training in physics, that my major had been Latin. He replied: "I know. But I believe you are a hard worker, and circumstances are such that you might shift to physics, a field in which it is easier to find employment." He then described the research he was doing. It was an experimental study (of the Zeeman Effect in Cerium) which required long hours of work; it involved the focussing of an arc light upon the slit of a spectroscope, and he could not do it alone. "Furthermore," he said, "if you come to Lincoln two weeks before the fall term starts I shall explain to you the experiments which must be performed by beginning students in physics, and throughout the year I shall keep you two weeks ahead of the students in the course." Completely overwhelmed, I accepted his offer at once. Another miracle, for which I thanked the Lord.

After my first year at the university my benefactor died. Since his research was unfinished and grants for it had been assigned, I was asked to finish it. For this the department raised my rank from graduate student to instructor and at the end of the second year I obtained the master's degree in physics and continued to teach until 1927. The paper on the Zeeman Effect was published during that year, and an application I made for a scholarship at three Eastern universities was accepted by Yale. I went as a candidate for a Ph.D. degree, met and became friends with Ernest Lawrence, who was an assistant professor at the time and had begun to design plans for building his cyclotron. The next year my scholarship was terminated. I attained the rank of instructor and received my degree in physics in 1929. Then followed a year of research in Germany, which was made possible by the award of a "Travelling Sterling Fellowship" by Yale. Needless to say, the opportunity to spend a year in my native country, where I could visit my family and my old friends was a Godsend indeed, and I enjoyed it immensely. I worked one semester on a problem in the theory of metals with Professor Arnold Sommerfeld, whose assistant Hans Bethe, later a Nobel Laureate, was of much help to me. The second semester took me to Berlin, where I experienced the charm and wisdom of Erwin Schroedinger and worked on a problem concerning intermolecular forces with Fritz London. I then returned to Yale, resuming my post as instructor in physics.

At this point of writing on the theme "Why I am Christian" I fear that I am coming close to writing an autobiography. I had given the preceding account mainly, however, to show the value, even the advantages of pursuing a Christian education. The following material will be less biographical and deal more effectively with the reasoning I developed concerning aspects of the Christian doctrine as well as scientific matters that relate to it.

At Yale I met Professor Leigh Page, a well known theoretical physicist, whose books I studied with care. He was, as I recall, a church member but never discussed religious matters. The philosopher I came to know best was Filmore Northrop, whose interest in religious matters, including Eastern doctrines, was considerable. Aside from writing a book entitled Foundations of Physics with R. Bruce Lindsay, which dealt occasionally with philosophical matters and was for that reason shunned by physics teachers, my research was concerned, in temporal order, with spectroscopy, some aspects of chemical physics, then nuclear physics. I might add that several decades after its first appearance Foundations of Physics was republished, having been listed by a Harvard Committee among the "books of the century". It is still selling today: Physics has ceased to be isolated from philosophy as well as religion.

In the middle of 1930's the famous philosopher Ernst Cassirer came to Yale. He was to teach a seminar on Kant, but because of linguistic difficulties he asked Northrop and me to participate in the seminar. We did and I learned a great deal of both philosophy and religion. To be sure, Cassirer was a Jew, but his understanding of the Christian doctrine was remarkable and sympathetic. Soon after my participation the chairman of the philosophy department invited me to become one of its members. I accepted the invitation, and it was approved by the President that I could teach in two departments. The course I gave for several years was "Philosophy of Physics", together with several regular courses in Physics. This led to publications in philosophical journals in addition to articles in problems in physics. Other assignments like editorships of journals such as Review of Modern Physics, Philosophy of Science, International Journal of Philosophy of Science (published in Belgium), and Current Principles of Modern Thought (highly religious!) followed as time went on.

Results of these activities were collected and published in 1950. The book is called The Nature of Physical Reality, and it contains some of the essential features on which my present views, including some basic facts underlying my present religious faith are developed.

Its conclusions are derived from an epistemological analysis of the essential method employed to establish what is real in the physical, material world. The process begins with sensation, an act of the mind. I wish to emphasize this, for no attempt by physiologists, psychologists, psychiatrists, not even to mention physicists, has succeeded in explaining a sensation in non-mental terms. Its causes may be said to be physical; but that explains only when and how a sensation arises, not what it is.

My epistemology has been reviewed in a number of places, and I shall give here only a few essential points. For sensation I use the symbol P, which may be read as percept or primary experience for reasons explained elsewhere. Many coherent P's form the P-plane, which I like to symbolize as the locus of contacts between the mind and the external world-or rather what we conceive to be the external world, a concept which is not directly given but created by mind. The process of normal science (of the external world) relates points on the P-plane to ideas ordinarily called concepts. I like to call them constructs in order to characterize their origin. The passage from P's to C's (constructs) is called a rule of correspondence and denoted by R. The clearest and most concise definition of R is Bridgman's operational definition, of which measurement is the most important class.

I must forego the detailed explanation of the scientific method which leads to our conception of the world. Several of my own books and a number of others explain it. The latest and most concise and simple exposition is found in The Miracle of Existence. But I do wish to emphasize here one point, which is essential for a proper understanding of the mind-body dualism, more particularly the fact that the mind cannot be fully explained in terms of bodily phenomena, even though in the cases of men and animals it usually needs a body to reveal its presence.

As shown on several occasions, the scientific methods which result in our understanding of the physical universe requires R's in the passage from P to the C-field. This means that every external object, which is a compound of constructs (eg. color, size, shape, weight, etc.), more usually called observables, involves an operational definition. But there are also mental observables, (the name does not fit, but they are properties of mental states just as ordinary observables are properties of physical objects). Yet we cannot measure them, ie. define them by operational definitions. For instance, a mental observable is a mood, or a state of excitement, or of love. These also have degrees of intensity, but they cannot be measured, not even properly expressed. We describe them in terms of metaphors: dark mood, boiling rage, deep love, high ideals. Facts like these are the most obvious indication of the fundamental difference between mind and matter, of the need for different approaches. Elsewhere I have shown that they imply a mind-body dualism; they show that man has a soul.

I have said nothing about the years between 1936 and 1950. There were, however, a few experiences I cannot forget. One was my first meeting with Heisenberg, who came to America soon after the end of the Second World War. Among most of my colleagues there existed the belief that he was a Nazi, who had worked for Hitler doing research on the atomic bomb which, if he had succeeded, might have destroyed our country and our lives. As a guest at my house he relieved himself by confiding in me and telling me exactly what the motives for his research had been. While he did work on nuclear physics and was aware of its implications he and his group worked on the theoretical issues and he avoided everything that might have enabled Hitler to use nuclear power as a weapon. Our conversation was intimate and he impressed me by his deep religious conviction. He was a true Christian in every sense of that word.

I had a similar intimate encounter at my home with Fermi, who was also a model of deep thought. Sommerfeld, my teacher at Munich in 1930, had at that time expressed displeasure at my interest in philosophy (which included religion). Many years later when I taught in Heidelberg, I went to visit him in his office, but he was not present and I requested his secretary to convey my respect and greetings to him. A week later I received a letter from him in which he apologized for his critical attitude toward my interest in philosophy and religion, in earlier years. Schroedinger, my Professor in Berlin, always had intense concerns about religious matters; some of them are mentioned in my latest book.

There is a common belief that science rejects miracles. But what, in precise terms, is a miracle? I suppose the answer has to reflect the fact that science is not yet, and probably will never be a complete system of explanation. It is important to keep this reservation in the background of our considerations. The existence of man, indeed of the entire universe, has long been regarded as a miracle, incomprehensible without assuming the existence of a Creator Who is omnipotent and omniscient. But did it violate the laws of nature? During this century the big-bang theory was formulated and confirmed. A very small but extremely massive sphere of matter, in many respects similar to a black hole, could spring out of nothing without violating any known law of nature. To be sure, it would be most unsatisfactory to regard this as an accident. God, however, created not only the physical universe but also the laws which it has to obey. This latter fact is often ignored, not only by certain biologists but by theologians as well. Schleiermacher, to be sure, was an exception. For he said in his Speeches to the German Nation: The existence of the laws of nature is the greatest of all miracles.

In a recent afterword to The Miracle of Existence Professor Margenau writes:

By giving him an identity, a body including the brain, and by creating the laws of nature which must be applied to man, but which can also be understood and interpreted by man, God has endowed us with freedom of the will, and therefore personal responsibility. We are not machines! This must be regarded as a gift of God, or an ultimate act of divine grace. In no way does our free will interfere with God's omniscience, omnipotence, or omnificence; it prevents our lives from becoming mechanized pre-established processes, leaving room for God's offering of advice, love, and help through prayer or meditation. It is of course our free-will which permits the pursuit of evil. One might ask, why would God create a world in which evil is allowed? C.S. Lewis answered this problem very clearly in his book Mere Christianity. "Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love of goodness or joy worth having. A world of automata-of creatures that worked like machines-would hardly be worth creating." It is through this act of divine grace that God allows us to accept or reject him, or to seek knowledge or remain ignorant. Yet, all of this in no way diminishes his universal power and knowledge.