A young man once tracked down Albert Einstein and insisted on showing him a manuscript. On the basis of the E=mc2 equation, the man said it would be possible “to use the energy contained within the atom for the production of frightening explosives.” Einstein brushed him off, calling the concept foolish.1 Later in life Einstein recognized the destructive energy in his equation. A phone call this week reminded me that we’d do well to recognize a human equation that often yields destruction.
My Monday went up in smoke when an old friend called to say that one of his daughters had taken her life. I remember her from high school and college years – she was a bright and thoughtful young woman. In fact, we once spent a day at a bagel place talking about faith—the Christian faith to be exact. I never learned what she made of our conversation, but her suicide reminded me of a human equation—E=rr. Our energy comes from the fact that God created us to reflect him and to rule the world with him. The power contained within this equation is not to be underestimated. Yet we often ignore it.
God hard-wired every human to be like him and to “have dominion.”2 We’re coded by the Creator to reflect him and run the world—making work, play, and everything else as it ought to be. Read that again. Slowly. We’re not like the rats and cats and elephants that only eat, drink, procreate and defecate. We’re made to rule the world. “What is man that you are mindful of him… yet you have made him but a little lower than God, and you have crowned him with glory and honor. You made him to have dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet” (Psalm 8:4-6). This is nuclear.
The human equation has historically been called the “cultural mandate” that “stands as the first and fundamental law of history.”3 It’s the most elementary explanation for why we grow companies, amass wealth, raise kids, work out, or run for political office. It’s why the University of Kansas and Memphis will give 110% tonight to win the NCAA basketball championship. We’re not made to simply get by but to get better. But just as E=mc2 can head north or south, so can E=rr. It contains potentially destructive energy.
This deadly potential is poignantly seen in the life and death of Phil Lynott, founder of the Irish rock group Thin Lizzy. In the mid 1970s Lynott was on top of the world with hits like “The Boys Are Back In Town.” Yet with all the money, power, and fame, he sensed a signal pinging his soul for something more. The human equation. Wealth, influence, and recognition are fine, but E=rr asks how these things ought to assist us in reflecting and ruling. It will not let us settle for making money and getting by. You can heed it or muffle the pinging. Lynott chose the latter and turned to heroin to quench the thirst for something more. U2 guitarist The Edge was one of many friends who tried to save Lynott’s life. They lost and Lynott died of an overdose in 1986. The story is retold in U2’s “Bad”—“If I could through myself/Set your spirit free/I’d lead your heart away/See you break, break away/Into the light/And to the day.”
When Einstein later in life recognized the potential for destruction in E=mc2, he turned to religion for help. Although not a conventional believer, he said that science only tells us what we can do while religion tells us what we should do: “The situation may be expressed by an image: science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.”4 E=rr works the same way. Without religion, we don’t know how we should reflect God and rule. But we will rule one way or another. It’s in our genes.
“The madman is not the man who has lost his reason,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.”5 Human beings are the only creatures on earth that commit suicide. Animals don’t. Yet suicide is not an irrational act. It’s the final, desperate stab at ruling the one last thing people can control—their life. It’s a loss of hope and everything else except reason. “Hope that is postponed makes the heart sick, while desire fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). The madman who massacred 32 Virginia Tech students a year ago and then took his own life did so in a rational manner. It was a desperate and horrific act but not irrational.
E=mc2 inexorably yields beneficial power or frightening explosives. So too E=rr yields lives filled with hope and meaning… or frightening darkness. There’s little middle ground for us. You might not like the fact that God took a risk by encoding us with such a lofty equation. The alternative is living like animals. Up for that? Perhaps a better idea is to no longer ignore our equation and instead promote it’s potential for goodness. Einstein connected science to religion. Why don’t we connect the longings for success and significance that we all sense to the human equation that we all share? If we don’t, we’re going to keep getting these tragic phone calls.
1 Walter Isaacson, Einstein: His Life and Universe, New York, NY: Simon & Schuster (2007), p. 272.
2 C.f. Genesis 1:26-28. The idea is that humans are to shape all of creation.
3 Dr. A. M. Wolters, “The Foundational Command: Subdue the Earth,” (Paper given at the Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto, 1973), p. 8.
4 Isaacson, p. 390.
5 G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius; Reprinted 1995), p. 24.