What are people for?—Wendell Berry
Our most recent movie, Einstein and Eddington, told the story of a largely-forgotten British astronomer named Arthur Eddington who corresponded with the unknown German theoretical physicist Albert Einstein during the First World War before Einstein’s sheer brilliance won him incredible fame worldwide. In fact, it was Eddington’s measurement of an irregularity in Mercury’s orbit—an irregularity not accounted for in Britain’s own “superstar” scientist Isaac Newton’s work—that proved Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity to be true. During the Great War, German and British nationalism had destroyed trust among scientists in both countries so that intellectual interaction was forbidden. But Eddington, as the head of the Royal Astronomical Society at Cambridge, suspected Einstein’s theory might be right. So he went against the official “intellectual blockade” between these warring nations to write to Einstein and to have him explain his theory more fully. Based on this correspondence, Eddington got funding to photograph a total solar eclipse in Africa to obtain the measurements that ultimately proved that gravity bent light. Therefore, the English icon was wrong and Einstein was right! Even more ominous than banning scientific collaboration between the two nations was that science in both countries had been conscripted by nationalistic hysteria to serve the development of heretofore unimagined weapons of mass destruction used for the sole purpose of indiscriminately killing enemies (Sound familiar?). Both Eddington and Einstein abhorred this wholesale corruption of the purpose of science to be a servant of death. That is not what science is for!
But Eddington’s life embodied more than integrity in science. His scientific integrity was but one aspect of a life profoundly grounded in his Quaker faith—a disciplined faithfulness that always sought to listen for the voice of God and for the voice of suffering humanity, and to act accordingly as God’s representative. As a member of the Society of Friends, Eddington was not merely a conscientious objector and a pacifist, but one who acted on behalf of all victims of violence, no matter who they were. One day, on his way back from his Cambridge office, he came upon four “patriots” assaulting a German family in their own store. Painting “HUNS” across their window, they were pounding on the father, threatening the mother and teenage daughter, and smashing the store to smithereens. With no thought for himself—and without hesitation—Eddington entered the store and decisively broke up the assault. He earned a broken nose as a reward for his intervention. Returning no evil for evil against the attackers, he then took the traumatized family into his own home. There, he and his Quaker sister Winnie comforted, housed and fed them. At a subsequent Friends meeting Eddington and his small community—now including the German family—heard taunts outside accusing the “cowardly pacifists” of being traitors and worse. Amid the clamor, Eddington assured the still-worried German family that no matter their origins, their creed, or the enmity of those outside, they were at home and welcomed among this Society of Friends.
Eddington’s story is a challenge to us today because it asks the question Wendell Berry posed with his book What Are People For? From his Quaker faith, Eddington answered this question in a profound way: what people are for is for people to be for all other people as an expression of their being for God. When nations went to war and science was conscripted to serve the interests of nationalism and death, Eddington embodied Christ’s teaching that God is on the side of life, not death. When mobs formed to destroy resident aliens, Eddington embodied Christ’s teaching that all others, especially those in need, are our neighbors and therefore friends. As we move through Lent to Easter, may we too embody this Quaker spirit more and more. That is what the church is for!