The Idol of Progress

It’s December 2005, in a darkened New York theater. Onstage, it’s 100 years ago, in Germany.

“Why is it you want to be baptized?” a pastor asks the man who has just stepped into his church. The visitor struggles to answer. He’s Jewish, and he’s converting to Christianity because he is ambitious: Jews face professional obstacles, and he wishes to remove them.

But that’s not the reason that the pastor wants to hear. The man, refusing to profess a faith he cannot honestly claim, turns to leave. The pastor stops him. “Tell me,” he asks. “What is it you believe?” And the visitor turns, pauses, and replies: “I believe in science.”

He then launches into a hymn of praise to discovery and invention. “To be a scientist is to search the soul of God,” he tells the pastor. “For the briefest of seconds, to think what He thinks; to breathe what He breathes; to see through His eyes ... and then to act on it, to do good, to make it live, to—to give people something to believe in. We don’t want to be God, but we all try to be more like God, do we not? Is that not what we two believe? Is that not faith? Is that not holy?”

“Perhaps it is,” the pastor responds. And he proceeds with the baptism.

The visitor in this play was, in real life, a chemist named Fritz Haber, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1918. He is perhaps better known as the father of chemical warfare. The dialogue in Vern Thiessen’s play, called “Einstein’s Gift,” is fictional, but the central events are real: Fritz Haber was baptized in 1892. He devoted his life to science, innovation, and technical progress; the pursuit of knowledge was his true faith. And in many ways, it remains ours today.

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Sojourners Magazine August 2006
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