Stephen Hawking was the greatest physicist of his generation. His name will be whispered in the pantheon of science, along with the hallowed icons of Einstein, Newton, Galileo, and Copernicus. Yet, his brilliance was the object of much scorn in the church, and while the response has not been universal, many faith leaders have reacted to Hawking’s death with snarkiness and dark mockery.
Responses like, “I bet Hawking believes in God now,” and “Some genius. He couldn’t even see the truth in front of him,” and “Stephen Hawking is now in the fiery flames of hell where he belongs,” filled my inbox and social media timeline for days. It’s a deplorable schadenfreude that makes me feel ashamed.
Yes, Hawking was an atheist. He said, “There is probably no afterlife.” He was suspect of religion, noting that it was based on “authority,” not on observation or reason. But Hawking was a ravenous seeker of the truth, and actually lived out an abundant spirituality that some of his religious critics have yet to understand.
It’s well known that Hawking was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) as a young man. Given only a few years to live (a prognosis he defied for five decades), he became incredibly focused. “I don’t have much positive to say about my disease,” he said, “but it has taught me not to pity myself, and to get on with what I still could do. My disabilities have helped me in a way.”
Hawking learned what every redeeming, spiritual tradition teaches: You have to let go of the life you think you will have – the one you may have so elegantly planned – in order to embrace the actual life you have been given to live. It’s not the “use it or lose it” principle. It is the “leave it or lose it” principle.
Stubbornly cling to yourself, and your life will be small, fragile, and desperate. But jettison your self-importance and self-attachment; give yourself over to something bigger, something outside of yourself, and the result will be a truly abundant life. In the words of Jesus, “Only when the seed falls to the earth and dies, can it can produce much fruit.”
Stephen Hawking believed that humanity’s instinctive selfishness, and the aggression, greed, and stupidity it produced, was our biggest threat. “With our advancing abilities,” he said, “human nature could easily destroy us all.” So, he posed this question online: How can the human race sustain another 100 years?
The question elicited 30,000 responses, but Hawking, even with his expansive mind, admitted that he was stumped. “I don’t know the answer,” he said. “That is why I asked the question, to get people to think about it.” But I think he did have the answer: True and worthy living will never result from selfishness or self-centeredness. These must die for life to have a chance. Hawking knew this, he lived it, and maybe that was the most important lesson he had to teach us all.