What is the nature of light? How does this suggest the nature of reality? Einstein's famous ride on a light beam poses a question about the nature not of physical light but spiritual light and love. He also asks could God have made the world differently? Watch the video, which is a bit different from the original sermon text and probe the deeper issues Einstein poses about the nature of time in the space-time continuum. Learn more about the psychological dimension on the sermon The Time Travellers.

Profile information

David Bell's profile picture

Now officially retired, I'm the Director of a volunteer church outreach: Trinity-at-Waiake  eLearning Centre. Our website and ePortfolio is kiwiconnexion.nz for lifelong learning and spirituality, creating an online community of best practice and resourcing for professional development, with an emphasis on Methodism. Read more

Social media accounts

Riding on a beam of light


Imagine going for a ride on a beam of light. What would that be like? I can imagine going for a ride in a Porsche or Aston Marton. I can imagine abseiling off the Sky Tower, terrifying though the prospect might be. But going for a ride on a beam of light? That’s pushing my imagination to the limit.

But when Albert Einstein worked in the Patents Office in Bern, Switzerland, in 1905, that was precisely what he did imagine. Albert Einstein was perhaps the greatest scientist of the 20th century. He thought about the nature of the physical world with such intense creativity and sensitivity. He was able to look at the physical world with such seeing eyes eventually nature itself yielded up her secrets to him.

Essentially, your task of studying theology employs the same method, which is the intense and creative study of people and their interaction with Christian faith. The more you do it the more you will understand the jewel which is your faith. You will see it is like a sparkling diamond which radiates light beams in inexpressible ways.

Maybe there are further insights we can learn from the young Einstein and his work as a patents clerk. He used to catch the tram to and from work. Work was boring to this fertile, eager, curious mind. But journeying to work each day was different, because he had the time to imagine. And, it is a fact, that on one particular tram ride he began to have this very odd thought as he looked at the great clock tower that dominated the city landscape.

Einstein said to himself, if this street car was riding a beam of light, speeding away from the city clock, then the time shown on the clock face would stand still. It would stand still because the light beam reflected off the clock face would never be able to catch up to me in the street car, if my tram goes at the speed of light. My life would go on as normal riding my light beam, my Swiss watch would keep ticking, as Swiss watches are inclined to do. But life on the clock tower and all other information coming from the city of Berne would be frozen until my tram slows down.

Now that is a very unusual thought. It is, in fact, a thought experiment, beloved of scientists who dream big dreams, and one which had enormous significance for the human race. From it was born the theory of special relativity, and from it in 1919 the general theory of relativity and from it the invention of the first atomic weapons which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. E=mc2 had its consequences and effects. The thought experiment of riding the light beam met a cruel and nasty reality check.

Einstein was not particularly successful with his relationships with women, but his second wife Elsa made a particularly poignant remark. She was asked by a reporter if she understood her husband’s celebrated theory of relativity. “No,” she replied, “although he has explained it to me many times – but it is not necessary for my happiness.”

Alas, for the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is highly unlikely that had they lived any of them would have understood the theory of relativity, but it impacted on their lives to turn some fleeting moments of happiness to painful radiation and death by cancers caused by alpha, beta and gamma radiation. E=mc2 does truly impact on human happiness whether or not we understand it.

Jesus had the more illuminating insight, “The sun will rise on the evil and the good, and rain on the just and the unjust ... So love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you ... Be ye perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.”

The only way to overcome that force of evil which incidentally can move at the speed of light, so powerful are its effects, - the only way to overcome it is to harness a force that moves faster than the speed of light.

What on earth can that be? Why it is the speed of love. Imagine riding the beam of love. What is it rushing away from? It is rushing away from the heart of God, it is the backdrop to the universe, before light was love is.

No matter how humanity rushes headlong to war, to violence, to degradation, to abuse, we are called to ride the beam of perfecting love. And once on it there is no getting off it. It anticipates the evil. It anticipates the unjust. It anticipates and it answers.

While the speed of light is the limiting factor of the physical universe, the speed of love is ahead of it. Ride it now for the most exhilarating ride of your life: it will indeed take you to places of cruelty, places of evil, places where the light beams cannot enter. But the love beams can. And will. Provided you get on now and commit to this incredible thought experiment. Your understanding of the world, and the people in it, will change forever.

John Wesley called it the Doctrine of Christian Perfection. It is the only real doctrine we Methodists have: riding on the beam of perfecting love. Try it: it’s the best free ride in the universe. It will make you think and it will open your eyes and make you weep and it will pierce your heart and finally the windows in the walls of time will be breached and you will know inexpressible joy.


Ride the light beam

A Theological Universe of Strange Attractors

Harder issues