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Advent series: Of ethics and Armageddon

by
15 December 2023

Rod Garner continues our Advent series by marking the 70th anniversary of Robert Oppenheimer’s BBC Reith Lectures

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Oppenheimer delivers the BBC Reith Lectures, first broadcast in the Home Service, November-December 1953

Oppenheimer delivers the BBC Reith Lectures, first broadcast in the Home Service, November-December 1953

SEVENTY years ago, in the winter of 1953, Robert Oppenheimer — the father of the world’s first atomic bomb — arrived in London to deliver the BBC’s annual Reith Lectures. The invitation recognised his international standing as one of the world’s pre-eminent scientists. Less publicised was the range of his pursuits outside the laboratory: his serious study of oriental religions; philosophical inquiry; a love of literature; and the writing of poetry. Asked, late in life, by a Christian magazine, to name the ten books that had most inspired him, his list included the Bhagavad Gita, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land.

As the Reith Lectures — under the overall title of “Science and the Common Understanding” — progressed, Oppenheimer surprised his listeners. After reprising the achievements of Newton, Rutherford, and Bohr, and the wave-particle duality at the heart of quantum mechanics, he went on to address the nature of human consciousness, the human community, and the “underlying profundities of the earth and our lives”.

His commitment to the common good owed much to the rigorous ethical framework of his formative years. Born in 1904 into an affluent German-Jewish family on the Upper West Side of New York, he was raised in a culture that prized the “high endeavours” of artistic beauty in all its forms, science, and public service. For his parents, the notion of duty — derived largely from their somewhat idiosyncratic reading of Kant’s famous moral law — amounted to a religious obligation.

It also reflected their determined desire to “bring out the spiritual personality” of their gifted, if somewhat gauche, son, who found other schoolchildren difficult and intimidated them with his knowledge. “Ask me a question in Latin, and I will answer you in Greek,” he once challenged a classmate.

The legacy of this upbringing was twofold: on the one hand, a man with astonishing reserves of intellect and energy; on the other, a complicated, introspective genius, driven by a deep sense of public duty and a love of his country which, in a time of war, would confront him with seemingly impossible moral choices. After Hiroshima and the unimaginable destruction that led to the deaths of more than 80,000 people, Oppenheimer was never quite sure whether he was the saviour or destroyer of an imperilled world.


ALTHOUGH he professed himself “heavy with misgiving“, at no point did he ever concede that it had been wrong to build the bomb. He knew that the Nazis were already constructing their own, and ultimately, in his view, it was the US President and his closest advisers who took the decision to drop it.

In the aftermath, he acknowledged that he had “blood on his hands”, and spoke frequently of his dismay at the escalation of the arms race that, he had believed, mistakenly, his scientific research would end. Asked more than once in public whether he would do it again — that is, participate in the making of atomic weapons — he replied unequivocally “Yes.”

His sin, he believed, was not the human devastation that followed his ground-breaking work, but, rather, the sin of pride: of thinking that he and the gifted team of brilliant young physicists which he had assembled “knew what was good for man”. It left an indelible mark on many of them — in Oppenheimer, a deep sense of pathos and tragedy as he contemplated the human condition.

In his final years, before his death from cancer in 1967, at the age of 62, Oppenheimer was invited to address an audience at the National Book Awards in New York. The surprising title of his presentation was “The Added Cubit“ — an allusion to the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus urges his listeners to resist needless worry and trust in God: “Which of you by taking thought can add one cubit unto his stature?” (Matthew 6.27)

Oppenheimer took issue with Christ’s gentle admonition, insisting that we should take thought and not place our trust in fate, leaders, or even divine providence: “By taking thought of our often grim responsibility, by knowing something of our profound and omnipresent imperfection . . . we may even find our way to put an end to the orgy, the killing and the brutality that is war.”

A year later, at another public gathering, Oppenheimer enjoined his audience that “Most of all we should try to be experts in the worst about ourselves: we should not be astonished to find some evil there, that we find so readily abroad in others.” He spoke as a man aware of his mortality and his personal failings, yet one who often seemed a mystery to himself.

A close friend once described him as “a man put together of many bright shining splinters”: a telling observation, but not all the splinters shone. Oppenheimer did have a genuine longing for friendship and affection, but he lacked the ability to form close ties with other people. His private papers — running to 296 boxes of letters, drafts, and manuscripts — reveal very little of a personal or intimate nature concerning his family or his wider circle.

Some years after his death, his daughter, Toni, took her own life at home. His son, Peter, worked as a carpenter, and distanced himself from anything concerning his famous father.


IN FACING his strengths and weaknesses, Oppenheimer spoke for all who value personal integrity and the need to face the deeper, more daunting truths about ourselves. He echoes the summons of Advent to heed again the ancient story of the fabled garden in Genesis, where human pride and self-assertion have consequences that can be redeemed only by a Saviour. And, in his insistence on the duty of hard thought concerning war and the threat of nuclear exchanges — which dwarf the Armageddon of the closing chapters of Revelation which inform this serious season — he reminds us of our religious obligation to be “co-workers with God” (1 Corinthians 3.9).

To paraphrase St Augustine, “God will not save us without us.” The fate and possible destruction of the earth is certainly the business of the God of love — but it is ours, too. Advent bids us wake from our slumbers.

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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