So here is the question of the day: Does it matter that famed physicist Stephen Hawking was -- as best one can tell from his complex and even impish way of expressing himself -- an atheist who still had moments when he could hint at doubts?
Does it matter that the mind that probed the far corners of the universe couldn't handle the mysteries of the human heart and that this pained him? After all, in an empty, random universe, there are no moral laws to explain the physics of love and attachment.
If you pay close attention to the major obituaries, it's also clear that Hawking's giant reputation and celebrity was the black hole that sucked some thoughtful coverage into nothingness.
On one level, I thought that some of the best material on Hawking's faith questions was found in a compact, logical sequence in The New York Times. As always, things begin with the book that made him a global phenomenon:
In “A Brief History of Time,” Dr. Hawking concluded that “if we do discover a complete theory” of the universe, “it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.” He added, “Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist.”
“If we find the answer to that,” he continued, “it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason -- for then we would know the mind of God.”
But Hawking kept writing and, as always, his opinions grew more provocative.
Nothing raised as much furor, however, as his increasingly scathing remarks about religion. ...
In “A Brief History of Time,” he had referred to the “mind of God,” but in “The Grand Design,” a 2011 book he wrote with Leonard Mlodinow, he was more bleak about religion. “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper,” he wrote, referring to the British term for a firecracker fuse, “and set the universe going.”
He went further in an interview that year in The Guardian, saying: “I regard the brain as a computer which will stop working when its components fail. There is no heaven or afterlife for broken-down computers; that is a fairy story for people afraid of the dark.”
So what is missing from that version of Hawking? What did the Times skip over in its main obituary?
The answer can be found over at The Washington Post, where the main obituary wrestled -- briefly -- with a faith angle in the other part of Hawking's life that produced headlines.
The essential question: At some point, did faith issues affect his private life? What happens when real people wrestle with issues that are bigger than attempts to explain the universe? We are talking, of course, about the human heart.
The power of Dr. Hawking’s celebrity was measured at times by the tabloid coverage he drew for his complicated personal life. His wife Jane spent hours every day bathing, washing and feeding Dr. Hawking, who required constant nursing care. He developed pneumonia in 1985 on a trip to Geneva, and Jane battled doctors who wanted to turn off his life support.
But the marriage grew strained, in part because of her Christian faith and his adamant atheism, and in part because of what she called his remote and stoic temperament. She described him as an “all-powerful emperor” who seemed blind to how demanding his illness became for her as she also took care of their young children. He refused measures that would have made life easier for her, and she felt it was “too cruel” to coerce him to see it her way.
They grew apart and, in 1990, just shy of their 25th wedding anniversary, separated when Dr. Hawking left Jane for his nurse, Elaine Mason. He married Elaine five years later after his divorce from Jane became final. Dr. Hawking called his second marriage, which also ended in divorce, “passionate and tempestuous.”
Reading between the lines, it would appear that Jane Hawking had beliefs that required for her to fight for the life and dignity of her husband -- as long as he would let her.
Would many readers have appreciated more information about her faith? Yes, but it's important to note that the Post included this angle in the story of the scientist's life.
Readers can find a similar faith-shaped hole in the Associated Press report on Hawking's death that will appear in most local American newspapers. When dealing with his private life, readers are told:
Hawking divorced Jane in 1991, an acrimonious split that strained his relationship with their children. Writing in her autobiographical “Music to Move the Stars,” she said the strain of caring for Hawking for nearly three decades had left her feeling like “a brittle, empty shell.” Hawking married his one-time nurse Elaine Mason four years later, but the relationship was dogged by rumors of abuse.
In terms of questions bigger than an big bang, the AP offered this rather haunting statement:
Hawking said belief in a God who intervenes in the universe “to make sure the good guys win or get rewarded in the next life” was wishful thinking.
“But one can’t help asking the question: Why does the universe exist?” he said in 1991. “I don’t know an operational way to give the question or the answer, if there is one, a meaning. But it bothers me.”
We should also remember that this is a man whose ambitions were rather large and at one point was stated in quasi-religious terms.
“My goal is simple,” he once said. “It is complete understanding of the universe, why it is as it is and why it exists at all.”
Personal note: I am in the middle of some long and complicated meetings on the West Coast. If I missed an important news source of religion angles linked to the Hawking's obituaries, please let me know in our comments pages.