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I was recently asked to write a short article on ‘Why study maths as a Christian?’ Here is what I wrote, and at the bottom please find some other perspectives and resources on the relation between the two.
From the moment I started secondary school, I loved maths and excelled at it. When I was 12, I failed to get 100% on a test, and my teacher wrote ‘How are the mighty fallen!’ At the time (since I wasn’t yet a Christian), I did not realise that this was a quotation from 2 Samuel 1.19—but it perhaps counts as the first meeting point of maths and theology in my life! I read about the four-colour problem in my gap year, specialised in pure maths at Oxford, and only decided against doing a PhD in coding theory because I sensed God might be calling me to ordination.
So why study maths as a Christian? My first reason was because I was good at it—and it was fun! I enjoyed the challenge of learning and solving problems, and the satisfaction of finding an elegant solution. Enjoying something and being good at it is actually a good theological reason for doing something, since it points to God’s gifts that he has given us and which he wants us to put to good use. Many years after ending my formal study, I still enjoy watching YouTube videos about maths and physics (there are some great ones out there).
But engaging in this fascinating path of study leads to something more—a sense of wonder at the world around us. I love watching nature programmes, and am amazed and awed at the complexity and beauty of the world around us. Yet maths leads to another kind of wonder—that there is even a structure and complexity to the world of abstract ideas. Why is this? What does it mean? There is a strong sense that maths is less about invention (though there is an important elements of creativity in the development of new ideas) and more of the exploration of an unknown world which is already out there. There is a ‘giveness’ to reality, and we are invited to be adventurous explorers discovering and mapping new parts of this world.
And that leads to yet another layer of discovery. In many ways, maths points to a sense of the transcendent—that there is more to the world around us than we can at first perceive, and in fact we cannot understand the world unless we believe that there is something more beyond it. If you have not yet, you will soon discover the importance of imaginary numbers, based on the square root of minus one. They are called ‘imaginary’ in contrast to the ‘real’ numbers that make sense in the physical world—in the real world, you can only take the square root of positive numbers. And yet real world experience depends on calculations using these imaginary numbers; the suspension on your car could only be designed to work the way it does using imaginary numbers in the calculations! There is more to reality than the reality you can see, and you cannot make sense of the seen world without drawing on the unseen.
This connects with our thinking about theology. Instead of doing a PhD in maths, I ended up doing a PhD in theology, exploring the way that metaphorical language works and the connection with how we interpret the Bible. Although there is a strong legacy (from the ‘Enlightenment’) of separating theology from science, it turns out that the way we develop our thinking about God using metaphorical language has the same intellectual and logical structure as the way we develop hypotheses in science and theories in maths. In all these areas, the task is to develop a conceptual understanding, using intuition, creativity, and imagination—and then to test our ideas and hypotheses against our experience in the real world.
This connection has turned out to be very important for me in practice—and for many others. I have lost count of the number of colleagues in the field of theology and particularly biblical studies who also have a background in maths and science. Reading scripture, listening to God, and thinking about our faith requires empathy, creativity, and imagination—but it also requires care and discipline. When I was being assessed as a candidate to do a PhD, the professor of theology who interviewed me said ‘Of course, you will be at a disadvantage, having studied maths instead of the arts.’ I immediately replied: ‘Quite the opposite! What theology and biblical studies needs is discipline and logic in its thinking!’ I am not sure he was persuaded—but I got approval!
Maths is a fantastic discipline for training your own thinking and developing your skills in following logical arguments, spotting the problems with false solutions, and growing in the discipline of facing challenging questions in the pursuit of persuasive answers. This can be a wonderful asset in thinking carefully about faith and scripture. Paul suggests this kind of disciplined approach to thinking when he writes:
We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Cor 10.5).
(We just have to make sure that it is ideas, and not people, that we demolish!) But it is evident that clear and rigorous thinking, in maths and science, and in faith, can and should be empowering and liberating. Studying maths is a great training ground for this.
And so we end where we began. Why did I study maths at all? In the end because, having come to faith as a teenager, it just seemed clear that this was what God was calling me to. God has given each of us unique gifts, talents, and experience, and he invites us in our learning not to ‘be whatever we want’ or to pursue the path that will apparently lead to health and wealth—but to use well the things that he has entrusted to us, in our talents, personalities, and abilities. After all, ‘what do you have that was not given to you’? (1 Cor 4.7)
Revd Dr Ian Paul studied maths at Oxford and Operational Research at Southampton, and then worked in industrial business (making chocolate!) before studying theology at Nottingham and completing a PhD in the hermeneutics of metaphor and the interpretation of the Book of Revelation. He has continued in local church ministry, teaching, and in academic research, and has written the Tyndale Commentary on the Book of Revelation. He writes a blog at www.pesphizo.com
There is quite a useful historical overview of the inter-relationship of mathematics and faith on this page here.
Here is an exploration of what it means to engage in mathematics as a Christian, from a professor in the US.
Here is a great exploration of the role that faith, as an intellectual commitment, plays in the development and use of mathematics.
This is a really nice short video exploring the ‘miracle’ that mathematics works so well in explaining the real world, when it is not ‘real’ itself:
And here is the inimitable John Lennox, Professor of Mathematics at Oxford and apologist, on how and why faith and maths converge for him: