Tuesday, July 20, 2010


My math skills are a running joke in my family. I found an old SRA test from third or fourth grade, and I scored in the 7th percentile. I never learned my times tables. I remember trying to memorize them, a few stuck. But I didn't know what I was memorizing. They were just random numbers to me. I took the college prep math courses in high school and I think I may have even managed a B- one semester. That had to be in geometry which made a bit more sense. The Algebra was like Greek.

The first math course I ever liked was Euclidean and Non-Euclidean Geometry my senior year in college. I had a great professor and the benefit of three and a half years of liberal arts education, you bet I waited until the last possible moment to fulfill that requirement. The professor required no prerequisite knowledge but asked us to use logic to figure out the proofs. I had my first glimpse at the Incredibly wonderful world of math.

When my oldest was five, one morning at the breakfast table he asked, "What is three plus three plus three? Is it nine?"' "Why yes" I answered after quickly using my fingers to check. "What is three plus three plus three plus three? Is it twelve?" "yes, why do you ask?" With a shrug he answered, "I don't know, I just think about it when I go to bed at night."

We were doing kindergarten math, but I decided to skip subtraction for awhile and move on to multiplication since he was interested in it. I quickly learned that if I asked him, "What is Three times Two?" He would answer, "Five." But if I asked him, "What is three two TIMES?" "He would answer, "six." Oh, so that is what the times tables are. I am sure I knew this, but to see how the changing of one word made it clear to a five year old made it clear to me. It became clearer when I would watch him double the answer to four times six to get the answer to eight times six.

Having taught math to a math kid for four years, I have learned a lot. Watching how his mind calculates and figures things out has shown me the incredible order of math. No longer just random numbers, I see patterns, lines stretching infinitely in two directions, parts of wholes and wholes made out of parts. He of course hates math. But because of him, I have come to love it.

I have always believed that because the Universe was created by God, everything in the universe could tell us something about Him. From an ant hill to the genetic make up of a human being to the rotations of the planets, we can catch a glimpse of who He is. I have never believed that anything, not even the Incarnated Word, could teach us everything about Him. Though the human mind is amazing beyond anything else in the Universe, it can never fully grasp the Divine in its entirety. I think if it did, it would explode into a million pieces. Perhaps this is why we enter His presence first as pure spirit.

I have just read an incredible article in this month's edition of First Things titled "The God of Mathematicians." In it, David P. Goldman reviews the work of Kurt Godel. Much of it is over my head, I admit. But one thing struck me as incredibly wonderful. "Godel's incompleteness theorems, critique of the continuum hypothesis, and examination of general relativity all have theological implications...He considered mathematical objects to be real and his research therefore to be empirical. He thought his theology thus to be an empirical one, founded on man's experience of the infinite fecundity of the creator's mind."

Godel believed in a personal God. According to Goldman, "Godel's personal God is under no obligation to behave in a predictable orderly fashion...we cannot construct an ontology that makes God dispensable. Secularists can dismiss this as a mere exercise within predefined rules of the game of mathematical logic, but that is sour grapes, for it was the secular side that hoped to substitute logic for God in the first place. Godel's critique of the continuum hypothesis has the same implications as his incompleteness theorems: Mathematics never will create the sort of closed system that sorts reality into neat boxes."

As I worked with my four year old this morning on math, it occurred to me that our's is a ten based system. How ingenious that we also have ten digits. From laying in bed and thinking about threes, to seeing how many different ways we can arrange our fingers, our Good God has given us so much to work with. But in the end, not even math can tell us everything about God. As human beings who can never truly know another human being, how many of us ever even master a decent self-knowledge, can we ever hope to master the Divine?

No, but our God has not left us to be bored. To contemplate the human mind's capacity to search for Him is to me the greatest sign of His existence. We could each spend one hundred life times searching a different part of His Universe and still not find all He has left for us to discover. And sadly, we could spend our one lifetime never looking for Him at all.

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