The Gospel of Math

Repost 2014 in honor of today’s feast

I used to have a t-shirt back in college that had this on the back:

I wish I had it again.

A physics professor I had in college once said, “If there is a God, his native language is math.” Adam Drozdek, in his Beyond Infinity: Augustine and Cantor, gave me my first deeper initiation into the frightening idea. He says:

To summarize, there are three important aspects of Augustine’s discussion of the problem of infinity. First, infinity is an inborn concept which enables any knowledge. Second, infinity can be found in the purest form in mathematics, and thus mathematics is the best tool of acquiring knowledge about God. Third, God is neither finite nor infinite and his greatness surpasses even the infinite. Augustine is original in combining these three aspects in his philosophy; some of them can be found in other philosophers and theologians, but also in mathematicians.

God’s infinity is of a higher magnitude, an infinity of different kind. God is able to comprehend [the sequence of all] infinities, as he is above infinity, he is the Absolute. His infinity is above all possible temporal (and spatial) infinity; it is an infinity of infinities, whose magnitude can be dimly imagined by means of mathematical infinity. It is an infinity of infinities also in that, as St. Augustine said in City of God, “all infinity is in some ineffable way made finite to God,” since no infinity is incomprehensible to God — he can count numbers without succession of thought. God is even able to count without numbers, which assumes that there is no number equal to the quantity of all numbers, that is, no number, to use modern parlance, expressing cardinality of integers (which is aleph zero). This is no hindrance to God who is able to see the entire sequence of numbers without looking at these numbers one by one. Infinity of these numbers can be grasped in one act of comprehension.

…The concept of infinity directs our eyes toward God, and in a sense the presence of infinity in us can be considered a proof of God’s existence: we, the finite and mutable beings, could not engender that concept ; who else could do it if not God? Also, infinity in us can be appreciated and known best through mathematics, through analysis of numbers. In that sense the existence of numbers can be considered a more fundamental proof of God than cosmological argument – since the world would not exist without numbers – and teleological argument – since the design and order in the world can be recognized only through numbers, since order and design are due only to numbers. Therefore, although ontological proof, announced already in Psalm 19:1 that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” has always been considered most important, Augustine could consider mathematical proof as the most fundamental: God exists since the number and infinity exist in our mind.

As a friend of mine aptly phrases it, reading Drozdek makes me feel like a dog watching TV: engrossed but uncomprehending.

With an eye to inciting some additional wonder, let me share two videos about math related to theological thinking. The first, about 4 minutes long, posits that the mind of God is mathematically, and so musically, inclined. The second, which my oldest son sent me, is about 9 minutes long and offers a persuasive approach to “falling in love with math.” I could never imagine such a thing. After watching it, I was convinced also that the speaker held a golden key to an effective catechesis seeking to awaken love in a people grown bored with (what they think is) Christianity. In St. Augustine’s Catholicism, faith-thinking is also good thinking that helps us navigate a world rife with fallacious reasonings. Faith opens to us an intelligible world in which faith and reason beat their wings in harmony, allowing our minds to soar in contemplating a world stamped by the mind of God, the divine Logos.

In the beginning was the Word [ho Logos],
and the Word was with God,
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God;
all things were made through him,
and without him was not anything made that was made. — John 1:1-3

My son commented on this last video, “This is totally how the Church should approach its messaging.” Yes.



11 comments on “The Gospel of Math

  1. cg says:

    This bible verse gave me permission to cry, once. My doctor knew I was hanging on, but needed to cry.

  2. Monica says:

    Reblogged this on Carpe Veritatem and commented:

  3. robert says:

    As a sub-teacher at a Catholic seventh grade in response to “Math is the language of GOD” one student exclaimed in horror, “you mean we have to do math in Heaven!”

  4. Dismas Dancing says:

    I’m reasonably good at numbers, but horrible at math–IF that makes any sense. For me, the quotes you use in your post re the “infiniteness” of God’s “ability” to do anything in the infinite allows me the comfort of shrugging my shoulders and thinking, “It’s ALL Greek to me!”

    Had I known you were giving a retreat and had it been open to me, I would have sold everything to attend. Alas! it wasn’t to be. This weekend our parish is conducting an ACTS retreat and I am “on team”. I ask the grace of your prayers and those who follow you that each of us, team and retreatants, rediscover the infinte good that is Our God and the beauty of abandoning our lives to Him in the ultimate act of trust. We will have the largest number of attendees our parish has experienced since we began conducting them almost four years ago. Each of us will have an opportunity to enrich our lives in ways we have either ignored or forgotten over the years, returning to our “normal” lives having experienced a true life-changing event.

    Thanks for all you do. You shall be in my prayers.

    Peace and God’s blessings to you and all!

  5. nos. says:

    And I hand the cashier ten dollars for a ten dollar purchase,, my change is??????? You guessed it …. no sense ….. oops cents,,, no cents .. Dear D.D. I’m Greek and its polish to me too. Hey I’m quite content knowing 1+1=3 no pulling the wool over my eyes. That’s sheep’s wool by the way .P.B.W.Y ALL.

  6. Jennifer says:

    Oh. My. Goodness.
    From the videos:
    “Math loves being useless… It’s a badge of honour – being useless” (all the best things are useless – the Eucharist, falling in love…)
    “The mind of God is cosmic music of strings resonating through eleven-dimensional hyperspace.”
    “The essence of mathematics lies in its freedom…without mathematics there is no freedom.”
    “This is the coolest stuff in the world.” Yes! Yes! Yes!

    My heartbeat quickened when I saw the title of this post and by the time I got through the second video it was pounding out of my chest with the thrill. “Math is God’s native language?” Well, it’s mine too! I think inherently in numbers and patterns and I even tend to understand words and languages by trying to mathematize them… I can’t explain that, sorry. I will fixate on a seemingly random print forever – couch fabric, the texture of bricks, anything in my daily world – and I will not rest until I can discern some underlying method or reasoning, some code, some pattern, some secret message in the jumble from the maker of the pattern. My ceiling, when I was a newly-wed grad student was tiled, each square tile had one of maybe 6 or 8 patterns, and there was a definite directionality to each tile – a top and a bottom if you will – and some of the tiles were turned side-ways and it kept me up many a night trying to figure out what the tile-layer was thinking, for surely, someone who has the pleasure of installing these beautiful, whimsical tiles would surely take great joy and pleasure in arranging them orderly, with a purposeful pattern, would they not? Patterns are holy, you must treat them with reverence and not just be messy!!So, why these side-ways tiles? What were they telling me? what was the pattern? I did finally come up with some ideas that would explain about 97% of the ceiling and I would make an excuse that perhaps if you don’t count the tile space in which the lamp was hung, or if you account for the closet or the air-duct it would kinda work. Not totally satisfying but enough for me to take a quick glance before bed and fall asleep contented.

    When I was a kid I used to plan my walk across the room by the symmetry of the room and the number of my steps and even sometimes I would plan my words so that they would contain a certain number of letters distributed amidst another number of words. 25 letters in 5 words, so many possibilities, that was my favourite! I’d say weird things just to make it fit the letter-count. Other kids had favourite colours, animals, songs – I had favourite numbers, and as I grew in mathematical understanding my favourite grew in sophistication. from simple and familiar 2, 4, and 5 to more nuanced, more hidden in plain sight numbers like 6, 13, 17, then finally into my favourite functions and formulae.

    I spoke this language so fluently as a child and finally at some point, I guess when my interests in university led me away from calculus and towards other things I stopped speaking it as much and I lost a lot of it. I still live and breathe arithmetic, but the great literature of math is like a distant memory now. This morning I found myself mesmerized by an oval light fixture suspended by two posts and I was suddenly swept back to my favourite high school math class when we learned how to calculate parabola based on a and b. What was a again? What was b? What does it have to do with the distance between these two posts? I think I almost had it all figured out again, but alas. I couldn’t do it. So finally, this summer, I bought two huge comprehensive math textbooks and have resolved to finally re-familiarize myself with the great poetry of my native tongue .

    My favourite high-school math teacher, Mrs. Trew (sounds like True! How perfect for a math teacher!) taught the way that this teacher – Edward Frenkel – is advocating. She taught us to explore math in music and apply formula to transform sheet music with wonderful results. She taught us to figure out (literally) what a regular- 22-sided polyhedron ought to look like and how to build on. It was amazing! Oh, and she introduced us to fractals – if they do not fill you with the wonder of God’s astounding brilliant creativity, nothing will. Ah, fractals!

    I could go on and on of the wonders of numbers and how they filled my imagination and my world and kept me companion for most of my childhood, but I haven’t the time. But, oh, thank you so much for speaking deep into my soul this morning.

    For those of you who are not as math-nuts as me, but would like a pleasant introduction into seeing math through a math-brain’s eyes, check out: “The I Hate Mathematics Book” by Marilyn Burns. It is written to introduce children into the wonder of math around us. For those of you who are a bit braver (?) and would like to see a brilliant Christian math-mind whose goal is to explain how modern science and faith converge through the wonders of creation through astrophysics, and cellular biology I would love you to check out Dr. Hugh Ross’ “Reasons to Believe” website and resources at Utterly fascinating!

    Well, speaking of math, I am ramping back up for school this year, teaching at the most amazing school in the world, and the workload will be a huge shift to my schedule after the luxury of a contemplative summer. So, checking in here will have to become a very rare luxury to indulge in, so if you don’t see me commenting here it is because I am planning lessons, or marking papers, or feeding my kids, or washing their uniforms or fishing through that stack of paper to find the missing permission slip.

    I will pray for all of you. NOS, LP, DD, Dr.T., please know you are especially dear to me and I think of you often throughout the day. I will miss our conversations terribly. If you could pray for me every once in a while – or send me energy bars in the mail (just kidding)- I will be forever grateful and surely buoyed up by your intercession. Thank you so much for the friendship you have gifted me. I love you all! I will leave you with this C.S. Lewis quote on Friendship from “The Four Loves” (the words in square brackets are my own):

    “… But in friendship, being free of all that [that it is not ‘fate’ the way kinship chooses your family or even how ‘Cupid’s arrow’ dictates Eros], we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our birth, a few more miles between certain houses, the choice of one university instead of another, posting to different regiments, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting – any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples, ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, ‘ can truly say to every group of Christian friends: ‘You have not chosen one another, but I have chosen you for one another.’ The friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others. These are no greater that the beauties of all the others. They are no greater than the beauties of a thousand other men; by Friendship, God opens our eyes to them. They are, like all beauties, derived from Him, and then, in a good Friendship, increased by Him through the friendship itself, so that it is His instrument for creating as well as for revealing. At this feast it is He who has chosen the guests. It is He, we may dare to hope, who sometimes does, and always should, preside. Let us not reckon without our Host.”

  7. nos. says:

    Dearest ” small scale” say it ain’t so Joe…I’m sure you can carve out some time for us “”” J””” junkies. Ok I admit it it’s not only about me,,, I’m extremely selfish too… again joking aside… YOU GO TEACH!!!!!!! Get that ruler ready … wack!!! Sit up straight… P.B.W.Y. your family and students … hear you at thanksgiving…NOS

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