Math and Theology

By Wendy Alsup

(Disclaimer: The views expressed by guest authors do not necessarily reflect those of GodandMath.com. Guest articles are sought after for the purpose of bringing more diverse viewpoints to the topics of mathematics and theology. The point is to foster discussion. To this end respectful and constructive comments are highly encouraged.)

Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.

– Galileo Galilei

This week a student who loves God but struggled with math wrote me wondering what in the world I meant when I linked math and theology. So this is a word of encouragement to her and others on the value of sticking with it. Regardless of the value of math, not everyone will find it easy. This post is not intended to make anyone feel bad if math is hard for them.

I know as a veteran math teacher that few people are ambivalent on math. Some people love it. But many, many people had their worst experiences in high school or college in or around a math course. I’ve often thought that the main problem with math classes is that they are too often taught by people who never struggled with math. When math has only ever come easy for a math teacher, it’s hard to identify with a 9th grader who tears up at the site of a beginning algebra problem.

The most formative moment in my training to become a math teacher came while taking a horrible course called Numerical Analysis my senior year of college. I remember sitting in my dorm, studying notes for another class. I happened to look up and catch a glimpse through the front doors of my Numerical Analysis classroom across the street. I immediately burst into tears. Just looking at the classroom caused panic. My first or second year teaching Algebra, it dawned on me that some of my students felt the exact same way about my math classroom.

For a long time, I did math because it was easier for me than, say, English. I could never figure out what English teachers wanted from me, but in math, there was a right answer to every problem. However at some point, I needed a better reason for spending my life teaching math than the fact it came relatively easy to me. I loved God. I loved His creation. Over time, I started to see how fundamental math was to uncovering and appreciating the nuances of God’s very complicated creation.

Math is a symbolic representation of a real concept. 2 + 3 = 5. But really, it started out as 2 fish plus 3 fish equals 5 fish or something like that. Non-math people often hate word problems, yet word problems are the culmination of the most useful aspects of math. We take some real problem in life we want to figure out. We assign the various parts of the problem numbers and symbols. Then we drop all the words and manipulate the numbers and symbols. Voila! We reach an answer, and we can attach back to the symbolic answer it’s real world meaning. That’s the power of math.

In Genesis 1, God creates His perfect world and crowns it with the creation of man and woman in His image. He then gives them the great task of subduing the earth, having dominion over it. “My creation has gravity, but you can subdue it. My creation has deep oceans, but you can have dominion over them. It has wind, and you can harness it for power. It has fruit trees. You can harvest the seeds and plant them where you wish.” This simple command from God is the foundation of all that is good and right in science, physics, biology, and so forth. And every Genesis-inspired scientific discovery and advance in technology is dependent on some form of mathematics. Fruit trees are planted in parallel rows, spaced evenly apart. Rockets follow the path of a quadratic equation. Ships displace water based on their volume and shape. We take a real problem, assign it numbers and symbols, manipulate it, and discover an answer that unlocks yet another piece of God’s creation for our use.

My all time favorite intersection of math and theology is chaos theory and fractal geometry. These are newer branches of mathematics that give particular insight into the wonder of the mind of God and His incredible creation. Studies in these fields involve millions of numeric calculations we’d never do by hand and have taken off in the last few decades with advances in computer science. The resulting observations point to the existence of mathematical order behind seemingly random events in the Universe. Chaos Theory actually supports, not weakens, the belief in the great Engineer Who planned the Universe and set it in motion governed by mathematical principles.

Contrary to the connotations implied by its name, chaos theory does not eradicate the possibility of order. It does not serve to propagate notions of chaos. Chaos theory is really a science about finding organization in seemingly complex systems. It serves to find order in disorder.

(Library.advanced.org/12170; A. Davenport, S. Kraynak, B. Timko)

Consider this simple illustration of chaos theory. It’s called the Sierpinski Triangle and is an example of finding order in events that seem to be random. Draw a triangle, and pick a point anywhere outside of the triangle. Then arbitrarily pick one of the corners of the triangle (it’s important that the corner chosen be completely random). Find the middle between the first point and that corner. Then mark that as the next point. Repeat this process again and again. The points you plot seem random, but if you plotted 1000 points, you’d begin to see a pattern. Eventually you’d see that all of the points fall into the pattern shown here.

You can play it and see the progression from random dots to clear pattern for yourself here.

God and theology tend to make sense when we see the natural order of creation, when things work as they should, governed by known forces of the Universe. It’s the random, unpredictable events in life that cause us to question God. It’s the chaos. I remember the first time I played the chaos game on that unsophisticated German website. I did it one at a time, but that took too long. Then 10 at a time, but I didn’t have the patience for that one either. It was playing 100 at a time that I started to see it. I was stunned, because the spiritual implications were immediately obvious. Order out of chaos. Meaning out of random nonsense.

The Sierpinski Triangle gave me perspective on Romans 8:28:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.

Ephesians 1 speaks similarly. Before time began, God had a coherent, clear plan for you and I in Christ. But life appears so random at times, so chaotic. Yet, we have been chosen and our destiny set in motion “according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11).”

Hudson Taylor said it this way.

Learn to think of God as the One Great Circumstance in Whom we live and move and have our being—and all other circumstances as necessarily the wisest, kindest, and best because either ordained or permitted by Him.

Forget math. It’s served its purpose in my heart now. It pointed me to God. Now I’m just in awe of His sovereignty …

The lot is cast into the lap, But its every decision is from the LORD.

– Proverbs 16:33

Wendy Alsup is the author of the site Practical Theology for Women. She is also the author of two books: Practical Theology for Women: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in Our Daily Lives and By His Wounds You Are Healed: how the message of Ephesians transforms a woman’s identity. Wendy is a wife and mom who happens to love math and theology. She occasionally speaks at women’s events, and worships at a small presbyterian church in Seattle.

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