20th ACMS Conference

The 20th Association of Christians in the Mathematical Sciences (ACMS) conference began Monday with the first pre-conference session. This is the 3rd time that I have attended the ACMS Conference and I am always refreshed to spend time among mathematicians and educators who care so deeply about living out their faith in the discipline that God has called them to. My goal is to continually update this post throughout the week with insights gained or further thoughts raised during the week’s activities.

Conference Day 2

The day began with another excellent devotional from John Roe (who has graciously contributed his thoughts on GodandMath.com in the past). Personally, I feel blessed after every time I hear John Roe speak – he just has a way about him that seems infused with grace and deep spiritual understanding. John led us through Ephesians 3:14-19 with particular focus on the four dimensional analogy used by Paul:

For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Some of John’s points:

  • When thinking of the love of God, don’t think in abstractions. Think of the concrete. Think of the cross.
  • Wideness – if you fold your arms across your chest this is the typical position of religion; inclusive and safe. If you stretch your arms wide open this is the position of Christ on the cross.
  • Longness – (a dimension of time perhaps) God’s patience and love are endless. God’s love wins because it endures more than we do.
  • Highness – The son of Man was lifted up. Christ does not shrink from being on display in that shameful place; He doesn’t hide.
  • Deepness – How deep Christ went – down to earth, down to the grave. How deep in our own hearts are the places that He can reach. He went there and He proclaimed freedom there.

(NOTE: at this point parallel sessions began, so what follows is a recap of the talks I attended)

Annalisa Crannell spoke on “The God of Mathematics,” which is actually the title of an adult Sunday School class she led at her church. The emphasis of her class was not on what math proves about God but rather how math gives a metaphor for better understanding God. Metaphor is inherent in both faith (“you are the light of the world”) and mathematics (“populations is an exponential function of time”). Annalisa was able to get into some really deep and interesting mathematics and all in the context of equipping adults in her local church and drawing them into a deeper relationship with God. How cool is that?

Jim Bradley gave a talk on “Random Numbers and God’s Nature.” This was a snippet of a larger project on randomness and divine providence that Jim has been working on. I encourage you to explore Jim’s work in more detail as there is no way a paragraph summary here can do it justice. The basic idea: what if randomness is a part of God’s nature? DISCLAIMER: Here randomness is NOT defined as chance or fate or indifference. Randomness is this sense is defined in a technical sense as a number that is irreducible, cannot be generate by an algorithm, and is unpredictable. So for instance by this definition π is not random because it is predictable. However a string of 1’s and 0’s where each digit is determined by the flip of a coin (heads for one, tails for zero) would be random. A key math result is that almost all numbers are random – meaning patterns (that we so often as Christian mathematicians treat as being infused into the core of creation) are actually unusual (and therefore why they are so noticeable). If you take and Augustinian perspective of numbers being situated as a part of God’s nature then random numbers existed in the mind of God from eternity. Perhaps this idea might give us some insight in divine infinitude – God cannot be reduced to something finite, no linguistic description will ever be adequate, and God’s mystery is unfathomable. By mystery we don’t mean confusing, but rather infinite depth – it can be understood but never completely understood.

Jeremy case offered an excellent review of the book Mathematics without Apologies: Portrait of a Problematic Vocation. The ACMS produced a book called Mathematics in a Postmodern Age, and Jeremy suggested this book could be thought of as “A Postmodern Age in Mathematics.” This book (also written as a response to Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology) argues that mathematicians should seek more than the good, the true, and beautiful in mathematics – namely application. From a Christian perspective many of the arguments in the book are untenable. But as Jeremy astutely pointed out: the arguments are very strong for those not grounded in Christ, so this needs to be a work we pay attention to and a conversation that we engage in. We need more than application to be fruitful as mathematicians – we need to consider how we are not just apply mathematics but serving (both God and neighbor)  through that process.

John Roe, who led the devotional mentioned above, gave a talk on David and the census. The main idea: counting has ethical and moral significance. In this passage the simple act of gathering data (not even analyzing or applying it, but simply gathering it) is counted as a sin. The  background of David and the census can be found in Exodus 30:11-16. “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them…” You take something from a person when you count them. (My own aside: A question worth considering: what are the implications for this in our modern world with the way we treat people as numbers and data points?) John summarized three major lessons (for us as mathematicians) from this passage: 1) We are not purveyors of an ethically neutral technique, 2) Ethical decisions are implicit in the choice of what mathematical model is applied to, and 3) There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9) – even misused mathematics is redirected to worship – in reference to David purchasing the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite as a result of the punishment brought about the census, the future site of the temple.

Melvin Royer gave a great talk in which he rejuvenate the art of story telling, using mathematical examples as parables for teaching.

Conference Day 1

The official opening of the ACMS conference was led by ACMS President Troy Riggs. Troy gave some brief remarks before the opening keynote address, but the remarks were powerful reminders nonetheless. Troy challenged our western conception of truth and encouraged a more biblical view of truth: that truth is not something that we possess but it is something (someone) we follow.

In mathematics, as in faith, there is the reality of the tension between immanence and transcendence; and these are not necessarily two opposite ends of a spectrum. For instance π seems so straightforward and immanent: the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. But π has such surprising depth, being classified as a transcendental number and even popping up in places like equations for normal distributions in statistics. From the opposite perspective, something like a 4D hypercube seems initially so abstract and transcendent. Yet one can quickly come to see the pattern of properties as they extend from 2D to 3D to 4D and we find that a 4D hypercube is quite easy to work with mathematically (very immanent).

This is why the ACMS logo draws heavily on Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus. Dali saw the unfolding of a 4D hypercube into 3D space as the perfect representation for communicating the mystery of the transcendent God coming down to be immanently present in creation at the cross.

The opening keynote address was given by Matthew Dickerson on “Can Computers Reason.” I must admit that I was so wrapped up in his presentation that I did not take nearly enough notes to even paraphrase his talk here. But he was speaking on many ideas set forth in his book The Mind and the Machine which I would highly recommend exploring. Here is a brief summary from Amazon:

What does it mean to be human? Some naturalists believe that the human mind can be reduced to brain biology, suggesting that we are no more than complex biochemical machines. Computer scientist Matthew Dickerson critiques a physicalist/naturalist view of human persons and defends theistic accounts of human nature. He responds to the widespread assertion that human consciousness is nothing more than “software” that can one day be downloaded into supercomputers. Drawing on C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, Dickerson gets at the heart of human nature itself, highlighting a far richer vision of personhood, creativity, and love. This thought-provoking book on a timely topic will appeal to those interested in science and religion, philosophy, and technology; readers of the materialist New Atheists; and anyone who simply cares what it means to be human.

Pre-Conference Day 3

The day began with the morning devotional by Matt DeLong. As with yesterday’s devotional, the words seemed to speak truth and aptly apply to every conversation had throughout the day. Matt took us to John 1:35-38 where we see perhaps the first question asked by Jesus during his adult ministry: “what do you want?” This is not asked in an offensive way as is typical today, but He is genuinely leading eager disciples to examine their heart if they are to follow Him.

Psalm 37:4 states: “Delight yourself in the Lordand he will give you the desires of your heart.” Often we have a tendency to read this as God will give us what we want if we follow Him. Perhaps a better way of thinking of it: God will shape the desires of your heart – He will give you the right desires to have in life in you first delight in Him. 

Matt then quoted from Dorothy Sayers “Why Work?”:

Work is not, primarily, a thing one does to live, but the thing one lives to do. It is, or it should be, the full expression of the worker’s faculties, the thing in which he finds spiritual, mental and bodily satisfaction, and the medium in which he offers himself to God.

Ephesians 2:10 (from the Message paraphrase):

Now God has us where he wants us, with all the time in this world and the next to shower grace and kindness upon us in Christ Jesus. Saving is all his idea, and all his work. All we do is trust him enough to let him do it. It’s God’s gift from start to finish! We don’t play the major role. If we did, we’d probably go around bragging that we’d done the whole thing! No, we neither make nor save ourselves. God does both the making and saving. He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing.

Matt then closed with an excellent prayer for vocation from Garber’s Visions of Vocation cited on Day 1 (I’m going to have to go read this book now).

There was then an excellent small group session that I was a part of with other gradate students receiving advice from those who had gone before us.

  • Excellent reminder that the job of teaching is infinite, but we are only finite. Here it would be appropriate to read/listen to Francis Su’s talk “The Lesson of Grace in Teaching.”
  • Reminder that it is ok to identify yourself as Christian in a secular university – especially to be clear to students how this impacts them: that you see every student as important and having inherent worth apart from grades.
  • Teaching in a Christian or public school may just changes the ways in which your faith is emphasized in those contexts. At a Christian school you are called more to discipleship. At a public school you are called more to being missional. (Though both discipleship and mission happen in both contexts).

Pre-Conference Day 2

(Disclaimer: there was a ton of great information shared today. A TON. What is below is just a brief rundown and doesn’t do the day’s presentations and conversations justice. Perhaps at a later date, after some mental processing, I will give a fuller treatment.)

The day began with a devotional led by Anthony Tongen. The focus was on Ephesians 4:1-6:

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, zone baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

I had always read this passage and considered the “calling” that Paul was speaking of a purely spiritual calling – describing the life we are meant to lead as Christ followers. This is undoubtedly true, but it is also so much more than that. Seeing this as only a spiritual calling falls into the error of dualism as mentioned on day 1; the error of thinking that the spiritual life and our vocational life are separate things. Paul is urging us to walk worthily of God’s holistic calling on our life. Teaching is one profession outside of ministry that commonly is referred to as a calling. So what does it look like to be God-honoring in or vocation as mathematics teachers? To teach with humility, gentleness, patience, love, etc. God is sovereign over all of life and He calls us to walk worthily at every moment of that life.

Matt DeLong expanded on this more during a session on family life and faculty life. In Garber’s Vision of Vocation, cited on Day 1, he defines vocation as what you are called to be as a human being before the face of God. It is not just a job. As Paul would say, it is a calling. (Side note: the school where I teach has the school motto of Coram Deo which is Latin for “Before the face of God” – I love my school. A lot.)

Matt also pointed us to some sage advice on work/life balance from Drexel University:

  • You have only one life.  Nobody gets a “work life” and a “home life” – don’t expect to separate the two.  The best you can get is one life that is somewhat balanced, at any given time, between competing needs and desires.
  • What one person considers success may not be success for you.  Try not to get caught up in other people’s goals – what’s right for you is what is consistent with your values and priorities.  Get your values clear first – then think about how to get where you want to go.
  • Men and women in academics tend to be highly motivated, and the same thing that makes them want to do an excellent job academically makes them want to do an excellent job in all areas of their life, including rearing children.  Excellence in everything is impossible– do as good a job as possible with what you have, recognizing that perfection in all things, all the time, is impossible.

The best from that list in my opinion: there is no “work life” and “home life.” If the passage from Ephesians makes anyting clear it is that God has called us to ONE life.

Maria Zack then led an excellent session examining the four areas of scholarship offered under the Boyer model, as explained in Faith and Learning cited on Day 1. This is helpful for academic faculty in terms of narrowing a definition of how faith impacts their scholarship.

  • Scholarship of Discovery
    • Narrowing focus to one isolated part of reality to examine its complexity
    • What one would normally associate with typical research
  • Scholarship of Integration
    • How multiple aspects of reality work together
    • This is where the faith integration conversation happens
  • Scholarship of Application
    • Takes seriously the mandate of creation’s interconnectedness
    • works to close the gap between the academy and the real world
    • also referred to as the scholarship of engagement (side note: I love this way of discussing service-learning for my students; not just some side project, but the scholarship of engaging with the discipline and the community)
  • Scholarship of Teaching
    • Focus on the means/ways of handing down knowledge, faith, wisdom, and wonder (I love that wonder is included in this description) across the fragile bonds of connection that link different cultures and successive generations to each other.

Other nuggets of wisdom from today:

When working with students in research, you don’t have to know all of the answers. You just bring more experience to the table in planning to solve the problems.

Derek Schuurman encouraged us in exploring perspectival research (i.e. Christian perspective on mathematics…hey, someone should start a website on that). Why everyone doesn’t pursue this route of research is that we feel inadequate – no one can be both a theologian and philosopher and mathematician and whatever else you want to add (this reference reminded me a lot of Bob Brabenec’s paper on the founding of ACMS which frames my Background page). Derek made the observation that all perspectival research is by nature amateur, but God has called us to it. So how do we achieve it? See the Ephesians passage the opened the day – this turned into a nice passage that really framed all of the discussion from Day 2.

Maria Zack: Being a scholar earns you a voice. However, we as Christians view our voice in the academy very differently that others might. We should be reminded of the quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always. When necessary, use words.” That is the voice we are to have as Christian scholars.

Derek Schuurman citing Donald Knuth: we are users, not developers of theology. Use theology to engage the guild. Perhaps not citing Christ explicitly, but challenging the guild to consider the major questions of the discipline. (Side Note: this is the main idea behind my upcoming article in Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith entitled “Cultivating Mathematical Affections: The Influence of Christian Faith on Mathematics Pedagogy.” It is a call for Christian math educators to engage the discussion in math education on how we shape/form student character and affections through our teaching of mathematics.)

Pre-Conference Day 1

Opening session on faith integration led by Derek Schuurman.

Tertullian once asked “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” This is a succinct way of asking what all of us who are interested in doing mathematics and education Christianly are always wondering – what does our faith have to do with our vocation? There is not a quick and easy answer to this. In fact, I believe God desires for us to wrestle with this question constantly for our entire lives, and as we do we begin to gain some insights…which then lead to more questions…which lead to more insights….which lead to you get the idea. I believe that our growth in faith in our profession within the academy is a vital component of our spiritual sanctification; it is God’s refining process in our lives leading us more and more to His perspective. Derek did a great job of touching on this as well as just setting the stage for how we even go about having the the conversation on integrating faith with learning.

Derek outlined five approaches to Christian Scholarship:

  1. Dualism: Jerusalem has nothing to do with Athens
  2. Christian Education = Christians Educating
  3. Christianizing the discipline (i.e. throwing in a Bible verse here and there)
  4. Biblicism – seeing the Bible as an authoritative text on mathematics and science
  5. Holistic Christian Scholarship (probably not hard to guess that this is what we are aiming for)

On #3 vs. #5 an apt quote from Luther: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.”

There is a tension between what Derek referred to as structure and direction. Structure is what God built into the universe, the results of the “let there be”‘s. Direction is how we as humans are directing those structures that God has given us stewardship over. We have to always consider if we are directing them towards God or away from Him? Are we exploring mathematics and creating technology in a way that is honoring to God or in a way that is opposed to His will and lifts up the created above the Creator?

Mathematics a discipline is the study of the numerical and spatial aspects of creation. Mathematics can also be seen as culture making (nod to Andy Crouch). It is a tool for stewardship. It offers beauty and delight. It is inseparable from the concept of naming that holds such great Biblical significance.

A Biblical perspective of mathematics: apply biblical themes to guide us with mathematics. How mathematics fits in the grand narrative of creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

Recommended Books:

Faith and Learning: A Practical Guide for Faculty, by Patrick Allen and Kenneth Badley

Called to the Life of the Mind: Some Advice for Evangelical Scholars, by Richard Mouw

The Idea of a Christian College: A Reexamination for Today’s University, by Todd Ream and Perry Glanzer

The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life, by Parker Palmer

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good, by Steven Garber

Gordon Spykman’s lecture on “Scripture, Faith, and Science.” (info on Spykman by GodandMath contributor Steve Bishop)

Parting quote from Spykman: Nothing matters but the kingdom, but because of the kingdom, everything matters.

The Form of Teaching Matters

A recent article in the Economist entitled “Falling Away” stated the following

Just one extra year of schooling makes someone 10% less likely to attend a church, mosque or temple, pray alone or describe himself as religious, concludes a paper published on October 6th that looks at the relationship between religiosity and the length of time spent in school. Its uses changes in the compulsory school-leaving age in 11 European countries between 1960 and 1985 to tease out the impact of time spent in school on belief and practice among respondents to the European Social Survey, a long-running research project.

By comparing people of similar backgrounds who were among the first to stay on longer, the authors could be reasonably certain that the extra schooling actually caused religiosity to fall, rather than merely being correlated with the decline. During those extra years mathematics and science classes typically become more rigorous, points out Naci Mocan, one of the authors—and increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe.

This article summarizes the results of a paper “Compulsory schooling laws and formation of beliefs: education, religion and superstition”, by Naci Mocan and Luiza Pogorelova. National Bureau of Economic Research, October 2014.

There are a number of things of interest in this report. On one level there is the analysis of the impact of schooling on religious belief that speaks to the impact of the formational power educational institutions have on all aspects of our lives, not just our cognitive growth. On another level is the fact that the authors of this report use mathematical and statistical analysis to report their findings and communicate the message that “school causes religiosity to fall” (emphasis added).

In regards to that second level, I make it a point to teach my AP Stats students that correlation does not imply causation. We even have some fun looking at spurious correlations put together by tylervigen.com. That fact is that from a statistical perspective causation has nothing do with the results of the study, but rather the design of the study. The results of this particular study are achieved through the European Social Survey, which is an observational study, thereby lacking the control/treatment groups necessary to conclude causation.

So then, if the researchers are reporting that they believe school causes religiosity to fall, it is because they want the data to indicate that. That fact should be very instructive to us as Christian educators: there is no way to separate your worldview from mathematics, in this case the interpretation of data analysis. Our students need to be brought up with an understanding that this is largely how the discipline of statistics is undertaken, especially in studies reported on in popular media. My hope and prayer is that my students will be more thoughtful consumers of data – that they would have both the Christian wisdom and the statistical tools to truly understand what a study is trying to communicate.

Returning to the first level, that of recognizing the formative power of educational institutions, I would like to share the thoughts of Albert Mohler as he addressed the article on his Briefing Podcast.

This report makes no distinction between the impact of education and the impact of school, now that’s a crucial issue. Those are two different things. Education is about learning, school is about the institutional context in which that takes place. I think there is no reason to doubt that the longer one is in one of the secular school systems of Europe the less likely one is to be referenced as a believer. But the big issue here that isn’t even confronted in this story is the fact that those schools, those institutional contexts, become the very engines for the secularism their here trying to report on and trying to track and measure.

I recently completed a course in my doctoral studies on curriculum development and Dr. Mohler makes a point that seemed to be the theme of my course: there is a difference between schooling and education. Much of what we refer today as education, is really just schooling – the day to day routines and practices of an institutions – and that schooling is what shapes us at a deeper level than simply informing us on what we need to know. I believe Dr. Mohler is right in pointing out that the institutional contexts of education are driving secularism rather than the content that is taught.

The article indicates that as mathematics and science classes become more rigorous, increased exposure to analytical thinking may weaken the tendency to believe. I have written before about the myth of critical thinking in mathematics and I believe that applies here. I truly feel that any mathematician who is honest will tell you that as rigor and analytical thinking increase, the need to believe actually deepens, not weakens. I have even heard this point made by mathematicians who are decidedly not Christian. The more we learn the more we realize what we don’t know, what we can’t know, and we gain a deeper appreciation of the beauty and mystery of the discipline of mathematics.

As Christian educators I hope that what we take from this article is the realization that the form of teaching matters. The practices, routines, and habits of the classroom and the school at large go farther in impacting students than the content that we attempt to pass along. This notion forms the basis of my forthcoming dissertation, so I anticipate writing about it in much greater detail in the months to come. For now let me close with a quote from James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom which has gone a long way in shaping my thoughts on this issue of education v. schooling:

Education is not primarily a heady project concerned with providing information; rather, education is most fundamentally a matter of formation, a task of shaping and creating a certain kind of people. What makes them a distinctive kind of people is what they love or desire – what they envision as “the good life” or the ideal picture of human flourishing. An education, then, is a constellation of practices, rituals, and routines that inculcates a particular vision of the good life by inscribing or infusing that vision into the heart (the gut) by means of material, embodied practices. And this will be true even of the most instrumentalist, pragmatic programs of education (such as those that now tend to dominate public schools and universities bent on churning out “skilled workers”) that see their task primarily as providing information, because behind this is a vision of the good life that understands human flourishing primarily in terms of production and consumption. Behind the veneer of a “value-free” education concerned with providing skills, knowledge, and information is an educational vision that remains formative. There is no neutral, nonformative education; in short, there is no such thing as a “secular” education.

I have a forthcoming article entitled “Cultivating Mathematical Affections: The Influence of Christian Faith on Mathematics Pedagogy,” that will be published in a Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith theme issue on the matter of mathematics that goes into more depth on this topic. I will link to it and share some more thoughts here once it publishes, but for now, I would love to hear your thoughts.

2 + 2 = Jesus?

I think I understand the author's intentions... but that is just an awful title.
I think I understand the author’s intentions… but that is just an awful title.

Whenever I talk about my passion for the integration of Christian faith and the study of mathematics, the typical response is one of confusion. I can tell immediately that the listener is going to a place in their head where they envision the arithmetic lessons from elementary school somehow combined with the Bible stories from Sunday school – where the answer to every question (even 2+2) was always “Jesus.” When the listener can no longer contain the awkwardness of this mental image they eventually blurt out something along the lines of “How can 2 + 2 = 4 (or insert other trivial math problem) be Christian?”

Where the Question Originates

In a weird way this reasoning process and questioning makes sense to me. It makes sense because in my years as a math major/tutor/teacher/Ph.D. student whenever I might have occasion to interact with the general public on the issue of what it is I do, the one inquiring of me would typically respond by boasting in their ignorance – “You’re a math teacher? That’s great. I was never any good at math.” I’m quite certain no other profession receives that response. “You’re a dentist? That’s great. I never floss… You’re a lawyer? That’s great. I steal my neighbor’s newspaper everyday.” Um, I just met you, but thank you for that confession.

Though other professions may not get as blatant of a response as math teachers, I do think there is a social tendency of politeness to try and interact as best you can with whomever you may be speaking. This tendency causes people to revert back to their earliest point of connection with the subject at hand. So I may not be a dentist or a lawyer but I do have a shared experience of extra years of schooling for my profession (plus I also brush my teeth…and have seen a lot of “Law & Order.” A lot). For mathematics, the earliest shared experience that the average person feels comfortable reverting back to is arithmetic. Occasionally someone may have had calculus and remembers a bit even though they “don’t use it anymore” or someone may mention their experience of geometry (since that is one of the specific subjects that I teach). But in general, a common baseline across America is Math = Arithmetic.

I also believe, from my years of experience as a Christian, that the baseline across America is Christianity = something roughly akin to the rigid Sunday school classroom experience. Maybe this is because the number of those who leave the church as they grow older is heartbreakingly large, leading to a large population who only experienced Christianity as a child in Sunday school, I don’t know. Regardless I think there is a general impression that we Christians are those who read the Bible and believe that Jesus is the answer to every question, without question.  Who fed the 5,000? Jesus. Who saved the animals on the ark? Jesus. Who discovered America? Jesus. Perhaps this is an overly dramatized rendering of the general perception of Christians, but I do believe that by in large we aren’t viewed as very academically sound thinkers.

Put together the general societal experience with mathematics and the general societal view of Christianity and it isn’t hard to see where the question “How can 2 + 2 = 4 be Christian?” My ultimate response to this question is the following: it’s a bad question. You may have had a teacher that told you there are no bad questions. They were being polite. There are bad questions and there are two things specifically that make this a bad question: 1) it misunderstands the nature of mathematics as arithmetical calculations and 2) it misunderstands the gospel of Christianity as an intellectual endeavor.

Responding to the Question – Math is More than Calculations

With the dental/legal analogy above I have already hinted at the fallacy of associating an entire field of study with one basic component of that field. There is obviously more that goes into being a dentist than brushing teeth and there is obviously more that goes into being a lawyer than emulating Sam Waterston. I don’t think any honest person would believe that all there is to math is arithmetic. I do think that a lot of honest people believe that all there is to math is calculations – so like arithmetic, just more complicated.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. I am personally at a point as a student where I can’t remember the last math class I was in where they asked me to do calculations. And while I certainly do teach calculation methods to my high school students, I would be a horrible math teacher if my only concern for them was that they be able to memorize algorithms for completing calculations and solving equations. In fact, if that was the job description then I would be in a different profession (youngest general manager in Atlanta Braves history).

The vast majority of my time as a math teacher is spent trying to get students to think logically/rationally/creatively/independently – not algorithmically. I want them to be able to solve problems like sustainable energy, human trafficking or world hunger – problems whose solutions are not numbers that can be arrived at by way of a memorized formula or a graphing calculator. They need math to solve those problems and any other problem of importance that they can imagine. It is my job (and my passion) to get them to see that. Math is everywhere. Math is pervasively engrained in the both the physical and social structure of the world around us and it is equally as pervasive in rational processes of the human mind as we attempt to explore, understand, appreciate, and communicate knowledge of anything around us. Math is more than calculations.

Responding to the Question – Christianity is More than Thinking

Christianity is always more than thinking, but never less.

– Neil Tomba, Senior Pastor, Northwest Bible Church, Dallas, TX

Christianity is more than thinking; it is more than an intellectual endeavor. Christianity is more than learning new facts and being able to give new answers/responses to the questions of the world. The gospel is transformative of the whole person, not just of the intellect. Beyond that, the gospel of Jesus Christ is transformative of all of creation. When rightly understood, the gospel is a message about the redemption of something that is broken – broken people in a broken world – not just fixing our mental understanding to be correct. Sin is a horrible thing. It is much more than wrongful actions that we commit. Sin seeps down into our souls, perverting our intentions, decaying our physical body, and spreading through all humanity into the creation we were designed to oversee. Sin is not a thing that we do, sin is a thing that we are. Sin is pervasive.

“But where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more” (Romans 5:20). In other words, if sin is pervasive then grace is not only pervasive but also prevalent, permeating, extensive, all-inclusive, boundless, unrestricted, and inescapable. The gospel changes everything about us to the core of our being in more ways than we can even comprehend. To think that applying Christian faith to mathematics implies there is a “Christian” way of computing calculations and a “non-Christian” is to vastly underestimate the message of the gospel.

In sum, I believe my students need math to solve any meaningful problem that they will encounter in life. I also believe that the greatest problem that they will encounter is that of their own sin nature. It is only by experiencing the full grace of God that my students will ever have a proper perspective on themselves and the world around them. Through this lens, deep beyond the surface level of life, is where I hope my students will explore the integration of mathematics with their Christian faith.

I believe that this is how mathematics is done Christianly. Though it is admittedly a longer answer anyone I may be exchanging introductions with would be expecting. Maybe their response can now be “Um, I just met you, but thank you for that confession.”

UPDATE:

After posting I received a very insightful comment from Scott Eberle that I wanted to include within the body of the post in hopes that it would be seen by more people. My hope is that you can look forward to more contributions from Scott in the future. Enjoy.

The only part I wonder about is where you write “They need math to solve those problems.” Students certainly do need math to solve these very real and very Christian problems. I agree that it is right to have math courses center around these problems so that students never lose sight of the use of math in the real world. But I wonder if this does not also leave the impression that math is just a neutral tool for solving problems, that the Christian aspect resides in the use to which math is put rather than math itself.

I think I often separate in my mind pure math from applied math, though in practice they go hand in hand together. You give a beautiful description of how applied math is used to solve big issues that face us as Christians, but what about the math itself, the “pure” math that is actually used to solve “problems like sustainable energy, human trafficking or world hunger”? Does it have no intrinsic value until applied? Is it really neutral? I think this may be the thought left in many people’s minds even after they begin to see how math can be done from a Christian perspective—that math can be used Christianly, but that math itself is “non-Christian”.

Theologians from Augustine onward have affirmed that math comes directly from the mind of God. Mathematicians know that pure math is breathtakingly beautiful, amazingly logical, and unexpectedly useful in the real world. And we Christians know why. While we are teaching students to use math to fulfill God-given mandates, I think it would also be good to give students a glimpse of the divine origins, beauty, and nature of math itself.