Math and Theology

“Mathematics is the language with which God wrote the universe.” Galileo Galilei

Every now and then, I write on something that is very personal to me that may not be important to readers of this blog. I wrote about my love for marine mammals last year, and I got the most unsubscription notices ever for the blog. I work on not allowing my identity to be tied to the approval or disapproval I get from readers of this blog, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a struggle. I have another post I want to write on whales, but I’ve decided to keep that one to myself. I’ve had similar fears about posting on math.

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.

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 …

Proverbs 16:33
The lot is cast into the lap,
But its every decision is from the LORD.

18 Responses to Math and Theology

  1. Anonymous October 17, 2011 at 1:22 am #

    I don't like math, but I love this post! A God who creates order out of what seems to be random chaos. That's a God I want to worship! I'm leading a couple of groups of women through “Practical Theology for Women” and this post just fits into our discussion beautifully. Thank you, Wendy.
    Wanda Anderson

  2. Wendy October 17, 2011 at 2:49 am #

    Thanks, Wanda!!

  3. Steve October 17, 2011 at 7:24 am #

    My wife is an Environmental Biologist in CA, I'm a seminarian in training for Evangelical Presbyterian ministry. We're vegetarians and love God's green earth. So, I feel your pain on Marine Mammals. I was an English major… but I like the article anyway. Thanks!

  4. banksd October 17, 2011 at 11:03 am #

    I love math AND I love the post. Well said!

  5. amhaskins October 17, 2011 at 12:26 pm #

    I struggled with math in school, but I taught/coached my son in math that included fractal geometry and the Sierpinski triangle. We had so much fun, and we both came away with a greater sense of God's orderliness and infinite mind. Praise Him!

  6. peggy October 17, 2011 at 3:57 pm #

    I love your post, thanks. I am not a math lover. I'm 44 and returning to school after a 20+ year absence, and i am rally struggling with the “dumb kid math” as I call it. but your post has really encouraged me to keep at it and try to find God in the midst of my struggle an frustration. Thanks.

  7. Kris Hazelbaker October 17, 2011 at 6:31 pm #

    I really appreciate this post…and the one on whales. As a (retired) forester/ecologist, who also likes math, I think about these things too. I believe that what we see and admire in wildlife and other “natural resources” is the admiration that God gave us for his creation. Adam and Eve were to tend the Garden – to be stewards and caretakers. Some people see anything that humanity does to creation, any changed (like cutting trees) as a bad thing. I don't believe that is Biblical. BUT, we are also to be caretakers, stewards, not taking all we can get from it, or using it until it is ruined, but rather using it wisely.

  8. Susie October 17, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Thank you. I am so glad we have a God who is making sense of what seems to be utter chaos around us. That with God it is not chaos but is already sense. It's order. It's control. It's perfect. I love this.
    I'm liking the chaos triange much better than the underside of the tapestry illustration. But I also did prefer math to art!
    Amazing wonderful sense….
    It brings me to my knees.

  9. Susie October 17, 2011 at 8:23 pm #

    Just to add to my above comment. I'm not saying that our world is already perfect but that above what we can see that his ways, his plans and the outworkings of these are perfect…. Hope that makes sense!!

  10. Anonymous October 17, 2011 at 10:04 pm #

    unsubscribe. Oh wait, i'm not subscribed.
    Thought provoking post, thanks.

  11. Jessica October 18, 2011 at 12:13 am #

    I almost didn't read this when I saw it was about math! I'm more of a literature/English person! But well said. How encouraging to know that God orders and directs all things!

  12. Silvia October 19, 2011 at 1:16 pm #

    Beautiful and poignant, thank you.

    An Algebraist myself, my own gribbly monsters were Lebesgue Integration Theory and Fourier Analysis, and you are right: having banged my head against them did make me ( I hope!) a better teacher, it made me see that sometimes Maths just doesn't come natural!

    And at the same time, the higher you go with the concepts, the more amazed you get at the beauty and the simplicity with which seemingly abstruse concepts, boil down to neat theories when you look them for a higher level…. An excellent reminder that God is looking at all from the highest vantage point of all!

    Thanks again for the well articulated argument.

  13. Luma October 19, 2011 at 8:50 pm #

    Great post Wendy! This is how I always felt about physics. There were times in college when I would be doing a physics problem and I would start crying because it was SO beautiful and I could see God in it. The other day my husband and I were talking about how you can take theological concepts and understand them in terms of math and physics. I just sent him a link to this post.

    And Wendy, I'm glad that you write about what the Lord lays on your heart and not worry about the blog readers. 🙂

  14. Rachael Starke October 20, 2011 at 5:09 am #

    Yay, a math post!!!

    And I say that as an English major who was allergic to math until I 1. was saved in college and 2. went back to school for a bit last year and took Chemistry. The only reason I had any confidence that I could understand Chemistry was because I believed Hebrews 1:3. So imagine my surprise when we spent the first two weeks doing math concepts like dimensional analysis and unit conversion!!

    That triangle concept is the best argument for Calvinism I've seen in a while. Love it.

    This post makes me realize I haven't officially subscribed to your blog, but I *should.* So there. 🙂

  15. Jessica October 24, 2011 at 11:02 am #

    Thank-you for this. Yes, it is the seeming random, chaotic events in life that cause me biggest questions and that I spend the most time trying to make sense of. Today I will choose to believe that there is meaning and order- “the wisest, kindest, and best”- even when I do not see it.

  16. Julie October 27, 2011 at 5:56 pm #

    I thought of this post this morning as there were probably 20 or so orcas in view during my ferry ride to work. I'm not sure what it is about them but the sight brought me to tears. Something so mysterious…. I think God's creation gives us a tiny glimpse of His vastness and glory, whether it's math, whales, or anything else!

  17. Wendy October 27, 2011 at 6:42 pm #

    Oh, Julie. I need to take that ferry!!

  18. James November 24, 2011 at 1:48 am #

    I'd never seen that way of generating the Sierpinski Triangle before! (I'm used to the 'subtract triangles one by one' in analogy to the Von Koch snowflake curve method) – that's really nifty! I enjoyed figuring out why the two are virtually equivalent.
    I also agree that taking a disastrous university maths course was helpful in me understanding how many primary/secondary schoolers struggle with maths.

    My one quibble was “math is a symbolic representation of a real concept” – so much of the most beautiful maths has very little to do with the 'real' world! (Or perhaps I'm just too biased towards pure math)

    But more importantly, as an ex-mathematician and now Ministry Apprentice, I really appreciated that way of moving from mathematics to Christ. Another evangelistic tool up my sleeve! Thanks!