Tomorrow, Friday, April 1, at 2pm PT, I’ll be giving the next talk in our public lecture series, which will be live-streamed on YouTube here. Previous speakers have included Dr. Abner Chou and Prof. David Crater, and recordings of their talks are available at the links.
I’ve chosen to speak on some of my recent research in mathematics. You can find an article about it in the inaugural issue of our journal, and I recently created a five-minute “trailer” video on it, as well. But rather than plunging right into the math during tomorrow’s session, I’ll instead share some motivation behind it. It’s a bit like this: I want to introduce you to a wonderful friend of mine, but first I’d like to tell you why I think this friend is so wonderful to begin with.
In short, the motivation stems from what I think is an intriguing pattern in physics — a pattern observed at both a very large scale (think black holes) and a very small scale (think quantum physics). Some related mathematics caught my attention a few years ago, and I’ll attempt to convey those ideas in the talk. But before getting into the science, there’s another layer of motivation worth mentioning.
Why study math, anyway?
I know math isn’t everyone’s favorite discipline. So, why take an interest in it? My own passion for the subject came once I understood it from a biblical perspective. What does that mean?
Well, here’s what I don’t mean. I’m not referring to a viewpoint that forces math to be biblical. Perhaps you’re familiar with object lessons such as, “The substitution property is akin to Christ’s substitutionary death for us.” That’s not what I have in mind when I think of math from a biblical perspective. I’m likewise not referring to a perspective that may force the Bible to be mathematical. For example, one might say that mathematicians are drawn to the Bible’s symbolic use of the numbers 7, 12, 40, and so on because mathematicians like symbols $\otimes,\int,\sum,$….
Neither of these approaches are necessary, although I understand where such perspectives may come from. I recently read that in the 1970s, faculty at a west coast Christian college (not The Master’s University!) once overruled a proposal to update the integration of a biblical worldview into their academic program. Some faculty members thought it was impossible to do so in their field of study, and one math professor was quoted as saying, “Integration is not possible in mathematics. In mathematics, God’s revelation is silent. There is nothing to integrate… as far as math goes, there ain’t nuthin’ there.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the situation is quite simple: Mathematics is a language that enables us to study God’s creation and to marvel in Him. On this point, Colossians 1:16 comes to mind: “For in [Christ], all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible… all things have been created through Him and for Him.” All things!
The works of the Lord are great
We can appreciate the symmetry of a flower, the vastness of the night sky, or the use of electricity without knowing any math. But with knowledge of mathematics, those marvels can be admired on a much deeper level. It’s like watching a masterful movie in a foreign language. You can appreciate the beautiful cinematography and powerful acting without understanding the dialogue. But imagine if you understood the language, as well. Your capacity to appreciate the story increases so much more. So, what does it mean to think about math from a biblical perspective? I think the answer is simple, found clearly on the pages of Scripture. Psalm 111:2 summarizes it nicely:
The works of the Lord are great, studied by all who have pleasure in them.Psalm 111:2
Others have written much more extensively on this topic. For instance, the tale of the math professor who said “God’s revelation [in math] is silent” prompted a math teacher named Larry L. Zimmerman to write an article in 1980 entitled “Mathematics: Is God Silent?” in which he answers that question with a resounding “no.” Years later in 2001, math educator James Nickel wrote a comprehensive book with the same title — and the same conclusion. And Zimmerman himself later expanded on his short article with a 2015 online book called Truth and Transcendence, published on Answers in Genesis. I recently came across Nickel’s book in the library at TMU, and one sentence especially stood out to me. It captures well the significance of understanding mathematics — and indeed all things — when viewed properly through the lens of Scripture:
“Then, and only then, will we be able to see the wonderful and marvelous facts of creation as God intended them; that everywhere and in every fact we see His sign posted saying, ‘It is Mine.'”James Nickel, Mathematics: Is God Silent?
This holds not only for school-level mathematics but for graduate and research-level mathematics, as well. And this reminds me of a book by scholar Andreas Köstenberger entitled Excellence, which, with an eye toward 2 Peter 1:3–11, addresses the question, “What does it mean to strive for excellence in scholarly research as a Christian?” In chapter 3, he anticipates that the phrase “believing scholarship” might sound like an oxymoron to some, but I love his reply to this. He writes, “…as Christian scholars who have been set apart by God and who pursue holiness, we should go about our scholarship, research, writing, and teaching in conscious dependence on God and expect the Holy Spirit to guide us in the process. We should not surmise that God is merely tolerating our academic work so that we have to engage in it ‘behind his back,’ as it were.” Köstenberger then goes on to say,
“Rather, we should have every expectation that God wants to, and will be, actively involved in our research, even delighting in it, and guiding us every step of the way. As we look to him in faith, as his dear children whom he set apart for this very purpose, he will lead us into excellence for the sake of his glory and as a testimony to his grace.”Andreas Köstenberger, Excellence
While the book is primarily targeted at scholars in theology, I’m greatly encouraged by that last sentence, which generally speaks to efforts that are “for the sake of his glory.” And that’s what I hope to convey in tomorrow’s talk, which will mostly focus on that curious pattern in physics I mentioned earlier. But now you’ll know why I find such phenomena — whether in physics or in math — so fascinating. It’s because “the works of the Lord are great” (!) and so I thoroughly enjoy studying them. For me, math greatly enhances the ability to study some of those works, and therefore it greatly amplifies the joy that comes with it.
I hope you’ll tune in tomorrow and enjoy it, as well.