Principles for the Christian Mathematician
I wonder why you decided to study maths?
Unlike a lot of subjects, people don’t usually study maths to prepare for a specific career or because they hope to earn loads of money. Normally it’s either because they are good at it or because they enjoy the sheer beauty of it. Two things are worth noting off the back of this:
Mathematicians love maths
Which is kind of weird when you think about it, we love an abstract object that is not part of the physical world… How do we explain an intelligent human being leaping for joy just because of a neat result or proof? Well, if doing maths is thinking God’s thoughts after him, then doing maths has a lot to do with worship. We are called to worship God and rejoice in him. If mathematical objects exist in the mind of God, then discovering mathematical truths means in some way getting to know our Creator better. And that is what we are created to do. So, as Christian mathematicians, let’s continue to enjoy the beauty of maths knowing that it displays the beauty of God. And when we do maths, let’s do it as an act of worship to him.
Mathematicians struggle with maths
Understanding mathematical concepts is just hard! If you are studying maths, then you will know the common pattern of problem sets. You begin looking at question 1 and have no idea what to do. So, you move on to question 2, and again have no idea what to do. The same thing happens with question 3. But you have to start somewhere, and so you spend hours dissecting your lecture notes and trying to work out how on earth to begin. Perhaps even resorting to asking Google. But the sobering fact is that often you will just suddenly just get the answer, and it is really short and simple. If you go on to do research in maths, the phenomenon happens in a similar way (so I’m told). No progress on a problem for months, and then one afternoon it can all just fall into place!
The frustration that we experience while doing maths points to the fact that we are fallen human beings. We can’t think God’s thoughts after him the way it should be. But there are wonderful moments of grace, gifts from God, where he opens our eyes so that we can indeed think his thoughts after him in the way that he made us to. Those moments are wonderful gifts from God, and it is right that we thank him for them.
With these things in mind, it would be helpful for us to search our hearts to assess what our heart attitude towards our mathematical studies is and how we live that out. What is my motivation for studying maths? What is driving the goals that I set myself in my studies? Do I take pride in my work to the extent that I treat it as my own discovery rather than God revealing truth to me? As a Christian, should my work look different? These are not simple questions and require significant thought.
As mathematicians, we have the privilege of thinking God’s thoughts after him, and so in understanding maths more in some small way we get to understand our Creator more. We are not making discoveries of our own, but God is revealing the truth of his creation to us, and so it is our joy and delight to be able to help others to see and enjoy that too. It’s not our secret to keep hidden. And perhaps our solutions don’t look hugely different on the page, but they certainly do in our heart attitudes towards them, let’s give glory and praise to God as we work through our problem sets and understand more about how he has created and sustains the world.
This blog post is taken as an extract from a more thorough article written for the bethinking website, to read the article in full follow this link: https://www.bethinking.org/your-studies/studying-maths
Pete Downing, November 2018
- Vern S. Poythress, Redeeming Mathematics (https://frame-poythress.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/PoythressVernRedeemingMathematics.pdf)
- Vern S. Poythress, ‘A Biblical View of Mathematics’ in Gary North, ed., Foundations of Christian Scholarship (https://frame-poythress.org/a-biblical-view-of-mathematics/)