Continuing our series on how our studies influence our faith. Here Fr Ian Michael, a friend of Fr Ian’s, whose Doctorate from Oxford is in Mathematics, writes on Mathematics and his faith:
Faith seeking understanding – one of the classic definitions of theology. How does being a mathematician serve to deepen my understanding of Christian faith?
Mathematicians tend to like paradoxes. The scriptures are full of them, “The first shall be last and the last first,” and so on. Above all there is the paradox of the Incarnation, “God in man made manifest.”
Mathematicians are often drawn to, even fascinated by, extreme cases. One of the tests of a mathematical conjecture is to push it to the limit. So to for discipleship. Consider Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906-1945), whose writings and, even more his living and dying, show that there is no safe and cost-free discipleship. Or think of Simone Weil (1909-1943) and her insistence that, when we are faced with an apparent choice between following the truth and following Christ, we must follow the truth. Eventually Christ will meet us. (Her brother André, one of the most celebrated mathematicians of the 20th century, used to correspond with her about his mathematical work.)
Mathematicians are at home with abstractions. That can make us aware of the limitations of abstractions. The deployment of reason has a necessary, but limited, place in the understanding of Christian faith. “One thing is needful.” (see Luke 10: 38-42). Paradoxically, the passage of time makes me more deeply aware both of the inexpressibility of God and of the sheer physicality of our encounter with Christ, in prayer and sacrament and in the people He sends to us and to whom He sends us.
A P.S. The Belgian priest Fr. Georges Lamaître (1894-1966), among the first to advance the “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe, was once asked whether he thought cosmology to be the science closest to theology. After a pause he replied, “No, I think it’s psychology.” As one commentator said, “There spoke the parish priest!”