Wednesday, August 31, 2011

A little fragmentation

At the request of my uncle, who helps run the Splintered Light Bookstore, I'm reading through a book entitled, Mathematics through the Eyes of Faith, which is part of "through the eyes of faith" series. I intend to write a review fairly soon, once I finish, but at the moment I just had a general comment to make about the "through eyes of faith" series. The concept of such a series seems both familiar and strange to me. Many Christians I interact with regularly are of the kind to ask the "big questions" about how faith and life connect, about how to view everything in light of the gospel, about how to bring all things under the authority of Jesus Christ. From a Christian point of view, this seems like the right mission, even if it is an enormous undertaking. Thus, in particular, many Christians are wondering how the various academic disciplines relate to the faith; hence, this series.

On the other hand, something feels a little strange about the kinds of ideas which result from this grand endeavor. Some will argue (not the book I'm reading) the rather extreme position that mathematics makes no sense outside of a Christian worldview. That would be a powerful apologetic if it made any sense to anyone other than those making the argument. Others take the more moderate approach of just trying to draw vague but highly stimulating connections between a particular discipline and Christian faith. For instance, what does Cantor's theory of infinity say about God? Does belief in a personal infinite being open up avenues of inquiry to us which may not have otherwise existed? (Such might be suggested by the very interesting book, Naming Infinity.)

But whatever ideas you might generate by looking "through the eyes of faith," the simple fact is that all disciplines, from mathematics to history to philosophy, continue onward without adhering permanently to one guiding framework. Paradigms come and go. The notion that we need to be constantly aware of how all knowledge fits into a bigger picture can be quite stifling, or at best irritating. No, I'm really not thinking about God every time I recall a result from functional analysis in order to prove a theorem about a system of partial differential equations. Asking me to explain how this new truth I've discovered relates to the gospel is, from my point of view, silly. Frankly, I don't expect mathematics to look noticeably different "through the eyes of faith" than through any other set of eyes.

I think a case can be made for a little fragmentation in our lives. This is precisely what many Christians seem to think is wrong with the secular world: we live in many different parts of reality without being integrated into a whole. But I'm not convinced this is so much of a problem. In fact, it might be worth being more intentional about this. For instance, I highly recommend that everyone make a point of fragmenting political issues from one another. Gay marriage, abortion, prayer in schools, immigration, medicare, and terrorism are all completely unrelated issues. By saying "completely unrelated" I may have made the above statement false, but if you let yourself believe that it is true for a least a little while, you might end up thinking about each issue more rationally, without allowing your views to be predetermined by the one big picture that now informs all of your beliefs. The more we are in the habit of seeing everything through a single lens, the harder it becomes to resolve our differences without entering into conflict.

We may not be willing to say that some beliefs and ideas are unrelated to faith, but perhaps we can at least say that we do not know what the relationship is. Maybe we can never know. In our vain life, sometimes we must simply be content to solve the problems which are solvable, and to leave to God the things that are mysterious. A holistic worldview is perhaps but a chasing after wind.


  1. This reminds me a bit of this post, which has a specific focus on communion but, I think, identifies pretty well the problem you're articulating.

    There is something a little simplistic and perverse about the evangelical tendency to think of "worldview" as something that can be tinkered with, one thought at a time, and I think it's related to that mnemonic view of the sacraments. We think we are doing things right if we can make ourselves have the right sequence of thoughts about the significance of everything we're doing, when in fact a "worldview" has much more to do with the unspoken and unconscious set of assumptions we have about what is possible.

    So it's perfectly reasonable to find the thought of trying to think Jesus-y thoughts about any given mathematical proof more than a little silly. A better way to think of "math through the eyes of faith" would be, maybe, to say "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself, and while you're at it, go do math."


  2. " fact a "worldview" has much more to do with the unspoken and unconscious set of assumptions we have about what is possible."

    Right, which is why I think the idea of "building a Christian worldview" is nonsense. This is what I keep hammering away at in my political philosophy. As Hayek argued, the socialists erred in thinking that we had rationally constructed civilization, and that therefore we could rationally reconstruct it. Likewise, I think Christians err in thinking that our worldview is a matter of conscious choice, and therefore a new worldview can be constructed through a series of new conscious choices. I definitely see the connection with the sacraments; after all, what room is there for ritual if our entire selves must be consciously constructed?

    Your definition of "math through the eyes of faith" is fine by me. I will say more on the subject later, though, which will shed a more positive light on this book.


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