CHRISTIANITY AND MATHEMATICS

A Review by Andrew Philip

 

If theology has been called the “Queen of the Sciences”, then mathematics has often been seen as a separate republic. Granted, there have been good international relations in areas – for example, mathematics has been found indispensable in the sciences. Also, discoveries in the sciences have lead to important developments in mathematics. But always, there has been that inviolable sanctuary; Pure Mathematics, not subject to the laws of man, but to those of some higher Platonic reality. Even suggesting to some pure mathematicians that their work might be of some practical value could land you in Serious Trouble. Applied mathematics is aimed at solutions to problems; pure mathematics doesn’t care where it goes, as long as it goes there rigorously - i.e. developed according to its own inner laws, not allowing the structure to be tainted by outside ideas. It is clear then why the suggestion that Christianity may have something to do with mathematics is met on so many occasions with such blank stares.

 

Recently, however, there have been some changes: Christian mathematicians (and other Christian scholars) have been thinking and writing about the relationship between Christianity and mathematics. Witness to this fact is the booklet Bibliography  0f  Christianity And Mathematics: 1910 - 1983 , compiled by G. Chase and C. Jongsma, which lists some 300 items on this theme - the majority of which appeared in the last 20 years. Although by no means of a single voice, this literature does reveal a growing concern for examining the issue more closely.

 

One of the main reasons for this sudden surge of interest may be the increasing realization of the effect that philosophical presuppositions or worldviews can have on scientific theorizing. Mathematics is being seen not merely as a part of the structure of reality waiting to be discovered, but as a human activity, subject to all of the prejudices and limits that our presuppositions force us into.

 

A very useful article, briefly analysing several approaches to the subject is Christianity and Mathematics: an Analysis of Differing Approaches to Their Interrelationship, by Dr. Calvin Jongsma. He lists four approaches, ranging from mathematics and Christianity being seen as two separate realms with no interconnections, to the Reformational view that there is only one realm of reality in which Christianity and mathematics both exist as different but related foci or dimensions of human life. It is on the details of this last approach that the rest of the paper concentrates. Jongsma’s view is not that mathematics has necessarily been tried and found guilty, but that our Christianity should lead us to an integral view of reality in which all thoughts must be taken captive and made obedient to Christ. No dimension of life may simply be declared neutral; it may be that mathematics has in many ways remained untainted by sin, but that possibility may not be taken as fact. Our perspective must be broadened to evaluate mathematics as a part of man’s total involvement in reality. “We are not called to integrate our faith with our mathematical work, but to work out our faith in our mathematics.’’

 

What Jongsma is proposing is an activity motivated by principle, not necessarily by goal. It is to approach existing mathematics with an attitude of “critical evaluation and reformation”, not with a complete gift-wrapped package of Christian mathematics.

 

He then proceeds to outline the Biblical foundations for a Reformational approach to mathematics; that “a Christian approach to mathematics results by analysing the meaning of created reality and mathematical practice in the light of Scriptural themes and directives.“ The Reformational worldview is then briefly discussed, followed by some of its Implications both for the development of a philosophy of mathematics and for mathematics education.

 

The intention of the paper is to encourage ongoing and deeper reflection on the topic, and to provide an alternative perspective to the dualistic approaches followed by many. It is definitely recommended to all Christians, not only mathematicians, as it provides insight into the value and breadth of the Reformational approach: all of reality belongs to Christ.

 

Something less introductory is the book Time  And Again  by M.D.Stafleu. The scope of this book is broader, as it undertakes a systematic analysis of the foundations of physics. It should appeal to anyone with some background in physics who wishes to examine how the subject is structured, and also to the philosophy student as an alternative perspective on the philosophy of science.

 

Stafleu is concerned not merely with the methodology of physics, as many works in this genre are, but with the structure of physics. His approach is to present as a working hypothesis the so-called Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea developed by H.Dooyeweerd and D.H.Th.Vollenhoven, which is then tested through the rest of the book. An introductory chapter outlines a general framework for this Reformational perspective, which is then used to discuss topics such as number and set theory, relativity, thermodynamics, probability theory and quantum physics.

 

One of the strengths of this approach is that it doesn’t attempt to explain the stricture of physics using one single principle; the system used employs independent but complementary ideas of generality and typicality, of mutually autonomous but interrelated modes of being.

 

Again, for the general reader, this book presents an excellent picture of how an integrally Christian perspective on physics can function. For those who don’t have time to read the whole book, the first chapter provides a useful introduction to Dooyeweerd’s thought.

 

Many to Many Issue 3 February 1993

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