Friday, April 9, 2010

the dark tower

I just finished reading The Dark Tower by C.S. Lewis. This was a tangent begun serendipitously whilst I was waiting to locate a copy of The Last Battle, to finish my recent trip through the Narnia books. I love his writing, he gives his words so much more meaning than most of us can.

The Dark Tower was gripping from the very first page, promising to be a philosophical story about time travel and souls of men, featuring Dr. Elwin Ransom from the space trilogy. The story centers around a "chronoscope" that reveals to a few professors a sinister semi-parallel Cambridge in some other time. In the end I was sad to find the manuscript come to an abrupt stopping point. Lewis just stopped writing it, apparently not liking it or not knowing how to finish it.

The story (what there was) was a pretty good read, but more along the lines of That Hideous Strength, somewhat disturbing, but with an underlying theme of redemption and clarity. Not as cheery as some of the Narnia books, but rather intriguing. Mostly I was delighted to have found another book with Ransom, it was much like the time I discovered The Club of Queer Trades, featuring another G.K. Chesterton detective that I hadn't known about.

The unfinished story is a perplexing animal of literature, and yet it stands to reason that every great author must leave a few. Some writing is immortalized by publication, but what of that writing that never fully happened? It wasn't really approved and sent out by the writer, does it even count? One could hardly hold the writer responsible if the book did not meet expectations. And yet it was written, and he did hang on to it, perhaps letting it inspire his later books, perhaps waiting to someday return to it. It reminded me of Michelangelo's David statue in Florence, surrounded by half a dozen other huge blocks of marble with partial figures trying to emerge.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

biblical mathematics

Something got me thinking about mathematics and the Christian world view, and about being a Christian math teacher. I have blogged a bit about this before here.

Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God has set eternity in the hearts of men. This reminder is illuminating as we consider the pursuit of mathematics from a Biblical world view. There are evidences of the eternity in our hearts all around us in the way people live their lives, striving to be close to something bigger, something more permanent, something less bound by the temporal cages that define the edges of our existence.

Our God has created us with inquisitive and creative minds that are hard-wired to pursue the infinite, to wonder about our Maker, to ponder eternity. Mathematics has been moved forward throughout history not by practical people but by seekers and worshippers, artists and philosophers, obsessed, committed, awestruck, determined, half-crazed and wild-eyed people who gave their lives to grasp at the fringe of the robes of the only One who can explain the eternity residing in their hearts.

Many students eventually ask, "Why do people care about math?" and we often fail to dignify this, we respond by explaining that math is used to decide how much grass seed you should buy for your lawn, or to divide a box of cookies between you and your n-1 friends, or to calculate a tip at a restaurant. Or to find the volume of a cone or the number of Mondays in the eighteenth century or the roots of a quadratic equation or a way to ferry our foxes and geese safely across the river. Purely practical skills, right?  In short, we fail to dignify them.  We offer a few empty incentives to learn math, without really addressing their question. We respond almost defensively, as though mathematics would die without our help, or as though we are afraid our students will grow up and be unable to tip at restaurants.

It is in fact a great question deserving of our consideration: why DO people care about math? Instead of reducing the question to something harmless, let students confront it, let it intrigue and inspire them, let it be a context and a backdrop for the math that happens. Let us lead students to questions about knowledge and proof and logic. Let us ask them to think critically when they hear that science and religion should be separate—because they never have been separate. Teaching mathematics is inviting students to enjoy those gems of thought that have no earthly right to be in our minds, whose presence and beauty is only really explained by the eternity that God has set in our hearts.

Why did the Greeks revere a particular number as divine? Why did the Pythagoreans despair at the discovery of irrational numbers? Why did men like Newton give their lives to pursue mathematics and science in tormented seclusion? Why do people gamble? I am not talking merely about a tingly thrill of profundity that drives numerology and superstition, but also the real gripping and consuming rigor of mathematics, the desire to prove and to irrefutably establish the slightest fragment of logically solid ground. Why do we seek such?

If we want our students to think critically about the teaching and learning of mathematics, we might encourage them to look at the people who have been involved through the centuries. They will see that indeed mathematics is the product of earnest attempts to prove or disprove God's existence, to demonstrate the sufficiency of humanity or the greatness of God, to describe the beginning of the universe or predict its end, to map the heavens, to fathom knowledge itself, to experience a moment of the eternity that God has set in the hearts of men.

The Christian world view does offer an explanation for the eternity that we find in our hearts, and it does tell us that people will be obsessed with the study of mathematics and all manner of science. I am not convinced that a God-denying world view offers a satisfactory explanation of these pursuits or the vigor with which humans engage in these pursuits. The motive of math often goes unexplained. Much of Mathematics was built as an altar to an unknown god, and by teaching mathematics I can hope to bring glory to Him who has been worshipped as something unknown.