The Mathematics of Faith

Full Disclosure: I failed grade eleven math.

It’s been almost a decade since I’ve had any real formal education in the mathematics, so I’m not going to be preaching any sort of math related truths here. Or maybe I am. I guess it depends on how much faith you have in math.

As I was skimming through blog posts of old, I came across some teachings about God by Rabbi Elyse Goldstein that really jumped out at me a few years ago while she was teaching at my shul. I’m thrilled to have stumbled upon them again, as they fit in with a post I had been planning. Here’s what she has to say:

“Thinking about God is like thinking about infinity; you can do it, but it really hurts sometimes.”

I remember being younger and trying to think of infinity and actually getting cramps in my head. It still happens. The same happens when I think about the creation of the universe. Or the size of the universe. Or God. I find it particularly comforting that even in Judaism where we have a plethora of ways to describe God, sometimes we need to stop and remember that God is bigger than us. Much bigger. So big, that at times, we can’t even think properly. It’s humbling.

This eerily parallels a discussion I was engaged in earlier this summer at Kutz, where Rachel Petroff posited a brilliant and beautiful notion:

“Faith is not math… we’re not building what the early reformers were. It’s not all about rationality. Everything doesn’t have to equal out.”

Odd that the intangible and indescribable can be solid building blocks. Just as we have a hard time conceiving of infinity, it is nevertheless one of the building blocks of math. Try telling a mathematician that at some point, the numbers have to end. And just as we have a hard time conceiving of God’s presence, it is an ever-present part of our Judaism. But Judaism isn’t mathematical. It’s not always about logic and equal sums. It’s not about proofs and equations. Belief in God isn’t about what’s on the other side of an equal sign.

Rabbi Goldstein goes on:

“It’s very hard for me to think of God and how God exists in this world, but it’s even harder for me to think of a world where God doesn’t exist.”

The mathematician responds: “It’s very hard for me to think of infinity. But it’s even harder for me to think of a world where the numbers stop.”

I may have failed math, but I do understand this equation.

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6 thoughts on “The Mathematics of Faith

  1. Great post.

    I do find it to be shame when math is positioned exclusively as a cold and rigid discipline. Though I understand what Rachel is trying to say, I consider math to be a creative and beautiful thing, and it pains me that it’s often boiled down to strict equalities. In other words, I don’t think that viewing math only through the lens of rationality captures the whole of it.

    In a sense, math is about faith in that it’s built upon a set of fundamental axioms. For instance, Euclid’s three dimensional geometry was the de facto “truth” for thousands of years before various mathematicians realized that higher dimension geometry was possible. And those individuals pushed math forward by pushing the creative limit.

    And in math, there are plenty of logical ideas that are just plain…wrong.

    Thanks for sharing the comic as well. I miss Calvin and Hobbes!

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