The background for this book (now in its second edition) is the whole debate which has centred around Christian education for the last few decades. For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, it went something like this:
A few centuries ago, most education came out of the church. But with the increasing secularisation of society, religion was pushed to the side – it dealt with the spiritual side of life, and science dealt with the “real world”.
The upshot of that was that when education moved from being something provided by religion institutions to public schooling being provided by the government, by that stage, most people (Christians included) didn’t think this would be such a bad idea. After all, education is education, right? It would really just be a difference in who paid for it.
But the, out of the 60s and 70s, the Christian school music started to take off in America. (It took a bit longer to take hold in Australia.) And the basis of that movement was this idea: All knowledge that we can understand is ultimately God revealing Himself to us in the world. Jesus Christ is Lord of all things. And therefore, in every area of knowledge – whether it be science, history, music or whatever – can be and should be taught from a Christian perspective.
You would have thought most Christians would have got pretty excited about this idea. However, old ways die hard. To this day, there are still Christians who can’t see much difference between a Christian school and a public school, except that the Christian school might have more Bible classes or might teach the kids “good morals”. In fact, I even heard a Christian schoolteacher say on one occasion that what Australia really needed was for all the Christian schools to shut down so that all the Christians could move into the public schools and be a “witness” to the non-Christians in the school.
So, for some reason, the Christian vs public education debate has kind of ended up with two broad camps – one, who want to send their kids to Christian schools so they don’t have to hang around with any of the bad kids and bad behaviours at government schools (you might call this the School as Bubble approach) and those parents who want to send their Christian kids to public schools because a) it never did them any harm when they went there and b) their kids can be witnesses to those around them (you might call this the (Public School as Mission Field approach).
All of this has gotten away from the main question: is there a difference between the way a Christian should view knowledge and learning and the way a non-Christian does it? The answer is a definite yes, but sadly, a lot of Christians don’t take the time or the effort to learn how their faith applies to various areas of life, which effectively means that they’re proving the point of the Enlightenment thinkers, who were quite happy to have religion as long as it didn’t impede into the real world in any way.
So this book, Mathematics: Is God Silent?, was written by a Christian maths teacher who several times found himself being handed this dilemma by non-Christians: well, you say that everything needs to be taught from a Christian perspective – but what about maths? Surely, 2+2 =4 regardless of your religious persusasions, right?
So James Nickel has set about doing the Christian world a favour with this incredibly detailed treatise on Christianity and mathematics. He traces the history of mathematics from its earliest days right up to the current dilemmas being dealt with by mathematics (well, at least up to 10 years ago, which was when the book was written).
This was all fascinating stuff, because I don’t remember being taught at any stage of my school or university career (I have a degree in mathematics, believe it or not) anything about the philosphical and religious implications of mathematics that have gone hand in hand with the study of mathematics throughout the ages.
Nickel argues quite convincingly that, in fact, people’s religious and philosophical views have had a huge part to play in their scientific endeavour and the way they use mathematics. For instance, the Greeks made many of the original breakthroughs on mathematics, but because their view of the world really didn’t place much value on the real, physical world (to simplify it a bit), they weren’t that interested in using their mathematics.
Also, many cultures of the past believed that history moved in cycles rather than in a straight line, and so there was no real reason to put much effort into science, because the world wasn’t going to change that much.
So once the world scene settled down a bit in the first milennia after Christ, in Europe, where Christianity had taken hold, we started to see a new rise in scientific and technological advancement. Certainly, the faith back then had many faults and nobody was perfect.
But the idea that there was a personal God who had created the universe (which meant that scientists could expect to see the order and pattern of a divine Being behind it, not a chaotic collection of stuff) and the idea that history was moving from a beginning (Creation) to an ending (the return of Christ) meant that there was a philosophical foundation for improving things, getting better at science and technology.
And by the time you get to the great scientiests of the 16th, 17th century – Johannes Kepler, Isaac Newton, etc. – their faith just drove them to incredible heights of discovery. But all based on the assumption that there was a God who had made this world, and they could find out more about Him by studying the world. And mathematics was the language that described that world.
However, once we arrive at the Enlightenment era, and man no longer believed in a personal God who had created and was keeping the world running, strange little problems and quirks start to arrive.
Mathematics could now no longer be “God’s secret language” that describes the world.
So what was it then? Was it a logical construct that man had thought up and then managed to get the world to match up to it? But if that was the case, why on earth did it work so well?
And so many scientists set about to prove that mathematics was just something that could be completely derived starting with your own mind and man’s logic – but none of those efforts seem to have paid off.
That said, I think the people who tried to divorce mathematics from the real world eventually won – at least as far as the educational system went. After all, go to any school or university, and there are students being given maths problems with no real context for where we got these principles, why they work, what they’re used for or anything. It’s just all abstract scratchings on paper.
This book is far more mind-expanding than that. I’m sure that many non-Christians in the scientific community may disagree with the book – that’s fine. At least it’s good to know that a Christian has bothered to think about these things. At its height, Christianity was a religion that spoke to all areas of life and we’ve lost a lot of that. If more Christian scholars took their faith to different fields like James Nickel has done in this book, I think we’d look a lot less silly to ordinary folks on the street.
Note to interested readers: this book, while it claims to be written for laypeople, is kind of tough going if you’re new to mathematics or philosophy. I’d say you’d want at least Year 12 maths down to understand everything in the book. (Only because Nickel likes to have little mathematical interludes where he shows you fascinating mathematical insights from nature.) But then again a book with the word “mathematics” in the title is probably going to limit itself to readers who like that sort of thing anyway, so I’m sure it’s not that big a deal.