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What Math Can Teach Us About the Divine

I am a fan of order. Not hospital corners and Marie Kondo drawers, necessarily. But I like having a cubby for each member of the family. We’ve just instituted a new practice of everyone looking at their own upcoming week on Sunday evenings. Giving structure to our time and space brings a sense of peace and possibility to all of us.

So, when Micha Boyett pointed me towards an essay in The New Yorker about finding the divine in mathematics this week, I was intrigued by this thought:

“If one is inclined toward mysteries, mathematics can lead one to the conclusion that behind the veil of life there is a structure and an order.” 

Mathematics suggests that my human need for structure and order arises from the design of the universe.

But the author, Alec Wilkinson, takes it even further, because there’s a way in which mathematics also points to something behind or beyond that structure and order, something unknowable in its infinity. He gives the example of fractions. In between every whole number are an infinite number of fractional parts. Whole numbers are orderly. The space between them is infinite. He concludes:

“None of what I studied illuminated anything for me so much as the idea that I don’t know, that there is more to life than I think.”

Mathematics gives us lots of answers. It gives us order and beauty and a sense of structure to all things. And it tells us that there is so much we do not know, so much mystery and infinity and eternity beyond our comprehension. In the face of so much that I do not understand, I find this dynamic of structure and mystery strangely comforting. 

I will continue to organize my time and space. And I will continue to learn that no amount of planning or structure will answer all my questions or fix all my problems or satisfy all my longings. I will remind myself that sometimes all I understand is that I do not understand, and perhaps I can rest myself there.

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