John Wesley was convinced that should he study mathematics to any depth he’d become an atheist. If he had taken that journey, I venture to suggest he would have discovered that he was wrong. I’m not any kind of mathematician — I pretty much crashed and burned in my university maths classes* — though I have always had a fascination for the subject. One of the most remarkable and beautiful things I’ve ever seen is “Euler’s identity”, pictured above left. It draws together the three mysterious numbers e, i and π in a breath-takingly elegant formula that always comes as a complete surprise to those who first learn of it. When you begin a study of mathematics, there is no hint that these three numbers are related to one another, and yet it turns out that at the deepest level there is an order and structure to the universe that could never have been guessed.
This is one of the reasons that I believe that mathematicians and physicists are more inclined to religious faith than their colleagues in biology. The biologist knows that the evolution of life is governed by chance, that random chaotic events are the drivers for the differentiation of species, their survival or extinction. They look at such a universe and cannot find in it a place for God. Perversely, some Christians view the world the same way: they are obliged to reject some of science’s most amazing and successful conclusions because their world-view leaves no room for chance or accident.
The mathematician, on the other hand, can gaze out on a universe in which even the outworkings of chaos find themselves being resolved into patterns of complex beauty which recur in all kinds of unexpected places. The physicist can recognize that inherently unpredictable quantum events lie behind all that we see and experience and that this very randomness has its end in the order and regularity which is our everyday experience.
This, of course, does not amount to anything so trite as a ‘proof of God’. But just as the psalmist was sure that the heavens declare the glory of God (how much louder would her prayers have been if she’d had a telescope!), so the eye of faith can see in the mathematician’s art a vision of God’s faithfulness and majesty.
* Strangely, all these years on I find that I can remember many of the words from my studies, without having a clue about what they mean. Things called ‘Chebyshev polynomials’ were particularly vexing, I recall. I’ve no idea why.