I was struck by a bit of a vision today. By this, I don’t mean that I was thrown to the floor by bright lights, angelic choirs and the glory of the Beatific Vision – I’m not meant for that yet, otherwise it would have happened.
Fractions frighten people, and negative numbers really do upset those whose experience of the world is knowing how many beans make five. How many of us know how many beans make minus five? Of course, what may well be going is in effect a category mistake, after all, negative numbers are not numbers that can count how many physical objects there are. They can count how much money someone owes, or what the temperature of liquid nitrogen is – you need a reference point for that, a zero level. However the realisation that, under the same basic rules of arithmetic that everyone knows that minus one times minus one MUST yield positive one is a moment when one can appreciate that mathematics has a strange beauty that doesn’t really intersect this world in ways we would think.
Yet mathematics goes further and gives us a glimpse of the Divine. Those of us who cannot understand how God can exist without physical space or time would do well to know that numbers do just that also. We can determine statements of truth and falsehood about numbers just like we can with physical objects, and so their existence is assured. However, they have no space, nor time. They do not exist in an area of the brain, but are objective in their presence. Numbers really do point the way to God.
Of course, there are those who would read strange numerological significances in Holy Scripture but take them too far. Seven signifies perfection, forty the nature of penitence, three the completion of the loving family. These numerological fancies are just illustrations, just stories to colour our understanding of the world around us. Those who try to force arcane meaning or significance onto numbers are missing the point. This includes physicists who try to impose ridiculous limits on mathematics by meaningless notions like adding up all the positive whole numbers and getting a negative twelfth. Forcing that kind of physical limitation on that which is not physical is as destructive as language is to the dream.
As I look at my students, my worry is that they will seek contentment in the material world. There is nothing wrong with God’s Creation as I said in Sunday’s Sermon, but to look at the world and see everything in terms of clumps of matter and worth and commodity and fashion misses the true beauty that exists in what is really there. Can they see beauty in a muddy puddle or a plastic bag blowing in the wind? If they can, then perhaps our walk together has been fruitful for all of us.