29 May, 2008

Serious Post: The "Math Journey"

Okay, I had to break out of the box today for just a moment and comment on my own editorial from yesterday. I noticed that a real math website had linked to our post, apparently missing the theological implications I was trying to get at, which sparked my curiosity. I went back and re-read my own article and tried to take the perspective of one without any serious theological knowledge. I realized that by itself the article offers a great defense of the importance of math! A math teacher could potentially read this article to his or her students as an example of the importance of being mathematically precise and to show math's usefulness in all walks of life.

Math is a very precise subject, and being mathematically accurate is crucial to so many aspects of life. When a contractor builds a skyscraper he doesn't prop up the iron columns and say "that looks right to me." When a doctor gives a patient medicine he or she doesn't just "wing it." No one with any ounce of intelligence would knowingly fly on a commercial airline with a pilot who just "felt right" about whether or not the plane had enough fuel. Intelligent people (and even not so intelligent people) all over the world realize the very serious implications and consequences of mathematical calculations not being done correctly in critical situations. A person's life savings can be lost, people can get hurt, or even worse, die. And so, therefore, the vast majority of the human world follows the rules of math. These rules are fixed, precise, not subject to human interpretations and whims. When the Space Shuttle pilot is told to enter the earth's atmosphere at a certain angle of approach he doesn't gauge that angle according to some scale of his own fancy but rather he follows the rules. If he doesn't everyone on board dies.

Now God is very precise also, and it absolutely blows my mind that people who would never approach the mathematical accuracy of their bank accounts or the building of their houses or their doses of medicines with a flippant attitude will approach a "Consuming Fire" with one. When their earthly possessions are at stake they insist upon the utmost preciseness and accuracy; they insist that everyone "go by the book," yet when their eternal souls are at stake it's suddenly okay to "do what feels right." Well, there's a "book" to go by when it comes to God, and that book says very very precise things like John 14:6 "Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me." or Matthew 5:48 "Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." God is a God of exactness, precision and accuracy. With God there is no "margin or error," he demands perfection. There's only one right way to do things and if not done correctly all will fall and collapse.

"But what about God's grace and love?" someone will say. Lest we forget, grace does not mean God becomes "loose" in his own standards or justice. God's love doesn't mean the rules change and we suddenly get a "margin or error" with God. God's grace means a way is provided to "fix" our errors so that we are then are acceptable in the sight of God. The rules don't change, rather the mistakes are "fixed." The grace of God to us comes through the only Way, Truth and Life, Christ Jesus. In and of ourselves we are not "perfect," we don't "add up" so to speak. But here is seen the great wonder of the mercy and grace of God that in Christ Jesus we are declared righteous, having Christ's righteousness counted to us and our sins placed upon him. Christ has dealt with the consequences of our impreciseness, and clothed us with his preciseness, and thus for those in Christ there is "therefore now no condemnation..." (Romans 8:1).

Now this message of theological preciseness is not just for liberals who worship a god of their own imagination. Even we in the Bible-believing Evangelical world are guilty of doing "sloppy theology." Perhaps we have been guilty too of "winging it" at times. How often have we misquoted Scripture, misinterpreted verses or taken them out of context? How many times have we been unwilling to study a doctrine because we didn't like it? Let us handle God's word with greater care than we handle our stock portfolios. Let us build our theology with the same care that we build our houses, upon rocks, not sand.


ajlin said...

That wasn't very funny at all.

Oh, wait...

Chris said...

Good post, Tom. A friend and I have been dealing lately with my friend's wife, who insists that the Bible is error-filled (without providing any proof to back that claim up), and that she lives by a moral code. Moreover, she still claims to be a Christian (that Christ is her savior), but insists that this summer, she's going to study world religions. (On her own. She's not going to take a class, but will be looking at facts that, in her own words, "you can't get in the Bible".)

She insists that she can do what is right in her own eyes, and still make it to heaven, and that we who insist that the law still has power to command us (though not condemn us) are on the lunatic fringes of Christianity.

It's been really frustrating me (enough to write a blog post about it), and your very logical, very truthful post was a breath of fresh air. Thank you.

Darrin said...

The math analogy can also be useful to show that the errors of professors should not necessarily cast doubt on the doctrine itself. I could call myself a mathematician (and maybe even be one) yet put forth a formula which is full of errors. Yet this has absolutely no impact on the accuracy of the laws of mathematics themselves.

Jim Pemberton said...

Tom, a hearty Amen!

Darrin, outstanding observation!

Peter Kirk said...

Tom, I wonder if you have ever worked in anything like the engineering industry and know how things are actually built. Professional engineers simply do not calculate everything with mathematical accuracy. Instead they mostly do things by rule of thumb, allowing generous margins of error. I know this from personal experience. I studied physics at university and could calculate with mathematical accuracy all kinds of things. For example, I could give a precise logarithmic formula for the voltage drop across a diode. But when I started working as an electronic engineer, I soon discovered that no one used these formulae. For the engineer, the voltage drop across a diode is 0.7 volts, near enough - if it's the right diode for the job - and the formula is usually irrelevant. Similarly, all kinds of skilled people in the world judge things according to their experience of what is right, and not usually according to precise calculations at all.

I mention this because it has important connotations in the spiritual world. Yes, it is good that people study the precise biblical rules on what is right and wrong, and remain within them - although they are not precisely prescriptive in the way mathematical ones are. But it is right that experienced Christians and especially leaders judge and lead according to their experience, without always justifying everything from biblical details. And it is wrong for ordinary Christians to criticise their leaders for not justifying everything in detail - instead we should normally trust our leaders to have experience and spiritual discernment.

Your analogy is a good one in principle, but doesn't actually work the way you want it to!

Jim Pemberton said...

Peter, you have a good observation. I majored in physics and worked as an engineer for several years. Now I'm in production control.

However, although tolerances and rules of thumb are often employed, they don't always yield the results we want. In fact, I worked a press brake before moving up to engineering. The rule of thumb the engineers used for bend allowances was wrong and the operators kept notebooks on how to adjust each piece to make them work. With my education, I tested the material we were actually using and developed better formulas for calculating bend allowances. When I engineered parts using my formulas, me fellow engineers wrinkled their noses, said it didn't follow the right formulas, but conceded that the pieces may work anyway. They had no clue.

I have countless stories like this where what was engineered wasn't correct, but it was fixed by the people who actually did the work.

My point is that rules of thumb may be what engineers use, but the truth is best understood where the results are required. Liberal theologians develop what theology they want in order to justify their warped view of the world, but when ministry comes down to the level of real suffering that God promises His faithful, the truth is revealed.