Mathematics: A Liberal Art and an Act of Worship
Contributing Author: Mrs. Monica Davis, Rockbridge Academy Upper School Math Teacher
“When I step into my classroom each day, I hope to convey to my students a little more of what math truly is: an act of worship and a way to think God's thoughts after Him.”
At some point during my freshman year of college, I began to dread the inevitable question that occurs while making polite conversation with someone you just met:
"So, what are you majoring in?" The question itself was not what bothered me as much as the responses I received after my answer: "I'm a math major."
The reactions certainly ran the gamut. Some were flattering: "Wow! You must be so smart!" Some played off the typical stereotypes: "Do you just sit in the basement of the math building solving problems and inhaling chalk dust all day?" Some I simply did not know how to respond to: "I don't know how you do that. I hate math so much!" The worst response though, was one occasionally levied by the humanities majors at my staunchly classical, liberal arts college: "I don't think I could handle doing something so utilitarian all day. I prefer the liberal arts."
As the poor people who told me this discovered, nothing starts me on a rant faster than the accusation that math is not a liberal art. There is so much about math that is not utilitarian in the slightest. In my Abstract Algebra class, for example, we studied number systems in which 3x2 = o (this is true in modulo 6). In Real Analysis, we learned about two different sizes of infinity: countable and uncountable. My all-time favorite class was Non-Euclidean Geometry; this is a perfectly consistent, completely valid geometry in which rectangles do not exist! While all of these subjects have applications in advanced science, studying them is as much a liberal art as studying The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky even uses non-Euclidean geometry in this work as an illustration as he lays out his solution to the problem of evil in the world.
To be fair to those innocent humanities majors who provoked my rant, there is a lot of math that is utilitarian. I also took four semesters of Calculus in which I described the path of projectiles using vectors. I took probability and a mathematical economics class in which we studied supply and demand functions and talked about optimizing production while reducing cost. You see, math is really quite strange. It is simultaneously the most applicable and the most abstract subject. It is incredibly practical and also something that many people do "just for fun." Math has unlimited applications and yet is one of the most pure forms of abstract thought.
This is why, despite the occasional disparaging remark about my subject, I loved being a math major. I delighted in immersing myself in a subject with such variety and beauty. As much as I may have loathed the question, "What are you majoring in?" I loved the question, "Why did you decide to major in math?" My answer to the "why" question is always the same: math gives us a glimpse into the mind of God. Through math, we see the order and logic that God as the master designer has built into the universe. We see the character of God reflected in math, especially His consistency, transcendence, and creativity. Math shows us God's sovereignty as we learn how He superintended each step in the development of the subject throughout history. Ultimately, the beauty and nature of math reflects the beauty and nature of the God who created math.
When I step into my classroom each day, I hope to convey to my students a little more of what math truly is: an act of worship and a way to think God's thoughts after Him. The math faculty at Rockbridge is committed to communicating this vision of math as a means to glorify God. This is what it means to teach math Christianly.
Monica Davis, has now been teaching for seven years with the math faculty at Rockbridge Academy in Crownsville Maryland. She earned her B.A. in 2013 from Hillsdale College, Hillsdale, Michigan. Article is republished here with her permission.