Ministry and Math: Making it add up
This post at the Ship of Fools site has my attention. The original poster is studying for ordination. Before heading to seminary, she needs to complete her bachelor’s degree and she is struggling with the required algebra courses. She asks to the Ship a new form of Tertullian’s old question, “What has Alexandria (i.e., Euclid) to do with Jerusalem (i.e., Jesus)?”
To summarize the conversation, most replies state that math is unimportant for the clergy and should be done away with. Others state that math is of minor importance, only to serve the practical duties of parish accounting and bookkeeping. (Some posts are of the “grin and bear it” variety, suggesting tutors and guidebooks to help her way through.)
Being a clergyperson with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics, I have to disagree with this assessment of clerical training. It’s too long for a post at the Ship, but this is still just a sketch of a few ideas. Generally, however, the overall point is that education is always more than job training.
So, here are just a few thoughts on the place of math in clerical training:
1. Mathematics is always a part of liberal education. Building on classical foundations, medieval Christians developed the university system. University education in the liberal (not manual) arts was broken into two segments: the trivium and quadrivium. The upper portion, the quadrivium, included arithmetic and geometry as core components of an educated Christian’s competency. Having mastered these arts, a student is prepared for education in philosophy and theology.
2. Mathematical competency is needed for basic conversation with the sciences. Few people would argue that Christianity is guilty of too much conversation with science. Poor popular understanding of astronomy, evolution and statistics have been at the root of clashes with science for a long time. As a result, many in scientific and engineering professions want nothing to do with the Church (“What has Jerusalem to do with Alexandria?”) and the Church has generally returned hostile feelings. Mathematical literacy opens up this conversation. Being able to speak and listen with integrity are the seeds of evangelism.
3. Good math makes for good theology. Even at the secondary-school level, algebra and geometry impress students with methods of proofs, rules for argumentation and clear-headed rigor. Each of these skills is intrinsic to math and serves theologians well. There’s no sense in proving that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line; every ass knows the quickest way to the barn. However, being able to demonstrate truths from basic principles keeps our theology, our preaching and our practice well-trained, open-minded and clear-headed.
4. Mathematics includes the movement from abstract concepts to practical application. Moving from the abstract to the concrete is necessity in mathematics. Having techniques for solving differential equations later helps you design and build air conditioners. Similarly, going from principles to actions is the basic act of preaching and pastoral care. It’s no coincidence that one preaching method closely mirrors Laplace transform solutions for differential equations. Without training in moving from the abstract and ineffable to something practical and useful, what good is a preacher on Trinity Sunday?
Again, these are just a few thoughts that bubbled up over the weekend after reading the linked post above. Hopefully more will come up later.