Last week I met Francis Edward Su, a Mathematician who is on sabbatical in Cambridge. I have written recently about the challenges of teaching science (in Questioning, and Ignorance). Su has a PhD from Harvard, is the Benediktsson-Karwa Professor of Mathematics at Harvey Mudd College, and is the President-Elect of the Mathematical Association of America, so he could be tempted to take himself too seriously to teach well. Teaching takes time, and students ask too many questions, but Su has given himself to his students in a way that recently won him an award.
According to Francis, giving an acceptance speech for a teaching award is a bit intimidating – people expect you to do something extraordinary (or at least keep them awake). Rather than reel off a list of teaching tips he decided to focus on just one, explaining what motivates him to teach well. His talk had such an impact on his colleagues that it’s Continue reading →
The early scientists described in ‘The Faith of Scientists’, are all remarkable characters, but it was in the company of Blaise Pascal that I felt most at home. He had his eccentricities, and I certainly don’t agree with everything he said, but in the extended extracts of his writing presented in Frankenberry’s book I recognised many of my own thoughts and beliefs.
Pascal was fascinated by the immensity of the universe.
When I consider the brief span of my life, absorbed into the eternity before and after, the small space I occupy and which I see swallowed up in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I know nothing and which know nothing of me, I take fright and am amazed to see myself here rather than there: there is no reason for me to be here rather than there, now rather than then. Who put me here? By whose command and act were this time and place allotted to me? … The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.
Humility in scholarship was also important to him – the recognition that there’s much we don’t know. There is even one part of the Pensees that would be hilarious if it wasn’t so true, where Pascal describes how as our experience and influence increase our friends are less likely to tell us the truth about ourselves, so we end up doing more and more stupid things.
There is much discussion on faith and reason in Pascal’s writing. He discusses the personalities of different people – those who come to believe in God through faith (or perhaps what could be described as more intuitive means) alone, those some for whom reasoned argument is more important. His discussion of the famous wager shows that he gave rational arguments for God a good deal of thought, though he came to the conclusion that ‘reason is to faith as moral effort is to salvation – necessary, but not sufficient without God’s grace’ (Frankenberry)
So Pascal was not at all against rationalism, but saw a place for faith in the grand scheme of things.
Faith certainly tells us what the senses do not, but not the contrary of what they see; it is above, not against them.
I could take that statement further. If faith is in something real, then even if that reality includes something beyond what we can detect with our senses, our faith should at least help to make sense of what we can see and touch.
This Christmas post is taken from ‘Nature’s Witness’ by Daniel Harrell. This series of extracts is from chapter 6: ‘God is great, God is good, but maybe I’ve misunderstood?’, that explores the vastness of the universe, God’s creation of it, and the presence of suffering. I’ve chosen some portions that I thought were appropriate to the season – that ask why God created the universe and why did he care about us?
When I consider the works of your hand, which you display in all you have created, I am at once awed and bewildered. I believe, yet sometimes I need help to believe. I wonder at your creativity, and at the same time I wonder why your creativity looks so different than I would expect. I wonder why the earth evolved instead of simply appearing, and why life has taken such a long road to get to where it is. I would have expected you to act more immediately and efficiently. Yet I know that my expectations are extensions of my own desires. And though you may be the author of my desire, I am the one who distorts it and imposes those distortions on you, I know that I must humble my understanding to your unveiling. Yet to observe your world and your ways creates a collision within my mind, a dissonance that I desperately long to resolve.
You’re infinite, and I’m finite, confined by time and by my sin and thereby limited in perception and understanding. Your eternity dwarfs my capacity to comprehend it. Your holiness outshines my feeble faith. Any claim to know you sounds presumptuous. And yet as a God of love you unveil yourself so that I can know you. Revelation is part of your character. You show us yourself in order to draw us to yourself. Your work and your word extend love and beckon our response of love. Relationship is your essence and you invite us to partake of it. You are love and your love is magnificently splashed across the universe and intricately wired into our souls…
Life itself your gift and yet each life hardly registers as a whisper in the vastness of time. And time itself registers as barely a whisper in the vastness of eternity. I and every other living thing are but insignificant moments in an unsearchable string of moments that are swallowed up within an infinity where no moments exist.
By your power you made the heavens and the earth. You created reality, breaking open existence with divine and furious heat. The dust of the starry heavens became the dust of the earth, the dust from which you made every living thing…
Were you so intent on making creatures in your image and granting them a world to inhabit that you’d spend thirteen billion years of cosmic and planetary life to make it happen? All for the slight blip of relationship you enjoyed with humanity before we fell from your favour? Who are we that you would go to such lengths, not even sparing your own Son, but giving him up, and with him, giving us all things? This is too great. I can’t understand it. We don’t deserve it…
Your handiwork is like a potter’s art. But my mind is like a potter’s wheel; round and round and round I go.