It’s easy to overlook the importance of the more mundane parts of math. It’s true, if you’re a “math nerd” or a lover of mathematical puzzles, that you may not need motivation to learn higher mathematical concepts like fractals or higher spatial dimensions—things which, when you learn them, make you feel like you’re learning the secret behind a cool magic trick. Or, if you’re the average math student, certain math problems can be universally fun to solve, if they present tough logical quandaries (ask my Advanced Math students—they may tell you their occasional “concept review” problems will be a welcome break from the day-to-day work they’re used to from former years).
But generally, even for a lover of math like me, the usual kind of assigned work in a math class can be rather dry and uninteresting, even if mentally stimulating. Can there be some sort of motivation to push through those pages of math or geometry problems? Of course, my answer is going to be yes, but consider this excerpt from an introduction that Lutheran reformer Philip Melanchthon wrote to an arithmetic text:
“Therefore, those who are endowed with a mind that is not unnatural, and who desire to behold the things that are best and most admirable and worthy of knowledge, should attach those wings, that is, arithmetic and geometry, to themselves. Carried up to heaven by their help, you will be able to traverse with your eyes the entire nature of things, discern the intervals and boundaries of the greatest bodies…”
According to Melanchthon, while there is inherent good in math and geometry, those two studies aren’t the end; they are “wings” the mind needs for something more. Astronomy is, in fact, the goal Melanchthon has in mind. During the time of the Reformation, much importance was placed on learning astronomy, in part because many (including Melanchthon) believed we can scientifically predict events on earth based on the stars. While that belief is, of course, not true, it is true that math and geometry do prepare your mind for further understanding of the workings of God in the universe: studies like physics, chemistry, geology, statistics, and even biology all have their grounding in math and geometry. And hiding in each of them are beautiful gems of wonder that you can find only with a good foundation in mathematical and geometrical thinking.
Moreover, math and geometry aren’t just wings for scientific study—the logical training they provide the mind also aids it greatly in thinking philosophically (and by extension, then, theologically). Even the famous philosopher Plato would wholeheartedly agree with this, because above the door to his academy he had apparently inscribed the words, “Let none but the geometer enter.” The reason required to do math and geometry well is the same reason our minds rightly use when, equipped with the Word of God, we need to think deeply about philosophical and theological issues in our lives.
This means that even those drab-colored math problems give the Christian great benefit. Practice in math and geometry trains up the mind to be able to reason well. And while reason is always servant to the wisdom granted us by God through the Scriptures, it is nevertheless a gift He has graciously blessed us with so that we can better serve the people He puts in our lives. Math really is a beautiful thing.