The God of Math, Meaning, and Harmony (by Ethan Ortega)

Today’s post is a guest post from Ethan Ortega, a faithful follower of this blog for some time. I will not write much in introduction to Ethan, since he covers that pretty well in the post. Ethan will be happy to answer comments and questions. 

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If one were to browse through my family photo albums, they would soon stumble upon a candid shot of me that was taken when I was about 2-years-old. In the picture, I’m sitting in a recliner with a copy of Time Magazine opened before me, my infant eyes fixated intently on some unspecified pages. The magazine’s title is clearly visible in the picture: “What does Science tell us about GOD?” Now, let’s be honest; though I’ll grant myself a tiny bit of childhood precocity, I really don’t think that I was reading at age 2. And even if I were, I sincerely doubt that I would have been able to comprehend a cover story on the metaphysical inferences of the Divine taken from the natural world. And don’t get me started on the quality of Time magazine, or lack thereof. But all this notwithstanding, I’ve often looked back on that picture with great fondness, and most especially over the last year, as I’ve grown steadily more in love with exploring this very idea: learning about God through His creation.

I realize that often there are glaring stereotypes attached to some of the intuitions that I grew up in or around: charismatic church attendee, homeschooled from grade 2 to 9, private Christian school for all the other years until college… all of these together could possibly imply (to a stranger) that I was indoctrinated from my earliest years in a mindset that was very fearful of or even antagonistic to the findings of mainstream science. Toss in the fact that this was all taking place against the backdrop of west Texas and you can clearly understand the impulse judgements some could make regarding my views on some pretty important subjects.

But stereotypes are dangerous, and very liable to error. Truth is, I grew up around very diverse individuals with a wide range of beliefs and opinions, as I think most of us have. Though there can be an overwhelming sense of unanimity amongst one’s culture, I have found that these snap judgements we make can be very harmful to the work of Christ, in and outside of the church.

My family was never hostile towards science. In fact, I’m very grateful to recall that I was encouraged from early on to seek out and discover all that I could, all that fascinated me. I knew from my church that God created all that is, and I knew from school that we gave the tangible stuff a name: science. When I was 9 or 10, I decided that I was going to be a mathematician or physicist. I began wearing a lab coat everywhere I went (thinking this was proper attire for an aspiring scientist). I tried reading up on Albert Einstein, but my short attention span got in the way of grasping his brilliant contributions to our understanding of nature. On scraps of paper, I would write rudimentary mathematical equations, numbers and symbols that I thought were impressive-looking to my peers. It was all in an attempt to fulfill this dream I had to be some great genius. Over time, that ambition dwindled, and the lab coat was retired.

Sadly, by the time my senior year rolled by, I had thoroughly convinced myself that I was incompetent in math and science.  But even amidst this feeling of defeat or ineptitude, I never lost that love, that sense of overwhelming wonder upon learning a mathematical formula or a hidden reality revealed by chemistry or biology. That kid who dreamed of being a great scientist was in there somewhere. And anything that I could comprehend in those classes, I clung to. I loved the fact that mathematics gave us ways to be perfectly accurate, to use rules and formulas to transform and reveal numbers. I loved the very notion that with the proper calculations, one could make perfectly correct predictions, solve extremely difficult logic and analytical puzzles, and describe the motions of celestial bodies lightyears away from us. What fantastic feats were accessible to us through mathematics and science. And I knew that God was behind it all.

But the culture wars have a very far reach. In my private Christian high school, it was pretty much a given that evolution was false, a flimsy theory invented by atheists as a competing account for the origin of life. I never really asked any of my teachers, but I assume that many of them also believed that the earth and universe were fairly young, certainly not billions of years old. These were incontrovertible tenets, seemingly necessities for a practicing Christian. I never really questioned them back then, regarding myself as too intellectually feeble to try and understand the science involved, and feeling pretty confident in this “side” of the battle, with my fellow believers, some of whom were practicing scientists who presented evidence for intelligent design in the fabric of life.

About two years ago, I had a crisis: I started to wonder if my understanding of these very important concepts was false. What if my side wasn’t correct ? Could the universe really be older than a few thousand years? Did life evolve from simpler organisms? What about the big bang? Was that just an atheistic idea to contend with God speaking all life into existence? I read the words of Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan regarding faith, and started to feel very uneasy and troubled. Could it be that science was accurately recording objective data of the natural world, data that suggested a universe billions of years old and organisms that had evolved from lower levels? If these things were true, what did that mean for my faith? Would my entire worldview explode? Was atheism the only logical summation at the end of that road? I remained in more or less a state of paranoia and agitation, resolute to stay firm to a faith that was intrinsically part of my identity and yet curious about what research actually said about these issues that I had taken to be settled by those on one side of the conversation. I reached out to friends who shared the faith, both of whom were fine with the idea of micro-evolution and contended that we probably need to reexamine how we interpret Genesis, but who still seemed to hold to the idea that macro-evolution didn’t make sense or was improbable. And in one instance, I was afraid that perhaps asking these questions could tread into blasphemous territory or something.

But then I found something unexpected… I discovered Frances Collins, and was elated to find that such a prominent individual in the sciences was also a devout Christian.  I didn’t even know this was possible: a practicing Christian believer who recognizes the truth of scripture and the natural world and doesn’t fit into any of these opposed camps. It instantly became so beautifully apparent to me: one could exist beyond the culture wars, viewing science as the handiwork of God, something to be celebrated and not feared or manipulated to serve an agenda. I soon read up on Tim Keller’s thoughts on the issues, and found that he had no problem with an old universe or natural selection. The evolution OR  faith question was a false dichotomy, and evolution itself was no threat to Christian faith; rather, it was certain philosophical additions put on top of evolution that were opposed to faith.

In time, I discovered BioLogos. I realized that there were several women and men in the sciences who held deep Christian convictions and that there were various ways of interpreting scientific findings and Biblical writings. The conflict myth faded even further when I learned of all the great scientists throughout the centuries who had been individuals of profound faith. A whole new world was opened up to me. I didn’t have to be afraid anymore of someone claiming that science took away the need for God. I didn’t have to feel the anxiety to choose between two worldviews.

I soon found additional organizations dedicated to a wonderful integration of faith and science: The Veritas Forum, The Faraday Institute, and the ASA, to name a few. In February of last year, I discovered this blog, which has been the greatest help to my journey of recognizing science as God’s work, as something to be celebrated in worship.

And when the doubts spring up again, when I am tempted to buy into the false dichotomy again, I am continually reminded by this community of believers to always see science as the faithful outpouring of the God who I fell in love with when I was a child, the God who shows us His awesome creativity in many different forms. May we never lose that sense of wonder when we see mathematics and organic chemistry, beautiful paintings and pink skies. The same God is behind it all. And His Son is the fulfillment of all that is good.

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5 Responses to The God of Math, Meaning, and Harmony (by Ethan Ortega)

  1. Noah White says:

    Lovely post, Ethan–we may’ve discussed it before, but I see similarities in our stories, (though I all but abandoned math and science by the 7th grade for writing, film and theater!). It’s good to be frequently reminded that materialist reductivism isn’t the only way to look at the world. Though it may be easy to get lost in the debates, the evidence, and the questions, at the end of the day (well-reasoned) faith is all that matters!

    • resonate47 says:

      Thanks Noah! I wonder how many people have shared our experience of running into these culture wars that tell us we have to choose between our relationship with the Almighty and His creation. Seeing the world through just one lens is rather boring, don’t you think? I’m thankful that God has given us many different ways to look at His handiwork. Most importantly, I’m trying to see everything through the eyes of Jesus; I love that He encourages His followers to seek, to ask, to discover, all the while loving HIm and His creation more and more.
      And my gosh, I’m in love with mathematics. Though I’m not very good at it, I get a strong sense of the Divine when I look at equations and formulas. I’ve found myself shedding tears when I read about mathematics; I think there’s something going on there for me on a spiritual level; it’s God’s genius and creativity, His exactness and reliability. Beauty comes in several forms 🙂
      God Bless, my Texas friend

  2. SheilaDeeth says:

    I’ve been following this blog for a while, but I really ought to go to some of those other forums you mentioned. For me, there was no dichotomy between faith and science until I moved to the US. Then I had to struggle to ensure my sons wouldn’t fear a false problem.

    • resonate47 says:

      Sheila, it seems that America perpetuates the false dichotomy most vehemently. I’ve listened to talks by Denis Alexander of the Faraday Institute in which he says that creationism is much more rare in England. He didn’t even meet a young earth creationist until he was in his late 20s. It seems that over here, we’ve got that bad tendency to turn everything into a fight and get into our camps. I pray God’s peace over this entire issue (sad that it’s an issue at all). We miss out on the multitude of God’s imagination when we limit where we see Him.
      Blessings!

  3. Pingback: Hey! I wrote a guest post :) | Resonate

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