Why study mathematics? Good question - one asked every year by at least one student. What, actually, is math? Is it arithmetic, algebra, geometry, calculus, statistics? While these are a few of the branches of mathematics (and there are many more), the branches don’t define math. And unfortunately, the dictionary definition is not captivating. Merriam-Wester defines mathematics as “the science of numbers and their operations, interrelations, combinations, generalizations, and abstractions and of space configurations and their structure, measurement, transformations, and generalizations''. If you didn't take the time to figure out exactly what that means, don't worry--neither did I. So, how can we bring more life to the definition of mathematics, to our preconceived ideas about “math,” to see math as it really is, and be inspired to study?
Ultimately, we labor (in this case, learn) in order to understand God, the world, and each other. Let’s consider another definition of mathematics by James Nickel, author of Mathematics: Is God Silent?, to work toward developing a more vibrant perspective of math. James posits that mathematics is “an abstract formulation of ideas suggested by the patterned structure of God’s creation”. He further expounds:
It is the artful use of the God-given reasoning processes to make connections...and then to infer and deduce new facts about creation, i.e., to discover the wisdom of God in Christ hidden in creation (see Proverbs 25:2). It is a series of significant assertions about the nature of creation, and its conclusions impact almost all the arts and sciences (...in the context of aesthetical beauty or dominion mandate...).
God has given us specific revelation, the Bible, and general revelation, His creation, to reveal himself to us. Mathematics is a key instrument for the study of creation, through which God’s invisible qualities – His eternal power and divine nature are understood (Romans 1:20). In other words, math enables us to learn about God in ways that would otherwise be hidden to us.
At our classical Christian school, we embrace Plato’s proposition that mathematics provides a window to the soul and orders the mind. Put differently, we are developing logical minds as we acquire mathematical knowledge. Through this effort we allow our soul to take-in and experience more beauty, goodness and truth. Granted, it takes constructive imagination and rigorous practice. But there is value in doing hard things. Pierre Berdeaux, in The Logic of Practice, tells us that the way we construct our world is formed by our habits. Since God created our brains to adapt and change through habits, every thought we think alters the connections within our neural network. Our habits of thought are important. Through the study of mathematics, we are rewiring our brains to experience creation and the God who made the world and us in new and different ways. There is intrinsic beauty and complexity in mathematics. It parallels God’s intrinsic beauty and complexity. But even if you don’t appreciate the beauty in the mathematical equations for light, for example, the four equations that unfold to describe the self-perpetuating, life-giving, self-sustaining energy of particle-like electromagnetic wave packets that cannot be destroyed, and even if you do not marvel at the eloquence of these symbols and variables that provide the models for power generation, electric motors, wireless communication, lenses and radars, you will still know God better.
If I could give one piece of advice to all students in Christians schools, it would be this: be faithful in the little things.
This advice is certainly not original, and it is not glamorous, but this is what I have learned from great Bible characters that we all admire. I think Daniel is a wonderful example of showing faithfulness in the little things. Daniel went from being a prisoner of the king of Babylon, to the second most powerful man in the kingdom.
Daniel was a sharp and good-looking Jew that was taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar when he conquered Jerusalem. Daniel did his best to remain faithful to God as a prisoner and servant in the palace. This came at great sacrifice to Daniel, as he had to say no to the king’s food to follow the kosher laws. Daniel prayed three times a day. He scheduled it into his busy life of helping run the greatest empire that had ever existed. His daily praying was not glamorous, but his faithfulness in little things every day formed Daniel into a fearless man who would be willing to defy the king rather than stop worshiping God.
Daniel’s three friends were made of similar stuff. While all were forced to bow down to a statue of the king, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego stood. Can you imagine the peer pressure they experienced at that moment as they stood out like sore thumbs, the soldiers walking towards them to haul them into an oven? I would have broken into a cold sweat.
Daniel and his friends were living in exile under a government that did not acknowledge God, but God used them and their faithfulness to convert the kingdom of Babylon into one where God was feared and worshipped. Nebuchadnezzar, the king who had his people worship him like a god, wrote:
“For he is the living God and he endures forever; his kingdom will not be destroyed, his dominion will never end. He rescues and he saves; he performs signs and wonders in the heavens and on the earth. He has rescued Daniel from the power of the lions.”
But what does this have to do with school?!
One of the most important goals that we teachers have is to help students form a virtuous character through habit. We are helping students become strong men and women who are faithful in the work that God has given them, and this is done through work we consider valuable. So, it is the habit-forming tasks like memorizing Latin vocabulary, or understanding formulas, or memorizing syllogisms that shape a student’s character.
Jesus said that “he who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much (Luke 16:10).” God likes to entrust us with small challenges in preparation for the great challenges that are to come. These great challenges are not only roles such as parenting, jobs, leadership, etc., but also the challenges that we will have in the new heavens and the new earth.
“Do you not know that we shall judge angels?” (1 Cor 6:13). If our heavenly calling is to judge angels, should we not be preparing for it? As sons and daughters of God, do we perceive our education as a preparation for royalty that will eventually rule? Or do we see our education as just preparing us for a good job in this earth? Let us make sure we do not undersell ourselves in our heavenly calling.
Finally, consider David, who had no idea of the work that God was preparing him for when he was a shepherd. But when he was not fighting lions and bears, he was composing worship songs and watching over his flock. He did not know he was being prepared to rule a kingdom, but since he was faithful as a shepherd, he was prepared to be faithful as a king. So, student, be faithful in the little things, for this will prepare you to be faithful in the great ones.
“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.”
I can still remember administering a standardized test in my classroom and having my students filling out the obligatory student information sheet with their full name, address, gender, and then it came to race. “Fill in the bubble next to your race.” Many of my students looked at me, baffled, for so many could not answer. They did not know if they were Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hawaiian, German, English, or French! I was shocked and assigned for homework that they ask their parents what ethnicity they were. At first, I was thrilled that my students were color-blind. Boastfully, I would tell my friends and family that my students did not see each other’s race and how wonderful that was, or, so I thought.
Then one day, I realized that I was mistaken. I want my students to know their heritage and to be proud of their ancestors. Have we become a society where we should not see the color of each other’s skin? Should we not notice the olive-shaped eyes or the varied face shapes, or the blonde hair and blue/brown eyes? Do we tease one another in jest? Some of these words and phrases are playful, while others bring fear into our hearts.
The Hawaii we know and love is a beautifully diverse place, a mixed-plate of Caucasian families and many Asian and Pacific Islander cultures of different generations. It is easy to think in paradise that we are different from the mainland and exclude ourselves from what is going on in the news. We hear about the racial tensions and discussions about the elections and politics. From the beach where we stand, it is hard to tune into those conversations and easy to exclude ourselves. But the reality is that sin or racism is not just a mainland problem nor only a problem of the past. As long as there are people, sin will be prevalent. Hawaii has over a million people, and we are just as fallible as anywhere else. Our culture of aloha, the culture of love and hospitality is also a Christian value. But aloha cannot be passive, for it is a verb. It should be one of action; calling out areas where aloha is not present without violence or bearing false witness. Racism is devoid of aloha.
Our God also calls us to be empathetic. He says to weep with those who weep, rejoice with those who rejoice. Apostle Paul’s understanding of being coworkers with Christ means working alongside Christ to share the love and share aloha. We may see cruelty and not understand the premise behind it, but I believe we should treat people with dignity and respect. Pastor Todd Capen also reminded me of the Good Samaritan, who had compassion for the beaten one, as written in Luke 10: 25-37. I remember reading this story as a little girl and how it impressed upon me our need to be compassionate. I am now just as passionate about wanting to instill this same teaching to our keiki.
At TCS, if a student hurt another student in either word or deed; I would pull them aside and, in essence, say, “How could you hurt one of my students?” I try to communicate to them that I will protect them, for they are my students! Just as I believe our Lord grieves when we treat His creation unkindly, that he wants us to respect one another as we would like to be respected. He wants us to embrace our ethnic and cultural differences in each other because that’s how He created us!
Allow us to consider why we might treat someone with disregard? Is it fear or pride that prevents us from seeing one another through the eyes of Christ? At Trinity, we embrace the mixed-plate of cultures we have in Hawaii. May we always show aloha in action, word, and deed to our classmates and colleagues.
May our Profile of a Graduate be reflected in our Trinity students and our whole Trinity community. “Trinity aims for graduates that love God, love others, love learning, think and communicate effectively, engage culture, delight in beauty, and walk humbly.”