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The New Math of Faith

Saturday, May 4th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Deuteronomy 28) transports me to High School senior year math class, a pre-calc course with Coach Carroll, who took the derivatives and integrals he instructed on the blackboard as seriously as he did the two-handed backhands and spin serves he instructed on the tennis court. It seems unlikely now, after years of telling everybody how much I hate math and that I went to seminary because they didn’t offer any math courses, but up until that point in my senior year I actually liked math and did fairly well in the classes; it all seemed like a puzzle-solving game. During that year I had talked with Mr. Carroll about the kind of careers that would make use of the stuff I had learned in algebra and trig, and he pointed me toward engineering. I was just at the point of getting really interested in the basic premises of calculus, which is essentially the calculation of change, when the calculus of my life took over and I made one of those stupid teenage boy mistakes. When you plot a graph of teeage boys in a car on the y axis, and availability of grain alcohol on the x axis, the downward slope is pretty predictable. A buddy and I double dated to a school dance, stopped off at a liquor store and found somebody foolish enough to sell us a fifth of bourbon, which we polished off on our way to the dance. The episode of that night is a story to itself, which I’ll leave for another time, but for the purposes of the story at hand, I got suspended from school for 2 weeks. Which means, among many other things, that I missed out on the two crucial and foundational weeks of learning the logic of calculus, basic functions of rising and falling slopes and infinitesimals and convergences. Everything that followed for the rest of the year was built on this basic knowledge that I lacked, and I was completely lost the rest of the way. The frustration that followed led me to the conclusion that I hated math and wouldn’t be able to engineer my way out of a paper bag.

When I read through the long set of blessings and cursings in Deuteronomy 28, it makes me picture Moses formulating a couple of simple equations on the blackboard. On the y axis of the graph, you have the units of obedience to God’s way. On the x axis, you have divine blessings. The next formula has units of disobedience on one axis, and divine curses on the other. No need for complicated calculus here; the lines are straight in both these functions. Like any good math teacher, Moses uses narrative imagery to jazz up the numbers puzzle. The blessings basically involve what happens to the fruit of the womb and what happens to the fruit of one’s labor. In both cases, they prosper, as the heavens open up and rain down an abundance of the treasured good life. Vineyards and orchards produce bumper crops, bringing to the table all the wine and olive oil you need for the good life. Children grow up hearty and hale. The cursings also focus on the fruit of the womb and the fruit of one’s labor. Here, though, the heavens open up and rain down a depressing dust storm. What little you are able to sow and grow, someone else will reap. You’ll tend the grape vines, but your conquering enemies will enjoy the wine. The most horrific consequence of disobedience, though, the steepest fall, comes to the cursed children. Conquering enemies will hold the city in siege, creating such a desparate hunger that mothers and fathers will be eating their own offspring to survive.

I’m guessing that the Deuteronomic leaders were teaching these simple mathematical equations, giving the ratios of rise to run regarding obedience and the blessed life, disobedience and the cursed life, in order to motivate this fledgling covenant community to hold to the standards of behavior that identified them as a community, as a people. There is a foundational truth to simple equations, which we experience when we do things like drink a fifth of bourbon at age 17 and then get behind the wheel of a car. The line to catastrophe is pretty straight. But, over time, the faith community began to see that not all of life is so simple. They began experiencing other, more complex realities, and the formulas did not always hold true. Sometimes people were faithful, and as Job learned, still became victimized by a cursed life. Other times people were unfaithful and appeared to be enjoying an abundantly bountiful table and healthy children. The rise to run is more often an up and down sloping curve, rather than a straight line, with the evidence sometimes directly contradicting the assumptions of Moses’ math. Jesus, in his own ethical formulations, was something of an Isaac Newton, who had looked at the evidence of the earth’s revolution around the sun, realized that the old math was not adequate to the task of explaining the data, and invented calculus. Jesus looked around and saw that the rain fell and the sun shone on the just as well as the unjust. The data demonstrated that you could maintain complete fidelity to the work of the gospel, but 3 times out of 4 your work would be in vain, and you eventually might get cursed and crucified. In the new equation, Jesus advocated for a patient and persistent holding to the path, even though it may fall steeply at times before it rises, because he had confidence that at the end of the day there would be a convergence of blessing and faithfulness. It’s the same calculus posited by Martin Luther King, Jr., when he said that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Whenever I try to understand how that is happening, how it all works, I often feel like I did back in Mr. Carroll’s class, like I’ve missed some crucial information. And we haven’t even gotten to physics and chaos theory.Understanding the derivative rate of social change relative to the various movements attempting to bring about that change by living faithfully to the Way of Jesus remains a mystery to me.  That’s probably why I’ve been a complete flop most every time I’ve tried engineering social change. Which means, as seminary taught me, that I live by faith, not by sight, in this topsy turvy curved slope of life.

How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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