I recently caught up with the BBC’s A Brief History of Mathematics with professor Marcus du Sautoy of Oxford university.* For a non-specialist such as I, it’s an enlightening crash course into some of the great turning points in modern Maths and the people who made the ground-breaking discoveries.
In the final episode, Prof. du Sautoy makes a very important point: while all the break-throughs he relates in the series have been of fundamental importance in the development not only of Mathematics but also much of modern natural science, none of the mathematicians in question set out to find solutions to practical problems. Rather, they were simply interested in dealing with purely mathematical problems. In other words, they worked at mathematics purely for the sake of it, for the love of mathematics. And it is precisely because of this that their work had such an impact: it was entirely unrestricted by practical considerations or utilitarian demands—they were driven by questions of mathematics, therefore driving their mathematics to the highest level, which has then yielded maximum benefit for physicists, chemists, biologists, engineers and countless others.
What a fantastic principle, one that has been almost entirely forgotten in our pragmatic age. The applications are countless. Take education. What would be the benefits for our children if education once more became an end in itself, rather than a pragmatic preparation-for-a-job, a utilitarian skills-honing process for future employees? Learning in order to learn, subjects with practical relevance and subjects with none, in order to shape minds and personalities. It’s not hard to see how all of society would benefit far more from such classical education than from today’s narrow diet [at least the one on offer in most schools in the UK].
But I have another hobby horse of even greater importance. It was while studying theology as an undergraduate that I first encountered first-hand this stultifying pragmatism amongst Christians. People would ask me in all seriousness what on earth I thought the point of studying theology was. I mean, what good theology ever do for Christianity? Just so much hair-splitting over irrelevant questions while people were going to hell. Why not get out there and evangelise instead?
Or if one must be a theologian, why not stick to useful topics? Stuff with contemporary relevance that saves souls here and now.
Whereas it is precisely the opposite that best saves souls. Not only is it that studying theology—God’s revelation of Himself—for its own sake is not only the most worthwhile thing to do (in Cambridge, it was theology, not mathematics, that was traditionally considered the Queen of the Sciences; yet another reason to prefer the Light Blues over the Dark Blues), because it deals with, studies, the one thing that is necessary.
And because it is the study of the word of God, theology is an inexhaustible well of learning, a limitless object of study. And as in mathematics, theology must be allowed to have its own agenda. It is when it is studied for its own sake, answering the questions it poses itself, without our own limited and limiting agendas, that we encounter the greatest discoveries, the most wonderful surprises—and the most fruitful ones.
And if we want to find answers to today’s questions, answers that are genuine and enduring—and questions that are real questions rather than perceived ones—we will need to have studied God’s word just for its own sake, leaving our narrow horizons at the door.
*For any non-European readers: over here, a professor is someone who holds a seat in a university, the highest academic position to hold. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can become a PhD, only the best become professors. So that makes prof. du Sautoy one of the top mathematicians at Oxford.