Knowing truth: statistics and faith

Andi Wang considers how academic modes of thinking interact with knowing through faith.

I have always loved solving problems. Even as a four-year-old child in primary school, apparently my teacher once remarked to my parents that I was a “deep thinker”. Throughout my schooling I was naturally drawn to mathematics, and found deep satisfaction in solving problems carefully and systematically. As an undergraduate I pursued a degree in mathematics at Cambridge, and specialised in probability and statistics. Today, I am a PhD student in the Department of Statistics in the University of Oxford where I (try to) rigorously prove useful mathematical properties of statistical algorithms.

Growing up I also had the privilege of being raised in a largely Christian home and as such have considered myself a Christian for a long time. As I matured and began to seriously consider the beliefs I dogmatically accepted as a child, my default mode was to use my analytical and unashamedly logical mind to think things through “objectively”. At that time I stumbled across the field of Christian apologetics, and found satisfactory reasons justifying Christian faith, although the reasons I (continue to) follow Christ presently are very different from those I would have given then.

And today, as a theologically-interested lay-Christian, I continue to find great intellectual satisfaction in pondering and discussing the big questions of faith. What does it mean to “believe” in something? How did those in ages past see themselves in relation to God? What does it mean for the Bible to be “true” today?

Such problems are undoubtedly important and relevant for the church today. They are particularly appealing to me as interesting problems to ‘solve’ or as phenomena to ‘explain’. However, as a result I often find myself falling into the trap of an overly intellectualised mindset with relation to my faith. The temptation that creeps in is to see elements of my faith as primarily intellectual or conceptual — as if being a Christian could be reduced to merely understanding and assenting to a set of ideas. This reductionism forgets entirely that ultimately, belief and faith are manifested in actions and deeds, not ideas. The epistle of James bluntly reminds us that faith without works is dead.

Jesus himself in John’s gospel tells us that He is the way, the truth and the life. If we take this seriously this means that truth, fundamentally, is not abstract and propositional, as if all truth could be reduced to precise mathematical theorems with accompanying proofs. Fundamentally, truth is embodied and relational. After all, if you claim to “know” or “believe” something, but it doesn’t change the way you live, do you really know it?

For instance, knowing the definition of dyothelitism and the fact that spirit in Hebrew is ruakh is useful for my Christian life inasmuch as it helps me to better live out my calling to be a bearer of the divine image and a redeemed servant of Christ. Christ is far more interested in whether or not I am growing in humility and thankfulness than whether or not I understand the Ancient Near East setting of Old Testament Israel.

In Dostoevsky's classic The Brothers Karamazov the pious young Alyosha finds himself unable to defend his faith in light of his brilliant brother Ivan’s savage intellectual assault. As the conversation ends Alyosha — meek and humbled, having admitted intellectual defeat — rises and kisses Ivan on the cheek. Perhaps in this touching moment Dostoevsky is also trying to remind us that genuine faith is manifested in action, not ideas.

If you are a person of faith within the academy, then you almost certainly will have a proclivity for ideas and wrestling with difficult problems. As someone who spends most of the day with my head in the highly-abstract, infinite-dimensional mathematical clouds, I certainly need to be reminded from time to time that my faith is not another problem that I need to ‘solve’. Wrestling with difficult elements of faith and thinking things through carefully is clearly necessary, but it is only one facet of becoming more Christlike and growing in wisdom and character. It is certainly not a substitute.

For reflection:

1. How does your discipline train you to think? Does this interact with how your Christian community expects or encourages you to think?
2. Are you sometimes tempted reduce growth in Christlikeness to ‘understanding more’ or solving problems?
3. How can rational engagement with ideas form part of our growth in wisdom and character, rather than overwhelming or invalidating it?

 Andi is a DPhil student in the Department of Statistics at Oxford University, conducting research to the mathematical properties of Monte Carlo algorithms.

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