Of course, sermons like this are a big part of what made me feel a need to write a book like Dot, Dot, Dot: Infinity Plus God Equals Folly. Who needs a book about infinity and God? Anyone who wants to inoculate themselves from the kind of nonsense presented in sermons like in this video, which being based upon mathematics have a high likelihood of being able to blind someone with
I don't know this, but I suspect we're going to be hearing more mathematics from pastors in the coming years. Too many people with too many voices know too much science for them to keep railing on it. Indeed, it chases many young people away to go anti-science for Jesus. Mathematics, though, is a subject that most people are shockingly ignorant of, it's awe-inspiring in its own weird ways, and it possesses enough similarity to theology--in that it's abstract and axiomatic--to really be able to wow an audience. Since the majorities of most audiences are likely to be both ignorant and afraid of mathematics, there won't often be a lot of checking for nonsense, and when eyebrows do rise, it's likely that the pastor will be forgiven his lack of expertise in a difficult subject just for the attempt. Thus, pastors will just need to get the peripheries right and talk about big, interesting things that they can somehow tie to God, like infinity.
This pastor isn't an expert either
The first minute of the video seems to be borrowed from a BBC documentary about mathematics and makes a valid point: you can't really count to "big" numbers. No one can. So here's something valid on the periphery, since this isn't going to be the pastor's point at all. Instead, the soft-spoken Van Sloten repeats his chorus throughout the sermon: "As Christians, we worship an infinite God."
I do not intend to give a blow-by-blow analysis of this sermon as that would be both boring and tasteless. (The pastor is clearly not an expert, so it feels a little like getting in a boxing match with a kid.) Though perhaps a bit pedantic, I do want to bolster that statement by noting that within the first minute he speaks, though, Van Sloten reveals his lack of expertise by talking about what we might call "big" numbers: the number googol and then two others, googolplex and Graham's number. The revealed lack of experience occurs blatantly when he mentions googol and then calls googolplex "the next biggest number up" and then says of Graham's number that "of course, there's even a bigger number than a googolplex." Indeed, there are lots of numbers bigger than the googolplex, and also bigger than Graham's number; almost all numbers are bigger than both.
Being inexpert in mathematics, though, is hardly a cardinal sin. In fact, it's quite common. We might celebrate his attempt to stand on a stage and preach mathematics appreciation if it weren't for the fact that he's using it to preach for some seemingly imaginary entity he calls "God," mathematics appreciation being incidental to the entire affair. This shouldn't be celebrated and will here be impugned.
Getting the periphery right
Van Sloten's sermon includes many accurate statements about mathematics: the definition of googol, the definition and details about googolplex, and the details about Graham's number being notable examples just within the first couple of minutes that he talks, noting the above comment, of course. Immediately, though, he's interjecting the idea of mystery into these "colossal" numbers by calling Graham's number a "mystery."
Of course, mystery will be a theme throughout his sermon, for as John W. Loftus has noted, "Faith is a parasite on the mysterious" (Outsider Test for Faith, p. 219). To really highlight the mysteriousness of Graham's number, in fact, Van Sloten notes the "celestial music" played in the background on the BBC documentary while talking about Graham's number. Though it goes without saying, celestial music has nothing to do with Graham's number outside of a documentary production room, and celestial music has nothing to do with "God" except in the minds of those who believe in such notions.
At any rate, Van Sloten goes to make a big point early on and quotes Graham to do so. In the BCC documentary, Ronald Graham notes that "his" number is no closer to infinity than is the number one (I have a chapter about this fact in Dot, Dot, Dot called "All Numbers and All Infinities Are Very Small"). Then he says it for the first time: "As Christians, we worship an infinite God" (emphasis mine). He says this three or four times, in one fashion or another, throughout the video, but just after saying it for the second time, he notes, "mathematics...can teach us about who our infinite God is." I quite agree.
Who is an infinite God?
This question, of course, is nonsense but makes for a nice transition. The right question is "what does 'being infinite' tell us about the idea called 'God'?" This, of course, is a major theme of Dot, Dot, Dot. It tells us that God is abstract.
Van Sloten states that "math is the perfect tool and language with which to engage the logical, reasoned, mathematical mind of God." I'm not at all sure what he means by this, or how he knows that God's mind is so ordered, but he comments that mathematics is "limitless," pointing out further that "while physicists can only go so far, mathematicians can imagine even beyond that with their math" (emphasis mine), meaning that mathematicians are not "fixed or somehow limited by material reality."
Okay, wow. Thanks, Pastor Van Sloten, for making my point while thinking of yours. Insofar as he is right, mathematicians aren't bound by material reality because we work with abstractions, and can imagine even beyond it. The key notions here, particularly when we get to the "mind of God" part, are the imagining and the working with abstractions.
Probably for this reason, along with his lack of mathematical expertise, much of what Van Sloten seems able to conclude about his infinite God is fluff. At one point, he states that what we have is an "infinite number of infinities all pointing to an infinite God," and shortly after he concludes that "we're made to engage an infinite mystery and tremble before it." This is all very poetic, but I don't think it's much more than theological twaddle--nowhere in the infinite number of infinities do I see a single reason to suggest that they point to any God.
Of course, much could be said about humans being "made to engage an infinite mystery," a dubious and probably patently false claim, and much more could be said about being made to "tremble before it." That commentary, though, would be less about mathematics than about the psychology of believers, I think. In that vein, I should note that he included a lot of "fear of God" talk just before the trembling bit, which raises the question of what kind of "New Hope" they peddle up there in Calgary.
It seems to me that Van Sloten is unable to conclude anything of any value from his investigation of God via the mathematical infinite, although he uses quite a lot of language sure to be charged with his audience, ripe for hoodwinking. The term "mystery" comes up several times, as noted, including once as a "mystery that draws us" and another time as we just said, an "infinite mystery" that we're "made to engage." He stresses words like "limitless" in a way that speaks to a non-technical double entendre, and even works in terms like "deliver," perhaps involving "celestial music" instead of banjos but with much the same connotation. Likewise, he suggestively emphasizes mathematically accurate phrases like "greater than what our universe can hold" (so far as we know and possibly probably), "unbounded by physical reality," "awe-inspiring," and "out of this world," but then near the end starts sliding this less toward mathematical accuracy and more toward his agenda with "holy and reverent." Infinity is holy? Really? (Indeed, he suggests that doing math, at least if done well, is holy. Well, I'll be damned.)
Given all that, I'm going to conclude that Van Sloten's analysis upon "As Christians, we believe in an infinite God" says exactly what I think it means: they worship an abstraction, and their use of the word "infinite" is symbolic and poorly understood. If it weren't so troublesome to the rest of us in so many serious ways, I'd say, "Good for them...," and leave it at that.
Get the periphery right and then lean upon authority.
If we're going to concoct a powerful sermon, though, it isn't enough to get the peripheral details right and then stuff in only fluff. It's critical to lean upon authorities.
Van Sloten quotes Galileo at length concerning his seventeenth century thoughts about God and mathematics. Similarly, Johannes Kepler's thoughts on God and mathematics are pulled in, as are Georg Cantor's, which will get some special attention from me later. He also quotes noted mathematicians Keith Devlin and Ian Stewart, which seems a bit peculiar given some of their other writing.
Specifically, he attributes to Devlin a quote that "mathematics makes the invisible visible," although this is actually the subtitle of a book by Devlin titled The Language of Mathematics. For my part, I don't think Devlin is talking about the same thing as Van Sloten with the word "invisible." Van Sloten quotes Ian Stewart as saying, "We encounter mathematics everywhere, every day, but we hardly even know it," and goes on to suggest that this is rather like how God is everywhere and communicates with us every day, though we hardly know it. I strongly suspect this isn't what Stewart was getting at.
It's worth noting that instead of quoting their own works directly, Van Sloten quotes Devlin and Stewart via a 2011 Christian apologetic work called Mathematics Through the Eyes of Faith by James Bradley and Russell Howell. As described on Amazon: "Ina [sic] new addition to the groundbreaking 'Through the Eyes of Faith' series, thenation’s [sic] top Christian professors approach mathematics from a Christianperspective [sic].," and the work is admittedly co-sponsored by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.
Other than by attempting to liken the "quote" from Devlin to a Bible verse (Romans 1:20), making suggestive inferences about Stewart's quotes, and salting his sermon with other verses, the only other authorities Van Sloten calls upon are two "math enthusiasts" from his own congregation, an engineer and a high school mathematics teacher. It is via their commentary and authority, and his own thoughts, that Van Sloten bridges the gap from "awe-inspiring" and "mystery" to "holy and reverent." Indeed, he usurps all of the mathematicians in the BBC documentary at the beginning of the clip and perhaps most, if not all others, by suggesting that "mathematicians all know they were on the edge of something holy" when talking about infinity. Quaerendo invenietis, as always, I suppose.
When in doubt, make it sound official.
Fluff is the stuff of sermons, though, and as a former boss used to tell me about how to bullshit through a tight spot: "When in doubt, just look official, and people won't question you." Van Sloten does this spectacularly at the point where he changes his tempo from misleading math appreciation to outright theological nonsense. I'll quote him.
Infinitely small numbers, going on forever. Infinitely large numbers, far greater than what our universe can hold. Infinity times two, infinite dimensions within which infinity can play out, infinity times infinity, infinity to the power of infinity! It's like there's no end to the study of infinity. An infinite number of infinities all pointing to an infinite God. Something about how wide and long and deep and high that makes up the nature of infinity that is awe-inspiring, not just to the mathematicians--out of this world, a mystery that draws us.I don't even know what to say about this except to call it grade-A sermon fluff, and indeed it makes his direct segue to the theology, "being on the edge of something holy and reverent" when thinking about infinity, which he then connects via "reverent" to the "fear of the Lord." At any rate, it sounds official, but I'm calling it directly into question.
A couple of odds and ends
I'd like to wrap this up here, but I do want to mention Georg Cantor, one of the mathematicians Van Sloten leans upon in his sermon. Cantor gets special attention because Cantor is the mathematician who changed everything about how we study mathematics and especially infinity. He was also very devout, and this caused him some problems.
Cantor believed in God and, following dogma and popular belief, identified God with the infinite. Cantor's discoveries about infinity were fairly upsetting, though, to this dogma and belief, so much so in fact that Van Sloten (quoting Daniel Tammet's book Thinking in Numbers) notes that Cantor had to defend himself and his ideas from charges of blasphemy from the Vatican. Cantor tried to argue that his discoveries were indicative of God revealing more of his "infinite nature" and sincerely believed it, even if it did cause him to experience moments of questioning doubt. Doubts aside, Cantor believed that his work on transfinite mathematics was directly communicated to him by God. This attitude is a bit odd given that one of Cantor's chief discoveries is that given a set of any infinite size, one can use it to create a set with a size described by a larger infinity, making God as the ultimate infinity a difficult position to defend.
Cantor struggled immensely with all of this, defending both his work (upon which he felt his public reputation rested) and his commitment to God, and ultimately remained shaken for the remainder of his troubled life (much of it in an asylum) over ever having questioned God via his work, even momentarily. His story is quite a tragedy of faith.
Why this is important
This isn't the last we'll hear of "God and infinity" talk coming from Christians, and that's a huge part of why I bothered to write Dot, Dot, Dot at all. One needn't be intimidated by the mathematics in order to get familiar enough with the concepts at play to clearly understand why Van Sloten's sermon is hollow and misleading, and there may very well be a growing need to be able to help our faith-laden friends see it for themselves as well.
If Pastor Van Sloten or any of his congregation happen to notice this little blog post, I do hope they at least check out my short video including a brief excerpt of text from Dot, Dot, Dot, which I'll embed here in case that happy chance arises. I'd encourage them also to pick up a copy of the book for study in their God @School series.