October 26, 2020

In a recent newsletter, I mentioned being inspired by Thomas Treharne’s Centuries of Meditation. In one of his reflections relating to education Treharne suggests that education should be focused on understanding two key realities, even though we surround ourselves with a multitude of disciplines. These key realities are humanity and divinity – whether our focus area is mathematics, science, literature, geography or physical education, in every case we are encouraged to look for what we can learn about ourselves as created beings and about the creator and sustainer of all that exists.

For many of us, this suggested lens for thinking about what we learn at school may not initially appear to have much explanatory power; it may even seem a rather arcane approach to education reflecting the perspective of people long gone whose worldview we no longer share. But let us not be too hasty in rejecting ideas and perspectives simply because they have been around for centuries. The value of any such ideas or generalities resides in their capacity to help us look anew at the world around us. Ideas of value and worth enable us to see everything through the eyes of a child – they help ups to be full of wonder and amazement at the incredible beauty, gratuity and fortuity of existence. They are like a pair of glasses which expand our perceptive capabilities by bringing into sharp focus the rich tapestries all around us that we failed to see before.

Does this lens offered by Treharne give us opportunities to see things in a new way? Humanity and divinity – how do we see these realities in the midst of what we learn at school? Let me give an example from my own teaching area of mathematics.

Mathematics may seem a strange place to start given that its subject matter is ostensibly neither humanity or divinity, but rather the study of symbolic logic and patterns. But it does gives us an insight into human rationality and our capacity for logic and reasoning. Of all creatures, we alone have developed this capacity for abstract, symbolic reasoning that has enabled us to make sense of the world around us in a way that is remarkably powerful, explaining the world around us as well as predicting what might happen next. Mathematics resides in the immaterial world of our minds, having no necessary link to the physical world. It cannot be explained away by neuronal synaptic processes or some hypothesised evolutionary benefit – it is pursued by mathematicians because of its inherent beauty rather than the passing on of our genetic information to the next generation. Time and again, however, it reveals to us new ways of understanding the physical world which, in turn, enable humanity to flourish and thrive.

It is this strange and unexpected connection between the immaterial and the material worlds which makes mathematics so intriguing. This brings us to the concept of divinity. While mathematics represents a human endeavour focused on investigating patterns and symbolic relationships, it seems to overlap with something that is very fundamental about our physical world. Stephen Hawking, admittedly in an offhand manner, suggests that if we could develop a grand unified theory, then we would know the mind of God. While on one level this may seem like a statement of unwarranted hubris, it is not that far removed from Christian ways of understanding the relationship between humanity and the divine. Human beings, being made in the image of God, have the capacity to act like God, to think like God, to create like God. Our capacity to understand and make use of mathematical systems of thought is one way in which we, as mere mortals, encounter the divine and the eternal. Engaging in mathematical reasoning, and the manner in which we do so, gives us an appreciation of the mind, as well as the heart, of God himself.

To return to Treharne’s original suggestion – does this notion of humanity and divinity as the twofold focus of education provide us with a deeper understanding of our task as educators and of the world around us? It would be impossible to prove such a statement scientifically, but perhaps a brief reflection might be sufficient to see how such a framework opens up for us a richer picture of what it is that we do every day in the classroom and how we might consider the ways in which our understanding of humanity and divinity are profoundly interconnected.