Jonathan Zderad, Ph.D has taught at University of Northwestern since 2000. He has 12 years of teaching experience and has taught more than 20 different mathematics courses. He served as an educational statistician while earning his master’s degree and earned his Ph.D. in educational mathematics from the University of Northern Colorado. He has published a number of articles on the philosophy of mathematics, specifically relating to Christian faith and mathematics.
On Sept. 18, Dr. Zderad opened University of Northwestern’s 2007-08 Faith & Thought Lecture Series with a presentation entitled, “Intersections of Christian Faith and Mathematics.” Recently, Brook Berry, UNW’s vice president for marketing and enrollment management, had a few questions for Dr. Zderad.
Brook Berry: How is the study of mathematics different at Northwestern?
Jonathan Zderad: Here we teach and learn mathematics for the primary purpose of glorifying God.
BB: How do you do that, exactly? Don’t most people believe mathematics and Christianity are totally separate from each other?
JZ: That’s true. The typical argument for separating mathematics from Christianity goes something like this: You get the same result when you add or subtract or multiple or divide two numbers—or for that matter perform any other mathematics process—whether you are a Christian or not. But at UNW, we believe the study of mathematics can be as high a calling as any other Christian ministry. Mathematics is important in your understanding of the nature of God and His creation.
BB: Okay, I’m already starting to lose you. How can mathematics do that?
JZ: Easy. Think about your studies of the Bible, your daily devotions, your listening to sermons. Ever notice that certain numbers, three, four, seven and twelve, for example, seem to come up over and over and over again? And if those quantities show up so often, maybe God is trying to get our attention through this repetition. For example, these numbers play a prominent role in the book of Revelation, and specifically the depiction of the throne room in Heaven. A Christian can use the study of mathematics to help identify how God has chosen to reveal aspects of His nature throughout the Bible (see sidebar).
BB: Right now, I’m imagining missionary mathematicians.
JZ: It’s not as strange as you make it sound. Mathematics is already used by the church to lead non-Christians to an understanding of God. Josh McDowell, Peter Stoner and Dave Arch have all used basic mathematics to discuss the probability that any human could fulfill all of the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning the Messiah.
BB: What are those odds?
JZ: The probability of one person fulfilling every one of the dozens of Messianic prophesies in the Old Testament is a very, Very, VERY large number. A number like one in a google—the number 1 followed by 100 zeroes. The number is so large that it is even more than the number of grains of sand it would take to fill up the entire universe.
BB: So it’s probably safe to say that, mathematically speaking, the “coincidence” theory doesn’t add up?
JZ: Right. The probability of randomly picking a person who fulfilled all of the prophesies of the Old Testament is far less likely than filling the entire universe with sand and randomly picking the particular grain that you identify in advance. Or for a more accessible example—the probability of one in a google is about the same as tossing a coin 332 times in a row and getting tails every single time.
BB: Wow. That’s incredible.
JZ: It was mathematic computations like these that caused Peter Stoner to comment: “Any man who rejects Christ as the Son of God is rejecting a fact proved perhaps more absolutely than any other fact in the world.”
BB: That's terrific. On a slightly different subject, what do you say to people who see mathematics as a kind of esoteric, theoretical discipline? Some say math just isn't their thing.
JZ: The problem with these statements is not so much that they are made, but that the reaction to such statements is a sort of social acceptance or condolence. Imagine making the same comments about any other field of study. Like, “I don't do English—it just isn't my thing.” People wouldn't accept that the same way.
BB: You haven't read my kids' text messages. Apparently, English isn't their thing—and they're fine with that.
JZ: But you're not.
JZ: See? Parents are very concerned if their children are unable to write or read well. But parents seem less concerned if their children dislike math.
BB: Good point. It’s easy to forget the practical applications for math—especially for students who want careers in medicine, technology and business. You need strong math skills to see a strong profit. And business is all about profit, right? Ever think that some businesses put numbers ahead of people—or quality?
JZ: Sometimes. This is because numbers are easy to observe, collect, store and organize. Productivity as a business is commendable. Yet, when productivity becomes the ultimate goal, the results can be negative: longer work weeks, outsourcing overseas, reduced wages and lower quality. Productivity taken to the extreme is the enemy of quality and it is unethical because it doesn’t treat people with respect and it leads to great waste.
BB: Even in the church, sometimes we’re tempted to put numbers ahead of people.
JZ: It’s very easy to define the success of a ministry by keeping track of membership or attendance, the number who have accepted Christ, or the amount collected in the offering plate. If quantity becomes the only way we determine value, then we miss the real heart issues.
BB: Including ethics into the classroom—that brings us back to the Northwestern difference—teaching and learning math to glorify God.
JZ: Faith and mathematics seem to relate after all. This means properly viewing mathematics in its relationship to biblical authority. Also, practically speaking, mathematics helps us in our stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us. I truly believe that mathematics understood from a Christian perspective draws one to God.