Bishop Guli's Blog, Talks and Publications

When the numbers don’t add up

I read a heart-warming story this week about Caucher Birkar, a Kurdish refugee who arrived in this country aged 21 and persuaded Nottingham University to accept him as a maths student. Now, 19 years later, he’s a distinguished academic at Cambridge University, has been awarded the Fields Medal (the mathematical equivalent of the Nobel Prize) and has just returned to Nottingham for a special award to honour his achievements.
Many of us – and I’m definitely one such – don’t begin to understand the complexities of the world of mathematics. But I am aware that our lives are often governed by what seems a simplistic relationship to numbers. Take Brexit, for example. In what was a referendum with a binary choice a relatively small margin of difference unleashed a whole new direction, dominating our political and social landscape. In recent weeks we’ve watched parliament voting on different deals, again and again failing to get even the smallest of majorities needed. There’s a desperate race simply to get across the numerical line and yet parliamentary arithmetic just refuses to add up.
In church life too there can be an obsession with numbers as statistics are gathered and the success rate of initiatives measured according to numerical data. Anxiety grows over whether congregation sizes are going up or down as if size in itself is an indicator of how faithfully the church is following its calling to be salt and light in the world.
Numbers matter – they’re essential to democracy and they do matter in the life of the church. But if, in our everyday lives, we allow ourselves to be ruled by the tyranny of numbers we will, I suspect, fail to find long term solutions to real challenges – the underlying causes of dissatisfaction in society, for example, or the deep seated questions about the place of faith in contemporary culture. In the end, when all the number crunching is said and done, how do we build communities where the human dignity of all is recognised and valued?
The same Jesus who was happy feeding a crowd of 5000, also said, “where two or three are gathered, I am there among them.” Fundamentally, there are things far more important than the kind of success related to numbers. And, it seems, the field of mathematics recognises that too. Professor Ivan Fesenko who welcomed the young Birkar to Nottingham all those years ago writes of his belief that “the deepest things in mathematics are determined by forces above us” – that the purity of numbers and the equations they create are signs of a far deeper order. Surely, it’s that deeper order that’s worth exploring further even as we continue to be carried on a tide of numbers.

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