“I am a mathematician”

When people wonder what makes me write the way I do, I want to explain it all in four words: “I am a mathematician.”

I want to say this because it explains everything. But it also risks meaning the opposite of what I want it to mean. That is because there are two kinds of mathematician, and they are opposites. 

There are two ways of loving mathematics. One is because it teaches absolute truth and if you remember what you have been taught then you will always be right. The other way is to love maths is because it talks about truth. Truth is truth is truth. No truth is true because mathematics says it is. Mathematics has revealed it and described it: it has not made it true.

This is of course the age-old dichotomy between authority and reason, in slightly different clothes. It works itself out in various ways. If you love authority, you need to memorise what authority tells you. If you love reason, you need remember nothing. You only need to be able to work out truths as and when you need them.

I am the second kind of mathematician. I love reason. When I am told something that is true, I love knowing that it is true for a reason, and I love knowing that if I ever questioned it, I would have a chance of discovering what the reason is, rather than just being told “it is true because somebody says so“.

To examine the Creed with the eyes of a mathematician of the first kind would be strange and a little bit ridiculous. The authority of mathematics is not theological authority and the statements of the Creed are not mathematical theorems. But with the eyes of a mathematician of the second kind, the Creed opens vistas of delight. The Creed is full of truths, and since all truths make sense, these truths must make sense too. 

It is a joy to be able to look forward to seeing what sense they make. The attempt may be successful or it may not be; but it is delightful in itself. Both success and failure are good, because whether one succeeds or whether one fails, one is following the basic principle that the truth of God, like all other truth, makes sense.

Why I write

I hate facts. I hate things that are meant to be true just because someone says they are. Whatever is true ought to be true because of its truth: because it makes sense. That is the delight of it all: to find out what sense something makes; or try to; or trust that one day someone will.

If you were high-minded you might describe this as engagement with Truth rather than standing outside Truth and labelling it. Myself, I am low-minded. All I say is, if legs are made for dancing as well as walking, then why shouldn’t the mind be for rejoicing with, as well as for getting things right?

Maths is one expression of the core of it, but that statement is so easily misunderstood that I’d better not say it. There are people who love maths because it is all hard facts and once you have got them right you are right and no one can say you are wrong. I love it for the opposite reason. Maths is full of facts you don’t have to remember, because if you forget one of them you can work it out from what you already know. After all, we only know these things in the first place because someone in the past did just that.

Downside, when I was there, was a boys’ school attached to a monastery. That made its religious atmosphere unique. You might even say that it was as imperceptible as the Spirit, because it was soaked into the bones and stones of the place. A healthy body has no need to study the nature and causes of health: it just lives and breathes.

The monastic community encompassed a range of personalities, many of them incompatible. The community that was the school tolerantly accommodated the studious and the sporty, the sane and the mad, the lock-pickers and bomb-makers, the brewers and the keepers of birds of prey. Our explicit religious education was sparse and often tangential (my housemaster conveyed the message of love of neighbour by telling us not to leave cigarette-butts floating in the urinals).

But that did not mean that God was not there to be talked about and even argued about. Religion at Downside did not mean you were good if you believed the right things and bad if you believed the wrong ones. One monk told me he was always glad when a boy announced he was an atheist because it meant he was thinking about things (life is long, and God will guide the mind to truth). It was in Dom Mark’s theology class that I learned the value of argument about serious things – but still more, the sheer delight of it.

Universalis is probably the next big cause of my writing this book. The whole story of Universalis is best told in another place, but as well as changing thousands of lives, it changed mine. Above all there was the collection of patristic readings (one each day) showing people in the early centuries of the Christian era confronting what had happened, coming to terms with it, and… yes, making sense of it, each in their own way. This was not a textbook: it was life.

And so at last to this book. I conceived the idea of going through the Creed and seeing it not so much as “true because It Says Here” but true because it makes sense – because God gave us minds to love sense with, and we should receive that gift with joy. My philosophy examiners at Oxford reported “Refreshingly, he approaches the questions as if for the first time”. (They didn’t know how true that was. Or perhaps they did: you can never tell, with dons). And so The Creed in Slow Motion approaches the phrases of the Creed “as if for the first time” just as the Christians of the early centuries did – opening each of them up to thought and, with any luck, understanding.

There are books which are “prophet on a mountain” books. The erudite thinker goes off and thinks through everything and comes back and puts it all in a book, and we in our turn all read, admire and believe. The Creed in Slow Motion is a “friend on a hill” book. Come, let’s go together up that hill over there and perhaps we’ll see the view more clearly. We are not face to face, one of us teaching the other – we are shoulder to shoulder, both looking out on the same landscape, pointing out to each other the things we spot. If we agree, that is good. If we don’t agree, that is in some sense even better: after all, we are side by side, and left eye and right eye never see exactly the same view.

This is not a book to say “it says here” about. It is a book to give you ideas and make you think: a book to make you more alive.

John Buchan said about The Thirty-Nine Steps, “I exhausted my store of what Americans call ‘the dime novel’ and was driven to write one for myself”. I could say the same kind of thing about my own book; and now that it is finished, I think that The Creed in Slow Motion is a book I would like to read.

The book

“The Creed in Slow Motion”, by Martin Kochanski, has been published by Hodder & Stoughton on 30 June 2022. 

The Creed is the bones of Christianity, but even people who recite it regularly don’t always hear what it is saying. It is time we all renewed our encounter with the core of our faith.

The Creed in Slow Motion is the book for that encounter. It is not a textbook or a holy manual – it does not tell you what to believe, but phrase by phrase it reflects, expounds and explores. It inspires you to obey the Gospel commandment, to ‘love the Lord your God with all your mind.’

If God can be loved with the mind then Christianity makes sense; and God makes sense. The Creed in Slow Motion assumes no knowledge of theology: being human is all you need. Full of wit and clarity, it draws examples from real-life stories, history and even science. It will help believers to understand what they are committing themselves to; and unbelievers to know what exactly they disbelieve, and why.


Martin Kochanski holds an MA in Mathematics and Philosophy from the University of Oxford. For the last twenty-five years he has been creating, editing and expanding Universalis, a web site and set of apps which bring the prayers, psalms and readings of the Liturgy of the Hours of the Catholic Church into everyone’s reach. Across the world tens of thousands of people, from all denominations, use it daily.

Publication details

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“The Creed in Slow Motion”, by Martin Kochanski, is published by Hodder & Stoughton on 30 June 2022 in the UK and 18 October 2022 in the USA. The ISBN is 9781399801546.

The e-book is published worldwide on 30 June 2022.

The Creed in Slow Motion blog is full of essays, audio and video, telling you about aspects of the book and how and why it was written. 

To find out how to get the book, and for other information (sample chapters, review copies, interviews, translations and so on) please see this comprehensive blog post.

 

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