The Calculus of Faith

“What’s calculus?” Gwyn asked over dinner. Both Emily and I took calculus in high school but neither of us could answer, me because I’d promptly forgotten everything once I took the AP test, and Emily because how do you explain calculus to a ten-year-old? “It has to do with measuring amounts that change over time, like a car picking up speed,” Emily said. “Maybe?”

A week later the three of us were at church, about to serve a free meal, when we struck up a conversation with our pastor. Topics leapt from Gwyn’s deep skepticism about the existence of God to her passion for math. Paula said to Gwyn, “My relationship with math stopped growing when I was about your age.”

I could relate. I deftly avoided math in college, but I remember attending my good friend Heather’s thesis defense; Heather is a genius who started college-level math at age 11 and manages to make math sound magical, playful, and pertinent. I listened to her enthuse about dimensions beyond the four I could imagine and realized suddenly that what I’d known as math up until then (memorizing formulas, plugging in numbers, despising how empty it all seemed) was practically unrelated to the invisible structural wonders of Heather’s universe. I, too, have an immature relationship with math.

Then, that same evening at church, a guy came through the line balancing his plate on a textbook. “Studying over dinner?” I asked, spooning Ranch dressing on his salad.


Gwyn gave him an orange. Instead of offering him a cookie, Emily asked, “Is that a calculus textbook?”


“Can you explain calculus to us?” About twenty people were waiting in line behind him, but this guy said, without blinking, “Calculus deals with the properties of derivatives and integrals of functions, by methods originally based on the summation of infinitesimal differences”—or something like that; I copied out this definition because whatever he said went in one ear and out the other. The three of us were amazed, we thanked him, and we remained clueless.

A few days later we called Heather over Skype. While she told Gwyn stories of figuring out how to walk on a mountain if you don’t want your height to change, I was so absorbed in the miracle of Gwyn getting it that I forgot to pay attention. Thank goodness there’s an adult in Gwyn’s life eyes spark at the magnificence of mathematics.

But I’m also grateful to our pastor, who sees Gwyn’s cynicism about that great bearded white guy in the sky for what it is—an early and woefully simplistic understanding of (and then rejection of) holiness. Here’s hoping we can communicate to Gwyn—to anyone, to everyone—the beautiful calculus of faith.    –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew


One last drop-in spiritual memoir class before we break for the summer.  Please join me at Wisdom Ways on Friday, June 14 from 1:30-3:30 to explore revision as a spiritual practice. Here’s the description:

Stephen King says, “Write with the door closed, rewrite with the door open”—but we can open that door slowly and deliberately. To conclude our season of celebrating community, we’ll explore life-giving ways to welcome others’ eyes as a means for re-seeing our work. How can we preserve our sense of safety, freedom, and exploration in the writing process while also sharing our writing? Might our memoirs help us foster sacred connections to others?

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