Math Homework and finding God.

Image by doviende via Flickr

My good friend Steve recently expressed his irritation with helping his son with math homework.       Steve was noticing that the new ways of teaching kids how to do pretty basic things (such as adding) are actually more difficult than the old fashioned way we learned to do things.

This is not the first time I’ve noticed this irritation.  My wife expresses it frequently.   The truth is that I can sympathize with where these people are coming from, but I don’t have a problem with these new methods.   In some cases, it’s accurate to notice that the new ways actually do make things more difficult.

In other cases, I’d like to suggest that this only appears to be the problem, that these things are more difficult.  There’s actually a different problem, lurking underneath.

The thing that is interesting to me is that it’s not just irritation I’ve noticed from some people.  There’s also this sense of indignation.  (Just for the record, I don’t get that sense from the aforementioned Steve.)  Irritation we ought to expect.  Indigination, though?  I think that requires a little pondering. 

I’d like to suggest that some of this indignation is borne out of this idea that you’re not supposed to do things the new way.  The “real” way to do things is the way we were taught.

Feeling this way about math is almost to be expected.  On the surface, math doesn’t appear to be a very subjective thing.  It’s not a place where it appears we need to make much room for a diversity of opinions.

The thing that we forget, when we get indignant about new and different ways to do math is that the objective part is in the solution to math problems.  The objective part is that 2 + 2 = 4.   It would be pretty silly to debate the truth of this fact.

But this does not mean the method that a particular person uses to determine this answer is any more sacrred than any other way.  It does not mean that the symbols that we all agree to use have any inherent use.

For example, somebody at some point decided that the little half-rectangle house thing was a good way to calculate division.  This person decided that one number could go inside the house.  The other other number goes to the left of the house.  They divised this whole ritual that ends up with the answer on top, and the remainder (or decimal) to the right of the answer.

Somebody decided that we ought to use a line to mean subtraction.  They decided that we would start with the ones.  They thought it made sense to go top to bottom and left to right. 

There are many ways to calculate correct answers.  There are countless symbols we can use.  These methods and symbols aren’t bad.  They are necessary.  But they aren’t true in the same sense that the answers are true.

Math homework is not important in the cosmic scheme of things.  But I think the lesson is critically important, here.

We human beings have this tendency to mistake the process for the end product.  When we have found a method that consistently gets us true answers we have this tendency to make an idol out of the path.  We want to assume that our method is the only way to consistently find truth.

(A caveat: I’m not saying that all paths are equally good.  I’m saying that all paths that consistently lead to the truth are eqaully good.)


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The stories that speak to our soul begin at a home where things are good. Cinderella is happy with her father. The three little pigs have grown up and are ready to move on. Bilbo Baggins knows his shire. Adam and Eve walk with God in the garden. My story isn’t much different. There was a time and a place where it was so good. There was a community for me. And there was joy. We were filled with a sincere desire to do what God wanted us to do. We possessed explanations and understandings that went a certain distance. We offered security and tradition and laughter. For a lot of years, that was enough. I have this sense that it was also necessary. I have this surety, now, that it certainly wasn’t everything. There were some things that became increasingly problematic as time went by. There was a desire to package things up so very neatly. Sunday morning services were efficient and strategic. Responses to differences of opinion were premeditated. Formula began to feel more important than being real. A real desire for everybody to be one of us, but also a real sense that there is an us, and there is a them. They carried a regret that it has to be this way, but deeper than this regret was a surety that this is how it is. I began to recognize that there was a cost of admission to that group. There were people who sat at the door, collecting it. Those people wished they didn’t have to. But I guess they felt like they did have to. They let some people in, and they left others out. There was a provisional membership. My friends did possess a desire to accommodate people that are different… But it would be best for everyone concerned if they were only a little bit different. I did make many steps forward in this place. Before I went there, there were lies that I believed. Some of the things that I learned there, I still hold on to. But that place is not my home anymore. Those people are not my community anymore. There were times it was hard. I am engaged in a different community now. And I am working hard at finding a place in many different places now, embracing many different kind of families. I don’t always get it right. I am trying and I am learning and I am moving foreward. I have this sense that I am not alone in these experiences. I believe that we are tribe and we are growing. We are pilgrims, looking for a new holy land. Perhaps we won’t settle on the same spot of land. But if you’ve read this far, I am thinking that we are probably headed in the same general direction. I have begun this blog to talk about where my journey is taking me. In every space, we find people who help us along. And maybe we can get to know each other, here. We embrace ideas that provide a structure for the things we believe, and perhaps we can share these too. Maybe we can form a group, a tribe, a community, if we can figure out a way to work through the shadow of these kinds of groups, if we can bigger than the us-and-them ideas that have caused so much trouble in the past. As important as they are, I think the very nature of online interactions will lend itself to something equally powerful. I am stumbling onto these practices that my grandfathers and great grandfathers in the faith engaged in. I am learning about these attitudes and intuitions are so different than the kinds of things we call doctrine today. I don’t know about you, but I am running out of patience, and even interest, in conversations about doctrine. I hope that maybe you’ll share a little something about where your journey is taking you, and maybe our common joys and challenges might help each other along, and we might lift each other up. Thanks for doing this journey with me.

2 thoughts on “Math Homework and finding God.”

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