The Church’s Job is NOT to Teach 2 + 2 = 4

When you’ve been arguing with the religious right over gay marriage for a while, you get used to having certain comparisons thrown your way: gay marriage is like calling a circle a square, it’s like calling a tail a leg, calling a cat a dog, yada yada yada.

Here’s another common one: gay marriage is like saying 2 + 2 = 5.

Here’s Anthony Esolen, saying that with Obergefell the Supreme Court “has recently decreed that two and two are five”; here’s Ben Carson making the same analogy a year earlier.

The idea is that the Church, and the wiser elements of society, are supposed to reject that sort of funny math and stand up for the good old square arithmetic that we all learned in grammar school. Rod Dreher lays it out here in an exchange last year with Andrew Sullivan:

We have been over and over and over this, and all the vehemence and foot-stomping in the world will not change basic Christianity on this point, and certainly will not change Roman Catholicism. Two plus two will always equal four in Catholicism.

Dreher, in Dreherian fashion, follows that with a dig at my church: “There is a church that takes Andrew’s line on sex; it’s called the Episcopal Church.” No surprise there.

Now, I’ve got really smart readers, so what follows may not be news to many of you, but I’m not a math guy, and this blew me away when I read it last year in Jordan Ellenberg’s “How Not to Be Wrong” column at Slate. Ellenberg, a mathematician at the University of Wisconsin, asks, “Is the repeating decimal 0.999… equal to 1?” And he answers yes, it is.

Here’s the reasoning:

Everyone knows that

0.333… = 1/3

Multiply both sides by 3 and you’ll see

0.999… = 3 / 3 = 1

If that doesn’t sway you, try multiplying 0.999… by 10, which is just a matter of moving the decimal point one spot to the right.

10 x (0.999…) = 9.999…

Now subtract the vexing decimal from both sides.

10 x (0.999…) – 1 x (0.999…) = 9.999… – 0.999…..

The left-hand side of the equation is just 9 times (0.999…), because 10 times something minus that something is 9 times the aforementioned thing. And over on the right-hand side, we have managed to cancel out the terrible infinite decimal, and are left with a simple 9. So we end up with

9 x (0.999…) = 9.

If 9 times something is 9, that something just has to be 1—doesn’t it?

Ellenberg ties his answer to a handful of fascinating paradoxes, including Grandi’s series, named after the 18th Century mathematician who argued that, despite appearances, the sum of the series 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 + 1 – 1 +… equals ½.

Like I said, I this blew my mind. And then, when I read a) that Guido Grandi was a Benedictine monk who tied his findings to the mysteries of creation and b) that divergent series like Grandi’s have been called “the invention of the devil,” my parabolic mind got to work.

Because there is a lesson in there, and I think the lesson is this: the Church’s job is not to teach 2 + 2 = 4. If that’s all she does, then what’s her point? You can learn that counting on the skeletal fingers of Christopher Hitchens’ inanimate corpse.

[Sorry for the image, but it’s the least church-y thing I could come up with.]

The Church’s more important job is to teach how .999…—which never can be 1—is, in fact, 1. The problem is that this is risky work: it opens the Church to a certain type of criticism. Ellenberg notes that this type of thinking might look like relativism; it seems to move away from objective truth. But running that risk is precisely the Church’s job; that’s what makes her indispensable.

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11 thoughts on “The Church’s Job is NOT to Teach 2 + 2 = 4

  1. God did not create homosexuals. God created a man and a woman to find comfort in each other. Homosexuality is a sin just like fornication, adultery, incest. It is a perversion from God’s natural order. It is told repeatedly in the scriptures the God destroyed the lands of Sodom and Gomorrah because of their homosexuality. Homosexuality is a great evil in societies. Supporting it makes you part of it and God will destroy you along with the lands that practice it.

    • Howdy Noorjaved91

      Actually it was Saul who became Paul in the bible was the homophobe, not Jesus. He also convinced people (middle class women/wives) they could give money (called charity) rather than doing the actual work to get into heaven. He was the first “evangelical” and he didn’t like women and was probably gay and deflecting. So you can take your version of the bible and expand on it with actual history… and find out that indeed Jesus would support gay marriage and he’d gently tell you to mind your own business. Paul was NOT Jesus. You are not Jesus. Stop judging.

      • Prophet Jesus and Prophet Lot (May Peace Be Upon Them) were paternal brothers. Prophet Lot was sent to Sodom to advise them to stop their homosexual practices. They did not so God destroyed them and their destruction was a sign for the future generations to not repeat their mistake.

      • Oh… so you’re into the the old testament, ok. I feel that part of the narrative is bizarre, truth be told. But in reading it you find out how much it’s about hygiene. At a time we didn’t understand medicine and clean water or any of that, so the laws were harsher to control venereal diseases essentially and it’s much easier to get men to behave and or fall into an army when they fear god, then to convince them of reasonable information and facts.

        Anyhow, I’m not against Jesus. And I know Jesus would support gay people completely. The men that have come to understand him in their narrower interpretations “know not what they do”.

        Definitely it’s not up to you to tell other who deserves God’s wrath and punishment. But if you do take a closer look at the old testament, God is learning from his children. It may be written as tests for man, but when you get to the new testament you realize God is growing up too and through Jesus softens and is not punishing. Jesus is supposed to be the evolutionary bridge not the nail in the coffin.

        Thanks again for the discourse. It’s fun. 🙂

      • The ancient town of pompeii was also destroyed by God because of their homosexual practices. This is mentioned in the Quran that God destroyed them in a second that they had no time to react. God preserved their bodies to date as a sign for us to learn that homosexuality is wrong. As Prophet Lot said to his people:Why do u practise your lusts on men when God provided for u women. Surely you are astray!. Homosexuality is a great evil. Your society is going to the dogs. First , you make adultery unpunishable now homosexuality. Then what next ?? You will say incest is ok, with consent??!! I am not a bigot. You are the evil people doing unnatural things.

      • Uh, No… pompeii was not destroyed because of homosexuals.

        A big volcano happened. It’s a natural scientific occurrence and the people who migrated and settled there were not aware of earth sciences yet, not that that would have stopped them from building civilization.

        I lived through the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. God was not punishing the Northwest for being gay. We live in an area surrounded by mountain ranges. Some call it “God’s Country” and the Native American thought of these their Gods because when we are humbled by the mother earth we are more reverent and better guardians. We don’t have to waste our time worrying about the love of same sex couples. God is bigger than that.

        The Quran, eh… Are we going to Discuss Mohammed too? Because I studied that book… and really take issue with the sexism I find in the religion… I don’t like having to be so tolerant of the intolerant. But well, that’s my work and or problem.

        I didn’t call you a bigot… so not sure why you need to call me evil. If I am evil, because I am tolerant and loving and whatever, so be it.

        Um, adultery… you want to punish adulterers? And you think ” I ” first made this acceptable too? Wow, I guess have power over people I wasn’t aware of. Thank you. Yes, it’s true I wouldn’t “punish” a person who cheated on their spouse. I think I’d direct them to some couples counseling and or individual help so they could live their more authentic selves and there by be more compassionate to themselves and others.

        I will NOT say incest is okay. That just means you and I have nothing more to talk about as you are entirely off base and showing no ability to have a serious discussion. Emotion is acceptable, but if you’re only going to operate from your gut and not your mind and if you’re gonna leave your heart out of because you’d block love and humane treatment for all… well, that’s between you and Jesus and maybe Muhammed…

        God didn’t “provide women for men”.

        We can now part ways without fear or worry. Life is too short to go around hating people. Go get on the good foot fella.

      • I suggest you read the Quran to learn more about the laws of the universe. God says in the Quran he destroyed Sodom and Pompeii because of their homosexuality and other deviant practices. I believe in the Quran.
        God is the the creator and Prophet Jesus(pbuh) was his creation.

        If u created something, will u learn from the creation?? Ofcourse not!! U will know everything about it because you are the creator!!
        God doesnt need to learn anything from anyone!!

        What do u mean God doesnt care about homosexuality?? Ofcourse God cares about everything that happens in your life!!He knows your very thoughts!! He is All-Knowing. May God Guide You!! Aameen

      • Oh… I have read the quran. And I spoke to a muslim man who was very generous with his time and resources but remained ever stuck and sexist.

        You and I are not having a conversation anymore, Noorjave because you are limited in your understanding.

        That’s okay that your fear has stopped you where you are on the mountain. That doesn’t make you a loser and me the winner. You’re just limited in your ability to understand and need to be where you are, which is a homophobic. That means you are slightly unloving of yourself, more than others. When you become right or centered within your own soul, you will not feel the need to judge me or others so harshly.

        I wish you well on your path.

        an All knowing god isn’t something in a book. it’s not for you to say what is. spirituality is not yours to possess.

        god is guiding you now… you’ve encountered me. god wants you to listen to me. to open your heart and mind. or GO AWAY NOW.

  2. I believe homosexuality is justified God when created us, he made men and women to populate the world… It is completely justified if some man or a woman chooses to love someone of same sex! Since we have refered to metaphors, going against homosexuality is like saying the concept of mules is wrong! No I am not comparing humans to them but the concept of going against the so called “Natural Order”.

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