Miracles explained by higher mathematics

Edwin Abbott, an English classics scholar and theologian whose hobby was higher mathematics wrote a charming classic called Flatland 1880s. Flatland is a two-dimensional space inhabited mostly by various equilateral polygons and ruled by circles.

The narrator, A. Square, explains how two-dimensional objects can recognize each other’s shapes by calculating angles. Except for triangles, irregular shapes present a public danger and are not allowed to live. He also explained their culture and history.

In their year 1000, someone went insane and insisted that a third dimension existed. He caused quite a commotion until the circles passed harsh laws against proclaiming such a ridiculous heresy.

As their year 2000 dawned, A. Square was instructing his grandson in mathematics and explaining that while higher dimensions than the second were mathematically possible, they could have no meaning in geometry. Just then, a voice from, well, there’s no logical explanation where it could have come from, told him he was wrong.

A being appeared in his house, even though the door was shut and locked. At first it appeared to be a straight line, meaning it was female and thus of no particular intelligence or standing. But then the square’s wife approached it, felt it, and discovered it to be a circle. Can you imagine the horror of insulting a circle by daring to feel it?

It turned out to be a sphere, who was trying for a second time to persuade Flatlanders to believe in the reality of a third dimension. Of course A. Square had to proclaim what he had learned, and of course he was put in prison as a mad man and suffered greatly for his heresy.

Abbott, a theologian, wrote Flatland as much as an evangelical tool as an exploration of higher mathematics. Compare the story with the account of the Ascension in Acts.

The sphere appeared to the square as a circle, because that’s all of a sphere that could fit into a two-dimensional space. But it had this weird ability to grow, or appear to grow, larger and smaller at will.

Abbott wanted his 3D readers to recognize the possibility and likelihood of 4D beings, who would look to us like ordinary 3D beings but do weird things. People who believed in these extraordinary, indeed supernatural beings would proclaim miracles, which unbelievers would scoff at.

So, if the risen Christ reclaimed the fourth dimension he had put aside at his Incarnation, he could appear and disappear at will. If he allowed people to see him leave gradually, what would it look like? C. S. Lewis wondered that. In a passage I remember reading but have no idea where to look for, he said that Jesus might have vanished in an instant, as apparently he did in that house in Emmaus. Or he could appear to rise into the sky or sink into the ground.

Well, I suppose he could have also slowly faded, like the Cheshire cat, leaving only the grin. Lewis pointed out that each of these possibilities would have a very different symbolic meaning to anyone who saw or tried to describe them. Luke says that the disciples watched Jesus ascend to the sky. Two angels appeared out of nowhere and explained it to them

Since I first read Flatland, I have believed that all of the miracles of the Bible have a perfectly good scientific explanation as soon as we suppose a fourth physical dimension that we can’t directly experience and perhaps spiritual beings that can, contrary to Einstein, travel at speeds faster than light.

I say this, not because I find such an explanation necessary for belief. After all, the central truth of Christianity is that God became a man, died, and rose again from death. If God can bring those miracles off, how is it reasonable not to believe all the others in the Bible?

But for those who compare everything with science, I modestly suggest that higher mathematics provides all the explanation they could ask for.

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