Type 58008 on a pocket calculator. Turn the calculator around.
Upside down, the number appears to spell the word… BOOBS.
Hard to overestimate how hilarious this is to your average schoolboy. And I was a very average schoolboy. Being able to generate vaguely rude words on a calculator is pretty much the high water mark of my mathematical career.
I don’t think I ever understood why it was important for me to learn maths. Being able to ask directions to the railway station in German: I could see how that might come in handy. But quadratic equations? Trigonometry?
Deep down I felt mathematics was an arbitrary system of rules and symbols that had no application outside of exams and text books and ritual humiliation: I once got ten percent in a maths test. Answers to the sums could be right or wrong (generally wrong, in my case) but I had no idea why, or what difference being right or wrong might actually mean.
Supposedly the motto ‘Let no one ignorant of geometry enter this place’ was written above the entrance to Plato’s Academy. According to Plutarch, writing in the first century, Plato also taught that ‘God is always doing geometry.’ (Moralia 718c) I wish I’d known that, or been shown that when I was at school. Mathematics as a branch of theology (or even the other way round). Mathematics means something. Maybe it means everything; maybe it is the language of everything. Numbers are a language, and not because upside down they look like letters.
The riotous, unsettling story of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends on the disciples in a violent rushing wind and tongues of flame, sounds a million miles from the rarefied atmosphere of Plato’s academy or my maths’s classroom. But actually Pentecost and Plato’s mathematical cosmology have language in common. In Plato’s Timeaus, mathematics is the deep language of creation, it is descriptive of and accounts for how the world works. Likewise, when the disciples are gathered on the morning of Pentecost,
All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.Acts 2:4
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the neurologist Oliver Sacks describes his encounter with John and Michael, two twins with autism. Both boys are hopeless at arithmetic. They can’t apply basic rules like addition and subtraction with any accuracy. And they don’t even know what multiplication and division mean. Yet when Sacks spends time with them he finds them communicating in numbers.
John will say a number; Michael will think, and then respond with a number of his own. They smile and laugh as the numbers are traded; somehow, this is banter.
Gradually it dawns on Sacks that the boys are doing something inconceivably difficult, impossible even. They are casually batting back and forth six figure prime numbers. For anyone else, it would be impossible to calculate these six figure primes. In fact, they can’t be calculating as we understand the word ‘calculating’. And remember, on any standard assessment, the boys are innumerate. Yet they somehow find these numbers and find them funny, meaningful. Like Peter’s friends when the Holy Spirit descends on them, they are speaking a language they’ve never learned, but which fills them.
Part of the lesson of Pentecost, it seems to me, is that… there is no lesson. Not a lesson in which you need a pocket calculator anyway, or a grammar primer. Not a lesson according to the attenuated input/output model beloved of politicians and some of my teachers. Pentecost, I think, is about being open to God’s grace, to the Holy Spirit.
As human beings, if we can’t measure it, quantify it, show evidence for it, then we dismiss it: ‘They are filled with new wine.’ (Acts 2:13) Surely, they’re drunk. Mathematics, as I was taught it, is something to get right. But for John and Michael it’s full of joy, full of meaning, expressive of their love for one another.
In John’s gospel, when Jesus promises the coming of the Holy Spirit to the disciples he says:
When he comes, he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgement.John 16:8
If we think we’ve got it right, we need to think again. The Holy Spirit comes to the uncertain, the confused; the Holy Spirit comes to the marginalised, to (urbane sneer) Galileans, to the guy face down on the ground, to the handcuffed. It comes to John and Michael. To the boy at the bottom of the class.
It might come in a language we’ve never heard before. It might come in the language of prime numbers, or the language of a kiss; a baby in your arms is a language. There’s the language of goodbye, of tears at the window of a care home; the language of hospital car park. It might come in the language of anger, or of pain. It often speaks in pain.
To hear it, to understand it the way John and Michael understand six figure prime numbers we need to develop what Thomas Aquinas called a capax dei. A capacity for God, an openness to God, a readiness for God.
This capacity is the opposite of our hard and fast rules and lessons and exams. It’s a tongue of flame. It is joyous; it is as natural as breathing.
Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’John 20:22
The Holy Spirit is breath. A breath can become language, it can become laughter or a sob; it can be heard in a cry of anguish. Today, all across the world, ‘I can’t breathe’ is a howl of pain and anger full of the Holy Spirit.
God bless you all,
America has shared with the world so much spirit and beauty and joy. Walt Whitman, Charlie Parker, Emily Dickinson, Stanley Kubrick, James Baldwin. And… Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Here she is, full of the Holy Spirit:
author of peace, lover of concord,
send your Holy Spirit on us now.
As you inspired the prophets so inspire us
fearlessly to address injustice wherever we see it,
courageously to live in love wherever we find ourselves
faithfully to follow your Son wherever He leads.
Send us out, we pray, with the disciples,
to bear witness to the truth at the heart of every language:
that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.