Why it’s better for God to remain beyond calculation
It’s a good thing we cannot prove faith mathematically! At least, that’s how retired Chief Apostle Wilhelm Leber feels about the matter. And he knows what he’s talking about—check out our interview with the doctor of mathematics as we commemorate the International Day of Mathematics on 14 March.
How can you connect science and faith? Won’t you lose your faith in the process?
I have always understood it this way—and I think this is also the solution: these are two completely different domains. That’s why I have actually never seen a conflict between the two. You simply have to be strict in making a distinction between the two. Mathematics, or science in general, is something that is oriented to our natural life with our natural concepts and terms, for example, logic and experiences. But faith is something that lies beyond our human experience, and it requires a different kind of access. And while you can indeed succeed in finding some connections, it would certainly not get you any further ahead to confuse the two domains with one another. In fact, that’s always how you get yourself into trouble.
Then you probably don’t think much of any kind of mathematical proof of God like the one attempted by Kurt Gödel?
No. That was an admirable, but ultimately rather flawed, attempt to prove something that cannot be proven. You can certainly find clues, perhaps even from your own life, for example, that there is a God. You can recognise Jesus Christ as the one who brought the sacrifice and you can regard Him as an important support in life, but to prove that there is such a thing using mathematics or logic is impossible. These are all worthy attempts, but they're certainly never persuasive enough for everyone to accept.
And what do you think of Einstein’s statement that “God doesn’t play dice”?
You can always find evidence of divine action. It’s not entirely plausible that such a complicated world, with so much natural diversity, could exist without a guiding hand behind it. But there are also other theories stating that these things all came into being as a result of natural phenomena. You can see it either way. But there can be no such thing as definitive proof for one or the other perspective. Rather, this is a way of thinking that people have to find on their own as individuals.
Haven’t you ever wished that there was some sort of proof of God?
Indeed, that would be nice, I must say (laughs). But that is impossible by definition, because these are two completely different systems. You are not supposed to mix them up. And I have actually always benefitted from seeing it that way. After all, faith remains faith. Faith is something that transcends earthly thought. If it could be proven, it would ultimately be a rather trivial thing that we could simply experience with our human abilities. I mean, I certainly think that faith is much more exalted than anything we can grasp by way of our human intellect.
At university, or during your years of scholarship, there must have also been quite a few mathematicians and natural scientists who did not believe at all, who said there was no God. Were you ridiculed there?
Not at all! In our circles this was actually not a major subject of discussion. I did know a few individuals, however, who were quite believing. Not necessarily New Apostolic, but Christians nevertheless. The more scientific insights there are, the more people perhaps even tend to say that there is no need for a God. There are quite a few things that can be explained, but I still think that in the end it doesn’t go far enough. There will always be limitations if you try to explain God using rational arguments.
Why did you decide for mathematics in the first place?
At that time, we were studying social studies as well as German at school. These involved a lot of talking and interpreting—and that was sometimes very annoying, I must say. So I thought to myself: “I prefer math. In math there are only wrong or right answers.” And that’s why I decided to move in the direction of mathematics.
And how the doctoral thesis come about?
Originally, I had no intention of writing a doctoral thesis in mathematics. First I completed my mathematics degree and then I had the opportunity to get a job in the insurance industry as a mathematician. But at that time the rule was that if you continued your studies or were still in training, you would not be drafted into what was otherwise compulsory military service. And since I didn’t really want to do that, I just continued studying and eventually completed my doctorate. So it’s really a very pragmatic story (laughs).
After that you worked for an insurance company. Did you enjoy the job?
Yes. Working in a company and working together with a wide variety of colleagues with different perceptions and interests is an experience I wouldn’t want to have missed.
When you became an Apostle and began to work for the Church on a full-time basis, did you find it difficult to give up your insurance job?
Yes, well, it certainly was something of a double-edged sword, but as an Apostle you naturally have a lot of contact with people. That’s something I appreciated a great deal, and it also fascinated me. On the one hand, I enjoyed my job and also had a certain level of responsibility in the company—and there was also the prospect of getting ahead in the company. But on the other hand, I was also quite happy to be able to practise pastoral care as a profession. That is a completely different dimension.
Did you sometimes miss the math?
Not really, I must say, because I concentrated so much more on my new duties. And of course, it shows now that I’ve grown rather distant from the material. When I read my doctoral thesis today, there are some things I don’t even understand any longer. During my time as an Apostle, I no longer had to deal with mathematical issues at all. All of that began to fade away into the distance.
And now that you’re retired, do you still look at math problems or are you no longer interested in that sort of thing?
It’s actually very seldom, I must admit. Unless you come up with a special question like the one you are asking me now (laughs).
To help us observe the International Day of Mathematics, retired Chief Apostle Leber explains his doctoral thesis on nac.today: “In search of limit properties”.
Photo: NAK Westdeutschland