I was trying to remember where I was at 9:26am last weekend on π day. I was on the road, somewhere between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn. The time came and went without me noticing it. Later, I remembered it was pi day as I looked at the dessert menu after dinner. A slice of Chocolate Pecan Praline pie, seemed like too much of a number of things. I passed. At 9:26pm I was on the back end of a birthday celebration with family. The exact moment slipped by then as well.
Steven Strogatz–a professor of mathematics at Cornell–has a lovely piece in The New Yorker about π and this pi day of the century.
“Why do mathematicians care so much about pi? Is it some kind of weird circle fixation? Hardly. The beauty of pi, in part, is that it puts infinity within reach. Even young children get this. The digits of pi never end and never show a pattern. They go on forever, seemingly at random—except that they can’t possibly be random, because they embody the order inherent in a perfect circle. This tension between order and randomness is one of the most tantalizing aspects of pi.”
The article is worth reading and has some fascinating details about the significance of pi, and the way it’s “woven into our descriptions of the innermost workings of the universe.” Elsewhere, just for fun, Strogatz shows how you can calculate pi at home with toothpicks, or on your computer by following this link.
Pi, as Strogatz says, “puts infinity within reach.” The Bible verse often seen during sporting events–John 3:16–is thought to putting eternity within reach, to borrow a bit of Strogatz’s phrasing.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NABRE).
John 3:16 is a popular verse among Evangelicals who use it as a way summing up the Gospel. Unfortunately, it’s also one that’s easy to read as exclusive, because if you don’t believe then instead of eternal life you’ll have eternal damnation. I’ve been reading a lot about John 3:16. There are a bunch of excerpts from texts as well as links over at Paul Nuechterlein’s site Girardian lectionary, Much of what follows I found there. I’m still chewing on it, so it’s a little headier than normal, though I think you’ll be able to follow.
Anyway, N.T. Wright in his book, How God Became King suggests that if we’re reading John 3:16 as promising Heaven, we’re misunderstanding it.
“There we are, think average Christian readers. This is the biblical promise of a timeless heavenly bliss.
But it isn’t. In the many places where the phrase zoe aionios appears in the gospels, and in Paul’s letters for that matter, it refers to one aspect of an ancient Jewish belief about how time was divided up. In this viewpoint, there were two “aions” (we sometimes use the word “eon” in that sense): the “Present age,” ha-olam hazeh in Hebrew, and the “age to come,” ha-olam ha-ba. The “age to come,” many ancient Jews believed, would arrive one day to bring God’s justice, peace, and healing to the world as it groaned and toiled within the “present age.” You can see Paul, for instance, referring to this idea in Galatians 1:4, where he speaks of Jesus giving himself for our sins “to rescue us from the present evil age.” In other words, Jesus has inaugurated, ushered in, the age to come.” But there is no sense that this “age to come” is “eternal” in the sense of being outside space, time, and matter. Far from it. The ancient Jews were creational monotheists. For them, God’s great future purpose was not to rescue people out of the world, but to rescue the world itself, people included, from its present state of corruption and decay.
If we reframe our thinking within this setting, the phrase zoe aionios will refer to “the life of the age,” in other words, “the life of the age to come.”… John 3:16 [then] ends not with “have everlasting life” (KJV), but “share in the life of God’s new age.” (pp 44-45).
A new age that’s possible now through God who is love, and “loves us at least as much as the person who loves us the most.” (Paul J. Nuechterlein). We have the capacity to channel love of that breadth and depth. What if we did? What would our world look like? These words of Sarah Dylan Breuer paint a powerful image:
“How might the world be different if those patterns were disrupted, if you and I could be sisters and brothers in healthy relationship? … Let me put it this way:
What would our relationships look like if we shared one birth and were raised in one loving, supportive family? What would an economy look like that took seriously that we live and work in a world that is our common inheritance, and not a set of disconnected chunks of land and resources to be conquered like a Risk game board? What would a world look like in which we saw every child as our own little sister or brother, if “family first” included them all as our own flesh and blood?
That’s Jesus’ invitation to us today. Being “born from above” means that Jesus offers us freedom from relationships that ensnare, and the choice to relate to one another as beloved children of one loving God. It’s a choice not just for a new name:
It’s a new world of new relationships, of new and abundant life.” ~ Sarah Dylan Breuer
I missed the pi day of the century. I was going about my day, thinking about what I was going to do in the morning, and chatting in conversation at night. Both times 9:26 slipped right by. I miss moments where I have a chance to bring about “God’s new age” too. Catholics like to talk about conversion as something that is ongoing. Heralding in God’s kingdom is the result of a heart learning what it means to live a life in Christ. In this way, it’s our ongoing work, something to seize in as many moments as we can, being Jesus for others, and finding him in everyone we meet.