We are accustomed to processing our spiritual life in words. Our Father, who art in heaven. Blessed is He, may He bring peace upon us. Glory be to you, O Allah. It is the poetry and philosophies of others that we speak when practicing religion.
But when we question God—when we investigate the infinite possibilities—we use many languages. The great (late) Christopher Hitchens used English, brilliantly, as does his cohort: Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins and Julian Barnes. But there’s also a rarely-mentioned contingent that’s long plumbed the mysteries of meaning while speaking in math.
Perhaps the best-known of them: Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, two European researchers born a generation apart who wound up together at Princeton in the 1940s and became good friends. In a wonderful portrait of the mens’ relationship and related work, New Yorker writer Jim Holt explains:
It was [Einstein's] sacrifice of absolute time that was most stunning. Isaac Newton believed that time was regulated by a sort of cosmic grandfather clock. “Absolute, true, mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably without relation to anything external,” he declared at the beginning of his “Principia.” Einstein, however, realized that our idea of time is something we abstract from our experience with rhythmic phenomena: heartbeats, planetary rotations and revolutions, the ticking of clocks. Time judgments always come down to judgments of simultaneity. “If, for instance, I say, ‘That train arrives here at 7 o’clock,’ I mean something like this: ‘The pointing of the small hand of my watch to 7 and the arrival of the train are simultaneous events,’ ” Einstein wrote in the June paper. If the events in question are at some distance from one another, judgments of simultaneity can be made only by sending light signals back and forth. Working from his two basic principles, Einstein proved that whether an observer deems two events to be happening “at the same time” depends on his state of motion. In other words, there is no universal now. With different observers slicing up the timescape into “past,” “present,” and “future” in different ways, it seems to follow that all moments coexist with equal reality.
Whereas Einstein was brash, a cowboy among academics, Gödel, a mathematician was meek and fearful. He’d come up with his Incompleteness Theorem at age 24, demonstrating that within any mathematical structure, there are certain problems that cannot be proved or disproved. Math is…incomplete. Something takes over where the rules and the numbers leave off.
Later, Gödel expanded on his friend Einstein’s proposition and declared that time did not even exist. There was no “equal reality,” because the entire business of past, present and future was an artificial construct created by mortals to instill order on a vast and senseless world. In what seems like a logical next step (to me), Gödel went on to develop mathematical proof of the existence of God. It looks like this:
If time is a fiction, then it follows logically that God might—must—exist. Our world and its limits are due only to our own inability to imagine. Events are simultaneous and infinite, contained within some much more complex universe. A greater being must be pulling the strings.
Everything that Einstein and Gödel devised was based on a single foundation, the work of a long-ago, mostly forgotten mathematician named Bernhard Riemann. The son of a Lutheran pastor and a lifelong Christian, Riemann’s geometric principles underlie .
But Riemann is best known (among his tiny mathematical fan base) for the hypothesis that bears his name and remains unsolved to this day. Legend says he was near to solving it—and cracking the seemingly random distribution of prime numbers—when he died at age 39.
The implications of this are legion: Riemann may clarify everything from the precise way frozen glass shatters to how enemy combatants code messages during war. The problem is considered so important, The Clay Institute at MIT has offered a $1 million prize to anyone who can finish what Riemann started in 1854.
Bernhard Riemann is a minor but very important character in The Forever Marriage. His work and his life inspire Jobe, the stoic and unloved mathematician husband of Carmen. It is the Riemann Hypothesis—the pursuit of “non-trivial zeros”—that drives Jobe in life and haunts Carmen after Jobe’s death. Because math brings order to so much—to grief, to human failing, to images from a past that has caught up with one’s future.
Time is a fiction. Carmen discovers this as she revisits her choices and looks for the dead husband she never thought she loved. Events are simultaneous and infinite. There is no beginning and therefore, by the unknown rules that govern our expanding universe, there must be no end.