My son was having trouble graphing an equation for his algebra class so he had to ask me for help. Poor kid. As I struggled to remember my eighth-grade algebra, he wondered aloud when he would ever use this stuff in “real life.”
At that moment, I couldn’t help but think of the dozens of graphs I have seen dotting news articles and social media feeds over the past several weeks.
Coronavirus case counts, death rates, regional breakdowns, demographic breakdowns. It seems everyone is an epidemiologist now as they interpret red and purple lines that seem to be always ascending and never descending. When’s the peak going to hit? How is my state doing?
As we near the frightening apex of the pandemic curve, the models and graphs that have dominated the national discussion reveal another feature of this unsettling moment: the age of algorithmic thinking is also reaching a peak of sorts.
Everything from public policy to stock prices to the individual behaviors of millions of people seems to follow the movement of mathematical models. When virus cases are down, perhaps restrictions are eased, investors gain confidence and people feel safer going to the grocery store.
If the line breaks the other way, the opposite occurs. This is certainly a prudent use of our scientific abilities, but it only provides a fleeting sense of control in the midst of so much chaos.
The belief that someone (or some computer) is crunching vast amounts of data to discern the behavior of a microscopic virus gives us a certain sense of security. It provides a small layer of cognitive protection between us and the reality that nature cannot be fully captured by graphs and algorithms.
Creation is an act of the divine Logos, not artificial intelligence. As such, God’s loving plan unfolds with a reasoning beyond human understanding that is both universal in scope and extremely specific in its attention to the particularities of each human person. We are not made in the image of statistics and demographics, rather, we are made in the image of God.
To put this theological truth in today’s mathematical language, suppose you tried to “graph” our “model” Jesus Christ. His passion, death and resurrection would be “V-shaped.” A descent into the depths of suffering and hell itself before a literal rising from the dead, ascension into heaven and life eternal. The V-shape stands for victory over death.
If there is a model we should follow as we navigate this uncertain time, it is derived from one simple equation: “The Son of God became man so that we might become God” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 460). Take heart in the things that mathematical models fail to capture — the unseen acts of sacrifice, mercy and compassion, even in the face of grave danger, that make us human and make us all like unto God.
Robinson is director of communications and Catholic media studies at the University of Notre Dame McGrath Institute for Church Life.
Join the CatholicPhilly.com family
CatholicPhilly.com works to strengthen the connections between people, families and communities every day by delivering the news people need to know about the Catholic Church, especially in the Philadelphia region, and the world in which we live.
By your donation in any amount, you and hundreds of other people become part of our mission to inform, form in the Catholic faith and inspire the thousands of readers who visit every month.
Here is how you can help:
- A $100 gift allows us to present award-winning photos of Catholic life in our neighborhoods.
- A $50 gift enables us to cover a news event in a local parish, school or Catholic institution.
- A $20 gift lets us obtain solid faith formation resources that can deepen your spirituality and knowledge of the faith.
- A small, automated monthly donation means you can support us continually and easily.
Won't you consider making a gift today?
Please join in the church's vital mission of communications by offering a gift in whatever amount that you can ― a single gift of $40, $50, $100, or more, or a monthly donation. Your gift will strengthen the fabric of our entire Catholic community and sustain CatholicPhilly.com as your trusted news source. Thank you in advance!
Make your donation by credit card here:
Or make your donation by check:
222 N. 17th Street
Philadelphia, PA 19103