Integrate Faith, Not Functions

math functions

By Ben VanDerLinden, MS
Faculty, College of Humanities and Social Sciences

“Math is the language of God.” (Galileo, a few years before being put under house arrest for heresy)

Controversy is a common theme when bringing faith into the classroom, classically to a greater extent in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) areas. Many do not think that faith and mathematics are compatible.

However, that has not been our experience.

This is a summary of our successes and failures in the attempt to integrate Grand Canyon University’s Christian mission into our algebra courses.

When trying to reach students in our mathematics courses, we always strive to bring the abstract mathematical concepts into concrete and applicable real-world contexts to better explain why we are learning the mathematical procedures and how we will use them in our endeavors.

This endeavor to bring a hard-to-understand concept into a practical real-world application is the hallmark of another teacher of ancient times: Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus taught in parables, in order to convey difficult concepts of the Kingdom of God through practical everyday experiences.

Therefore, we looked at parables as the vehicle to carry faith integration into the classroom.

The Parable for the Talents

Our first attempt was to use the parable of the “talents” to have students compare the protagonist’s responses to being given the talents, to the context of our teaching and assessments, and the results of A, C and F students. The results were mixed, in that many were not able to extrapolate the meaning of the parable to the context of the results of fully using the available resources to perform well in the course. Students’ opinions were also mixed regarding the assignment itself.

All students agreed that the intent of the integration of faith into the classroom was a good effort on our part; however, most of them felt “a prayer before an exam would be enough” of an integration for them.

Given this outcome, we thought that we could do better with further reflection and redesign.

Parables and Parabolas

During the semester, one of the objectives is to describe the properties of parabolas. ”Parable” and “parabola” have the same etymology, so we asked students to describe the geometrical properties of their favorite parable.

Students internalized the definition of a parabola and were able to better understand the mathematics behind the geometry. They loved the integration of mathematics and faith! They remarked that it made complete sense to describe a parable in terms of a geometric shape like the parabola. They came up with all sorts of explanations; some that we expected, and some that totally took us by surprise and amazement.

From Dr. Posta’s class:

“In a parabola, there is one common focus point. Similarly, in a parable from the Bible, the common focus point is an almighty God. Every parable in the Bible is parabolic in reflecting something that is true in our lives. Similarly, our own lives can be found in the parables of the Bible. Look deep into the parables and the Bible, and you will find the focus: an almighty God. Every parabola has a focus that is the origin from which the parabola is constructed. When light travels on a path parallel to the axis of the parabola, regardless of whichever point it falls on the parabola, it will be reflected towards one common focus point. Look deep into the parabola and always you will find the focus.

I chose the parable of the lost sheep. The vertex of the parable is when one man who has 100 sheep loses one. The parabola faces up since the man who lost one sheep of the 100 that he had, leaves the 99 to go after the lost sheep until he finds it. The end points for this parable are the man finding the lost sheep, joyfully putting it on his shoulders, and going home.”

From Mr. Van’s class:

“In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the man who is robbed experiences life in parabolic form. He begins his day walking along a dangerous road, is robbed, stripped naked, beat up, and left for dead. Thus, his downward slope begins. Down, the priest passes by, down, the scribe passes by, and then a leveling off, the Samaritan stops. Through the subsequent help of the Samaritan, we see the upward slope of the man’s life. Up, he is lifted up from the ground, up, he is taken to the inn, and up, he is cleaned up and left in good care by the Samaritan. Parabolas are defined by a turning point, where they change from a downward progression to an upward progression. The man in the parable experiences that turning point in his life when he most needed it, and God will do the same in our lives.”

The results of this integration of faith into a mathematics class has encouraged us to look deeper and to search for ways that not only allow for faith to be brought into class, but for that integration to also translate into better learning and understanding.

Grand Canyon University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences allows students to grow and learn in their field. To learn more about GCU’s programs, visit our website or request more information by using the button at the top of the page.

More about the Authors:

Filippo Posta comes from a little village near Siena, Tuscany in Italy. He always dreamed of playing professional soccer and going to America. The soccer thing did not pan out despite making as much as a half-million per week…in Italian liras (about $20 USD). Dr. Posta’s passion for teaching and doing research in math landed him a scholarship to study at NJIT. After graduating, he switched coasts and ended up at GCU (via UCLA). What a blessing! He and his wife, Emily, are truly happy living in Scottsdale, AZ, and they have found a very supportive environment for their kids, Nicolas and Oliver. He looks forward to their future in the Valley since Nico wants to be Thunder when he grows up.

Read more about Filippo Posta

Ben VanDerLinden grew up in Phoenix. He attended grade school through college within a mile of his home. He left the area to go to Tucson for grad school. Ben holds a BS and an MS in mathematics and has taught at the community college/university level for almost 20 years. Ben has been married for 15 years and had three anniversaries in that time. He has no kids but does have a 20-year-old cat. Ben loves movies, pastoring skeptics and teaching math/psych. He is a self-proclaimed foodie and coffee snob; however, he still drinks church coffee and eats Five Guys on occasion.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.