God’s glory in the community of the church

God’s glory in the community of the church

In a world ravaged by Islamophobia, it’s worth pointing out that if European civilization, for all its many imperialistic and self-aggrandizing shortcomings, had instead followed its perennial and equally pernicious isolationist tendencies, then our current world would look very different in many profound and everyday ways.

Of course, the legacies of Rome and Greece have had a lasting impact on contemporary society, especially via Christian history. But, had it not been for Leonardo Bigollo, more commonly known as Fibonacci, our iPhones and bank statements and grade point averages and timekeeping devices would all look very different.

For the first 1,100 years of Christianity, the common numerals that we see today (1, 2, 3, 4….) were very sparsely used throughout the lands where Christ’s name was proclaimed. They had inherited earlier systems of counting — in most instances Roman numerals (I, II, III, IV….) – and did not deviate from their usage. It was the Catholic Fibonacci’s study of the Arabic world that led him to see the advantages of adopting the less cumbersome system. And if you doubt his insight, just contemplate trying to squeeze LXXXVIII onto the back of your Eric Lindros or Trey Burton jerseys.

It took hundreds of years for Europe to be fully converted to the system, but today Arabic numbers, which are related to ancient Southeast Asian Hindu culture as well, are the standard with which we are all so familiar.

Fibonacci was not alone in effecting the transformation of European numerology, of course. Even such a genius could not change a continent by himself. Scholars continue to recognize that the blending of Arabic and European cultures on the Iberian Peninsula and on Mediterranean islands like Sicily and the Balearics aided the process. Great architectural works from Andalucía to Siena include arabesque patterns and testify to the mutual learning that occurred in these places, despite the wider cultural conflicts. Muslim thinkers like Averroes and Avicenna influenced medieval theology, medicine and mathematics immensely. All of us today, whether theists or not, are then indebted to the commitment to learning in these other religious traditions.

Fibonacci is also known for popularizing an understanding of a recursive number sequence today referred to as “Fibonacci Numbers.” He did not “invent” the system. It had long been understood in the East. Yet Fibonacci helped to spread to the soon-to-be-expanding known world the theoretical and practical implications of studying the series where each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers.

Thus, the numbers begin with 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc. It is most frequently displayed formulaically as follows:

Fn = Fn-1 + Fn-2

These numbers find a surprising resonance in the natural world: from petals on flowers to rows of spines on pineapples to winds in hurricanes to stars in spiral galaxies.

In a tangible symbol of the relationship between these studies and proclaiming God’s glory in the community of the church, fascinating work has recently been undertaken by Professor Pietro Armienti in Fibonacci’s native Pisa, finding allusions to these numbers hidden in intricate circular patterns on the facade of the church of San Nicola there dating to Fibonacci or his students’ lifetimes.

I claim a minimal level of competency in mathematics, a fact to which my reliable calculator can attest when grades are due each semester. But the beauty of the mutuality between science and math is not lost on me. Mathematical concepts have contributed to philosophy, music, and proportionality in art at least since Pythagoras, if not since our ancestors began to store seasonal food and communicate to each other and their posterity while dwelling in caves. It’s important that Catholics continue to realize that numbers can speak to us about the truth of the universe beyond simply counting loaves and fishes.

Originally from Collingswood, Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., teaches at Loyola University, Chicago.

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