I recently breezed through a short book by Herman Wouk (author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Caine Mutiny) titled The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion (Little, Brown and Co., 2010). The book has the virtues of being short, entertaining, and informative as it recounts the author’s quest to relate his deep religious and cultural attachment to Judaism to his equally firm attachment to a scientific worldview. That’s the sort of quest many people in the 21st century are engaged in at one time or another.
In the first chapter, Wouk relates an early conversation with Richard Feynman, the brilliant physicist. One of those conversations ended like this:
[Feynman] said as we were parting, “Do you know calculus?”
I admitted that I didn’t.
“You had better learn it,” he said. “It’s the language God talks.”
So is mathematics the language God talks? Feynman was a physicist, not a mathematician, so I’m guessing that, if pressed, he might have viewed the dialect spoken by God as mathematics mingled with physics. Many biologists would prefer mathematics mingled with biology and genetics. Certainly the story of evolution has taken on mythic tones that rival the cosmic story of Genesis 1 or the Big Bang. Darwin himself was certainly aware of that possibility, as seen in these oft-quoted lines from the end of the Origin of Species:
There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.
In the last chapter of the book, Wouk takes a different tack, presenting a fictional last conversation with Feynman (who passed away in 1988). Generalizing a bit, Wouk presents the Talmud and the way it is studied — as a long series of debates over a wide variety of religious and ethical questions — as an alternative way of considering the deep questions of life and the universe. Here is his friendly retort to Feynman in that fictional conversation:
“Verbal puzzles” sells the Talmud short. Wordplay, sure — science didn’t exist then for those first-class minds to work on — powerful minds in an ongoing game of cut-and-thrust about bedrock issues of human nature and conduct: damage law, property law, ritual law, marital law, criminal law in the terse Mosaic code. The game’s immortal. You’d find it rare fun as I do, if you had the tools, which you don’t. As I don’t have calculus …
So is poetry the language of God? Or its cousin philosophy? The passages in the Bible that Wouk cites in his discussion (Psalms, Isaiah, Job) are all in Hebrew, of course, but they are all poetry. As is so often the case, the King James Version mangles the text so that many people read the Old Testament without even realizing big chunks of it are poetry, not prose. Metaphor and simile, analogy and alliteration, wordplay and puns, all figure prominently in the Hebrew text. Like Feynman, I don’t have the tools for reading it in the original, but a good study Bible can help bridge that gap in part.
And then there is the book of Job. Mistaking the book for history rather than poetry obscures the meaning of the book, which is a general or philosophical inquiry into the existence of evil in the world, not the specific account of the good or ill fortunes of one man. For the Jewish writer Wouk, the Holocaust is the modern form of Job’s problem, and he relies on Job at the end of The Language God Talks to provide his response (better: to provide context). Here is a quote summarizing Wouk’s response, delivered through a Jewish character in one of his earlier books.
Who is it who in the end of days will force from God the answer from the storm? Who will see the false comforters rebuked, the old glory restored, and generations of happy children and grandchildren to the fourth generation? Who until then will leave the missing piece to God, and praise His Name, crying: “The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, blessed be the Name of the Lord”? Not the noble Greek of the Iliad, he is extinct. No! Nobody but the sick, plundered skeleton on the ash heap. Nobody but the beloved of God, the worm that lives a few moments and dies, the handful of dirt that justified Creation. Nobody but Job. He is the only answer, if there is one, to the adversary challenge to an Almighty God, if there is One.
So, is mathematics or poetry the language of God?