On Sunday, 1st November – All Saints’ Sunday – the bicentenary of the birth (on 2nd November, 1815) of George Boole, first Professor of Mathematics at University College, Cork, was commemorated at the Sunday morning Eucharist at St Fin Barre’s Cathedral, Cork.
Boole, who was originally from Lincoln, was a mathematical genius who was largely self taught. As the University College Cork website attests, Boole ‘is a pivotal figure who can be described as the “father of the information age”. His invention of Boolean algebra and symbolic logic pioneered a new mathematics. His legacy surrounds us everywhere, in the computers, information storage and retrieval, electronic circuits and controls that support life, learning and communications in the 21st century.’
Boole was a member of the Church of Ireland who attended Evensong in his local Parish Church of Saint Michael, Blackrock. He is buried in the churchyard there. The rector of that parish today is the Venerable Adrian Wilkinson, Archdeacon of Cork. At yesterday’s Service attended by the President of University College, Cork, Dr Michael Murphy, the Archdeacon preached this sermon in St Fin Barre’s Cathedral to mark the bicentenary:
I wonder what George Boole would make of this service today? I suspect if he could join us he would slip in just after the service had started, having removed his top hat. He might choose to occupy a seat at the back so that he could participate from the periphery. After all, though he was a deeply religious man, George Boole had a somewhat ambiguous relationship with formal liturgy in general and with the Eucharist in particular. He would no doubt look around and admire a cathedral building very different from the one he knew. Would he appreciate the architectural sleight of hand making this building appear much larger than it is? Would he have approved of the way William Burges, the inspiration behind this cathedral, emphasises the role of symbols and the place of the mysterious and numinous in the Christian Faith? Would the juxtaposition of a service recalling his life and contribution to mathematics and a service as we celebrate All Saints have made him a little uncomfortable? Perhaps we will discuss these matters later.
Boole was a man of faith and it is important that today we see him in the context of the broader theme of the communion of saints, a concept in which he firmly believed. Boole was not only a mathematician but also had an interest in literature and poetry. Indeed ‘The Communion of Saints’ was the title he gave to one of his poems and during the Holy Communion we will hear a piece of music by Robert Creed inspired by this poem. One verse reads:
‘Seeker after Truth’s deep fountain,
Delver in the soul’s deep mine,
Toiler up the rugged mountain
To the upper Light Divine,
Think, beyond the stars there be
Who have toiled and wrought like thee.’
In common with many of the great saints and figures of faith, George Boole was a ‘seeker after truth’. He did not take things at their face value but was prepared to probe deeply until he got an answer, even a provisional one, that made sense to him. He regarded his intelligence as a gift from God and it was to be used in the pursuit of truth.
Boole was very inclusive in spirit. While still a young man working in Lincoln, he turned to a Jewish friend to help him understand and gain new insights into the Hebrew Scriptures. The rise of religious fundamentalism in the world today is a cause of concern for many. We have to be the first to admit that Christianity is not immune to this affliction either. While Christianity may have unique insights which are rooted in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, any religion that claims an absolute monopoly on all truth does not do justice to the God of the infinite. There is an ancient prayer which goes ‘From the arrogance that thinks it has all the truth; from the laziness that settles for half-truths; and from the cowardice that fears new truths, Good Lord, deliver us.’ The Christian Faith has always held to view that God is the God of all truth. Throughout history time and time again, saints are those who have come to see that there is nothing to be feared from the pursuit of that truth.
For Christians, coupled with this quest for deeper insight under God, there is also a commitment to the pursuit of justice. Intellectual enquiry that turns a blind eye and a deaf ear to the suffering of others is pure self-indulgence. Jesus summed up the purpose of life with the golden rule – love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself. The love of God and neighbour go hand in hand.
This was a position which George Boole held to throughout his life. Even in his earliest days, he did all in his power to improve the social and educational conditions of those around him. He was heavily involved in the Lincoln Mechanics’ Institute while still a young school master and he was one of those responsible for the foundation of a Female Penitents’ Home in Lincoln in 1847. In Cork, he was called upon to use his mathematical talents to analyse the particularly high infant mortality statistics at the Workhouse in this city. His interest in the plight of students from less affluent backgrounds was also widely acknowledged.
Of course the canvas today is much larger than any one individual. All Saints Day is about all the saints of God throughout history. It is not just about extoling the virtues of the intellectually gifted, or the particularly pious, or the generous benefactors of the past, though they are included. It is also about that ‘great company which no one can number’ of all the good and faithful, though imperfect people who have passed through this life and gone ahead of us. Most will be known only to God and will have left no memorial by which we can remember them.
One of the readings appointed for today is a portion of the penultimate chapter of the Revelation to St. John the Divine. As a work, Revelation with its emphasis on symbols, numbers, imagery from the Hebrew scriptures and hidden codes would have appealed to the mathematical interests of George Boole. However, these features also make it a rich quarry for every odd ball religious group who want to peddle a particular apocalyptic message to frighten people into their version of the Christian faith. It has been used to promote a view that the real church is a community of ‘world-escapers’.
As we enter Revelation 21 everything has changed. With John we see both a new heaven and a new earth. A holy city descends from heaven, resplendent with gold, jewels, and divine light. After chapters of trauma and conflict on a cosmic scale, everything has become new.
Two features of this passage, often overlooked, provide resources that may renew our imaginations.
First, the new creation features no sea. The sea’s absence may trouble us at first, particularly those of us in Cork with its world famous harbour. Almost all of us love water. But for Revelation the sea’s absence belongs with the eradication of death, mourning, crying, and pain. In Jewish literature of the period, the sea is where evil empires operate. In the great war Satan takes his stand alongside the sea, and the wicked beast arises out of that very same sea. The beast makes war against Jesus’ followers and kills many of them. Here the sea’s absence is part of Revelation’s condemnation against an empire that uses war and commerce to oppress ordinary people.
Second, the new city comes down to us from heaven. We do not go up to it. Revelation does not imagine the saints escaping this world for a heavenly reward. On the contrary, the saints inhabit a brand new world created right where they live. The loud voice proclaims, “These peoples will be God’s”. Revelation envisions a renewal, not an escape. It is ‘world-affirming’. So this passage is about resisting the forces of oppression and making God’s kingdom come ‘on earth as it is in heaven’. The saints are all those who have been caught up in this process down the generations. So we are confronted with the question, what we are doing in our time to further this agenda? What gifts have we been given and how are we using them?
Today, on All Saints’ Day, we acknowledge that though we are temporal beings, limited by time and space, there is a bigger picture. The saints are those who remind us of this and widen our horizons. I have a vision of a great company forming a procession and the west doors of this cathedral being opened to let them in. They process up the aisle past us and out beyond the altar and ambulatory and disappear through the east wall and continue beyond our sight. Some of these figures we may know, most will be unrecognisable. I would like to think that should such a procession form, George Boole might stand up, collect his top hat from the seat beside him and slip into that procession as it winds its way towards the infinite love and mercy of God.