Does the Cartesian coordinate system explain the rise of religious “nones?” Maybe.
René Descartes is the French mathematician who depicted the universe as having only three dimensions, defined by vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. This is the Cartesian coordinate system. It’s helpful for figuring out engineering, navigation, and so on.
It doesn’t help the faith. Yet it’s how much of the Western church depicts the universe. God is up there. Our relationship with God is vertical. “The culture” is out there, horizontal. It’s a linear universe. This is not how older Christian traditions viewed the universe. They saw it as spherical, including God.
Many years ago mathematicians began challenging Descartes’ linear model. George Cantor (1845-1918), a German mathematician, suggested an infinite number of dimensions. In 1905, Albert Einstein modestly suggested a four-dimensional universe. Imagine a trampoline. On its surface draw a 3D linear grid. Now put a bowling ball onto the grid. Around it, the surface will stretch and warp. The lines bend. Einstein imagined that light bends, suggesting a four-dimensional universe. Wow.
Margaret Wertheim, a mathematician, also thinks there might be more than three dimensions. Might be an infinite number of universes. She looks at Descartes’ model and asks: Why stop at a three-dimensional universe? Add a fourth dimension, x2 + y2 + z2 + p2 = 1, and we come up with a sphere. “I can keep on going,” she writes, “adding more dimensions,” all of them depicting the universe as a sphere.
But why not five dimensions? Lisa Randall and Raman Sundrum proposed this in 1999. According to their “brane” theory (short for “membrane”), what we call our universe might be embedded in a vastly bigger five-dimensional space, a kind of super-universe. Within this super-space, ours might be just one of a whole array of co-existing universes, each a separate 4D within a wider arena of 5D space. Wow.
More recently, string theory says the universe has 10 dimensions—or 11 if you take an extended version known as M-Theory. There are variations of the theory in 26 dimensions, and recently pure mathematicians have a version with 24 dimensions.
These studies suggest Descartes’ model is left-brained. We know the right hemisphere is the intuitive mind, the left, the rational. The ancients believed the point of rationality is to prove the limits of rationality. The point of mathematics is to prove the limits of mathematics. Our rationalist Western world, good at figuring things out, has forgotten that some things cannot be known by figuring them out. God, for example.
We cannot know God the way we know anything else. God is infinite. We are finite. The degree of difference between the two is infinite. The finite cannot “figure out” the Infinite. The finite can only open itself to the Infinite, to something beyond it, “something Other,” writes Iain McGilchrist, a religious “none.” “It is the task of the right hemisphere to carry us to something Other than ourselves.”
McGilchrist add this: “I believe the essential difference between the right hemisphere and the left hemisphere is that the right hemisphere pays attention to the Other, whatever it is that exists apart from ourselves, with which it sees itself in profound relation. It is deeply attracted to, and given life by, the relationship that exists with this Other.”
Wow. McGilchrist is talking about some sort of spherical Being—the Other.
The 16th-century monk Giordano Bruno described God as “an infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” The triune God doesn’t fit in a 3D universe. But McGilchrist’s “Other” does depict God as a reverberating, reciprocating Being. The triune God is three Persons sharing one nature in reverberating love.
This is why McGilchrist writes, “Western Christianity has been active in undermining itself.” He cites Einstein: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift, the rational mind it’s faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant but has forgotten the gift.”
Theologian Linda Mercadante agrees. She’s studied the “spiritual but not religious” group, noting that many want “a resacralization of the world.” They “want to see and experience the sacred in more areas of life.” Resacralization is returning to a sacramental view of the universe, where God is a sphere, mystically present everywhere. We don’t have a “vertical” relationship with him.
The Cartesian coordinate system took wow out of the gospel and the Western church. I think it goes a long way toward explaining the rise of religious “nones.” They seek wow.
 Margaret Wortheim, “Radical Dimensions,” Aeon (January 10, 2018)
 Linda Mercadante, Belief Without Borders: Inside The Minds of the Spiritual But Not Religious (Oxford University Press, 2014), 251.
Mike, I have no problem confessing the infinitude of God and my inability to comprehend what I just confessed. Clearly God is not confined to Descartes’ three dimensions. But one ought to be careful speculating about the multiverse (as the TV show “The Flash” does way too frequently), because the multiverse opens up the possibility of not-God, not-Jesus, or worse. I have no wish to live in that world.
David: Neither do I. But I don’t think we’re running the risk you envision. As Dallas Willard put, the world “is a perfectly safe place” to explore such dimensions.
Just want you to know that I read every one of your blogs, and find them to be insightful, fascinating and relevant. Thanks so much!