collections

The Fourth Dimension and the Bible (1922)

William Anthony Granville, The Fourth Dimension and the Bible; Boston: R.G. Badger, 1922.

In many respects, the Victorian era — with its revelations of Darwin, dinosaurs, etc. — was not the simplest time to be a religiously-minded scientist: despair and doubt were rife. But towards the end of the nineteenth century, inspired by explorations into “unseen” phenomena such as x-rays and radioactivity, the positing of invisible worlds and higher dimensions began to offer some way to marry latest scientific developments with religious inclinations. At the forefront of this movement was the mathematician C. H. Hinton, the author of The Fourth Dimension (1904), a popular maths book based on concepts he had been developing since 1880 that sought to establish an additional spatial dimension to the three we know and love — visualised in the form of coloured hypercubes which he called “Tesseracts”.

Hinton’s books were very popular and this notion of a higher dimension swept through not only scientific circles but also artistic, literary and, of course, religious and spiritual communities. People such as Rudolf Steiner and Charles Leadbeater ran with the spiritual angle offered which, in the case of Leadbeater’s thought, included angels, demons, and departed spirits. All this sets the scene for this particularly extreme example of fourth dimension meets religion featured here, the mathematician William A. Granville’s The Fourth Dimension and the Bible (1922). Where Hinton hinted, Granville goes full throttle explicit, seeking to explain the more mysterious aspects of the Bible through the rigours of pure mathematics, an ambitious endeavour which is, as he admits, “taking a voyage on practically unchartered seas”.

Just as Edwin Abbott’s Flatland (1884) imagines a flat, two-dimensional universe in which our three-dimensional perceptual world is beyond comprehension, Granville wants us to leave room for another dimension, one beyond our mortal apprehension. This higher dimension is seen to be heaven, where God dwells, and all events here on earth simply three-dimensional manifestations of that higher heavenly aggregate. And it is this interaction between dimensions which can explain so many seemingly supernatural parts of the Bible (episodes which one imagines might challenge a rationally minded scientist). He writes that “a man (three-dimensional being) who has been translated from our space into a higher-dimensional space will remain invisible to earthly beings until he returns again to our space”. This has concrete instances: when Jesus twice escapes the threatening multitudes by disappearing, he does so into this alternative, imperceptible universe. Likewise, when Jesus enters the room of the disciples without using a door (John 20:19-23, 26-29), he did so mediated by the realm of the fourth dimension. For Granville too, celestial visitors (whether angels, archangels, prophets), all emerge from this fourth dimension, only to disappear again into that other realm. The concept of hell can also be thought in terms of mathematics, though it is (of course) referred to as a “lower dimension”.

The mysterious workings of the Christian God has a long history of investigation through modern mathematics and science. In his posthumously published Daniel and the Apocalypse (1733) Sir Isaac Newton pioneered work on natural sciences as transposed onto theological commentaries. Slightly earlier, John Wilkins (1614–1672) in Mathematical Magick had attempted to use mechanical geometry to explain the wonders of the divine. Though the oscillation between empirical science and the theological is at times absurd, it can be understood to be motivated by a basic rationalism: that is, if theology was to avoid fanaticism, it must remain rooted in nature. If, as Emerson wrote, “Nature geometrizes” then, for Granville, so must God.