We appreciate receiving this extended essay from Matt Lunsford, a professor at Union University. His story is a wonderful example of a journey of thinking Christianly about one’s field of study and work in academia. In this first of four parts, Matt describes how he discerned his calling to study and teach mathematics.
The idea of writing about my goal of living an integrated life as a Christian mathematician grew out of a desire to respond to G. H. Hardy’s autobiographical essay A Mathematician’s Apology, originally published in 1940. While my experiences as a mathematician are similar in many ways to Hardy, I must acknowledge that I am not a research mathematician at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world. Even so, since being a mathematician has many universal similarities, I can relate well to most of Hardy’s comments. However, one significant distinction is that Hardy was a self-declared atheist. While many may believe that this distinction makes little to no difference in the professional life of a mathematician, I disagree, and that is my main purpose for writing this essay. It is my hope that by doing so, I might encourage fellow mathematicians, and possibly even academicians in other fields who hold to the Christian faith, to pursue the integrated life.
I have always had a natural ability to do mathematics. Throughout my school years, I was very good at arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. As an undergraduate, I did not select mathematics as a major until I took my first Calculus course. There was something about that course, with its epsilons and deltas, limits, derivatives, and integrals that I found fascinating. I recall being intrigued by the mathematical notion of the infinite. That was a new idea. However, most of my undergraduate mathematics career was simply thinking that mathematics was like a game of chess: just follow the rules and get the correct result. Near the end of that time, I was introduced to the idea of a mathematical proof. This was the next new idea, and it thrilled me. By this time, I was ready to try my luck at postgraduate education in mathematics.
Something dramatic happened in my first-year graduate courses in mathematics. My professors introduced me to abstract algebra, and in particular, to an area of algebra known as Galois theory. I already knew that I loved mathematics, but I fell head over heels in love with abstract algebra. Even today, I find the subject beautiful. I believe that passion, after ability, is probably the most important quality for becoming a mathematician. Passion was and continues to be the driving force for my becoming and remaining a mathematician.
Hardy and I agree that pursuing mathematics as a career is a noble goal, assuming that you are gifted and passionate about the subject matter. As for me, a career in mathematics was further confirmed by vocatio, a sense of calling. In my early years of college, I floundered. I was wrestling with a call to ministry, but I really did not know what that ministry would be. Now, after teaching for more than 25 years, I realize that my ministry is in undergraduate mathematics education, teaching students to love the discipline that I love. My vocation has been rewarding and fulfilling, but incorporating the integrated life into my career has remained a challenge.
Circa 1996, I embarked on a journey to discover and then to live out the integrated life. I realize that I have not arrived at the final destination. As with most journeys, a guide is invaluable. I found my mentor in a most unusual place – not among the living. English language scholar and Christian writer C. S. Lewis died before I was even born. Even though Lewis was not a mathematician, I have found him to be a marvelous guide and a kindred spirit. He was a first- rate academician who sought to live a life fully faithful to Jesus. Reading Lewis convinced me that I was on the road less traveled, but that I was not on this journey alone.
Matt Lunsford’s articles will appear the next three Fridays with a summary post to follow. In part two, he describes something of his process to integrate mathematics and his faith.