Last week, math professor Matt Lunsford wrote about his journey of discerning his call to teach mathematics. This week, he describes what it means for him to be a “Christian mathematician” and what it means for him to live the integrated life.
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.
Let me begin unpacking my thoughts on the integrated life. Hardy asked two fundamental questions in his essay: First, is mathematics a worthwhile pursuit, and second, why would someone become a mathematician? He dispenses with his answers to the second question rather quickly and then spends most of the rest of the essay discussing his first question. Taking my cue from Hardy, I want to ask two questions that will guide the remainder of this essay. What is mathematics? What makes a Christian mathematician different from a secular mathematician?
What is mathematics? That question has been pondered by humans for at least two millennia. First of all, the term mathematics is derived from the ancient Greek word mathematos, which literally means “that which is to be learned.” So, historically, mathematics has been associated with those areas of knowledge that were deemed worthy of study. For the Pythagorean sect, this specifically meant the natural numbers and their properties, geometry, astrology (including astronomy), and music. These four subject areas formed the original quadrivium of the liberal arts. I do not know of a universally accepted definition of mathematics, but here is my current working definition: mathematics is the discovery, creation, proof, and rigorous communication of logical theories, encapsulated within a prescribed and mutually agreed upon axiomatic system. The ultimate goal of this activity is both the acquirement of results, known as mathematical truth, and the rigorous dissemination of those same results. This mathematical enterprise, which has been operational for over two thousand years, exists, at least in part, to enhance humanity’s understanding of the created order (reality) in which we find ourselves. While my definition might sound exotic, rest assured that I am describing the same well known discipline – the one which explores the properties of right triangles and provides formulas for solving quadratic equations and so forth.
What makes a Christian mathematician different from a secular mathematician? For me, it is not the mathematics. What I call the “kernel” of the discipline is exactly the same. By “kernel,” I mean the core of the discipline as it is understood and practiced by contemporary mathematicians. The content of the papers I write for scholarly journals and the talks I give at professional meetings are remarkably similar to those of a secular mathematician. However, as I am contemplating my discipline, I feel the freedom to explore whether ideas that emerge from my Christian faith commitment might enrich my understanding of mathematics, and alternately, whether the mathematical ideas I am pondering might enhance my understanding of the Christian faith. For example, Christian mathematicians might contemplate how the mathematical concept of infinity amplifies the meaning of eternal life. They might also investigate the relationship between mathematical truth and absolute truth. This freedom, I believe, is a substantive difference between the Christian and secular mathematician, but it is not the only one.
Another distinction is the source of our motivation. Why do we, as mathematicians, continue to learn, practice, and teach mathematics? Hardy asserts that the dominant motivations for the mathematician are intellectual curiosity, professional pride, and ambition. Christian educators like Parker Palmer have offered a partial retort to this mindset (To Know As We Are Known, 6-9). Pursuing mathematics primarily for curiosity equates to seeking knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself. Pursuing mathematics primarily for recognition equates to seeking knowledge for vanity. Pursuing mathematics primarily for utility equates to seeking knowledge for its power to control. (Hardy, who argued that his contributions to number theory were both useless and harmless, never sought to exploit his mathematical abilities in this way.) If, however, we pursue mathematics primarily for love, then we seek knowledge to heal a fallen world; that is, we seek knowledge to serve and edify others, to bring reconciliation and restoration to humanity, and also to glorify the Creator. Therefore I, and hopefully many other Christian mathematicians, strive to be motivated primarily by love.
Next week in part three of this series, Matt Lunsford offers his idea about having a redeeming influence in the discipline of mathematics.