When Matt Lunsford decided to write on what it means to be a Christian in Mathematics, he modeled his extended essay, A Christian Mathematician’s Apology, after an earlier essay, A Mathematician’s Apology, by G. H. Hardy. The first described finding his vocation, the second on the integrated life, and the third on redeeming the discipline. In this final part of his essay, he addresses what it means to “think Christianly” about both his scholarship and his pedagogy. We appreciate Matt sharing this essay with us. Let him know in the comments what has been helpful!
What about the phrase “thinking Christianly”? As an educator and a scholar, I want to ensure that my Christian faith impacts both my pedagogy and my scholarship. Let me begin with scholarship. Ideally, my faith commitment would both influence and inform all of my scholarly pursuits. Many academicians would cry foul at this last statement, believing that in order to preserve complete objectivity, any hint of a religious conviction must be wholly excluded from the arena of scholarly activities. C. S. Lewis, in a short essay entitled Meditation in a Toolshed, addresses this critique. Lewis asserts that there is a bias in the academy that “looking at” something (a detached observer) is always superior to “looking along” that same thing (a partisan observer). Lewis uses the imagery of standing in a dark toolshed where a beam of light is streaming through a small hole in the toolshed door. Detached observers see something when they look at the light beam (e.g. dust particles floating in the beam) but partisan observers see something quite different when they move to look along the beam (e.g. the tree swaying in the wind outside the toolshed door). Lewis concludes, “We must, on pain of idiocy, deny from the very outset the idea that looking at is, by its own nature, intrinsically truer or better than looking along. One must look both along and at everything” (God in the Dock 215). Lewis’s conclusion is obvious: complete objectivity is unattainable.
In mathematics, “thinking Christianly” necessitates both looking at and looking along the discipline, hopefully in harmonious collaboration. I won’t elaborate further on “looking at” the discipline, since this is the current academic practice. However, what exactly might “looking along” the discipline mean? Here are a few questions that have prompted discussions with my colleagues and my students.
- Is mathematics eternal or a temporal human construct?
- Why does mathematics require both reasoning and imagination?
- Does mathematics, in any way, satisfy your longing for beauty?
- Is the effectiveness of mathematics to comprehend aspects of the creation something “miraculous”?
- In mathematics, is truth the same as provability?
- How does mathematics enrich your understanding of order and chaos?
- How does mathematics enrich your understanding of chance and determinism?
Academic papers addressing these and similar questions generally do not appear in scholarly mathematics journals. However, there are journals that publish scholarly papers addressing meta-mathematical ideas. So, in my own career, I have had academic seasons when I pursued and published primarily meta-mathematical papers and other academic seasons when I pursued and published only conventional mathematical papers.
Now, let me address pedagogy. What can “thinking Christianly” contribute to the teaching and learning enterprise? Consider the question: How does a person acquire knowledge? A biblical response would assert that knowing, at least in part, comes from abiding in a personal relationship with another being, either divine or human. In my context of higher education, that personal relationship is realized by the roles of teacher and student. Hence, I am compelled by my faith commitment to create within my classes a community of learning in which caring platonic relationships are prioritized. Most often, I will occupy the role of teacher. Yet, if it is truly a community of learning, there will be times when a student will assume the role of teacher, even though the content being shared at those times may not be from the kernel of the discipline. At all times, the members of the community should aspire to love and care for one another. The ultimate goal of this learning community is the formation of students who also will “think Christianly” about mathematics and whose primary motivation for learning mathematics will be love.
Hopefully the elephant in the room has been addressed: signed, sealed, and delivered. If not, I invite readers to join the conversation by articulating their thoughts on how to live an integrated life as academicians and followers of Christ. Hardy believed that because mathematical truths (theorems) were permanent, a mathematician, much like a painter or poet, could achieve eternal prominence from his scholarly work. Of course, the Christian mathematician is also concerned about eternity, but not in the interest of renown. I know that my legacy will not be the theorems I have proven or even the meta-mathematical papers that I have written. The legacy I desire to leave will be in the relationships I have formed, with both colleagues and students, who love God, love each other, and strangely enough, love that discipline which is called mathematics.
Hardy, G. H., and C. P. Snow. A Mathematician’s Apology. Cambridge U.P, 1967.
Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Eerdmans, 1970.
Lewis, C. S., and Walter Hooper. On Stories, and Other Essays on Literature. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982.
Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known: Education As a Spiritual Journey. HarperSanFrancisco, 1993.
Matt D. Lunsford is University Professor of Mathematics at Union University in Jackson, TN, where he has been a faculty member since 1993. He holds a doctorate in mathematics from Tulane University in New Orleans. His current research interests include classical Galois theory and finite fields. He and his wife Deanna have three grown children: Cara, Thomas, and Emma, and one son-in-law: Brennan.