We were excited when Ben Wormleighton came to us with this idea for an online mathematics reading group using Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing. What a delight to receive this report about the group and Ben’s suggestions for similar group. Please contact ESN if you would like to form a similar group in your field of study, either by leaving a comment here or by messaging us at our Facebook page.
Many academics probably received the advice from mentors or advisors to spend time “reading great works” in their field. The first instance of this I remember receiving in graduate school was to read Milnor’s Differential Topology (I didn’t). The invitation that is implicit in this advice is to be formed by those works. At least in the case of my field, much of the content of such works has been sufficiently integrated into canon that it can be hard to believe that people didn’t once view things a certain way. The point is that it is not necessarily that one is intended to learn new results from such an exercise, but instead to learn something about the practice of your field.
We are fortunate in that there are now many books, articles, and other writings by academics of faith who embody excellence in their professional and spiritual lives and, perhaps most importantly, in the fusion of the two. The purpose of this blog post is to make a case for communally engaging with these important writings coming simultaneously from our academic and spiritual contexts, and moreover for those spaces to be deeper than surface-level: to be formative in a similar sense to the underlying expectation of my first PhD advisor’s suggestion that I read Milnor.
I’ve tended not to enjoy reading groups. I reluctantly partook in a few during graduate school, I’ve done some through churches or other faith organizations. I’ve realized over time that my main irritation is that, while the conversation in meetings can often feel good and exciting, I’m left very unclear a few days afterwards of how my or anyone else’s life is affected by what was read and said. I’m no longer convinced by the merits of amassing information or understanding without purpose or application, especially in the spiritual setting.
One of the major distinctions between reading groups in the academic context — especially of the kind I was exposed to as a graduate student — and in the ecclesial context is that there are often exercises in the former. Unsurprisingly, the reading groups in graduate school where I actually did the exercises, or even where there were communal exercise sessions, were the ones that I found myself drawing on most frequently.
Just like writers on spiritual formation have been saying for decades (or rather for millennia; c.f. James 1:22-25, John 8:31-32), communally engaging in experiments of outworking and, crucially, reflecting on and assessing the fruit of those experiments are integral to spiritual growth.
So if we want to be formed by powerful works crafted by faith-filled thinkers, teachers, and leaders in our fields, we have to do our part too. We must embrace experimentation — “I promise to try X this week and share how it went next time” — and, as a necessary corollary, holding each other accountable in love. We must be generous with our time, for our own benefit as well as for those we get to connect with. We must consider how many messages we are bombarded with from the prevailing cultures of our professional and social contexts, and how critical it is that we incorporate as many counter-narratives as we can into our personal story pool.
A book that fits the bill in my context is Francis Su’s Mathematics for Human Flourishing. I led a nine-week reading group sponsored by InterVarsity in Spring 2022 to engage with Francis’ work. To be clear, I don’t claim the group aced every, or even many, aspects of what I’ve described above. But I will share five ways I tried to cultivate a formative group experience.
First, we ended each session with a prayerful reflection moment of 1-2 minutes where we sat in silence allowing God to speak to us and to, together with Him, each come up with a concrete next step to try this week. The first prompt of the next session was to check-in with a few people about this next step from the previous week. For instance, my next step on a week we talked about communicating the power of math was to do a short, interactive illustration from Francis’ book with my family. Another week we discussed community, and my next step was to check-in with a Christian postdoc and a Christian graduate student in my department.
Second, most of our time together was spent in small groups — breakout rooms in our case meeting over Zoom — of 2-4 people during which each group would nominate a spokesperson to report back to everyone. Just like in the classroom, this approach tends to create opportunities for more voices to be heard well and incorporated into the whole group conversation.
Third, in the time we spent together as a large group we explored various ways of engaging in ‘communal spiritual activity’. It was clear that many different ecclesial traditions were represented in the group and so we practiced a call-and-response liturgical prayer, times of musical worship, and moments of contemplative prayer as ways to open our meetings. For groups whose commonality comes from vocation, such as academics in the same field, there is a real opportunity for growing spiritual unity in the midst of diversity, and this was our attempt at doing so.
Fourth, we used GroupMe for connecting asynchronously between meetings. Email is objectively terrible for conversations with many participants whereas other thread-based apps like GroupMe, Slack, or even a text thread are much more conducive to connecting in real-time. It was great to have some stories from ‘next steps’ posted in GroupMe midweek. In retrospect, it might have been a good idea to have everyone post their next steps the day after a meeting.
Finally, the group was really enlivened by having the author join for an introductory fireside chat and for a longer Q&A after we had finished his book. We were truly blessed by Francis’ generosity with his time and energy; why not try reaching out to an author-hero of yours to see if they would be willing to dip into your group?
About the author:
Ben is a postdoc at Washington University in St. Louis working on getting different geometries to talk to each other. When not doing academic work he practices/dreams about the sabbath, crafts cocktails, and wanders around outside (sometimes quickly). One of Ben’s regrets is losing his British accent.