Preaching Matrices

My math professor, Dr Williams, isn’t your typical math professor. Not only is he chair of the mathematics department at my college, he is also currently writing his own Linear Algebra textbook, all the while taking more classes himself to further his own education, adding to the many degrees he already possesses. He’s in his late fifties or early sixties, and a family man. He has some grey in his manicured beard but is only partially balding. He is always well-dressed, and wears stylish, thick-rimmed glasses, though not thick enough to hide the perpetual twinkle in his eye. He is the engaging, enthusiastic, hilarious teacher every student hopes for, and exudes a contagious passion for his field of expertise.

But Dr Williams isn’t just a superb educator who lives and breathes mathematics. He also happens to be the pastor of a black southern Baptist church.

To say he is charismatic in the classroom would be an understatement.

This is the teacher that will throw a crazy-looking matrix problem on the screen and say: “Now this…THIS isn’t all it seems! There’s MORE to the story than you see here! Something you need to KNOW in order to solve this! What is it? Well, in Genesis…” and then proceed to tell a Bible story (adding that our homework is to read the story of Isaac and the wells if we haven’t already) because not only do we need to understand math, we need to understand how math applies to life. Or as he would put it: to LIFE!!

I just can’t help but love this man.

He started a lecture the other day with an exposition of the philosophy of truth and knowledge:

“What WAS it that John said? When they told him that there were rumors of the messiah, HE said: “IS this the one?….. or IS there another??”

It took more than a moment for his shaking finger to drop down to desk level after that exclamation.

You see, a given matrix, once proven that is invertible, can only have one inverse, and it is important that we students, like John the Baptist, read, study, THINK, and dig for the truth…especially when finding matrix inverses is on the exam.

The majority of the class seemed to just swallow his rhetoric, and I thought to myself: “I’ve got to say something…if for no other reason than to let him know that his audience (congregation?) is more diverse and intellectual than he thinks.”

So, after class, I step up to his pulpi- I mean, “desk” at the front of the classroom.

“Hey there, Mr. Henry! What can I do for you?”

I clear my throat, trying to hide a smile and look serious at the same time, and say in a low tone: “I disagree with your philosophy.”

His eyebrows shoot up, and he almost manages to hide a smile of his own.

“Oh? Which part?”

“Well, if I’ve learned anything from mathematics, it’s that it teaches us the limits of reason.”

“Yes,” he nods gravely, so I continue.

“It’s a wall – almost tangible. I don’t think that given the limits of human reason, we can make claims about a god that by definition exists outside of it. If we can conceive of it, then it becomes contained within our spectrum of understanding and cannot be what it claims to be.”

Still nodding, he says: “But you see I’m not trying to understand God at all – I’m talking about knowledge of God. That is different.”

My turn to nod this time.  

“Yes, but as an empiricist, I believe that all knowledge comes from us. From humans.”

He leans forward in his chair, no longer hiding the smile: “But that is something YOU CHOOSE to believe!”

I stop hiding my smile too: “And YOU choose to believe that there exists knowledge that is beyond us!”

Before he has a chance to respond, I cordially add:

“I guess that makes us both men of faith.”

At this point my smile has broadened into a congenial, yet suppressed chuckle, while his has turned into a hearty laugh. As I turn to leave, he leans forward extending his hand to me from across the desk.

We shake hands jovially, without any apparent need to narrate the moment.

That’s my cue.

I shoulder the other strap of my backpack and step aside to let the next student through. Just before I reach the exit, and with students waiting in line to talk to him, he calls after me using his booming preacher voice:

“That’s the kind of thinking I’m TALKING about!”

I can’t say that I’ve ever had my irreligiosity complemented by a preacher, but I suspect I may have made a friend of sorts… or maybe a worthy opponent.

I do hope it turns out to be both. And I like to think that that handshake across the desk spanned quite a bit further than the desk alone. The semester has only just begun, so I guess we’ll see.