June 27, 2017

Laurie Mellinger

A couple of months ago, I was reading The Chronicle of Higher Education, and encountered an interview of mathematics professor Eugenia Cheng. Dr. Cheng is not only a mathematician, a researcher, and a teacher; she’s also an accomplished chef and a classically trained pianist. (I love to cook, and I’m also a classically trained pianist, so I kept reading; normally I would just skip an article about math!)

Cheng noted that mathematical research can be deeply frustrating, because “you can spend hours and hours and get really, actually, nowhere.” That’s one reason she’s learned to be creative in the kitchen and continued to perform as a musician–she said, “I wanted to have another activity where I knew I could achieve something.” I pondered that for a while, and realized that I tend to do the same thing. When I’m working on a project and get stuck, I’ll keep trying for a few minutes, but then I’ll likely get up and take a break, shift to another project, or play a game on my phone. I don’t like running my head into brick walls.

Then Cheng shifted the conversation to the frustration and skepticism of her students. Were you skeptical about math classes when you were in school? I remember hearing classmates–and, later, my own children!–moaning, “Tell me how I’m ever going to use this!!” Cheng’s students are no different. But her response to her own frustration with their dismay caught me completely off guard.

She spoke of the shift in her thinking: she’s moved away from feeling frustrated and now views their unhappiness as a challenge that she actually enjoys meeting. “I love hearing their skepticism at the beginning, because my whole aim is to change their minds.” She went on to talk about three good reasons to study math…

…but I got stuck there. God pricked my heart. Sometimes students express frustration with theology–one used to say, “I’m not a theologian, I just read the Bible!” Sometimes they seem skeptical about spiritual formation–“I’m saved, I’m going to heaven, what else do I need?” And on the inside, I get frustrated. I try not to show it. I try to sell them on the good reasons to study theology (“the depths of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God,” Romans 11:33). I try to demonstrate the richness of spiritual formation for their lives and ministries. Like Dr. Cheng, my whole aim is to change their minds.

But I certainly can’t say I love hearing skepticism, or frustration. Not at all. Truth be told, I hate it. I feel like I must be doing something wrong, and I get defensive. Yet hating skepticism and frustration doesn’t seem like a Christ-centered way to respond, does it?

I know how to respond better, but I don’t always remember to do it. I want to meet skepticism with questions! Gentle, probing, open-ended questions. Questions that demonstrate my love for a skeptical student, that allow me to listen deeply, that open doors for dialog in those walls I don’t like to bang my head against. Because when God prompts the question, and opens the door, the lights go on, and minds and hearts expand and move toward one another and toward God. And I do love that.

Reference: Bartlett, Tom, interviewer. “‘How to Think Clearly.’” The Chronicle Interview. The Chronicle of Higher Education 63:30 (March 31, 2017): A6.

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