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James Wm. McClendon - on R.L. Moore


Professor James Wm. McClendon (1924-2000) was Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Altadena, California. He was in the same calculus class as Mary Ellen (Estill) Rudin. Because of some things he said in an interview with Albert Lewis and Joe Eyles, Lewis wrote to tell him about Rudin's stature in mathematics, and Fitzpatrick sent him a copy of her interview from More Mathematical People. What follows is excerpted from a letter of 19 July 1999 he wrote Lewis and copied to Fitzpatrick.

In 2000 the film maker George Csicsery videotaped an interview with McClendon.

Excerpt from the letter:

As it turned out, the Rudin biography from Ben Fitzpatrick came before your letter of July 12th with its enclosure did, so at first I was quite puzzled by the biography: Why to me? But then I read enough of it to guess that Dr. Rudin must have been the girl I remembered from the Spring, 1943, R.L. Moore integral calculus class, named (it turns out) Mary Ellen Estill, though I don't recall that. Today your letter came, and everything becomes much clearer; I remember things I had forgotten. ...

I recall much more clearly than when we first talked and interviewed what there was about Dr. Moore that meant so much to me. It is intimately related to what I have discovered is called the Moore Method: First from him, and I think more clearly from him than from anyone before or since, I learned that one could work problems out for oneself and get true answers. Of course in his connection these were all mathematics problems (by the way, do you have any explanation as to why people generally refer to the discipline as "math" - apparently without any sense of cutting a corner. Why "math" but not "phys"[ics] or "sosch"[iology] or "ast"[ronomy]? At least I learned from him not to talk that way)--to begin, they were all mathematics problems, but for me the confidence transferred eventually to other sorts of problems, and so it became a key part of my intellectual transformation. Here is the concrete evidence that I did learn that:

After the Navy installed me in Texas Christian University in 1943, I needed to take some advanced mathematics courses, but none were available (as my letters you have surprisingly found and copied say), So I persuaded the mathematician there, one Mr. Scherer, to let me work out a course on "theory of equations, determinants, matrices, etc." [regretfully, I now hardly know what these words mean] on my own. He agreed, I took the appointed text to my room, discovered by reading a little of it what the topic required mathematically, then closed the text, did not open it again until I had finished the job, and in the next few weeks worked it out myself! Two things surprise me now: (1) that I was so confident I could do that, and (2) that I was right, I really could. There is one other, comical thing about the entire episode: I went to Scherer with the completed work in hand; I told him I had done it independently; and (pretty clearly) he didn't believe me! Nevertheless, perhaps taking the path of least resistance, he gave me credit for the course. Think, then, of the boost in confidence that gave me, confidence still at work at age 75 as I finish the third volume of my systematic theology this summer here in Altadena.

I cannot tell you with what pleasure I read the batch of letters from me to him you found in Dr. Moore's file, letters I have no memory whatsoever of writing. I wonder if he answered them. It hardly matters. I am amazed to find how well they cohere with my memory of some of the events written about in them. Not all memories are perverse! And I am amazed to discover how enthusiastic I was, in 1943-44, about continuing in mathematics, a topic in which I was pretty clearly not as gifted as Mary Ellen, to say nothing of any others. Why did I want to go on? Surely because RLM had persuaded us that (1) it was worthwhile to do so, and (2) that we could? What great gifts he gave us!

[Related to Dr. Moore's 'racism':] I see two things going on here. One is the flaw in judgment by which we project the perspective of the present upon past persons and events. By that method, we were all 'racists' then, and by the way, fifty years from now (I predict) it will be easy to see that all of us alive today are (by those later standards) 'racists,' 'sexists,' and who knows what other -ists. Second, a corollary (I think that is the right word): who am I, who is anyone, to apply such a pejorative to any of our contemporaries? The old rule of equity is that one must come into court "with clean hands." My hands are not clean on this score, and I am suspicious of those Americans who think their hands are. R.L. Moore was a child of his time and place; who is not?

Thank you for the kind words about Biography as Theology. If you finish it you might want to look at a volume of my systematic theology, whose titles are Ethics (1986), Doctrine (1994), and Witness (forthcoming in 2000). Ethics, in particular, contains the sort of biographies you find in Biography as Theology; Witness will have the biography of  L. Wittgenstein as a central chapter. It will take a sharp eye to perceive the hands of the writer of those letters from the file that you so kindly copied for me.

Thank you again for awakening some fine memories from my formative past.

Very best wishes to you and your colleagues.

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Revised 11/28/2012