Coram Deo ~

Looking at contemporary culture from a Christian worldview

Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good by Steven Garber BOOK CLUB

Book Review~

Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 1Visions of Vocation

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we highlighted from our reading for the first week of our book club:
• Percy describes the novelist as “a physician of the soul of society,” and in his essay “Another Message in a Bottle,” he argues, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” That insight has become foundational to me, and it is a rare day that I do not draw upon it in conversations.
• Why is it that we care? Why is it that we see ourselves implicated in the world, in the way the world is and isn’t—and in the way it ought to be? And why does it seem that some do not care? I have thought about those questions for most of my life, and they continue to run through my heart.
• But it is also true that whether our vocations are as butchers, bakers or candlestick makers—or people drawn into the worlds of business or law, agriculture or education, architecture or construction, journalism or international development, health care or the arts—in our own different ways we are responsible, for love’s sake, for the way the world is and ought to be. We are called to be common grace for the common good. That is the vision of the Washington Institute, which is my work. Our credo is that vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei, and we work that out in many different ways in our teaching and writing, courses and curriculum. This book is an effort within that larger work, inviting you in its own way to “come and see” that this vision of vocation is being lived into by men and women, younger and older, who are committed to a faith that shapes vocation that shapes culture.
• “Seek the well-being of the city” was Jeremiah’s prophetic word to the exiles in Babylon, for “when it flourishes, you will flourish” (Jeremiah 29:7 paraphrase). To learn to see—to see ourselves implicated in history, to see that we share a common vocation to care not only for our own flourishing, but for the flourishing of the world—is the vision that has brought this book into being.
Chapter 1 To Know the World and Still Love It?
• More often than not, people want to do the right thing. They want their lives to matter, their visions to shape the way the world works for the common good, at least as they understand the good. In a thousand different ways they want their ideas to have legs. That is what makes Washington, Washington. Who we are and how we live together is the stuff of this city. Laws are imagined, laws are debated, laws are legislated.
• After the lecture, I noticed some young men who were a bit older than the typical undergraduate. They were a group of musicians who called themselves Jars of Clay. I knew of them, but did not know them, and they had their own questions to ask. So we talked and a conversation began that continues to this day. Over the months, they asked about books and essays to read and I was increasingly impressed with their moral seriousness. One day we talked about Africa and their desire to put their creative energy behind an effort to address its complex need for clean blood and water. I told them that a week earlier I had been in Phoenix, Arizona, speaking at a conference called “The Faces of Justice,” and had met a young woman named Jena Lee from Whitworth College who had impressed me with her articulate passion for Africa. It is a long story, but when Jena graduated that spring, she moved to Nashville to work with the Jars of Clay guys to begin Blood:Water Mission. Years later there are more than a thousand different projects in Africa that have grown out of Blood:Water Mission’s work. Jena has done a remarkable job, taking the band’s life and hopes, connecting them to hers, and birthing an organization that is healthy and responsible. The board has grown, and one of its prized members has been Clydette, who is still at USAID doing her work on the global threat of tuberculosis. She has brought all that and more to bear for the sake of the vision and work of Blood:Water Mission, with gladness and singleness of heart marking her vocation.
• To know the world and still love it? There is not a more difficult task that human beings face.
• How do we see what is awful and still engage, still enter in? How can we have our eyes open to reality and understand that we are more implicated, for love’s sake, now that we see?
• As Clydette and Jena have been my teachers, so has Simone Weil. In the 1940s, on the last night of her life, Weil wrote, “The most important task of teaching is to teach what it means to know.” To teach what it means to know? Found in the journal at her bedside, these were the final words of Simone Weil, the French philosopher who died in the 1940s. While her social position would have allowed otherwise, her own passions and commitments led her to the decision that while others suffered during the war years, she would eat only that which was available to the ordinary people of France. And simply said, she starved herself to death. Where did this seriousness of heart come from? Why did she see the world as she did? Why did the weightiness of the world mean so much to her? And why would knowing become that which mattered most? The ideas of Marx and Lenin and Trotsky failed her and her country, was there an answer to be found anywhere? She discovered it finally in the God who cries, the God who has tears. Among many essays that she wrote, there is one that I have loved most, called “On the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God.”
• Weil argues that it is in learning to pay attention that we begin to understand the meaning of life and of learning. What does she mean? To pay attention is to see what matters and what does not matter. It is to discern rightly, to choose well. Yes, it is to know as we ought to know, to know in a way that leads us to love. She calls this kind of study sacramental, as it is a kind of learning that is born of a love of God for the world—and in it a calling to love as God loves because we know as God knows. Her vision is formed by the story of the Good Samaritan, because in it she sees the primary issue as one of having learned, or not learned, to pay attention to things that matter.
• Two religious leaders, men much like the expert in the law, walk by and do not see a neighbor. They see a man, but do not see a neighbor—someone their law requires them to care for—and they pass by, having justified their indifference religiously, historically and sociologically. They had not learned to pay attention.
• In contrast, the Samaritan does see a neighbor and stops to care for him because he has learned to pay attention, to understand what he sees and why it matters. Weil also calls this kind of seeing sacramental, because it is a kind of learning that connects heaven to earth. Sacraments always do that—they give us the grace to understand that the universe is coherent, that things seen and unseen are equally real, equally true. And they allow us to understand that the most ordinary elements of life can be made holy—even our learning, even our labor, even our love.
• When we see all of life as sacramental, as the graceful twining together of heaven and earth, then we begin to understand the meaning of vocation, which in their very different ways are what the stories of Clydette, Jena and Simone Weil are each about. We can begin to see that all of life, the complexity of our relationships and responsibilities—of family and friendships, of neighbors near and far, of work and citizenship, from the most personal to the most public—indeed, everything is woven together into the callings that are ours, the callings that make us us.
• There is nothing we are asked to do that requires more of us than to know and to love at the same time. Mostly we choose otherwise. Mostly we choose to step away, now knowing as we do.
• Whether it is in the most familiar of relationships, as in marriage, or in the most far-reaching of responsibilities, as in the global AIDS crisis, when we begin to really know what someone is like or what something or someplace is like, the calculus of our hearts more often than not leads us to conclude that it will no longer be possible to love. How can we, after all? Now we know!
• One of my deepest commitments is to the “come and see pedagogy” of the Gospels.
• We learn the truest truths, the most important things, only when we look over the shoulder and through the heart, only when we can see that ideas have legs and that worldviews can become ways of life.
• So when I travel around the country and beyond, I talk about people I know who in their very different ways are connecting what they believe with the way that they live in and through their vocations.
• In fact, they are showing that it is possible to honestly know and to responsibly love as they take up the callings and careers that are theirs. And so time and again, I will say to those who have asked me to speak, “Come and see.” Yes, come and see that what I am saying is possible. People actually do live like this—and you can too.
• We do not have to play games with ourselves or with history, pretending that the world is a nicer place than it ever can be, that somehow really awful things do not happen, that horribly sad moments are not ours to live with and through.
• We do not have to decide that the only livable responses are the most perennial responses, the ones that human beings have made since the beginning of time, those of cynicism and stoicism. Both of course are ways of protecting our hearts from being hurt again, ways of “knowing” that do not ask us to love what we know.
• Rather they are ways of knowing that allow us to step away from history and from our responsibility for the way that history unfolds. They give us the ability to say no to the tragedies and heartaches of life, and to protect ourselves from being hurt by becoming too close to what will inevitably bring pain.
• We can choose to know what is going on in the world and still love the world. But we need good reasons to do so.
• And I began to wonder, Is there something that is more true than what I have believed? Is there an account of the universe that makes more sense of griefs like this?
• John does record, “Jesus wept,” but Warfield digs deeper and opens windows into the heart of God, incarnate in Jesus, who twice is said to have “groaned severely in his spirit.” He does what a good reader of the text will always do and asks about the meaning of John’s words. What he found surprised me. The very words that are used are the same ones that Greek poets used to describe a warhorse ready to enter battle, a stallion rearing on his hind legs, nostrils flaring, angry at what he sees and ready to enter the conflict as a warrior himself, even as he carries a warrior in armor on his back.
• There are moments when we can do nothing else than cry out against the wrongs of the world. It is just not the way it is supposed to be! Outrageous, it is outrageous! Tears matter, and sometimes they are very complex.
• We all cry—but what is important here is why we cry and when we cry and what our crying means for who we are and how we live.
• The tears of God are complex. They must be tears of sympathy, even empathy, as Aslan weeps for Digory’s mother and as Jesus weeps with his friends at the death of their brother. But sometimes they are also tears of anger at the unnaturalness of death, at the distortion of death, at the skewing of human hopes, as Jesus “groaned severely in his spirit” at the death of Lazarus.
• So, reader, come and see. In these next pages, you will meet my friends from near and far, men and women who incarnate the reality that we can know and still love the world, even in its wounds—perhaps especially in its wounds—whether they be in family or friendship, psychological or sociological, in economic life or political life, in the arts or in education, in small towns or on complex continents. As the poet Bob Dylan once sang, “Everything is broken.” Yes, everything, and so we must not be romantics. We cannot afford to be, just as we cannot be stoics or cynics either.
• But the story of sorrow is not the whole story of life either. There is also wonder and glory, joy and meaning, in the vocations that are ours. There is good work to be done by every son of Adam and every daughter of Eve all over the face of the earth. There are flowers to be grown, songs to be sung, bread to be baked, justice to be done, mercy to be shown, beauty to be created, good stories to be told, houses to be built, technologies to be developed, fields to farm, and children to educate.
• All day, every day, there are both wounds and wonders at the very heart of life, if we have eyes to see. And seeing—what Weil called learning to know, to pay attention—is where vocations begin.

Next week we’ll read chapter 2. Won’t you join us? To entice you, here are a few reviews of the book.

Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 2Visions of Vocation

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we highlighted from our reading for the second week of our book club:

  • The Last Butterfly is about moral imagination, about learning to see with the heart in the context of one’s calling, right in the middle of the push and shove of life, full as it is of complex responsibilities.
  • Our propensity to deceive ourselves about our place and purpose makes it so very difficult to see the truth of our lives, to understand the meaning of our moment in history and our responsibility to it.
  • The importance of The Last Butterfly is that it asks the viewer this probing question: In the context of one’s calling, how does one learn to see with the eyes of the heart, to see oneself as responsible for the way the world is and isn’t?
  • In a captivating though sobering chapter, “The Duties of Law-Abiding Citizens,” she described Eichmann as reading his world through this lens: This was the way things were, this was the new law of the land, based on the Führer’s order; whatever he did he did, as far as he could see, as a law-abiding citizen. He did his duty, as he told the police and the court over and over again; he not only obeyed orders, he also obeyed the law.
  • The distinction mattered to Eichmann. In the pharisaism of his heart, he understood his employment as a public vocation with professional responsibilities, so that it was important to not only do one’s duty but to obey the law—even if the law was one and the same with the fatally flawed Führer himself.
  • Arendt painstakingly set forth the historical details of the Nazi vision in general, and Eichmann’s role in particular, always returning to the question, “Why didn’t he see these people as neighbors? What perversion of law and order made it possible to go to work day by day, year after year, making choices with horrific consequences, and to see it all as “my duty”?
  • Also perplexed by Eichmann and the court, she tried to find language sufficient to communicate the moral meaning of his actions, and offered the word thoughtlessness—he did not think things through, he was not thoughtful about what he did and what it meant. In the narrowness of his vision of neighbor, of citizen, of employee, he failed to follow through on the moral implications of his beliefs and behavior.
  • Eichmann’s failure to see truthfully enabled him, by just doing his job, to oversee Theresienstadt, the “city of the Jews” in The Last Butterfly. The film is what we call historical fiction, but Eichmann’s role was far from fictional. Blind to the meaning of who he was and what it meant, he made sure that the trains left on time for Auschwitz, going to bed at night certain that “with the killing of Jews I had nothing to do.”
  • But the harsh truth is that the twentieth century produced other holocausts, some more terrifying than that of Nazis, and to own that history is part of our human responsibility even in the midst of our ordinary lives in ordinary places.
  • Over time Gary decided to leave the Department of Justice to find a way to address injustices small and large wherever they might be found. If in the Philippines it was child prostitution, in India it was child slavery. And so three years after the Rwandan genocide, the International Justice Mission was formed. Now, fifteen years later, IJM has developed networks of attorneys, investigators and trauma social workers in nations on every continent.
  • Two stories, one century: Eichmann and Haugen. Where one did not see a neighbor in need, the other understood that moral, political and social injustice is in fact always one more window into a neighbor’s need. The question that searches the deepest places is this: Why did Gary feel responsible? He had eyes to see that he was in fact responsible to do something, because someone had to say no. And he found a way in the context of his calling to do just that.
  • Over the years I have read and reread Percy’s work, dwelling in his vision of learning and life. He is, after all, the one who wrote that “it is possible to get all A’s and still flunk life.”
  • An observation about the human condition from his novel The Second Coming, the second of two novels about Will Barrett, his words are a warning about the temptation that lurks around the corner of everyone’s heart—to believe that competence can be separated from character, that excellence can be defined in merely academic terms without a corresponding concern for the kind of people we are. Do we have eyes to see what is really important? What really matters?
  • Along the way, principally in conversations with good friends, he was drawn to mere Christianity, to the gospel of the kingdom which was strange good news for someone like him who longed for something to believe about life and the world that could make sense of his life in the world.
  • What the literati saw in Percy’s work was his unflinching willingness to look at sorrow and anguish and not blink. Eyes that see, yes—but what do we see? He was not a romantic—that was not a possibility. Rather he was a realist to the core. What the reviewers missed was his deeply rooted commitment to seeing human beings as “pilgrims in the ruins,” that we are glories and shames at the same time.
  • “But I always want some hint of hope in my writing.” What did he mean? And why did it matter?
  • Honest readers of Percy’s work acknowledge that he was painstakingly honest about the sorrows that are ours as human beings, and his hints of hope were never more than that.
  • There is one great question in his work: “Knowing what you know about yourself and the world, what are you going to do?”
  • Attentive as he was to life, and to his life, Percy was writing about the challenge of being alive in the modern world. So much to see, so much to hear, so much to know—what will we do?
  • That is the most difficult dilemma for thoughtful, serious human beings: What will you do with what you know?
  • If most of Europe was Eichmann-like, offering “the obedience of corpses” in thousands of terribly ordinary ways, there were exceptions. In every nation there are people who choose otherwise, who have eyes to see that something is wrong and that they can do something about it.
  • Taken together they are some of the best stories in the whole of history, reminding all of us what it means to be a neighbor, what it means to have eyes that see.
  • In thousands of important and different ways, each is a story formed by the asking and answering of the question, knowing what I know, what will I do?
  • Always and everywhere, this is our challenge as human beings. Can we know and love the world at the very same time? Knowing its glories and shames, can we still choose to love what we know? Is there any task more difficult than that?
  • Knowing what I know about the way the world is, what am I going to do? A mime in Europe had to answer, as did the Nazi bureaucrats, as did the Justice Department lawyer, as do all of us. Percy’s question echoes through the heart of every human being, and it is especially poignant for those coming out of the starting blocks of early adulthood with a life of knowing and doing on the horizon. The question requires an answer if we are going be human.

Next week we’ll look at chapter 3. Won’t you join us?

 Visions of Vocation Book Club – Week 3Visions of Vocation

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we highlighted from our reading of Chapter 3 – The Landscape of Our Lives:

  • To understand this cusp of a new century—marked as it is both by the sociological reality of the information age and the philosophical movement we call postmodernism—we have to pay attention to the novelists, filmmakers and musicians who are culturally upstream, as it is in their stories, movies and songs where we will feel the yearnings of what human life is and ought to be.
  • Whether staged or celluloid, in print or on computer disks, they are fingers to the wind. Why? Artists get there first.
  • Take U2, for example. It is hard to imagine students of history in some future era making sense of the dawn of this millennium without studying their music. Pop icons, yes. But prophets as well, as they have set out for themselves and their audience a vision of human life under the sun that has been as enormously entertaining as it has been politically and socially attentive.
  • While there are scores of songs that offer artful windows into the human heart, in their album Zooropa, the song “Numb” captures better than almost anything else what it feels like to be alive in the information age.
  • For those with eyes to see and ears to hear, the song is a finger on the pulse of the ABC/BBC/CBS/NBC/CNN/FOX/MSNBC on-all-the-time culture. And U2 gets at it brilliantly, profoundly. Artists do get there first. I feel numb.
  • A growing chorus of critics brings their voices to bear on the meaning of the information age, wondering what it means, and will mean, for all of us.
  • Describing the contemporary world as “an info-glut culture,” he has asked with probing seriousness, “But have we become any wiser?” The words echo across the landscape of our time.
  • One of the best known voices bringing a critical eye to bear upon the information age is Neil Postman, who for twenty-five years wrote as widely and perceptively as anyone on the challenge of learning to learn and live in a technological society.
  • With an uncanny eye and ear, he picked up on the tremendous challenge of holding onto one’s humanity in an information-saturated culture.
  • Carr instead draws on brain physiologists to argue that our very brains are being rewired so that we are seeing life differently, and we are reading the world differently. Scanning our way down the computer screen, hyperlinking as we do, we are decreasingly able to read more carefully, with the kind of discernment that critical reading requires. In a word, Carr calls our contemporary practice “the shallows.”
  • Of all that has been written on this phenomenon, Colin Gunton’s Bampton Lectures at Cambridge University, The One, the Three and the Many: God, Creation and the Culture of Modernity, seem the wisest. Brilliant and far-ranging, he argued that disengagement is the essence of modern life. Looking out at the world, we want to understand it, we want to respond to it—and yet we find it so very hard to do so in any morally meaningful way. Knowing what I know, what am I to do?
  • An info-glut culture? Yes, in more ways than we know, on more levels than we can understand. I feel numb. While the artists get there first, the world at large catches up, and we all wonder, What am I going to do?
  • As probing as that question is for all, some have decided, with a shrug of the mind and heart, whatever. Sometimes playful, often more cynical, the word itself is a window into the complexity of life; we feel overwhelmed in so many different ways all at once. How else to respond than with a heartfelt “whatever”? From casual conversations in families and among friends to core curricular commitments at major universities, “whatever” seems to many the best response to the way the world is—and isn’t.
  • Thoughtful, honest human beings wonder, Knowing what I know, what am I going to do? To do nothing seems less than human, seems less than right.
  • Whether we read the philosophers or not, the belief that we have no access to certainty, particularly to moral absolutes, to the world of “basic right and wrong in the universe,” is in the cultural air we breathe.
  • In a post-Enlightenment world, there is no voice, no perspective that carries more weight than any other, because no one has access to certainty about anything. There is no Story to make sense of stories, no Truth to make sense of truths, no Metanarrative to make sense of narratives. All claims to the contrary are “totalitarian” and are not to be tolerated. The worst face of postmodernism is that nothing has metaphysical or moral weight; it is the culture of whatever, a nihilism for Everyman.
  • To get what I want when I want it. To do what I want to do when I want to do it. Baldly stated, that is the way I have described morally malformed people to my children over the years, like a driver along the interstate who bullies everyone else, a politician who with Machiavellian cynicism skillfully uses the system to advance his own ambitions. Very, very bright people do not always make very, very good people. You can get all A’s and still flunk life.
  • Human lives and history are at stake here. No wise person, therefore, will step into this analysis with a cheap critique. But Solzhenitsyn’s analysis of the notion that “it would have seemed quite impossible, in America, that an individual be granted boundless freedom with no purpose, simply for the satisfaction of his whims” was profoundly prescient. He saw where the line in the sand was, and would continue to be, in the culture of whatever.
  • Few films have captured this dilemma with as much cinematic brilliance as Run Lola Run.
  • For the foreseeable future, we will never become a completely postmodern culture. At best, we are stretched taut between times. Airplane schedules, with all the technological complexities of air traffic controllers, with the mathematical precision required in allocation of air space, with the interrelatedness of computers across continents and oceans, require modern consciousness, the ongoing commitment to certain things—“facts”—being true for everyone all the time. But the on-the-street ethos, the air we breathe, is plainly that of postmodernism, and its worst face is the culture of whatever.
  • Seeing what I see, hearing what I hear, what am I going to do?
  • From mime artists in Paris, to attorneys walking the killing fields of Rwanda, to young, eager human rights activists in Washington, to graduate students at Yale, how does one learn to see with the eyes of the heart, to see oneself as responsible for the way the world is and isn’t? Not a cheap question, and there are no cheap answers.

Next week we’ll look at chapter 4. Won’t you join us?

 Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 4Visions of Vocation

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we discussed from our reading of Chapter 4 – Knowing is Doing:

  • Few stories capture the poignancy of parenting and politics, particularly of the ways in which fathers and their sons together learn to care about the world, as does Chaim Potok’s The Chosen.
  • It is at its core a reflection on the relationship of education to vocation, offering a tale of two answers to the question, Knowing what I know, having heard what I have heard, having read what I have read, what am I going to do?
  • And so he decided to raise his son in silence, as he himself had been raised, to feel the pain of the world in his own pain.
  • None of us, child or parent, older or younger, can read this without weeping. And none of us can conclude that the father’s choice was cheap.
  • Working with others in the city, we called it “Knowing and Doing: Crucial Questions for the Modern University” and commissioned a provocative poster, black and white for starkness, of a student standing on very large books, Grand Canyon–like, looking down into the world.
  • Each in his own way spoke to the question of the responsibility of knowledge within the academic community, perennially challenged as it is by the fiction that one can know but not do, that one can in fact “get all A’s and still flunk life.” What is the point of learning, after all? The question is not new.
  • That story became reality a century later in the appointment of Peter Singer to an endowed chair at Princeton University, where he has famously argued that parents ought to have at least several months after the birth of a child to decide if in fact they want to keep the child. And all this from the ironically named Center for Human Values, which he directs.
  • It was in (John) Stott’s address, taking up the question of the series, that I first heard the story of The Chosen as one with meaning for learning. “A mind without a heart is nothing.” I can still hear Stott say those words in his deeply Oxbridge voice, and they still ring true—for everyone everywhere. Knowing still has to mean doing.
  • How do we learn to become people who have minds and souls at the same time, in the same bodies, in the same persons? How do we avoid fragmenting ourselves so that we read stories of suffering but are insensitive to their meaning? To hear but not care? To see but not respond?
  • As Mark Schwehn has argued so well in Exiles from Eden, “Epistemologies have ethical implications . . . ways of knowing are not morally neutral but morally directive.” The ways we learn shape our souls, for blessing or curse, consciously chosen or not, and are rooted in epistemological commitments which are not morally neutral. Each and every time, they are morally directive.
  • With unusual wisdom, Louise Cowan’s essay “Jerusalem’s Claim Upon Us” takes up for one more generation the age-old question, What does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?
  • Cowan says, that “the object of the Greek way of thought is to know rightly; the object of the Hebrew is to do rightly.” To sum up, she argues that this deity who “fashions a cosmos out of love”—not the eros of the Greeks but the hesed of the Hebrews—makes a covenant with the human race, calling forth “a creature like himself, in his own image, one that could know and understand and love.”
  • Taking these ideas together, Cowan sets forth the contours of the Hebrew vision of the way the world is and ought to be. Woven as strands, they become a tapestry of the way to be holy and human, which in the end is the gift of “the covenant with the human race” that makes sense of the Hebrew understanding of life.
  • Not forever lost in the cosmos, wondering who they are and how they are to live, but rather created in covenant to know and be known, to love and be loved.
  • Written into that vocation is an epistemological challenge, a way of knowing that is not and can never be morally neutral, but is always morally directive. We must not only know rightly, but do rightly. And we must know and understand and love—at the same time. Taken together this is the heart of the Hebrew way of knowing.
  • If at the core of the calling to be human is the task to know and do rightly, to act responsibly in history, to coherently connect knowledge with understanding with love, then there must be a reason for being that makes sense of human relationships and responsibilities in those terms, a context for seeing what one believes and how one lives as a seamless whole. For the Hebrew people, this comes from their understanding of covenant.
  • And generation by generation, God continued to “covenant” with his people—with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David—and of course, in the Christian vision, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus is the covenant incarnate, the covenant made flesh, living for a while among us.
  • From beginning to end, the word covenant represents the reality that God is holy, holy, holy—and expects his people to be so, too. Covenants reveal a God who is gracious and compassionate—and expects his people to be so, too. A covenant was a call to live rightly, to act justly—images that imply a “north star,” which is the character of God himself.
  • This is who I am, this is who you are and this is the way you are to live.
  • Three realities mark covenants wherever they are found in the Hebrew scripture: relationship, revelation, responsibility—the first and the last mediated by the second. Each time a covenant is made, a relationship is offered, a revelation is given, a responsibility is expected. It is the God who “fashions a cosmos out of love” who calls a people into covenant, saying, “I want to know you and to be known by you. This is who I am and who you are. This is the way you are to live. Now, what are you going to do? How are you going to respond? With faithful love, with heart and mind and soul and strength—or will you falter?”
  • Relationship, revelation, responsibility. The words define each other, even as they define covenant.
  • The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob connects to his people through covenant, saying with word and deed, “I know you, I know all about you, and I choose to love you. I will be in relationship to you.”
  • But with that relationship comes a revelation.
  • This is who I am. This is what I am like. This is who you are. This is how you are to live.
  • A relationship initiated—by grace. A revelation made—with power and clarity. And a responsibility, an ability to respond. Always and everywhere, the revelation requires a response.
  • Though the words are historically situated in a moment in Hebrew history, Joshua’s charge to his people echoes across the ages: “Choose this day whom you will serve” (Joshua 24:15 ESV). It is a line in the sand for every generation, perennially asked and answered in every time, in every place. But it is particularly so within the covenantal character of the biblical story, where the dynamic of relationship/revelation/responsibility is sustained in time and space, generation by generation.
  • Noah, Abraham, Moses, David—on each occasion that a covenant is made, a question is set forth: What will you do with what you know? How will you respond to what you have heard?
  • But the covenant, at its very core, reveals the God who knows rightly and does rightly, who knows and understands and loves.
  • Havel was just becoming a more internationally known figure at the time, having come from prison to the presidency of Czechoslovakia and then the Czech Republic. His people saw themselves as victims. But he also knew that there was no future for his people if they could not set that identity and history aside and instead take up responsibility for the future.
  • If we lose God in the modern world, then we lose access to these four great ideas—meaning, purpose, responsibility, accountability.
  • What Havel saw is what Cowan saw, that human beings are “obligated through the very fact of their existence.”
  • Knowing and doing are at the core of every examined life, but putting the two together is the most difficult challenge we face.
  • A storyteller whose work will long outlive him because he spoke so truthfully about the human condition, Hitchcock rarely missed the opportunity in his films to ask, and answer, the probing questions which are implicit in the relationship of knowing to doing.
  • All of us—friends, parents and children, teachers and students, employers and employees, political leaders and their people—at some point are faced with the question: If you knew, why didn’t you do? How could you be so irresponsible?
  • From the most personal to the most public of our relationships, from marital unfaithfulness to corporate scandals—how else do we explain the outrage, the disappointment, when we find that one more time in one more situation with one more person, there was a disconnect between what someone knew and what they did?
  • What does it mean to “know”? If we were to take the Hebrew scripture, from Genesis to Malachi, listening to and learning the way that knowledge is understood, it would come to something like this: to have knowledge of means to have responsibility to means to have care for.
  • If one knows, then one cares; if one does not care, then one does not know.
  • Like the word covenant, it is defined in life, not in abstraction.
  • As always, the way that belief and behavior are formed over time is complex; but it is clear that the way we live shows what we believe.
  • The epistemological vision that threads its way through biblical history is plainly part of this book’s account of why and how to live in the world: if you know, you care; if you don’t care, you don’t know.
  • And God in his faithful love, hesed, sends prophets to call the people back to the meaning of the covenant. Remember who I am. Remember who you are. Remember how you are to live.
  • But the people have rejected the covenant, they have separated knowing from doing. They may know rightly, but they do not do rightly.
  • The prophet Jeremiah adds his voice to Isaiah’s, lamenting the loss of knowledge, calling the people to an integrity of heart, to do what they know, to move outside the compartmentalization of faith that is the perennial temptation of people of faith anytime and anywhere.Bottom of Form
  • Like a prism in the sun, yada is a multi-faceted word that, in its near one thousand uses in the Hebrew scripture, is translated variously as know, knows, knew, known, knowing, knowledge, acknowledge, understand, teach, realize, show, experience, care for, concern, concerned about, have sex with and learns.
  • From beginning to end it is a word for life, ranging across the spectrum of human relationships and responsibilities—and not surprisingly, its meaning includes both joy and sorrow, the way things ought to be and the way things more often than not are.
  • In Seinfield’s cynical world, the point was that there was no point, and “Yada yada yada” was the response. As silly as Seinfeld meant it to be, for those with ears to hear, it did have meaning. After the Fall, where the covenant is first broken in the Garden, everything is broken, the whole cosmos is affected—and so is yada, so is knowing. Yada, yada, yada.
  • When our older children were almost adolescents, I invited them and their friends at Rivendell School to see the film Weapons of the Spirit. With unusual seriousness, the Washington Post saw it as “a kind of spiritual quest,” and I thought it would be good grist for the mill of young minds. “The question at the heart of this modest, compelling film is this: how in the middle of great evil did a great good take place?”
  • Why do we care? It is never an easy question, and there is never an easy answer.
  • If we remember solely the horror of the Holocaust, it is we who will bear the responsibility for having created the most dangerous alibi of all: that it was beyond man’s capacity to know and care.
  • In the image of Simone Weil, true learning is learning to pay attention, seeing things as they really are.
  • Why do we care? Because we see ourselves in relationship, “obligated by the very fact of our existence.” And now knowing what we know, we are responsible, for love’s sake, for the people and places that are ours—if we have eyes that see.

Steven Garber was recently interviewed by byFaith about Visions of Vocation. You can read the interview here: http://byfaithonline.com/how-do-we-love-a-broken-world/

Next week we’ll look at chapter 5. Won’t you join us?

 Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 5

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we discussed this week from our reading of Chapter 5: Come and See.

  • This business of seeing ourselves as implicated is central to the covenantal epistemology. That we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is what the responsibility of knowledge is always about.
  • For people committed to lives of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God, it is never easy to craft a public policy that makes everything right for everyone. We know that at our best we still fall short—and someone somewhere will be hurt, falling through the cracks.
  • For Tolstoy’s men on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it was in seeing that the one understood the meaning of his journey, just as it was in not seeing that the other missed the meaning of his journey. Central to the Telos Group’s mission is the conviction that it is in seeing what is going on that people will begin to understand the realities of the situation and begin to see themselves as responsible, willing to care about justice for all, not justice for “just us.”
  • And it is no surprise that when people see and hear, meeting real people with real lives, that a transformation often takes place. Relationship, revelation, responsibility. When we learn like that, we begin to see ourselves as implicated.
  • In the best of learning, in the truest learning, words have to become flesh, and more often than not it is in storied service that the eyes of the heart are awakened.
  • The covenantal epistemology is a way of knowing that sees the world through the lens of relationship. I know you, and I love you.
  • From the patriarchs on, God calls a people into being, naming them as his own and calling them to live in the world, remembering to remember the most important things.
  • Relationship, revelation, responsibility—the heart and soul of the covenant lived in and through the vocations of Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David—and of course the same is true for the generations of people who saw themselves as belonging to God, known by him and loved by him. The Hebrew vision of life, grounded in the God who has “fashioned a cosmos out of love,” is covenantal. There is no other word that so captures the meaning of life lived before the face of God, responsible for love’s sake to God for history, for the way the world is and ought to be. The biblical vision is that the covenant becomes incarnate in Jesus. Wisdom and justice, sovereignty and mercy, compassion and kindness, anger and patience, all characteristics of the Holy One of Israel, become flesh in Jesus.
  • We can only learn the things that matter most when we come and see.
  • They “do the truth,” they put the truth into practice. Yes, they give flesh to the word.
  • And over many years, after many conversations, my conviction is this: moral commitment precedes epistemological insight. We see out of our hearts. We commit ourselves to living certain ways—because we want to—and then we explain the universe in a way that makes sense of that choice. It is why Augustine’s long-ago question still rings true: you cannot really know someone by asking, “What do you believe?” It is only when you ask, “What do you love?” that we begin to know another. We see out of our hearts? Yes, because we live out of our loves.
  • But what I have seen is, in the end, it is always a matter of one’s heart leading the way, one’s loves shaping one’s vision of the world and the way that a person will live in it. It was for Nicodemus, and it is for us. Words have to become flesh.
  • The story of the Samaritan woman in John 4 is its own wonder, offering another take on the meaning of incarnation.
  • But here the Word becomes flesh to the woman, and she sees something that she has never ever seen: a man can know her and still love her.
  • And the text says that Jesus came and lived for a while among them, incarnating words like holiness and mercy, wisdom and compassion. The people of the Samaritan village could see what the words meant as they were incarnated in their midst. Words have to become flesh.
  • Sometime later, Jesus returns to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish feasts and walks by the pool called Bethesda (John 5).
  • Sometimes, very strangely, we choose to love our wounds. Not so much that we openly embrace them, but so much that we cannot imagine living life without them. They have come to mean so much to us. We see ourselves in their light, or darkness, as the case actually is. And of course in the heartache of human life, it is out of our wounds that we wound others.
  • It is amazing grace that finds him in his desolation, and he hears, “Get up, take your bed and walk.” It is an invitation to respond from the one who knew that the man was responsible, able to respond. When all is said and done, what happens is a profound mystery that is finally beyond our explanation—and we can only be amazed at the grace given. Words have to become flesh.
  • For Mary, Martha and Lazarus, Jesus has been a friend, even as he has been a teacher.
  • Even if we do not fully understand the whys and hows of this story, it matters supremely that God is not a passive responder to life and death—and that he does not expect us to be.
  • Lazarus had not lost his humanity in his death—he had not become an automaton. The secret of his humanity was still his responsibility, as mysterious as it finally is.
  • The words fall flat if there is no ability to respond, to be responsible. Relationship, revelation, responsibility—always and everywhere the heart of the covenant, especially the covenant incarnate. Words have to become flesh.
  • Jesus spends the night before the crucifixion, Passover night, with his disciples, and several chapters of John are given to that (John 13–17).
  • Stories do matter, and believing the true story of human life under the sun will give meaning to our vocations, as denying it will prove the implosion of our vocations.
  • In every generation the most honest people have always understood that if there is not a story to make sense of my story, then why not “eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die”? The teaching of Jesus is never disconnected from the tensions of life, from the questions and concerns of real people in the world that is really there.
  • The central themes of the covenantal epistemology are written into the story. Jesus initiates a deepening of the relationship, revealing more of himself in the process, and then sets forth their responsibility—which is summed up by the crucial connection of knowing with doing. This is the covenant made flesh. Words have to become flesh.
  • The final story here is in the last chapter of John’s Gospel, the story of the disappointed and perplexed disciples returning to their fishing (John 21).
  • Two of the most common and most ordinary human activities, working and eating, are sanctified in the story, made holy by Jesus, showing all with eyes to see that in the new heaven and new earth these will be an integral part.
  • He could have shown them anything, he could have done anything. The resurrected Lord that he was, he could have done something noticeably “religious” for them, like baptism or the Eucharist. He could even have preached to them or prayed for them. What he chose to do was honor their work and then eat with them.
  • Working, eating—these are central to human vocation, in every culture and every century.
  • And then he invites them to respond with their labor and their lives, seeing even the most ordinary things of life as sacramental, made new as they are by the reality of the resurrection. They are signposts in a strange land of the world that someday will be. Words have to become flesh.
  • A couple of years ago, I invited a group of folks to our home for dinner. We call these Vocare evenings “conversations about calling”, together pondering the meaning of Berry’s essay “Two Economies.” In earlier conversations, we had discussed the essay and decided it would be worth a more prolonged conversation because his vision of an economics of mutuality was remarkably rich. The essay sets forth “two economies,” a lesser economy and a greater economy.
  • Berry believes that wherever we look in the world there are lesser economies: farms, villages, cities, regions, states, even nations.
  • He says that for him the greater economy is “the kingdom of God,” but that people are free to call it what they want.
  • What he does not give freedom for is whether there is a greater economy, or whether the greater economy is in fact the final arbiter of all economic visions.
  • It is important to understand this about Berry: he writes for everyone, translating his own deepest convictions in language that the whole world can understand. He is not writing for a parochial audience, for people who necessarily think like he does, who believe like he does. And in everything he writes—poetry, novels, essays—he sees the world in terms of the covenantal cosmos, of relationship, revelation and responsibility. But he is a translator, using images and words to connect to the wider world.
  • Berry is writing about the truth of the human condition, situating human beings in relation to God and to history.
  • For some, the Berryian vision is for a time out of mind, a world that has long passed away. That is not fair to him or to the world. But there is a tension here, and I have said to him on a few occasions, “If what you were arguing were simply nice ideas for nice people who live in nice places, then I would not be interested. But what you are saying is true, and so it is our responsibility to figure out what it means for where we are.”
  • These are the truest truths of the universe: We do not flourish as human beings when we know no one and no one knows us; we do not flourish as human beings when we belong to no place and no place cares about us. When we have no sense of relationship to people or place, we have no sense of responsibility to people or place.
  • Perhaps the saddest face of the modern world is its anonymity, to live as if I am known by none and belong nowhere.
  • From road rage on freeways to the casually cruel crime of the city to the existential angst of being lost in the cosmos, when we are not in relationships that matter, it is almost impossible to see ourselves as responsible to and for others.
  • Berry is writing about a covenantal cosmos, about life in the world where knowing and being known is critical if we are to flourish. This one theme runs through the body of his work: We must learn to live incarnationally, committed to particular people and particular places. If we are to have honest lives, we will have to incarnate who we are and what we believe with those people and in those places.
  • In every century and every culture there is an integral connection between knowing and doing, and it is most fully expressed in love. For glory or shame, we choose to live in love—or not. But there is also a greater economy, the kingdom of God, and in it we live and move and have our being—or not. Our flourishing depends upon our seeing these truths as true to the way the world really is. If we are to understand our place in the world, we have to find a way into that vision, somehow somewhere. Come and see.

Next week we’ll read chapter 6. Won’t you join us?

  Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 6

Steven Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I are reading his newest book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. Below are passages we discussed last week from our reading of Chapter 6: “Vocation as Implication”.

  • Can we know the world and still love it?
  • Uncle Peach did not deserve to be loved, and there was no indication that he was ever going to change.
  • Knowing what they knew, complicated and complex as it was, they chose to love. To do that with honesty and integrity is the most difficult task in the world.
  • But there are people who make that choice. Not out of grandeur or great ambition, but in the spirit of Berry’s vision: in the relationships and responsibilities of common life, they see themselves as implicated in the way the world is and ought to be. They see themselves as having vocations that call them into life, into the world—into a way of knowing that implicates them, for love’s sake.  And in the unfolding of my life, living where I have lived, working where I have worked, I have met some of those people.

Jonathan Groene—Kansas Born and Bred

  • In a place like Lawrence, it is not possible to say one thing and then do another and still keep your head up the next day.
  • Jonathan has become the words he advertised, living into his promise: a steward of visions and resources.

Todd and Maria Wahrenberger—MDs

  • One book they read was Denis Haack’s The Rest of Success, and his writing gave them reasons to rethink what ambition meant and what a good life might look like. A year later they formed a health clinic on the north side of Pittsburgh, near the stadiums, in a neighborhood that was medically underserved. As a wise friend has persuaded me, most things don’t work out very well. Even with hopes and dreams, the vision of a common practice was not sustainable, and eventually Todd and Maria took more responsibility for the work.
  • The day-by-day work of physicians took them into a community of people who needed doctors who would know them and still love them. All of us are like that, really. We hope that those who serve us will really care about us.
  • Their choice to enter into the complexity of medical care for people who need it but often do not take good care of themselves is reflective of a deeper way of knowing, a deeper vision of responsibility, a deeper kind of loving.
  • To see them in their work is to see people who love what they do and who love the ones they serve.
  • That is the best part of a vocation—to love and serve with gladness and singleness of heart. When we take the wounds of the world into our hearts—not just for a day, but for a life—we long to see the work of our hands as somehow, strangely, part of the work of God in the world, integral to the missio Dei, not incidental to it.
  • J. and Robin Smith—Tearing Corners Off of the Darkness
  • Because her own passions have been for “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with God” for as long as I have known her, her analytical skills are never offered in the abstract, as if the research of the Institute is for ivory-towered policy wonks who live far away from ordinary people in ordinary places. For her, it always has to be worked at on the ground, in life.
  • She is a storyteller, deeply and professionally so. His great delight is to listen well and then help an organization tell its story through the wonders of the web.
  • To choose to step into frailty—or, as Berry describes Uncle Peach, being “poor, hurt, mortal”—is what a vocation is all about. We are called to care, especially about complexity because that is the world we live in.
  • For him there is always a longing that his work address both that which is wrong and that which might be and must be.
  • He wants the work of his hands to matter, to be part of “tearing a corner off of the darkness,” in Bono’s poetic image.

Santiago and Nicole Sedaca—At Work in the World

  • But it is the powerless people who live in villages and cities the world over who are the clients of Santiago, as they are the ones whose lives depend on the healthy social ecosystems that are the focus of his work.
  • It is critical to link the poor to markets, and through that process to help them understand how countries need to change their production and distribution systems in a way that helps create wealth for everyone, not just the powerful.

David Franz—Home Again

  • St. Augustine argued that the question What do you love? is the most important of all questions. While other questions matter, it is the question of our loves that goes to the heart of who we are.
  • Most of life is only understood in retrospect.
  • With an ever-deepening sense of vocation, he began taking up the questions that have become his, the interdisciplinary nexus of sociology and economics, but with a great interest in what the questions in those disciplines mean for ordinary people in ordinary places.
  • His work there is focused on the renewal of education in the local schools, bringing the years of his study about people and places through the lenses of his disciplines and making that insight useful to the people and place of Shafter.
  • There is an echo of Berry himself in David’s story, if we have ears to hear.
  • “I am from somewhere and from some people that my relationships to that place and those people give me a responsibility to and for them, and therefore my vocation will be found with them and among them.”
  • He wants honest coherence between his education and his vocation, so that what he has learned will be for the sake of where he has lived.

Kwang Kim—A Global Citizen

  • If there is a question at the heart of his life, it is this: What should the world be like?
  • Is captivated by the question, What ought we to be doing? Are there norms for development? Do we have any access to what it is supposed to be? Can we ever know what development should be? Are there any oughts and shoulds in this whatever world? Or are we only left with culturally relative “maybes” and “perhapses”?
  • Watching as I do, I am intrigued when someone sees seamlessly, when someone’s instincts are to find the connections between ideas, when someone assumes that there is a coherence to the cosmos—and that our task is to understand it. From my earliest conversations with Kwang, that was true. In the questions he asked and the visions he pursued there was a thread that ran through everything he took up. In a word, it was integrity. Not only for his life as a human being, an Asian/Latino/American, but as someone with a calling into the socio-political economies of the world, with their almost unfathomable complexity. Even in the midst of that work, Kwang wrestles his way to coherence.
  • For years now he has given time and energy to the renewal of North Korean culture, meeting monthly to pray with other Korean Americans in Washington, each one autobiographically implicated in the hopes of their homeland. The Washington group is only one of many like this all over the United States and Canada, each one full of eager, bright, motivated men and women who yearn together for a new day in Korea, where social and political and economic and artistic flourishing will become reality—because that is the way it is supposed to be, for everyone everywhere.
  • What should the world be like? is the animating question at the heart of Kwang’s life, making sense of his days and his nights. That is what a vocation is, and does.

Christopher Ditzenberger—Recasting the Paradigm of Pastor

  • Chris entered into the ministry with passions for people to understand the world and their place in it.
  • The credo for the Washington Institute is that “vocation is integral, not incidental, to the missio Dei.” Most of the time, all over the world, the church teaches otherwise, that vocation is incidental, not integral, to the missio Dei. It is always a compartmentalizing of faith from life, of worship from work, and it has tragic consequences for the church and the world.
  • He has also entered into a year-long learning community with folk from across the country, all focused on the same vision: Could we recast the paradigm? What would it look like in my congregation to rethink the relationship of worship to work, of liturgy to life and labor?
  • To see what we do as woven into the fabric of who God is and what the world is meant to be is the vision that has captured Chris’s heart. He longs to so understand his work that he is able to pastor people in their work, praying and preaching in such a way that ordinary people doing ordinary things see the sacramental meaning of their labor, a common grace for the common good.

Claudius and Deirdre Modesti—A Life for Others

  • After the Enron scandal that rocked the nation, with the complicity of major accounting firms fudging the numbers and creating a chasm of confidence in investment, Claudius was asked to give leadership to an effort that would bring more order to public accounting, and so for years now he has used his legal skill to oversee the financial records of major corporations.
  • Some of it is her family, some is her personality, some is her gift, some is her education, some is her community, but taken together she has eyes to see who people are and why they are. And over time she has become a trusted counselor, taking people seriously as she listens carefully.
  • People who keep at their callings for a lifetime are always people who suffer. The world is too hard and life is too broken for it to be otherwise.
  • Their life for others is a window into the meaning of common grace for the common good. From the hospitality of their table to the way they live in their neighborhood to the work that is theirs in the worlds of law and psychology, they have chosen vocations that give coherence, making sense of what they believe about God and the human condition, and have unfolded habits of heart that are a grace to the watching world.

George Sanker—Educating for Character and Competence

  • “Occasions [circumstances] do not make a man frail. Rather they show who he is.”
  • We make our way through the occupations of life, hoping and hoping that as we do our vocation becomes clearer to us, that over time we will come to know more and more about who we are and what matters to us, and who God is and what matters to him.
  • What was sorely lacking were “chests,” the mediating center where mind and passions could become alive together so that the student would become a whole human being.
  • A half-century later, Lewis’s critique forms the contours of George’s calling. He lives so that children will become men and women with chests, understanding that the way we educate the next generation will affect the way the world turns out. That is the telos that shapes his pedagogical praxis.

Gideon Strauss—Living with Hope

  • Often the longer we live, the more hardened we become. But sometimes some people still choose to enter in, knowing what they know of the world. Not naive, not innocents, but time-tested and able to step in again.
  • Still committed to thinking through the hardest questions, his work is now focused on developing leaders for vocations within the social structures of the church and the world. Never a romantic, Gideon lives with hope, understanding that to try and try again is the heart of a good life, living between what is and what someday will be.

Susan Den Herder—A Mother and More

  • Coherence, where what they believed about the world was more and more the way that they lived in the world.
  • Her studies, her loves, her marriage, her work, her children, together a vocation, she is making sense of life as she lives her life.
  • A Just Man Ordinary people in ordinary places, each one is a story of a life lived as a vocation. None have arrived, and each lives with a keen sense that more could be done.
  • What most do not know is that in Victor Hugo’s novel there is a lifetime behind that decision. If the stage play gives the bishop ten minutes, the novel tells the story of his whole life over almost one hundred pages, titling book one “A Just Man.” From the calling to a pastoral vocation on through to becoming a bishop, we come to know an unusual man.
  • And it is the story of a man who sees his vocation as implicated in the lives of people like that. He has chosen to live a common life for the common good. And Valjean, very slowly, makes that choice too. Profoundly formed by the bishop’s life, he begins to take up his new life with the same simple grace—not in the ministry, but in the marketplace. If the bishop’s clerical calling implicated him in the lives of his people, then it was the vocation of business for Valjean that drew him into the welfare of his workers and his city. And because he saw himself in relationship to a people in a place, he saw himself as responsible for the way their world turned out, for the way it was and the way it ought to be.

Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 7

Steve Garber was the speaker at my Covenant Seminary graduation in May. Tammy and I have been reading his book Visions of Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Good. This week we look at Chapter 7 The Great Temptations.

  • It is surprising that the promise of more knowledge—to know as God knows, in the words of the tempter—had the bitter fruit of anguish and shame.
  • From that first temptation on, human beings have responded in countless ways to the same question: What will you do with what you know? Or to put it another way, Knowing what you know, how will you respond?
  • We do not want knowing to necessarily mean caring. Not because we are morally misanthropic, but simply because the one who knows the most mourns the deepest. More knowledge often means more pain.
  • Both offer a way to know that allow us to keep our eyes open, seeing things as they “really” are, but not requiring that we get so close that we are hurt by what we know. We have called these responses stoicism and cynicism. Both are ways to know that do not ask us to get too close to what we know; they allow us to protect ourselves from knowing too much, and therefore from caring too much.
  • While I understand that there are horrors and heartaches that are beyond what anyone wants or imagines, it does not make a good life to think that we can have knowledge without responsibility, that we can know but not have to care.
  • While there are honest joys every day, if one has eyes to see, there are also honest sorrows too, if one has eyes to see. What we do with the two realities is what distinguishes us, and is what is distinctive about different religious visions.
  • Every account of human life, from varieties of theism to varieties of pantheism to varieties of materialism, has a vision of the human person at its heart—what is often called a telos. We believe certain things to be true of us as individuals, and true of human beings, and we live in that light. But we do not only live in that light, we theorize and imagine in that light as well. We develop economic and political visions, and we create artistic artifacts—sculpture, paintings, novels, poetry, music, theater and film—that resonate with what we believe to be true of human beings, in light of the telos that shapes our understanding of what is real and true and right.
  • We know pathos, empathy, sympathy, passion and compassion, for example. Each of those words grows out of some effort to make sense of life, of a life where things are often not as they are supposed to be, where in fact there is disappointment, heartbreak and injustice. Knowing the world to be this way, knowing our experience to be this way, what will we do? How will we respond?
  • Knowing that does not require one to respond. One knows, but does not have to step in. One knows, but does not have to be implicated. It is important to note that Stoicism is not malicious with its intentional indifference, but its willingness to look away at critical points is a problem for a good life and a good society.
  • The great Hebrew scholar Abraham Heschel, in his magisterial study The Prophets, argues that the prophetic tradition as a whole was a response to the stoicism of their time, whether that was formally taught and debated, or was more street-level assumptions by ordinary people living ordinary lives.
  • God hears and responds to what he hears, that he sees and acts on what he sees. Not an unmoved mover, but the one who knows and who feels what he knows.
  • Another twentieth-century scholar, Benjamin B. Warfield of Princeton, intriguingly argues that the Gospels were a response to the stoicism of their time.
  • Jesus’ response to the death of his friend was a million miles from the Stoic apatheia.
  • Again, if there has not been an incarnation, a moment in human history when God shows that we can know and still love, then stoicism seems a very good answer to a very hard question: Knowing the hurt of life, what are you going to do?
  • Living in Washington, D.C., for many years now, I have come to the conclusion that while the world at large may criticize the city for its hubris, “the Beltway mentality” and all, the reality is that the city is cynical.
  • But the question which was first asked in the Garden, primordial and perennial as it was, is asked again of everyone who comes to town: Knowing what you know, what are you going to do?
  • One of the best chroniclers of contemporary geo-politics is the British novelist John Le Carré. Le Carré is a master story-teller, seeing the evil of the human heart played out in public and political arenas—and he expects his readers to come to the same conclusion that he has. In a word, he is a cynic—about individuals and institutions, about persons and polities, about anyone and anything that has to do with power and money. And why not? There many good reasons to be cynical.
  • “Life is good,” the T-shirts promise, and we buy them by the truckload. Well, sometimes in some places, but not very often in the massive ghettoes of Nairobi, which is where Le Carré takes us in The Constant Gardner.
  • But there are exceptions. And it is here that Le Carré’s cynicism is more a protection of his heart than a truthful account of the heart. Whether conscious or not, intentional or not, the temptation to cynicism is always a way of keeping one’s heart from being wounded, again.
  • There is much to be cynical about—and it is a good answer if there has not been an incarnation. But if that has happened, if the Word did become flesh, and if there are men and women who in and through their own vocations imitate the vocation of God, then sometimes and in some places the world becomes something more like the way it ought to be.
  • Over twenty years ago, Mark Rodgers and I decided to be neighbors, remembering the credo of the Clapham community in London two hundred years ago: “Choose a neighbor before you choose a house.”
  • There is nothing romantic about trying to do the right thing and feeling the indifference of those you work and live with.
  • Can we know the world and still love the world? Can we know the messes of the world and still work on them because we want to, because we see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake? Sometimes some people make that choice, like Mark has, and always it is a vocation in imitation of a vocation.
  • At our best and truest, we stand in the long line of those who remember the profound insight of Thomas à Kempis in calling us to “the imitation of Christ.” To choose to know, and still love, is costly; it was for God, and it is for us. In fact it is the most difficult task imaginable.
  • God knows us and still loves us. That is the heart of the incarnation, and not surprisingly the heart of J. I. Packer’s contemporary classic, Knowing God. His vision has shaped my vision, not only of God, but of life.
  • The incarnation is not a call to life in rose gardens, somehow closing our eyes to the terrors of this very wounded world.
  • Strange grace that it is, sometimes people decide that their vocations are in fact to know the world and still love the world; in fact, sometimes there are people who know the worst about the world and still love it. Truth be told, mostly those people are unnoticed in this life. At the end of the day, we are ordinary people in ordinary places. The wisest ones have always known this, reminding us of this deeper, truer truth.
  • And while we may not be weighed down with the questions What will I do today to stay free from stoicism? How will I steer clear of cynicism today? the reality is that if we are to keep our commitments, sticking with what we believe is important, we will have to have reasons that make sense of vocations that implicate us in the histories and complexities of our communities and societies. To see ourselves as responsible, for love’s sake, is both hard work and good work—and it cannot be done alone.
  • Stretched taut between the Last Supper and the Great Supper—with an invitation from Jesus to eat together week by week until he comes again—our Vocares always involve a meal.
  • Simply, he sees his work as imitating the incarnation; knowing the way banking more often than not is, he works for what can be because he believes in what ought to be.
  • Why get involved? It is one thing to know about messes, but it is something else altogether to step into a mess. It is one thing to know about things being wrong, but it is something else altogether to decide that I am responsible to make it right.
  • Knowing what I know, what will I do? There are people who see themselves implicated in the way the world is and ought to be. For love’s sake, they see themselves as responsible for the way the world turns out. Sometimes they are bankers, and sometimes they make hamburgers. But always and everywhere, they are people who have vocations in imitation of the vocation of God: knowing the worst about the world, and still loving the world. They are people who learn to live in the tension of life, living with what is and longing for what will be—keeping clear of the great temptations, for the sake of the world. Simply said, they become hints of hope.

Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 8

Chapter 8: Learning to Live Proximately

  • But that is what matters most in life, for all of us. The long obedience in the same direction. Keeping at it. Finding honest happiness in living within the contours of our choices.
  • These are the hardest moments of life. We know what we want to say, but we stumble over our hearts, not wanting to say anything that will bring more hurt.
  • But life for all of us is complex, because we are complex. And our vocations are complex, because we are complex. Vocation has to be a big word, able to handle the whole of life.
  • N. T. Wright once wrote about vocation as holding together the most remarkable joy and the most remarkable sorrow. He argued that that was true for the vocation of Jesus, and it will be so for those who follow him. There are few words so true.
  • To enter in with personal passion that longs for systemic change is something, even if everything that might be is still undone.
  • When the day is all done, more still could be done—but that is why we call it living proximately.
  • It is so very hard to keep at it, knowing what we know. Even our deepest hopes are hard, because in this now-but-not-yet world we have to live with something less.
  • And the world is a hard place to live, but there is nowhere else to live. So if we are going to be honest, we have to live with what is proximate.
  • To know someone is to know their longings, which is to know their loves.
  • Through the corpus of his writings Augustine argued that human beings are story-shaped people, stretched between what ought to be and what will be. In our imaginings, in our longings, at our best and at our worst, we are people whose identities are formed by a narrative that begins at the beginning and ends at the ending—the story of Scripture itself, of creation, fall, redemption and consummation—and from beginning to end we are torn by the tensions of our humanity, glorious ruins that we are.
  • And with the promise of all things being made new, on the one hand, and the wound of the world felt so painfully in every human heart on the other, we are in poignant conflict over the now-but-not-yet of history.
  • Wherever and whenever people live, our deepest questions are always the same. Is it possible to honestly account for the ruin of the human heart and still live with hope? Can we form the habits of heart that allow us to know the world and still love it? Or are we fated to be cynics or stoics? The vision of proximate justice offers the possibility that we can find a way to be honest about the world, and ourselves, without giving in to despair.
  • They who know the most must mourn the deepest.
  • But sometimes some people still choose to enter in, knowing what they know. Whatever our vocation, it always means making peace with the proximate, with something rather than nothing—in marriage and in family, at work and at worship, at home and in the public square, in our cities and around the world. That is not a cold-hearted calculus; rather it is a choice to live by hope, even when hope is hard.
  • Rather than proximate, he offers “partiality,” seeing that unless we choose to live with limits, there is no honest happiness. Starkly and plainly, there is no other place to live, for any of us. We are always straining against limits, most of the time never content with limits—and that is as true for marriages as it is true for work as it is true for politics.
  • Our loves and our words have to be made flesh.
  • We live between possibilities, between what ought to be and what will be, between what is and what can be. And always, our longings are complex because our loves are complex because we are complex. From the most public of responsibilities to the most personal of relationships—including marriage—this is true.
  • As the theologian Stanley Hauerwas of Duke University puts it, “We do not fall in love and then get married. We get married and then learn what love requires.”
  • We choose and then live, not knowing what our choices will mean over the course of our lives. And the deeper truth is that none of us know what the next day will bring. We cannot know anything from the outside, in abstraction. In marriage, in work, in politics, from moving into a neighborhood to visiting a new city or country somewhere in the world, we do not know until we do.
  • It was then that I first began reading Michael Polanyi, whose seminal work Personal Knowledge, on the integral relationship of knowing to doing, of belief to behavior, recast the paradigm for those with ears to hear.
  • Central to Polanyi’s insight is that we only truly learn when we indwell what we want to learn. We cannot understand anything that matters standing on the outside looking in, whether bicycle riding or marriage or social histories with seemingly intractable complexity. It is only when we step in that we begin to know—and to see what love will ask of us.
  • Sometimes, though, love asks more of us than we are able to give, more than we imagine. As much as we see that “stepping in” is right, it is in indwelling our loves and longings that we understand them. We do not know until we do.
  • She who knows the most mourns the deepest.
  • One of the surprising notes of history is that Dickens and Marx were writing at the same time in the same city about the same thing: the consequences of capitalism without a conscience. When push came to intellectual shove, the Christian vision for the way life ought to be answered my questions and addressed my hopes more fully than did Marx’s—and it still does, more than ever.
  • I read the novel A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. One of the finest storytellers writing about modern India, Mistry, like Polanyi, believes that one cannot stand on the outside and understand.
  • His novels are intricate and complex, drawing the reader into history and politics, sociology and economics, framed by the spoken and unspoken assumptions of karma.
  • In the end things will be as they will be; karma is karma. It is a stark contrast to Dickens on this point, where transformation is possible though hard won, where the Scrooges of this world can decide to change their life and the lives of those around them. What makes the difference?
  • What people differ over is the way we answer the question, What do you do then? Writing as a nineteenth-century Englishman with assumptions about hope and history formed by the Christian tradition, Dickens offers a way of knowing that leads to doing that gives human beings a way to step into history. Mistry does not, because he cannot. They are not simply different people telling different stories; in reality they represent alternative accounts of the universe, and therefore of history and the human condition.
  • Berry is right: there is “a greater economy,” a covenantal cosmos where revelation, relationships and responsibilities shape each other, creating the conditions for human flourishing.
  • Asked by the French journalist Michka Assayas, “What do you mean by grace, and why is it different than karma?” Bono responded with surprising clarity, “The thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma.”
  • One day the Indian, the Hindu scholar, said to the European, Newbigin, something like, “I have finally read your holy book, the Bible, and it is a completely unique book. It is unique in its vision of history, setting forth a meaningful story from beginning to end, and it is unique in its vision of the human person as a responsible actor in history. The two go together.”
  • To see that the way we view history shapes the way we view the human condition—and, importantly, the reverse is also true—is an astounding insight, with far-reaching implications.
  • At the end of the day, we have to choose a way of living that makes sense of life.
  • From what I have seen, I am sure of this: the vision of the “proximate” tethers us to the world that we all really live in. Wanting otherwise as we might, there is no other world in which we can be at home.
  • Dickens captures us with his story of A Christmas Carol. It is one of the great stories, and therefore is told all over the world, year after year. It is about Christmas, after all, and it satisfies our deepest longings—that hope and kindness win. But as wonderful as it is, it is not anything other than a story about the world that we all still live in, one where we must be content with a proximate answer to our deepest longings. When morning finally comes, not all the capitalists and not all the children were reborn; something happened, but not everything. People still lived with injustice and indifference, in England and all over the world. Human beings still suffered and still groaned, living between what is and what one day will be, as we must.
  • One businessman began to see himself responsible, for love’s sake, for the lives of those he knew. And his community began to change as he changed. Knowledge means responsibility, and responsibility means care.
  • The heart of the story is that an ordinary man with an ordinary life saw himself implicated in and through his vocation, and chose to do what he could. Through the slow revelation of the three spirits through the terrible hours of the night, Scrooge began to know as he had never known, and chose to enter into the history of his own time and place with his new sense of relationship to those around him shaping his sense of responsibility to them. Not only did he offer the prize turkey to the Cratchits, an honest act of charity, but he changed the way he did business, beginning to account for justice and mercy in the business of business itself, beginning with a fair wage for his employee, Bob Cratchit. Dickens sums it up, “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Love interrupts—and Ebenezer Scrooge’s vision of vocation began to change. Knowing what he now knew, for love’s sake he chose to be responsible for the way the world turned out.
  • But in the end the question is played out on the streets of every city in every society: Knowing what I know, what am I going to do?
  • To learn to see oneself as implicated is the most difficult task of all—especially if it is a responsibility born of love. Duty only takes us so far; at some point we must delight in what is ours, in the relationships and responsibilities that are ours. It is duty and desire together that make for a good life, not only knowing what I should do, but wanting to do what I should do. But how do we work this out? What does it look like in life? Simply said, it is in and through our vocations, committed to the common good—with gladness and singleness of heart—where this becomes real.
  • In our social and political situations, in our families and neighborhoods, we are called to form habits of heart that keep our loves alive, where duty becomes delight, where what we know becomes what we love—even in this terribly complex world, full of wonder and wounds as it is.
  • But the Hebrew vision that echoes across centuries and through cultures offers a different way to be human, where knowing becomes doing. And the Christian vision incarnates this conviction, telling the story of the Word becoming flesh, and of words becoming flesh in and though our vocations. This vision calls us to know and to care about what we know; in fact to love what we know. And strange grace that it is, it becomes possible to know without becoming disillusioned, to know the worst and to still love—not only people but the world in which we live. We will never do that perfectly, only proximately, at our very best. But in this now-but-not-yet moment in history, that is enough.

Next week we’ll cover the Epilogue and the end of the book.

Visions of Vocation Book Club Week 9

Epilogue: But Are You Happy?

  • Roszak pointed the finger at Bacon, arguing that his Novum Organon was the culprit, that Bacon’s commitment to “knowledge is power” had run rampant through the Enlightenment era, ruining our world. What could Bacon have said or done to deserve that judgment?
  • Central to his commitment was the belief that observation was a philosophically neutral task.
  • Summing up his vision, his final words are these: And all depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed upon the facts of nature and so receiving their images simply as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world; rather may he graciously grant to us to write an apocalypse or true vision of the footsteps of the Creator imprinted on his creatures.
  • Always and everywhere, we see out of our hearts, and what we see and hear in the world around us depends upon our beliefs about the world.
  • As Polanyi argued so perceptively centuries later, the viewer is always viewing, the human being is always interpreting what is being seen in light of beliefs and commitments about reality; and so the most honest account of knowing acknowledges its deeply personal character.
  • His hope was based upon an epistemological fallacy: that it is possible to “see” unencumbered by one’s history, culture, commitments and beliefs—in Bacon’s language, “simply as they are.” That kind of philosophical neutrality about the nature and meaning of life does not exist; it never has and it never will.
  • Our seeing is never neutral.
  • The artists, as always, felt it first.
  • To find that the painter was a direct descendent of the statesman and essayist was astonishing. To imagine the two in conversation about life and the world, about who we are and what it all means . . . well, that is what gave purpose to my final year of college.
  • Over many years now, it is this tension between the world that we imagine and the world in which we live that has most intrigued me. All of us live with this tension, because in the deepest possible way all of us long for coherence. We are not finally satisfied with incoherence, with dissonance between what we believe and how we live. And that is why I have asked, and asked again, So what is it that you care most about? What are your deepest commitments? Does the way we answer those questions offer a sense of vocation that gives coherence that connects the things that matter to us?
  • “Bill, a question for you, then. Have the choices you’ve made, made you happy?” He sat silent for a few moments. And then it seemed as if the universe flipped, and the garrulous, self-confident Washington lawyer—“player” and “alpha male” that he was—was simply an ordinary man on an ordinary day. He leaned over to me and said, “Not really. I’ve always wanted to find a woman who would love me—and I never have.”
  • He was quick to say that most of life was beyond the purview of science.
  • But for most questions that matter and most answers that matter, science as science cannot address them; its method has no tools that can assess what is beyond the measurable, the quantifiable, the repeatable, the observable.
  • Like all of us, he wanted a vocation that could make sense of the hopes and dreams of his life.
  • Prayer for Vocations: “God of heaven and earth, we pray for your kingdom to come, for your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. Teach us to see our vocations and occupations as woven into your work in the world this week. For mothers at home who care for children, for those whose labor forms our common life in this city, the nation and the world, for those who serve the marketplace of ideas and commerce, for those whose creative gifts nourish us all, for those whose callings take them into the academy, for those who long for employment that satisfies their souls and serves you, for each one we pray, asking for your great mercy. Give us eyes to see that our work is holy to you, O Lord, even as our worship this day is holy to you. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
  • It is possible to know the world and still love the world, which is never a highly theoretical proposition, as eventually it must be that a man can be known and still be loved.
  • Each know the tender place where hope meets reality and have lived with my longings that are always proximate.
  • It has only deepened my belief that the most important question is always, What do you love? What we believe and how we live is formed by the way we answer that question, so it is critical for teachers and students in every century and every culture. When education does not address the question of love, then it is at best only scratching the surface of life and learning.

 

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