Monday, February 18, 2008

The Listening Heart: Vocation

[Number four in a series]

A. J. Conyers, in The Listening Heart, explained the point of the book in this way:

"Why in this modern world have humane communities - communities that for brief moments in history rise above strife and in fact nourish the human spirit, enrich the mind, provide for the safety and education of the young - proven so hard to come by, so difficult to maintain, and known it seems only to our most nostalgic moments? Why have the 'wars and fightings' of this past century taken more lives, destroyed more communities, exiled more people, decimated more ethnic groups than ever before in any comparable time? Why have more people been killed by their own governments in this past century than in all other times together? How is it that this new century has gotten off to such an unpromising start? James had an answer that tapped into the root of human nature, and into the human lunacy: 'Is it not your passions that are at war in your members? You desire and do not have; so you kill. And you covet and cannot obtain; so you fight and wage war'

This book might be considered a commentary on that one question and its answer, and on the hope which frames this question."
His answer is the decline of vocation, and the rise of "choice", since the dawn of modernity in the Renaissance and Enlightenment. This post examines the first of those.

The familiar term "vocation", used in both religious and secular contexts, is rooted in the Latin vocatio, meaning "call" and is related to Latin-based words such as "voice" and "invoke." The Greek word is klesis and is found in our words "cleric" and "ecclesiastical". It is the root of the New Testament word for the Church, ekklesia, a point that is not etymologically significant except in that assemblies of all kinds were referred to with the same term. To say that the church consists of those "called out", however, is significant for more reasons than can be traced through linguistic usage: it was the reality to which the church had always attested.
Conyers points out that the idea of a divine call plays a central role in Judeo-Christian and non-Judaic contexts - and gives the communities and societies a distinctly non-modern character. I would broaden that: even the ideas of civil religion and nationalism are designed to give folks a sense of calling that is outside of, and higher, than themselves. Conyers doesn't disagree with this in the book, and implies agreement, but he just doesn't focus on it. This is the idea of a "higher power" encouraged in 12 step programs - even for folks that are not believers in God.

Conyers highlights a few points to make the distinction clear between the idea of vocation or calling, and the philosophical basis of modernity:

  1. "The idea of a call implies an agent outside of the one who is subject to the call."
    One does not simply "choose" a course of action, but one responds to a summons. A person might be "free" in either case; but in the case of one responding to vocation, the freedom is not an inner-directed impulse, but the use of the will to respond to an unforeseen and perhaps unknown reality. This summons is characteristic of various reports, in a great variety of communities, from the summons of Zarathustra (the Iranian Zoroaster), to the calling forth of Abraham and the divine election of Moses, to the call of Isaiah, the baptism of Jesus, the blinding of Paul, the spiritual apparitions of Joan of Arc, and the divine compulsions of Martin Luther. The character in each case is founded on the summons that is external to the one who is called.

  2. "The summons is often against the will of the one who is called into service."
    Muhammed first believed himself to be mad. Moses complained that the Israelites, to whom God sent him, had never listened to him and therefore neither would Pharaoh, "poor speaker that I am." Jeremiah, the Hebrew prophet, not only resisted the call, but continued to complain that God had overpowered him and placed him in an impossibly difficult circumstance, even protesting that God's call had made him "like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter." Jonah attempted to flee from the Lord to Tarshish, rather than going to Nineveh where he had been called. Jesus prayed to be delivered from his appointed calling.

  3. Third, the calling involves in almost every case hardships that must be overcome in order to answer the summons.
    Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Muhammed, Mani (the founder of Manichaeism), Socrates, Jesus, and Paul all found themselves under threat of death by their community. Zarathustra is sent into exile. Jesus' moment of public vocation is followed by temptation in the wilderness. Paul's vocation is accompanied by physical ailments, imprisonment, beatings, and exile.

  4. Fourth, from the point of view of answering to the summons, the greatest danger appears not in this kind of resistance, but in the possibility of being diverted or distracted from the goal.
    The whole of Joshua's reiteration of the covenant with Israel, after they had settled the land of Canaan, was devoted to the threat and the consequences of being distracted from their promise to "serve the Lord" and to the warning against being tempted by other gods. In all of the Deuteronomic history of Israel . . . the chief standard by which the nations of Israel and Judah and their kings are judged is their faithfulness to God, measured by their resistance to distraction by the religions of their neighbors. And the last petition in Jesus' model prayer, "lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil;' is an invocation against this distraction.
It is this sense of calling that William Wilberforce experienced. It is this sense of calling and vocation that modern historical critics of the Bible - at least the ones that are most anti-supernatural - must look beyond in finding "rational", "reasonable", and "historical" reasons for the actions of the Apostles and the writers of scripture. Certainly, inspiration and calling must have some source other than God reaching into His creation and calling people to His Will.

It is the need - in order to build the Body of Christ and His Church - to overcome folks "thinking for themselves" and "taking guidance from no one" that causes churches both theologically liberal and conservative to call their members to focus on their communities and to view that community, at least, as something which calls, from above and outside, them to vocation for the Body.

In modern society as well, it is only when people are drawn outside themselves to a greater call or vocation that true community can be built - otherwise we have the "competition of desires" that is the source of the violence and greed of modern life. President Kennedy called us to "Ask not . . ." It is Barack Obama, and not Hillary Clinton - and Mike Huckabee and not John McCain - that give us the attractive image of folks who are "called" to a mission. We are attracted to them because they seem to give true reverence to something outside of, and greater than, themselves.

That is the "schizophrenia" of Western life. We deeply, innately, almost desperately, seek real community and real relationship; and yet . . . Conyers :

I was struck with how far we had lost sight of the sentiment embedded in "vocation" when I ran across the title of a mid-twentieth century book that was given as "How to Choose Your Vocation"! Precisely the point of vocatio is that you don't choose. And this is precisely why and how the idea jars against conventional modern sentiment, the sentiment that since the Enlightenment has succeeded in making a primary virtue of self-determination. "What is Enlightenment?" asked Immanuel Kant. It is the capacity "to use one's intelligence without being guided by another." "Have courage to use your own intelligence! is therefore the motto of the enlightenment". Thus stand side by side, in unmistakable opposition, two ideas of the way one lives in the world. One is that of attentive listening to the guidance of another, whether of a wise guide, or tradition, or of God. The other is the notion of the self-determined "free" man, who without listening to another, becomes the master of his own soul.
It is that notion of "choice" that I will look at next.

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly