C. S. Lewis on Vocation

Have you read C. S. Lewis’s “Learning in Wartime”?  It’s an address to students at Oxford on the verge of World War II.  They were wondering how they can pursue a liberal arts education–studying poetry, digging into history, thinking through ancient philosophy–when the world is seemingly coming apart and they themselves may soon have to go to war.  Lewis’s perspective on education is priceless, but I had forgotten how he also treats with great insight  the doctrine of vocation.  A sample:

We are now in a position to answer the view that human culture is an inexcusable frivolity on the part of creatures loaded with such awful responsibilities as we. I reject at once an idea which lingers in the mind of some modern people that cultural activities are in their own right spiritual and meritorious — as though scholars and poets were intrinsically more pleasing to God than scavengers and bootblacks. I think it was Matthew Arnold who first used the English word spiritual in the sense of the German geistlich, and so inaugurated this most dangerous and most anti- Christian error. Let us clear it forever from our minds.The work of a Beethoven, and the work of a charwoman, become spiritual on precisely the same condition, that of being offered to God, of being done humbly “as to the Lord”. This does not, of course, mean that it is for anyone a mere toss-up whether he should sweep rooms or compose symphonies. A mole must dig to the glory of God and a cock must crow. We are members of one body, but differentiated members, each with his own vocation. A man’s upbringing, his talents, his circumstances, are usually a tolerable index of his vocation. If our parents have sent us to Oxford, if our country allows us to remain there, this is prima facie evidence that the life which we, at any rate, can best lead to the glory of God at present is the learned life.

Lewis.Learning in War-Time.pdf (application/pdf Object).

All vocations are equal before God.  Our vocation is a function upbringing, talents, and circumstances.  Where we are now is where we are to serve.  “A mole has to dig, and a cock has to crow.”   That’s vocation!

HT:  Zach Simmons

Do-it-yourself repair shop

In Vancouver, British Columbia, there is a motorcycle repair shop that lets you use their tools and someone shows you how to fix your bike yourself.  Here is a video about the business, which is called Motomethod:

The Motomethod Story from Zenga Bros on Vimeo.

The video shows the two owners enthusiastic about their vocation, including their zeal to love and serve their customers.

Would you say the do-it-yourself impulse is an example of vocation (cultivating your talents)  or the repudiation of vocation (not letting yourself be served by someone else)?

Can you think of other businesses built on this model?

HT:  Rich Shipe

The two kinds of warriors: Hector & Achilles

University of Virginia English professor Mark Edmundson has written a fascinating essay entitled “Do Sports Build Character or Damage It?”  The short answer is “both,” or “either.”  In the course of his discussion, which draws on his own experience playing football, he points out Plato’s observation that human beings have a need for thymos–the thirst for glory–but that this passion needs to be subordinated to reason.  Edmundson illustrates his points by contrasting the two major figures of Homer’s Iliad:  Hector and Achilles.

In the Western heroic tradition, the paragon of the humane warrior is Homer’s Hector, prince of the Trojans. He is a fierce fighter: On one particular day, no Greek can stand up to him; his valor puts the whole Greek army to rout. Even on an unexceptional day, Hector can stand up to Ajax, the Greek giant, and trade blow for blow with him. Yet as fierce as Hector can be, he is also humane. He is a loving son to his aged parents, a husband who talks on equal terms with his wife, Andromache, and a tender-hearted father. He and King Priam are the only ones in Troy who treat Helen, the ostensible cause of the war, with kindness.

One of the most memorable scenes in The Iliad comes when Hector, fresh from the battlefield, strides toward his boy, Astyanax. The child screams with fright at the ferocious form encased in armor, covered with dust and gore. Hector understands his child in an instant and takes off his helmet, with its giant horsehair plume, then bends over, picks his boy up and dandles him, while Andromache looks on happily. Astyanax—who will soon be pitched off the battlements of Troy when the Greeks conquer the city—looks up at his father and laughs in delight.

The scene concentrates what is most appealing about Hector—and about a certain kind of athlete and warrior. Hector can turn it off. He can stop being the manslayer that he needs to be out on the windy plains of Troy and become a humane husband and father. The scene shows him in his dual nature—warrior and man of thought and feeling. In a sense, he is the figure that every fighter and athlete should emulate. He is the Navy Seal or Green Beret who would never kill a prisoner, the fearless fighter who could never harm a woman or a child. In the symbolic world of sports, where the horrors and the triumphs of combat are only mimicked, he is the one who comports himself with extreme gentleness off the field, who never speaks ill of an opponent, who never complains, never whines.

But The Iliad is not primarily about Hector. It is the poem of Achilles and his wrath. After Hector kills Achilles’ dear friend Patroclus, Achilles goes on a rampage, killing every Trojan he can. All humanity leaves him; all mercy is gone. At one point, a Trojan fighter grasps his knees and begs for mercy. Achilles taunts him: Look at me, he says, so strong and beautiful, and some day I, too, shall have to die. But not today. Today is your day. At another point, a river close to the city, the River Scamander, becomes incensed over Achilles’ murderous spree. The hero has glutted its waters with blood and its bed with bodies. The river is so enraged that it tries to drown the hero. When Achilles finally gets to Hector, he slaughters him before the eyes of his parents, Hecuba and Priam, and drags his body across the plains of Troy.

Achilles is drunk on rage, the poem tells us. His rational mind has left him, and he is mad with the joy of slaughter. The ability to modulate character that Hector shows—the fierce warrior becoming the loving father—is something Achilles does not possess. Achilles, one feels, could not stop himself if he wished to: A fellow Greek who somehow insulted him when he was on his rampage would be in nearly as much danger as a Trojan enemy. Plato would recognize Achilles as a man who has lost all reason and has allowed thymos to dominate his soul.

This ability to go mad—to become berserk—is inseparable from Achilles’ greatness as a warrior. It is part of what sets him above the more circumspect Hector on the battlefield. When Hector encounters Achilles for the last time, Hector feels fear. Achilles in his wrath has no idea what fear is, and that is part of what makes him unstoppable.

Achilles’ fate is too often the fate of warriors and, in a lower key, of athletes. They unleash power in themselves, which they cannot discipline. They leave the field of combat or of play and are still ferocious, or they can be stirred to ferocity by almost nothing. They let no insult pass. A misplaced word sends them into a rage. A mild frustration turns them violent. Thymos, as Plato would have said, has taken over their souls, and reason no longer has a primary place—in some cases, it has no place at all.

via Do Sports Build Character or Damage It? – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

This comparison, I think, can apply to modern warriors in the military, and to athletes, and to “warriors” in the business world and other professions.  It’s possible for a lawyer, a scholar, a salesman, or maybe even a pastor (you think?) to go so all out that normal human feelings are extinguished in favor of winning at all costs, exerting power over other people, and achieving glory.  They can never “shut it off.”  Even when this means harming their families and ultimately themselves.  (Achilles himself being brought down by the weakling Paris whose arrow hits him at his one point of vulnerability.)

This has to do, of course, with vocation, when the vocation is twisted into a means of aggrandizement for the self rather than love and service to the neighbor.

Vocation & economic productivity

Greg Forster, in the context of a discussion about Europe’s economic woes, makes some fascinating connections between the doctrine of vocation and economic productivity:

A historically unprecedented phenomenon has been unfolding—in Europe for the past five centuries, in America for the past two, and more recently everywhere across the globe except sub-Sarahan Africa. That phenomenon is explosive economic growth. After millennia of basically stagnant wealth levels from the earliest recorded history forward, God’s world is at last beginning to flourish economically.

Just in the past two decades, the percentage of the population in the developing world that lives in dire poverty (less than $1 a day) has been cut in half. Contemplate that for a moment.

This economic flourishing was originally produced by a confluence of factors, the most important of which was Christianity. Late medieval Christianity developed an increasing emphasis on universal human dignity and (consequently) the intrinsic goodness of economic activity. The Reformation dramatically expanded these trends and added critical new dimensions—especially the idea that your daily work is a calling from God and the primary way God makes human civilizations flourish.

All this culminated in cultures that made productivity—improving the lives of others by responding to their authentic needs—central to both individual and national identity. Scriptural treatment of this topic is extensive.Everything from the image of God to the Trinity to the prophets and parables is implicated in understanding productivity.

Christians believe human beings are made in the image of a Father who creates from nothing; this explains why human work creates wealth rather than just moving it around. Christians believe in a divine Son who joined in mystical union with temporal and material humanity. Material activities like economic work are not separate from, and inferior to, “spiritual” activities. And Christians believe in a Spirit who liberates us from selfishness; this explains why life works best when people orient their daily lives around serving others.

The problem is, too many Europeans now take wealth for granted. Some have forgotten where it came from—productive work—and feel like they’re entitled to it by birthright. More to the point, the people and institutions in authority have irresponsibly indulged this attitude (for various reasons, such as vote-buying) and have thereby anointed it as culturally accepted.

Where this happens, economics is reduced to the purely material. If the proper economic goal for individuals is to enjoy leisure rather than to be productive, then of course voters should demand endless, unsustainable entitlement programs. If the fundamental purpose of business is to make money rather than to serve customers, then of course businesses should game the system to enrich themselves—and nations can try to get rich by playing games with the money supply.

The idea that policy should encourage financial rewards for productivity, and culture should set the expectation of productive work from all who are able, simply makes no sense in this context. Once you forget the Creator, you quickly forget that wealth needs to be created.

via Productive for the Glory of God, Good of Neighbors – The Gospel Coalition Blog.

Follow the links.  (There is even one to something I wrote on vocation.)

HT:  Justin Taylor

 

Happy (belated) Gustavus Adolphus Day!

November 6 was the commemoration day for one of my heroes, the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus, the military genius and devout Lutheran who arguably was used by God to save Protestantism from extermination during the Thirty Years’ War.   Sometimes honored as the greatest Lutheran layman, King Gustav makes for an interesting and inspiring example of vocation.

The blog of the LCMS leadership, Mercy, Witness, Life Together, has a great post about him, including an informative sermon by Rev. Eric Andrae:  Feast of Gustavus Adolphus, King and Martyr, 1632.

 

King Gustavus Adolphus

 

HT:  Mary

You’ve been saved. Now what?

Michael Baruzzini at First Things has a thoughtful discussion of novelist Walker Percy, bourbon, and existentialism.  But it all comes down to vocation:

Will Barrett, the protagonist of Walker Percy’s novel The Last Gentleman, complains that he cannot figure out “how to live from one minute to the next on a Wednesday afternoon.” Even Christians, with a solid theological and philosophical grounding, can find the question troubling. So you believe in God, and you believe the Second Person of the Trinity became incarnate and died for your sins. You’ve been baptized. You’ve been saved. Now what?

Here is where Percy’s existentialist-inclined Christianity comes in, and his famous paean to the South’s whiskey. In his essay, “Bourbon, Neat,” Percy’s literary mind was perceptive enough to find the connection between taking an evening drink and finding meaning in a daily life. The mind inclined to the questions of existentialism, like Percy’s, struggles with a particular problem: the question of how to be in a particular time and place. Percy slyly suggests that bourbon is the answer. No, not in the sense of drowning sorrows in alcoholic stupor, but in recognizing that it is in concrete things and acts that we are able to be in the world. “What, after all, is the use,” Percy asks, “of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty . . . thinking: ‘Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?’”

No, this isn’t it, says Percy. It isn’t all just about the fatal acts of nature and the crass manipulation of mass society. It is distinctively personal acts, like having an evening glass of bourbon, that construct a life. It is this aesthetic, this incarnation, simply this way to be, which gives a glass of bourbon its real value. But this incarnation of being extends beyond evening drinks, and informs every action we make in our lives. Take affection, for instance. Husbands and wives do not merely sit across the room maintaining a cerebral love for each other. Affection is made concrete with actions. Handshakes between colleagues, hugs and kisses between friends not only display, but actually create or make real the respect and affection between people. The true value of a family dinner lies at this level: we are a family because we eat together; we eat together because we are a family. It is in this act that our being as a family is made real, not fantasy. To take what may be the most powerful example, marital love is incarnated in the marital act. The coy euphemism “making love” has more truth to it than we may realize.

Looking to the concrete helps us discover the Christian notion of sacramentality. It is in water that we are born again; it is with bread and wine that we encounter Christ in the flesh in today’s world. It is these things that make our Christianity more than an academic exercise. So Percy would answer Barrett’s question by saying: just do it. It is Wednesday afternoon and you are a Christian: sing a song of praise, or go to Mass and eat God’s flesh. You are a loving husband, so kiss your wife. You are a father: play catch with your son or help him with his homework. You are a man at the end of a day of work: make a cocktail. If you want to be these things—a husband, a father, a son of God—there are things to do to make it real.

Christians must choose, among myriad options, how to be in specific ways in the world. But how do we know what to choose? Percy’s own conversion was motivated by his reading of the Catholic realist Thomas Aquinas, in addition to the Christian existentialist Kierkegaard. Rejecting the nihilistic varieties of existentialism, Percy recognized that there is an absolute truth surrounding the multiple ways to choose to be. Some ways are in more conformity with truth and happiness than others.

The Christian answer to the dilemma of how to be lies in the concept of grace and vocation. Here is where the Holy Spirit comes in. Vocation is the Christian call to be in a specific way in the world. It is a call to truly be, in a concrete way, who God has called you to be. It is not to be a robot obeying a program; it is to be an eagle joyfully choosing to fly or a mole enthusiastically choosing to dig, because that is what you are, what you are good at, what you love. It is an existential choice, but one that is grounded in God, outside of the isolated self.

via Walker Percy, Bourbon, and the Holy Ghost | First Things.


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