One thing the last 18 months of life and work have shown me is my need for wisdom. Wisdom that is both deeper and wider than general life advice (though it would probably get there eventually). But wisdom, it turns out, can be hard to find, particularly in a culture, religious and not, co-opted by programatic busyness and instrumentalization. You have to do a lot of sifting to find wisdom, particularly in digital realms like Twitter, which has been come the instantaneous replacement for the reading of books for many of us. Even still: wisdom.
Thankfully, I’ve been able to find a few sources of wisdom that weave the personal and professional together for me. One such source is the work of Kevin Vanhoozer, if for no other reason that he has helped add some nuance and reinforcement to some thinking that N. T. Wright helped spur in me around my seventh year of teaching. Like Wright, Vanhoozer has been a reliable guide whose writings, dense as they can be, have helped me navigate some potentially rough waters.
Something else the last 18 months of life and work have shown me is the need for individuals and for communities to do some deep presuppositional work on what they believe, why they believe it, and how those beliefs play out in a broader culture. Too often, perhaps particularly in Baptist settings, we have lived off of the capital of our predecessors. And now, to quote A. W. Tozer, we think we can produce a fruit similar to theirs without digging roots similar to theirs. Wisdom, I think, is able to articular actions based on ancient truth in a contemporary setting in a way that points us beyond ourselves. Too often we jettison the ancient for the contemporary (or vice versa) and end up with nothing much in general. And so the need for some presuppositional “deep work” would be good for us, or at least for me.
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In the opening section of his reflection on the New Testament renderings of the Great Commission (which can be purchased here), Kevin Vanhoozer asserts that “Christian witness involves both speaking the truth in love and loving the truth we speak.” I hear the “speaking the truth in love” on occasion, often referring to the hard things we think we need to say to one another and not just the Gospel truth that keeps us from being “tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” (Ephesians 4:14). Truth, of course, is a funny thing. Turns out that you can believe it and it not mean all that much to you. Looking to the letter from James, where “even the demons believe,” Vanhoozer asserts that “the difference between a demon and a disciple, then, depends on God’s Word taking root in human hearts and bearing fruit in the work of love.” Not just work, mind you: the work of love.
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As he lays the groundwork for his consideration of the Great Commandment, Vanhoozer puts at least three concepts into play: vocation, formation, and culture. These are three concepts that have been key to my understanding of the last year-and-a-half (as it pertains to work, the last year as it pertains to being pastor-less at church). Vocation, Vanhoozer asserts, is something deeper than simple career (the thing that most of us make our primary mode of identity). “Our most radical identity,” Vanhoozer asserts, “the seat of our personhood, is rather a function of how we habitually respond to the call of God.” (And if you’re going to talk habits, you’re eventually going to have to think through the work of James K. A. Smith, but more on that later in the week). All of us, of course, respond to God each day, either by ignoring or embracing His breaking into our lives through the mundane and the mysterious.
Formation, then, is “that part of the process whereby our spirits– our habitual way of responding to the call of God and others on our lives– are formed into a particular identity.” Vanhoozer is talking about our formation as spiritual beings and not simply as beings of flesh, blood, and brains. He even tries to rehabilitate that trickiest of all concepts, spirituality, which he calls “a matter of the heart, a dispositional way of being.” Our dispositions and hearts (our spirits) are always shaped by things beyond us.
And what lies beyond us is our culture. “Indeed,” Vanhoozer concludes, “a culture is nothing less than a strategy for cultivating a particular shape of life, a means of spiritual formation.” Culture, then, is a presuppositional plank on which much of our day-to-day lives are built. Which means you have to attend to culture. There was a time, at least it felt like there was a time, where we considered culture well (what we built, why we built it, how we built it). We’ve been in the deconstruction and criticism part of cultural discussions for some time now (just spend two minutes on Twitter and you’ll feel the futility we have fed into). And if we haven’t been doing that kind of demolition work, there’s a good chance that we haven’t been doing a good job of genuine maintenance and stewardship of the best of the culture that we’ve inherited, particularly as it applies to the care of soul and spirit (we’d like to think we’ve got the “body” part down).
It is into this mixture of things that Vanhoozer begins his look at the Great Commandment as a way of understanding and growth. And it is this mixture of things that all of us live, move, and have our beings. Because they can be “the air we breathe,” it might seem difficult to talk about them. At the same time, some of us think about these things all of the time, particularly as we experience a real deficiency in our communal approach to them.
Tomorrow: The Desires of the Heart.
(image from readytalk.com)