Learning from a Vocational Tale

I recently got around to reading James K. A. Smith’s essay on how his sense of vocation has been changing over these last couple of years.  He wrote it for Christian Century for their “How my mind has changed” topic.  Probably something all of us could write about these days.

“I’m a philosopher.  We can’t think our way out of this mess.”  Quite the punchy title.  It’s at the top of a wonderfully personal reflection that traces Smith’s journey of faith from conversion until today.  It is necessarily broad but oddly specific.  It’s a picture of growing older, of ministry and teaching and writing, of how some things change but other things don’t.  Smith has been formative for me (he’s probably why I know the word formative, really). He has been since 2009, which feels like a whole other world at this point.  Over these last few years, as he wrestled with understanding ministry, work, and depression, Smith found himself at something of a loss:

As a young Christian philosopher, I wanted to be the confident, heresy-hunting Augustine, vanquishing the pagans with brilliance, fending off the Manichaeans and Pelagians with ironclad arguments. As a middle-aged man, I dream of being Mr. Rogers. When you’re young, it’s easy to confuse strength with dominance; when you’re older, you realize the feat of character it takes to be meek. I used to imagine my calling was to defend the Truth. Now I’m just trying to figure out how to love.

It’s not that I’ve given up on truth. It’s just that I’m less confident we’ll think our way out of the morass and malaise in which we find ourselves. Analysis won’t save us. And the truth of the gospel is less a message to be taught than a mystery enacted. Love won’t save us either, of course. But I’ve come to believe that the grace of God that will save us is more powerfully manifest in beloved community than in rational enlightenment. Or, as Hans Urs von Balthasar has put it, “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.”

I appreciate the line he’s walking here.  It can sound a bit like a cop out (as an appeal to love often feels).  But it also lines up with his previous work: that we aren’t just brains in jars.  Granted, we need analysis.  Good analysis.  But we also need other skills and mechanisms that can work with the analysis.  And love, of course, is the answer.  But it is also our most-co-opted cultural liturgy.

Smith also mentions Augustine and the role he has played in Smith’s life these last few years.  I have to thank Smith a great deal for helping me latch on to this church father even if only a little bit.  Smith writes:

Drawing on the poetry of the scriptures, Augustine doesn’t just convey a truth, he pictures it. The very metaphor is an irreducible invitation, and extending it is an act of epistemic solidarity that no argument could accomplish. “As long as we are in this life, it is night for us,” Augustine recognizes. But even the night is illumined “by Christ’s descent into the night. Christ took flesh from this world and lit up the night for us.”

There’s a lot more to the essay.  But there’s one more thing that stand out as resonant between Smith’s current disposition and my own:

If I try to crystallize the change of mind I’m experiencing midlife and mid-career, it is some version of this question: How can I write to light up the night? If there is a pivot I’m still working through, it’s the reverberating effects of absorbing the distinct power of metaphor I see at work in Augustine’s preaching. It’s a conviction about communication, a sense of calling to be a very different kind of writer—not simply a philosopher with ideas to teach but a co-pilgrim alongside my neighbors, all of us wondering if the darkness will overwhelm us. I want to string together words that bear witness to the light in a way that people don’t just understand but can stake their hope upon.

“It’s a conviction about communication, a sense of calling to be a different kind of writer . . .” [emphasis mine]

Communication has been key for all of us these last 15 months.  A lot of it has been communication as content, whether as sermons or lessons as videos or slides.  It has forced (or empowered) a weird relationship with mass communication tools (because of necessity) even as we really needed to think smaller (like conversation).  And so while I’m not thinking in the same terms as Smith about book-writing, I do want to think about it in terms of chapel talks, sermons, and class lessons.  And also in how I read and talk about books.

Because it’s not just about minds; it’s about hearts.  And it’s about bodies.  And it’s about the spirits of people.  And it’s easy to emphasize one (or even two) to the detriment of the others.  And whatever else God was communicating to the people of Israel, and whatever else Jesus was saying about loving God and neighbor, a sense of wholeness is essential and baked-in to a real love of God.

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