Leading Lives that Matter

When you are a college teacher, certain books become beloved companions because of how well they work for undergraduates in a classroom setting. William Placher’s deceptively brief A History of Christian Theology was that type of book for me when I taught the history of Christian thought at Monmouth College, as was the first edition of the wonderful anthology Leading Lives that Matter, especially when we began to weave vocation into some of our courses. I loved teaching that book. It was a thrill to introduce students to its array of thinkers and texts and to engage them in conversations about the questions the texts posed. And so I was excited to learn that the editors Mark Schwehn and Dorothy Bass were engaged in the task of putting together a new, second edition—but also quietly hoped that they wouldn’t change it too much! I’m happy to report that the updates do not alter the original strength of the collection, that the second edition includes a welcome diversity of perspectives, and that it is now available for purchase from Eerdmans.

Like the first, this new edition has a two-part structure, “Vocabularies” and “Questions.” The material in Part I is organized around the idea of multiple, competing vocabularies and tackles the compelling question, “How should we think and talk about what makes a life meaningful and significant?” This may seem like a difficult level of abstraction, as the editors acknowledge in their introduction, and it was for many of my students. But I appreciated the question and the structure because it enabled me to smuggle in important discussions about our modern culture and to nudge students toward thinking a little more carefully about “how we talk and how we think”—good philosophical lessons to impart in the context of general education courses. The first edition focused on three different vocabularies: the language of authenticity, the language of virtue, and the language of vocation. The new edition has added a fourth category, seemingly expanding its attention to the Aristotelian tradition of what they call “exemplarity,” and includes writings by philosophers Linda Zagzebski and Gordon Marino as well as a short piece by Dorothy Day. Some readers will recognize the influence of Charles Taylor and Alasdair MacIntyre here and will not be surprised that short excerpts from their writings are also included in the anthology.

Part II is organized around a series of questions. In the new edition, these questions are:

  • Must my job be the primary source of my identity?
  • To whom and to what should I listen as I decide what work to do?
  • With whom and for whom shall I live?
  • Is a balanced life possible and preferable to a life focused primarily on work?
  • What are my obligations to future human and other life?
  • How shall I tell the story of my life?

Most of these questions were included in the first edition. In terms of the reading selections, new additions to this second part include excerpts by Julia Alvarez, Malcolm Gladwell, Homer, Kazuo Ishiguro, Jhumpa Lahiri, Toni Morrison, Tayeb Salih, and Alice Walker. 

The question about obligations to future human and other life is a significant addition to the second edition. The readings in this new section include writings by Larry Rasmussen, Rachel Carson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Winona LaDuke, Wangari Maathai, Pope Francis and Ursula LeGuin, among others. The attention to environmental concerns in this section and to a greater cultural diversity in the selections overall makes a wonderful anthology that much more relevant and teachable. Depending on the audience, you may want to first use selections from Part II, with their probing “real life” questions, and then move to the more abstract questions about language and competing worldviews that undergird Part I. 

As with the first edition, the collection is bookended by a prologue and an epilogue. The prologue is comprised of two pieces—excerpts from William James’ “What Makes a Life Significant?” and a piece by Vincent Harding. (Albert Schweitzer’s “I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor,” which was previously paired with James as the prologue, can now be found in Part II). My students found Schweitzer much more accessible than James and if I were to use this book again in the context of a class, I don’t think I would begin with the James piece. Fortunately, the book is organized in such a way that readers can skip around between selections. The epilogue in the second edition, as in the first, is Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Illych.” 

Leading Lives That Matter seeks to address a pragmatic society in a way that shows serious regard for ultimate concerns. Thus it invites readers into a set of questions and documents that attend both to immediate practical issues about what work we will do and to underlying religious and philosophical issues about identity and purpose. 

From the editors’ introduction.

This book was and continues to be a treasure trove that will inspire and challenge readers. It can be used in its entirety for a relevant course, and at under $50 is worth the investment, the kind of book that students will keep well beyond graduation. It can also be used piecemeal, a reading or two for in-class or out-of-class discussions in a variety of settings (retreats, e-portfolio reflections, spiritual life gatherings, mentoring sessions). It should be a part of all college and university libraries, as well as on-hand for use in Chaplain’s offices, Career Centers, or other places on campus dedicated to helping students lead reflective lives of deep meaning and purpose. It would make a wonderful graduation gift for a high school or college graduate but also a thoughtful gift for a friend going through a challenging transition in their life, professionally or personally. 

To learn more about the book, see the website Leading Lives that Matter which includes the introduction and a detailed list of the table of contents (organizational structure and readings that are included). It also includes an interview with the authors, to whom we are indebted for this bounteous gift. 

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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