Of Casseroles and Community

Suvi Korhonen, Creative Commons

This fall semester I am teaching a course on theology and suffering. The course is titled “Sin, Suffering, and the Silence of God.” It is a course I teach every few years, so it was on the schedule for this fall long before Covid-19 swept across the world. The students in this class are amazing–they always are. It is a seminar for upper-level Religious Studies majors and it is cross-listed for Counseling students. The students who take it want to be there; the class gives them a space to ask questions they want to wrestle with.

This year, as we have begun the fall semester in a hybrid format, meeting in small groups, once a week only, masked, and socially distanced, a course on suffering takes on a different level of meaning. We began the semester acknowledging our individual and collective losses. We have, in only a few short weeks, lamented and grieved together.

Our class meets in the evening; we started on the prayer labyrinth but have had to move because the cicadas are so loud in NC this summer and fall that they drown out our conversations. One Monday evening we were discussing various theological responses to the problem of evil–ways theologians have tried to address the question of why bad things happen if God is good. One of the quieter but deeply thoughtful students in the class said, “I don’t know. But last week I took a casserole to my mom’s friend. Her husband just died. I couldn’t say anything. And I felt awkward. But I handed her the casserole and told her I was sorry.” Continue reading

Form and Formation IV: The Call of Lyric Poems

Poems are scattered throughout the scholarship on vocation—or at least excerpts from poems—so much so that I’m not worried about the death of poetry any time soon. But why teach poetry as we discuss vocation with students? A host of recent articles have suggested what poetry can offer the general reader, especially in a global pandemic: solace (“The Importance of Poetry in Challenging Times and How to Teach Students About It”), rejuvenation for a dwindling attention span (“Books Briefing: If Your Attention Span is Shrinking, Read Poetry”), a boost to creativity (“How Poetry Shakes Up the National Desk’s Morning Meetings”). But even if we don’t disagree with these suggestions, most of them are not sufficient reasons for teaching poetry to undergraduates even if they suggest pragmatic ends for reading it.

We might start to answer the “why” by listening to what students tell us about their experience with poetry prior to college. Many students have been taught a Romantic expressivist theory—that poetry is the passionate expression of the poet’s personal emotions—and thus think of the lyric as the poetic norm, whether they recognize it or not. The simplest marker of a lyric would be the “I” who expresses feelings or perceptions about human existence—William Wordsworth’s speaker, reclining and lamenting “what man has made of man” while feeling pleasantly sad in a birdsong-filled grove, for example (“Lines written in Early Spring”). Students don’t often consider that the “I” is a construct, that the emotions expressed are not unfiltered outpourings onto the page, or that poets revise and revise and revise to achieve, among other things, rhythm and sound patterning. So how might teaching students to consider the lyric differently contribute to our discussions with them about vocation?

Continue reading

Darshan: The Challenges of Seeing the Divine in All

Opening Convocation address delivered by Anantanand Rambachan at St. Olaf College in August, 2020. 

As we begin a new academic year, I want to offer a vision, a way of seeing each other, in Sanskrit, a darshan. I do so with the hope that this vision offers us some truth, some light, in these times of daunting challenges, fear and despair. This vision comes from the heart of the Hindu tradition, the tradition that I came to St. Olaf College, almost 35 years ago, to share with my students and my colleagues. (The story of my journey from a small rural village in Trinidad to Saint Olaf is one for another occasion).

Continue reading

Discontinued: Our Fragile Vocations

In this time of faculty and staff lay-offs, how can vocation help us?

These are difficult days at my college. Twenty-four staff members lost their jobs in July.  Faculty members will soon learn if their positions will be cut. Many of us are demoralized and frightened. My colleagues and I are not alone. By early July, The Chronicle of Higher Education’s data revealed that 224 institutions had to lay off, furlough, or not renew contracts due to Covid-19. Losing a job is enough reason for anguish but there is likely another reason for their despair—a possible future without researching and teaching. Take, for example, Mark Lucas, a professor of physics at Ohio University who lost the position he held for 21 years. He states, “My gut says there are a number of people like me out there, and the positions are dwindling… It pains me to realize that I might not be teaching anymore.” How institutions acknowledge the impact of job loss on an individual’s vocational narrative and how (or if) institutions attend to the vocational crises amongst its members speaks to the institution’s ethos as well as its own calling.  

Continue reading

Vocation Virtually: Calling in this time of twin pandemics

Five metaphors to guide students in thinking about their vocation

We begin the academic year against the backdrop of twin pandemics: COVID-19 and systemic racism exposed by George Floyd’s murder. These viruses change everything, from course content to technologies for delivering it. How can we thoughtfully respond—rather than instinctively react—to the call of the present moment?  

I have no answers, only a story whose final chapter has not been written. Like every story, metaphors propel it forward. I offer both story and metaphors, along with some exercises that unpack these metaphors in a way that might inform your own response to the present moment.

Continue reading

The Pursuit of Happiness and the Common Good

In the movie Cast Away (2000), Tom Hanks’ character Chuck is on a plane that crashes and finds himself relatively unharmed, alone, in a life raft. The raft washes onto the shore of an uninhabited island. He quickly learns to provide for his basic survival needs–food, water, shelter, fire. But he soon realizes that surviving means something more than having just the most basic of physical needs met. Several FedEx boxes wash up on the same shore; Chuck opens one that has a “Wilson” volleyball in it. He paints a face on the ball and begins to talk with Wilson as a real person. As the movie moves forward, Wilson becomes more and more of a real character. One of the most touching scenes in the movie is when Chuck has built a raft and he and Wilson are out at sea. Wilson blows off the raft and is moving away from Chuck and the raft. Chuck risks his life trying to save Wilson, crying out desperately for him. And when he cannot get to him he sobs, “Wilson, I’m sorry!  Wilson!!”

Cast Away provides a powerful metaphor of our very human need for community. We are not, and cannot be, discrete individuals detached from those around us. And yet, community does not happen simply because we are surrounded by people. Urban loneliness is a serious and growing problem. Community needs to be crafted and nurtured; despite our need for it, it does not appear to be our default setting.

Continue reading

Seeking Moral Clarity in a Time of Epistemic Confusion

Really, is there value in reserving judgment in critical times—like ours? The very fact we speak of crises signals the urgency of making up our minds. Over the course of three previous posts, I have described, analyzed, and praised as a virtue the capability of “Still Deciding.” But I make myself impatient. What more am I waiting for—while the meaning of our common life is at stake now?

Mural depicting Hannah Arendt near her birthplace in Hanover (Wikimedia Commons).

Continue reading

Form and Formation III: The Art of Adaptation

Even without reading recent studies of Americans’ streaming habits, we’d probably all guess that far more content is being streamed now than prior to the pandemic. I’ve been fascinated by the number of adaptations available on streaming services both in back catalogs and as original content: adaptations of novels, of movies, of comic books, of biographies. Adaptations are as old as narrative itself (the oral tradition is an adaptive tradition), but the presence of streaming content in our lives seems to make them newly ubiquitous. For those of us who love adaptations, streaming services provide treasure after treasure. It’s a fascinating genre, offering us the familiar and the alien simultaneously—creating within us a kind of comfortable discomfort that doesn’t seem too risky. 

As a genre, adaptations can help us shape conversations about vocation. While it may not seem odd to say that we adapt to new situations, it may sound very odd to say that we are ourselves adaptations. Yet this may be useful. The word “adaptation” has multiple definitions: the action of adapting one thing to another; the state of being suitable for a particular purpose or place; a revised version of a text or other creative work. In its multiple definitions, it signifies both process and product. Our lives are a series of adaptations, not only as we continually reshape ourselves to new forms and contexts but also as we embody each state of being newly shaped. I think that most of us have a sense of self that at its core seems constant—a kind of source text that is unchanging—but also conceive of ourselves as changing over time, as not being the same person as we were years ago. As we are re-purposed over and over again, we must rearticulate our vocations as well.

Continue reading

“The Whispers of the Spirit”: Discerning Meaning in the Work of Justice

As a disenfranchised citizen who yearned for a change, as a child born on the dark side of the American dream, I heard the whispers of the spirit calling to me to wrestle with the soul of a nation. – John Lewis

What is necessary for those persons who seek to create and live a life of commitment that works to develop the common good? A transformed heart and an active response that faces structural injustices and works to affect change is required. Listening to “the whispers of the spirit calling,” to borrow a phrase from John Lewis, grounds the energies of transformation and fuels commitments to work for social change. Discerning a calling dwells in the dynamic integration of inner reflection and critical social analysis.

Continue reading

Back to basics: holistic mentoring in times of crisis

In a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed, Eric R. White, associate dean for advising emeritus at Pennsylvania State University and former president of NACADA, called upon his colleagues to begin to re-imagine a new model for academic advising, one that takes into account the realities that higher education will inevitably confront in the coming years. As with the shift to on-line teaching this spring, academic advising also had to pivot to relying upon online communication forms. White argues that such a shift was almost “second nature” to many, given that in recent years “academic advising was one of the first higher education endeavors to embrace technology as a way to supplement its work.”

The sanguine picture White paints may not align with the reality for many advisors this spring. Being comfortable with online technology is one thing but getting students to respond to offers for help and support is another. During a NetVUE-sponsored Zoom gathering in April, people described texting with individual students as an effective way to simply inquire about how they were doing, their family situation, and overall well-being. At another meeting, Student Affairs administrators described the importance of getting in touch with every student over those initial weeks of anxiety, bewilderment, and grief—an “all hands on deck” endeavor. I came away from those Zoom meetings reaffirmed about the passion and commitment of NetVUE colleagues from across the country. Even in a state of exhaustion, they operate from a deep sense of calling; they are “nimble” because they know how to stay connected to fundamentals.

Continue reading