In a new episode of NetVUE’s podcast series Callings, hosts Erin VanLaningham and John Barton speak with Shaun Casey, founding director of the Office of Religion and Global Affairs at the U.S. State Department.
Shaun’s work explores the overlapping concerns of religion, diplomacy, and public life. Trained as a theologian with an interest in public policy, Shaun held multiple academic positions before he was called to his work at the U.S. State Department by Secretary of State John Kerry. “I want to be a faithful disciple,” he says, “wherever I end up.”
Year after year, the academic calendar brings the gift of a rhythmic return to the same moments. If it’s mid-December, then I’m invariably scraping through exam week while ignoring the Christmas cards that should have been in the mail two days ago. As much as this month is about wanting to wind up the current semester, however, it also involves looking ahead. Just this week, I finalized—belatedly and guiltily—the book order for one of my spring classes. Doing so brought a familiar surge of excitement and anticipation. I have taught this class several times, but each new section offers the opportunity to tinker, improve, and of course meet new students. As I clicked “submit” on that book order, I was struck by the similarity between the renewal promised by the academic calendar and that embedded in the liturgical calendar. At this time of year, both calendars ask us to look ahead with hope. And that regular return of hopeful expectation, founded in students’ academic experience, can be a powerful vocational resource.
As both a cynic and a skeptic, I find hope a particularly challenging commodity to find, especially in recent months. As an atheist I don’t have faith to fall back on or to justify hope. But I do find hope, against my cynicism and despite my skepticism, not because history teaches me that we are inevitably moving toward justice, not because I have faith in a divine being who will ensure it despite human failings, but because the alternative is despair, and we deserve better. My work developing a social justice major, my writing about the problem of evil, and recent events in our country have me thinking about hope a lot lately—searching for hope, really. This essay is a reflection of my thoughts on how I came to choose to hope.
From an early age we are taught not to discuss politics and religion with others. Why is that? Is it because we do not want to offend our neighbor, or is it for self-protection? Is it out of respect for other peoples’ views, or is to prevent confrontation? Although any of these reasons can be justifiable, none of them are totally sufficient because, to my mind, they produce the same result: silence. If vocation requires listening we must try to overcome silence and encourage dialogue with respect for difference and dissent. Of course, this is often easier said than done. To authentically listen and to speak our truth sometimes we need to be willing to turn things upside down. Inversion, as a reversal of order, can help us see things anew, give new meaning and perspective even to contradicting ideas and discouraging experiences in order to pursue our callings with hope.
My vote for the press photo of the year would be the one taken by Joshua Bickel on April 13 and circulated widely since. Covering a Coronavirus response update from within the Ohio Statehouse, the photojournalist turned his camera toward the angry protesters with flags, red Trump hats, and masks outside—freeze-framing their raw rage and shouts of protest over stay-at-home orders.
The photo captures some of the painful divisions and complex ironies of our political/economic/cultural fabric—including, here, the irony of “law-and-order” conservatives defying local laws and taking to the streets, the President goading them on. One hopes that the new activists will gain some measure of empathy for more experienced protesters within Black Lives Matter, MeToo, or immigrants’ rights movements. One hopes, too, that liberals quick to relish in their anger can see also the real pain and anxiety underneath it. We may yet find ways to connect.
It would seem that the apocalypse, whether religious or environmental, would lay to rest questions of vocation. But questions of purpose and meaning are front and center in many of the popular post-apocalyptic films and books with which our students are familiar. In fact, the post-apocalyptic genre presents excellent opportunities for thought-experiments that force students to consider the foundations and driving forces of purpose, meaning, and vocation. I do not wish to talk directly about the environment, Anthropocene, or end times and will leave fears about climate change and cultural decay, or, alternatively, hopes for sustainable energy and cultural renewal, to experts in those areas. But environmental concerns as well as cultural anxieties spurred by mass shootings, heightening racial tensions, and immigration-related issues weigh heavily on students’ minds. These anxieties are yet further reasons why teaching vocation via post-apocalyptic film and literature will resonate with students. I also think this genre is valuable because of its capacity to instill deep gratitude and a sense of responsibility for the world that is still there when a student closes a book or when the credits role on a film.
Recently I found myself in a first-year seminar college classroom conducting an interview with the students’ professor. The class was arranged so the students made a horseshoe facing their professor, who was seated in a chair with her back to the whiteboard. I posed several questions designed to tease out the vocational narrative of the professor and simultaneously charted on the board the key ideas, concepts, moments, people, and influences she mentioned. The exercise is designed to provide an example of a vocational narrative to students and to visually represent active listening on the board. As the professor turned in her chair at the end of the interview to digest what the whiteboard displayed, I noticed for myself that as a result of my questions the entire board dealt with her past. Narrative is arguably the foundation of vocational reflection. Yet, does narrative draw our attention too strongly to the past? What opportunities for vocational reflection could occur by telling our future stories?
I remember reading a long time ago that there were fifty different words in Eskimo
languages for snow. I tried to imagine how to tease
out nuances in texture, timing or other qualities that would be of
significance. But I realized that the words were linked to Inuit cultural
experience, and I came up short.
This exercise came to mind recently, after someone asked me
if I was optimistic about the resiliency of American democracy amidst the
current tidal wave of polarization and disruption. “No,” I replied, “but
I am hopeful.” That set me to pondering the differences between pairs of
related words. The distinctions I make are surely idiosyncratic as well as
culturally bound, but some seem important.
The annual “Mindset” list is an attempt to capture the milieu of the incoming class, offered to faculty and staff as a tool for understanding the new students arriving on campus. The class of 2022, we are told in this year’s list, have always been able to refer to Wikipedia and have lived in a world where same-sex marriage is legal somewhere. The world they know does not include Enron but has always included a vehicle known as a Prius and a television show called Survivor. Most of the 60 factoids on the list are light-hearted, referring to popular culture and some to political events.
But there, at number 4, is an item one could easily miss if breezing through the list. Nestled between the observation about Wikipedia and an image of people appearing to “talk to themselves” in public, is this statement: “They have grown up afraid that a shooting could happen at their school, too.”
The class of 2022 has lived in a world where mass shootings are recurring events. They have lived with a fear that it could happen to them at any time. Continue reading →