A paradox at the heart of Christian Higher Education

In a recent piece published as part of Christianity Today‘s Creative Studio, Julie Ooms, an associate professor of English at Missouri Baptist University in St. Louis, reveals a painful paradox at the heart of Christian higher education. These institutions are in many ways “the academic arm of the church” and therefore “essential to preserving and transmitting Christian traditions.” Yet, given the role that many religiously affiliated private schools have played as “segregation academies,” if they do not change then they may continue in “preserving segregation, consolidating power, and perpetuating injustice.”

Confronting this paradox is a matter of institutional mission, Ooms suggests. And it entails returning to the role that vocation has played as part of that mission.

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Vocation in a Time of Coronavirus: Reflections from C.S. Lewis’ “Learning in Wartime”

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963)

Early on in the COVID-19 outbreak, after an entire day spent reading anxiety-inducing articles and watching real-time maps of the spread, after loading up on quarantine supplies, and unable to banish a storm of doomsday hypothetical scenarios from my head, a passage from a C.S. Lewis’ sermon, “Learning in Wartime,” flashed through my mind:

The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice… We are mistaken when we compare war with “normal life.” Life has never been normal… We think of the streets of Warsaw and contrast the deaths there suffered with an abstraction called Life. But there is no question of death or life for any of us; only a question of this death or of that—of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later. What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 per cent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased… Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us: and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right.

C.S. Lewis, “Learning in Wartime” (1939).

That night I read the entire piece and found myself greatly fortified by it’s cool reason in the face of fear and anxiety—it reminded me of Wendell Berry’s remark that when you’re scared the best thing to do is try to make sense out of what’s scaring you—and the perspective it gave me on life and vocation in times of crisis, fear, and danger. Within a week, all on-campus classes and activities were canceled, we converted to an online format, and, when I had to assign the first reading for my senior Humanities and Vocation seminar, I chose “Learning in Wartime.” The response from my seniors was astounding. It was, in fact, the single best response I have ever gotten from students to a reading on the topic of vocation. They seemed in particular to resonate with three aspects of the sermon.

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Wendell Berry on Being More than a Consumer

Counterpoint Press, 2019

Over the last couple of months I have been slowly savoring Wendell Berry’s latest collection of essays and short fiction, The Art of Loading Brush. Many of us who think carefully about vocation and teaching vocational discernment love Berry’s writing, and this collection reminded me why. He explicitly discusses vocation in the context of creating life-giving local economies, and in thinking through his argument I found a useful way of talking to students about vocation: making a distinction between being a consumer and being a producer, and the value of thinking of oneself as something more than just a consumer.

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Vocation and the Apocalypse: McCarthy’s The Road

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.

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“Equity-mindedness” and the Vocation of Lutheran Colleges

The recent  Vocation of a Lutheran College conference energized participants over three days with robust conversation sparked by plenary speakers and concurrent sessions focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion. Dr. Guy Nave, Professor of Religion at Luther College, Dr. Monica Smith, Vice President of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Augustana College, and Rebecca Bergman, President of Gustavus Adolphus College, challenged listeners to consider things like “equity-mindedness” when it comes to institutional identity and collective goals. They asked questions about the ways we are and are not using structural privilege to the advantage of all students, faculty, and staff, and offered deeper reflective definitions of the very terms of the conversation itself. 

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“Appreciative Knowledge”: Another Model for Interfaith Vocational Exploration

I read Daniel Meyers’ “Interfaith Vocational Exploration: Proceed with Caution” with interest. I appreciate his recognition that the word and concept of vocation, at least as narrowly construed, comes from a particular and, at least in Western societies, privileged position. As he notes, this implies concomitant need to “proceed with caution,” because other faiths are by necessity having to “translate” and respond to Christianity’s terms, ideas, and paradigms. As a Buddhist at a Lutheran college, I have sometimes had concerns about question-and-answer periods when Buddhist speakers were called on to respond to questions about parallels (or lack thereof) to Christian concepts. I often felt that the short answer demanded in such circumstances distorted ideas about my religious tradition, or missed the main points about my faith. Like Meyers, I think the literature on interfaith dialogue can be a helpful resource in thinking and talking about interfaith vocational exploration. However, I would like to propose a different model.

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