In the end, only love (of which faith is a particu…

In the end, only love (of which faith is a particular form) can achieve the well-nigh impossible goal of seeing a situation as it really is, shorn of both the brittle enchantments of romance and the disheveled fantasies of desire. Clinical, cold-eyed realism of this kind demands all manner of virtues—openness to being wrong, selflessness, humility, generosity of spirit, hard labor, tenacity, a readiness to collaborate, conscientious judgment, and the like; and for Aquinas, all virtues have their source in love. Love is the ultimate form of soberly disenchanted realism, which is why it is the twin of truth. The two also have in common the fact that they are both usually unpleasant. Radicals tend to suspect that the truth is generally a lot less palatable than those in power would have us believe, and we have seen already just where love is likely to land you for the New Testament. In one sense of the word, dispassionateness would spell the death of knowledge, though not in another sense. Without some kind of desire or attraction we would not be roused to the labor of knowledge in the first place; but to know truly, we must also seek to surmount the snares and ruses of desire as best we can. We must try not to disfigure what we strive to know through fantasy, or reduce the object of knowledge to a narcissistic image of ourselves.

Love in the Age of “Like”

Jonathan Franzen contemplates technology, “liking,” and love in an excellent essay for the New York Times that was adapted from a college commencement speech. Some choice bits:

[O]ur technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer.

A related phenomenon is the transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb “to like” from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse, from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving…

But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist — a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.

…There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.

I quoted more of the cranky parts, but he gets really good as he reflects more deeply on love in the second half of the essay. Go read Franzen’s essay.

What is Calling?

My last post kicked up some excellent discussion, but I’d say that much of it arose due to confusion over two things: the hasty manner in which I wrote, and the nature of calling itself. I hope to rectify the former and clarify the latter.

I must say at the outset that there is a lot of conceptual fuzziness between the terms calling, vocation, gifting and career that must be addressed in any discussion of calling. What someone means when they talk about calling is often an unstated mix of some combination of all of the above, leading to much confusion and misunderstanding. So, I will offer my thoughts on the points of similarity and divergence in the hopes that, once everyone thinks the way I do, the world will be a safe place for us all.

Firstly, calling and vocation should largely be seen as one and the same. Vocation comes from the Latin vocare (to call), from which we also have the word vocal. They convey that something from beyond ourselves (or possibly within ourselves) is speaking to us about the kind of person we are.

Note that I did not say the kind of person we are meant to be, as that is the language of advertising, romanticism and self-deception. Indeed, one of the problems in discerning our calling is that we believe that the problem is in figuring out who we should be, rather than recognizing that a large obstacle in discerning our calling is the many voices of “should be” drowning out who we actually are.

Before I’m misunderstood, I’m not advocating some type of fatalism here, where we can never change. I fully affirm the need to grow, develop and change over the course of our lifetime. What I’m saying is that the masks we wear on a daily basis generally aren’t who we are, but rather some collection of personas we’ve been told we should be. This means that we’re constantly avoiding who we really are in the name of who we are meant to be, while calling/vocation speaks to who we actually are beyond the lies, hype and overly romantic notions of self that are bought and sold every day.

So, vocation (or calling) is simply the voice that is calling us to be who we have actually been created to be, but what about the links between calling and gifting? Simplifying in the extreme, I’d say that they should be seen as closely related, but ultimately different things.

At the most basic level, the difference between calling and gifting can be seen as the difference between being and doing: calling has to do with being the people we actually are, while gifting has to do with the particular talents, aptitudes and skills that we use in living our lives and serving others.

I want to stress that viewing calling and gifting as separate is only truly possible at an abstract level. In concrete lived life, who we are and what we do are tightly bound up with one another and could never be truly isolated. But I find the distinction useful insofar as it helps us to think of who we are as being somehow deeper and more fundamental than merely what we do. In a world where we’re too easily defined by what we do—what’s the first question you’re asked when meeting someone new?—it’s liberating to see that there’s some entity called “myself” that is more than merely what I do.

To illustrate, let’s imagine a pianist whose playing profoundly moves whoever hears him play. Now let’s imagine that a terrible accident befalls this pianist where he loses the use of one of his hands. This would, of course, be a tragedy, both for the pianist himself, and for the world that is now deprived of the beauty of his music. And, as an embodied creature, this unavoidably changes the makeup of who he is.

Can we imagine him finding ways to live his life that are consistent with the person he was before losing the use of his hand? Is he not still the same person, however changed his life is by his loss? Perhaps in time he will see that there are aspects of who he has always been that he now lives via means other than music. Maybe playing music was his way of giving hope to people in pain, and he now enacts that part of who he is by sitting with terminally ill people in a hospice, reflecting the love of Christ as best he can to them.

Perhaps this example might also help rid us of the misguided notion that calling has something to do with what is popularly known as destiny. This fatalistic (not to mention nauseatingly romantic) idea needs to die a few thousand deaths and be forever detached from the notion of calling. Calling is about becoming the person you actually are rather than some unavoidable set of preordained steps that you have no say in. Indeed, calling presupposes that we are somehow free to respond in creative love to the voice that is calling us to be who we really are.

I have left career until the end, and for good reason. If there’s one thing I’m thankful for in our post-Industrial world—and there aren’t many—it’s that the idea of “having a career” has basically become meaningless in a world where we’re all expected to change our line of work continually. This is not to say that I favour job instability (which favours corporations much more than workers), but rather that career has often served as a distraction (or replacement) for discerning our calling.

The confusion around calling culminates in its worst possible form when we believe that it is our calling to find a career in which we can make money from utilizing our gifting. I cannot imagine a better recipe for misery. Most will never find work that they feel fully engages their gifting, so they will forever resent the work they do and romantically long to work within their gifting. And then you have the poor souls who actually do make a career of their gifting, and have to navigate the murky path between the integrity of their gifting and the need to make a living. Damned if you do; damned if you don’t.

Finally, while I’ve tried to speak of calling in a distinctly personal manner, I fear that it is likely much too individualistic. Indeed, I believe that we can only ever truly be the people that we truly are if we are doing so amidst a community of souls who help each other to truly be themselves. A community that allows its members to truly be themselves—despite the suffering this diversity will inevitably produce—is a community that has heard the call to love with love of Christ; to live in the way of self-giving love that considers all that we are and have as a gift to be lavishly spent in the service of others. If this is the broad call that our personal callings interact with and support, I believe that we truly have heard the voice of the living God.

The Twofold Task of Discipleship

In keeping with some of the Yoder I quoted in the previous post, I’d like to propose that discipleship can be distilled down to a twofold task. (Beware of reductionists!)

The first portion is being the kind of called-out community who embody the kingdom of God, upsetting the status quo, serving the poor and oppressed, running afoul of the powers-that-be, and being persecuted, abused and possibly killed for it.

The second portion is in becoming a community which is intimately connected in love and fidelity to Jesus Christ, becoming the types of people who can think of nothing more compelling than to love God by lovingly laying down our lives for our neighbors and enemies.

You might reduce this further to say that the task of discipleship to Jesus is to joyfully love so much that it kills us. This is not a macabre obsession with death, but rather a recognition that we are never more alive than when we are freed from caring whether or not loving will bring us harm. Reckless love is the only true love, and only those who love without fear are truly free.

[Photo by Josh Parrish]

Love and Fear

Love and fear appear to be the primordial motivators in our lives. No other primary orientation seems to underpin our way of being-in-the-world than these two outlooks.

Love and fear present with a choice, time and time again. Will I act in the situation that I’m in based on love, or on fear? This, it seems to me, is one of the basic questions that will determine so much of the way that we live.

This is not to say that we discard one for the other; that a loving person will cease to fear or that a fearful person is incapable of love. Instead, a person who has chosen love will always define fear in terms of love. They will ask questions like, “How is it that fear keeps me from loving?” and “What is it that my fear is trying to communicate to me?”

The person who chooses fear, on the other hand, similarly defines love in terms of fear. The recipients of our love are now objects to protect at all costs, for losing them would be unbearable. This also makes loving much more difficult–and in many cases impossible–simply because the threat of loss and pain wrapped up in love are so great.

I believe that most of us aspire to love, yet fall into fear all the same as our primary standpoint. We allow our love to be calculated, doled out in reserved measures, because we’re afraid that we might not have enough. And yet, as John Caputo is fond of saying, “The only measure of love is love without measure.”

Love is painful as well as beautiful, and it takes people made of some serious stuff to recklessly give it away, to give without giving pause to wonder if they have enough. And it is the impossibility of living this type of love that points us, in fear and trembling, into the arms of Christ, who embodied more perfectly than any other person the beautiful insanity of love.

Life is a Gift

life is a gift
we know not from
where it comes
or goes

more precious than
iphones or hummers that
fade far faster
than this flesh

life is a gift
that we never could have
asked for
or imagined

take it for gifted
this life
in love
it has sprung

in love
in loss
in fear and trembling
alleluia.